Teaching Up

One of the last writing assignments I ask students to do is called The Last Word Is Yours (not my original assignment; I have taken it from some brilliant teacher somewhere who offered it up). In it, students are encouraged to evaluate the year, subjects they liked, ones that they didn’t think worked so well, and provide some overall advice about the class for future years. They tend to be honest, thoughtful and quite helpful.

About three years ago, one of my students told me–nicely, I have to note–that I should teach honors classes because he felt like that would be the group of students that would fit me best. I didn’t think much of it. I’ve always taught kids who struggle. I have never had a desire to teach kids who were on or above level; honestly, the challenge for me is to get the kids who are below up and past grade level. I’ve tended, also, to be relatively successful in those endeavors.

My niche was/is(?) kids who struggle.

Then, this year, through some over-enrollment problem (maybe?), I ended up with three sections of honors sophomore English.

Three. That’s teaching the same class back-to-back-to-back, which means that the first time is shaky, the second time the lesson is usually entirely revamped, and the third time, I teach it like I intended to teach it. I thought I’d initially be bored with the same thing, but it’s amazing how reflection helps to immediately change what didn’t work into what works better. (Side note: I should do a separate post about the power of reflection. It’s perhaps the most useful habit I’ve ever cultivated that I can directly tie to improved practice)

So maybe that student from the past is laughing now that I’m teaching honors, but I‘ve also gotten a much better understanding of what it means to teach for equity. Because in honors classes, the expectations are simply…higher. Read 30 pages and be prepared to discuss character motivations, motifs, themes, whatever. They do it. Write a 2-3 page response about something that interested you about this article, making intertextual connections that demonstrates your understanding of the essential questions. Done. Attend this event because, as a literary citizen of the world (what I call them), that’s what smart people do. Done.

This is similar to my realization that kids in the suburbs write more papers than ones in the city. Honors kids have entirely different expectations for what they’re expected to do. As we all know, though, kids rise (or fall) to our level of expectation. What would happen if we simply (ha, simply is such an understatement, but go with it) expected kids in the track below honors to do the same thing? Sure, we’d have to work like hell to make that happen–I mean, we’d have to counter years of low expectations and bad habits, but it’s been done before by numerous excellent educators–but what’s stopping us?

My immediate future goal is to create an intentional community in which the students in the track below honors spend a year with me and leave prepared to be successful in an honors class the following year. This means that I’m going to have to think about all the “stuff” that goes into creating an environment in which an honors student is successful, but geez–I spend my time immersed in data. Isn’t this another chance to look at the data in a way that actually privileges kids who need it most? I’m moving beyond deficits.  I already have some hunches, so I’ll spend the next few months creating this space and then, hopefully, the next school year making it happen.

Working Title of this endeavor: Project Lab Classroom 2013. I told a former colleague that this might just be the hardest thing I will have ever done in my life, but it could be the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life. I can live with that.

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Filed under Equity, Lab Classroom

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