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OnRamps Curriculum Offers Rigor and Relevance

Yuri Horner

Yuri Horner

Zack Williamson
January 17, 2014

In speaking to Yuri Horner, it becomes clear that he is passionate about the academic discipline of English. After a number of years in the technical writing industry, Horner was eager to share his love of the subject with others and accepted a job as an English instructor at San Jacinto College, where he has worked for the last 10 years.

Like so many other teachers, Horner has found his efforts to impart his enthusiasm and knowledge of the discipline with his students to be both rewarding and challenging.

“The thing that’s most difficult, and the same thing that I think teachers at the secondary and the university level are probably finding,” said Horner, “is that students come from various backgrounds, and it’s difficult to perfectly match instruction with their backgrounds.”

...students come from various backgrounds, and it’s difficult to perfectly match instruction with their backgrounds.

In the Fall 2013 semester, Horner was one of a group of high school and community college teachers who participated in piloting OnRamps, a statewide initiative that aims to accelerate student excellence in college by increasing the number and diversity of students who experience high quality coursework aligned with the expectations of a leading research university. Horner volunteered to teach the OnRamps English course, Reading and Writing the Rhetoric of American Identity, viewing it as a potentially valuable way to address the various levels of preparedness he often observed among his students.

So what separates the OnRamps course from previous courses Horner has taught? He reports that the OnRamps curriculum is designed in a way that fosters students’ sense of ownership and responsibility for their own learning. The OnRamps English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum offers content units on gender, race, and ethnicity, along with an innovative online journal component, where students reflect on how the content relates to their personal lives. “Both these things together make for a course that has a high degree of relevance, and that’s because they are finding that relevance,” said Horner. “They’re tying the materials to their lives, and when students increase their sense of relevance, they’re much more likely to be successful.” He feels that the course format offers students “a lot more creative room” to make the material their own.

They’re tying the materials to their lives, and when students increase their sense of relevance, they’re much more likely to be successful.

Horner also noted a difference in rigor than is often found in a traditional course. One of the fundamental challenges students face in transitioning to college is learning to deal with tasks that emphasize critical thinking skills to a greater degree than was typical in their high school coursework. Horner notes these skills take on a central role in the OnRamps course, as students learn to argue for a particular position related to the issues of gender, race, and ethnicity. This part of the course, according to Horner, was both one of the most challenging and most productive for his students.

Part of the challenge was to allow students to see that entertaining views different from their own is part of the college experience,” said Horner. “It’s part of learning. It’s part of critical thinking.” Whereas traditional ELA courses may emphasize explanation and description, Horner suggests that OnRamps encourages students to “explore and clarify what they think.”

...personal investment turns into ambition and initiative and, well, that’s when it works. That curiosity, that drive – that’s when the teacher just steps back and gets out of the way.

According to Horner, the unique blend of rigor and relevance that OnRamps provides “makes for the context that success happens in.” It is when he describes the joy of seeing his students experience success that Horner’s passion for teaching is most evident. When this happens, he said, “personal investment turns into ambition and initiative and, well, that’s when it works. That curiosity, that drive – that’s when the teacher just steps back and gets out of the way.” 

OnRamps is looking for more teachers to join our network of innovative teachers.  In additional to the ELA course, OnRamps offers a Pre-Calculus course, co-offers a Computer Science course, and will be piloting a Statistics course in the Fall of 2014. Contact OnRamps Partnership Coordinator Megan Parry at megan.parry@austin.utexas.edu or (512) 475-7877 to get involved in OnRamps. 

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