English at CBA: Growing as Individual and Collaborative Learners

The Great Gatsby is a staple reading during sophomore English.

From the earliest days of a child’s education, English is a paramount subject on the schedule. After all, reading and writing are the pillars of which effective communication and socialization are built on.

At Christian Brothers Academy, students are pushed to take their understanding of the subject to the next level, both individually and collaboratively.

“As effective collaboration is increasingly sought after in many college programs as well as the working world, we hope to enable our students to meet the demands of both tasks,” said Megan Belford, English department chair. “In order to be an effective team member, one must also be adept at learning and preparing independently first. So, while collaboration and project-based learning have a place in the CBA English classroom, so does independent reading, note-taking skills, and multiple independent research papers. We hope to enable our students to ultimately thrive in a variety of academic and working environments.”

While taking four years of English is a state-wide requirement, the structure of the curriculum at CBA helps students expand on previous knowledge, while allowing them to also pinpoint their talents.

Those efforts start from day one of a student’s freshman year, when English is used as a critical basis for anything they will learn at the Academy.

“Our English curriculum for freshmen is designed to expose them to a wide range of thought-provoking literature that we then use as fodder to develop a student’s critical thinking and communication skills,” said freshman English teacher Jennifer Viola. “The core of a liberal arts class is really the nurturing of human creativity and empathy, and ensuring that a student has the ability to clearly communicate those thoughts, feelings, and ideas in written and oral form.”

The youngest Colts will tackle the nuts and bolts of the subject, including stressing grammar, expansion of vocabulary and critical reading. They also have the opportunity to enjoy timeless pieces of literature, most notably the works of Shakespeare.

Ms. Biloholowski works through a lesson in her English IV class.

“I find that the freshmen really do seem to like engaging in our unit on drama,” Viola said. “I try to cover both a comedy and a tragedy each year. His stories are timeless and because of that, students’ minds are broadened through studying the general human condition.”

During students’ next three years of English, they will experience works from the United States, Great Britain, and the non-Western world. The goal is to give students a well-rounded understanding of world cultures and how they fit into it.

When students become juniors and seniors, the offerings within the department expand to include electives that interest them, as well as robust Advanced Placement offerings that students can work to qualify for.

“I tell my students that AP Language and Composition is the most worthwhile course they can take in high school,” said Morgan Biloholowski, who teaches the course. “Many of the skills mirror those that are covered in the writing course most students will take in their first semester of college.”

Each level of English has an honors offering, while juniors and seniors can take both AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. If a student qualifies, English faculty encourages as many students as possible to take an AP course, as they understand the benefits of learning advanced skills in high school.

“In AP courses, students can experience how to handle independent reading, time management, and critical thinking expected at the college level,” Belford said. “Succeeding on the culminating exam at the end of the year is an accomplishment in and of itself. I am sure it must be a confidence booster knowing that one has already successfully competed nationally prior to beginning one’s college journey.”

It is during senior year when each level is tied together, as well as preparing students for college courses – both in English and in their other disciplines.

“English IV has been reworked in the past few years to emphasize diverse voices and more real-world writing skills,” Biloholowski said. “I talk about letter writing, emails, and discussion techniques throughout the year. I emphasize these skills as I know that college-bound students will encounter circumstances where information and skills on these topics will be necessary, even if they don’t decide to be English majors.”

The collection of faculty in the English department strive to keep the material relevant and engaging. In fact just last year, they partnered with Pegasus Production Company during the fall performances of The Great Gatsby. The classic novel is a staple in sophomore year, so both the English staff and the Pegasus faculty thought they could connect the classroom to the stage. The sophomores had a special showing of the performance, which was followed by engaging conversation during class time.

The connection to CBA’s performing arts company was just another example of collaboration that the English department continues to seek out.

“I am most proud that each member of the English department continually strives to make each course relevant, challenging, and innovative,” Belford said. “Every year, but especially the past few years, we reflect on each curriculum to see what worked well, what could work better, and how we can meet the changing needs of our students in the incredibly fast-paced world in which we live. Change always requires extra work, and my colleagues embrace change despite the extra effort it requires.”

Ms. Belford's AP English Literature and Composition class.
About Christian Brothers Academy:
Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) is a private, Catholic, academic preparatory school for boys located in Lincroft, New Jersey. Founded in 1959 and taught in the Lasallian tradition, CBA is dedicated to helping students become intellectually mature and morally responsible leaders for society. Through generous contributions from family and friends of the Academy, CBA awards over $1.7 million in scholarships and financial aid to current students. Experience the Academy at CBALincroftNJ.org.