Getting my hands dirty

As I begin a project assigned by my lead teacher, I can’t escape the feeling that I am somehow implicated in an ethical dilemma.

Having been asked to review Honors English policies for similar schools, then to write two course descriptions for freshman high school language arts — Honors and non-Honors — I find myself torn in opposite directions so far.

On one hand, Honors classes can be a teacher’s dream. I was hired at the independent school years ago especially to teach honors and AP. I collaborated several times with the other main high school English teacher, who taught the “regular” classes. Someone else had pre-selected the students for the honors track and I just taught them at the level that served their needs best, keeping the challenge and enjoyment high. Later, due to variations in class size and staffing, we went to heterogeneous classes with greater differentiation. Students in honors classes tend to be already effective at “playing school”: they speak and write in school discourse, enjoy reading (or seem to appreciate its value) and write competently (at least as far as surface features go). They do homework the teacher assigns, even on nights when they play “away” games, without complaint.

What teacher wouldn’t like a room full of compliant students?

On the other hand, I have found that the rewards of teaching accrue when critical and creative thinking flourishes in any student population. Take the reader/writer whose non-standard spelling or punctuation have prevented her promotion to the typical “honors” group. When invited to take Honors because of her creative thinking, the writing falls in line soon enough, because she writes with motivation to express important ideas, caring enough about them to see them to clear and strong written completion. Or the ordinarily reluctant reader who is nevertheless excited to begin a book club because of the enthusiasm of others in his heterogeneous group who are excited about a student-chosen novel.

The view in Salt Lake’s Alchemy Coffee House on Capitol Hill/Marmalade, celebrating creativity

What happens to the mixed-ability class when all the “best” students are culled for Honors?

If we glean the “advanced” students from among the others, then a class like mine that depends on lively dialogue among all participants becomes problematic. The rich mixture of voices usually results in a multiplicity of viewpoints; and small group activities often allow both more and less experienced readers and writers to contribute in their respective areas of strength, which may not necessarily be “academic discourse”. For instance, in a mixed ability group of five rehearsing a scene from Romeo and Juliet, a teen who shies from performing herself directs others; two, uncomfortable saying Shakespeare’s words, negotiate a line’s meaning and then put it into youthful vernacular; the last pair, inspired by the updating of the first pair, apply the modern context in gesture and expression, but keep much of the original text. Without such a blend of learning styles preserved by heterogeneous classes, a class full of “lower ability” learners would come to depend more on teacher innovation than student creativity. Yes, I could make such a class fun, and could teach peer-to-peer interaction, but having to replace authentic student motivation with a teacher-generated hybrid could wear down co-leaders and co-learners.

A better option may be to offer a supplemental class in reading and writing for low-performing students – a writing lab or reading lab, perhaps, dedicated to self-selected books and writing topics, whose only purpose is to increase confidence and resistance in readers and writers. And instead of a special class for those who “do school” already, challenge every student to resist teacher-assigned homework and learn to design her/his own homework, work that enriches something already discovered that day, that identifies an element of author’s craft in a free reading book, or writes a challenge to an idea someone expressed in class or at home.

There might be legitimate reasons for students or parents wanting an Honors option, such as the desires for a brisk learning pace, for peers who care about deep inquiry, and for high degrees of instructor contact and feedback; these values would be consistent with any effective learning environment: a good drama class or soccer practice might offer them. But we get into cloudy water — and this is where my hands feel dirty — when we consider to name a class Honors mainly because it “looks good on a transcript”.

If the designation “honors” means that a student elected to take a more challenging course, just to see if she could, that would be fine with me. I have students who claim to be taking AP English Lit/Comp for that reason next year. But if it means that a student was assigned to Honors class merely because she was “compliant” in school, I might differ with the selection process or with the interpretation. Who indeed interprets? We cannot control for the universities who weigh the term in their own fashions, nor for parents who push their students into advanced courses indiscriminately. But we can be responsible to students if we offer such courses.

For my own part, as I work out course overviews this week, I will keep in mind that whatever the label on the syllabus, each ELA course must challenge all students to use the full range of critical thinking and communication skills, to become authors of their own learning, and to pose and solve problems creatively.

An effective program challenges students to think, communicate, and work together in any environment


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