How To Make A Positive Difference

A fall semester postscript.

When evaluating their progress at the end of the semester, my first year writing students say the same thing over and over. “In high school, all we ever did was literary analysis. Intro. Three body paragraphs with supporting details. A conclusion. I learned the formula, but it was mind numbing.”

Why are secondary teachers stuck in literary analysis mode? Is it as simple as teaching to Advanced Placement tests? If so, maybe we should risk the ire of parents determined to pass their privilege on and ditch Advanced Placement altogether.

Why not ask students to occasionally write about themselves in the context of big questions? To be introspective. To dare to be personal. To be philosophical. It takes some of my students longer than others to pivot to first person “I”, but eventually everyone sees value in it. Some experience an immediate awakening. For example, in one final paper a student wrote, “I don’t think I truly understood myself until this class because I never contemplated my biggest motivators. Why doesn’t my mom love me? Why do I feel so insignificant? Am I enough?”

K-12 teachers might reply that they’re not therapists so why venture into personal rabbit holes. I’m advocating for public, group-based community; not private, individual therapy.

Another student explained the difference especially well:

“Even on the days with the best attendance, our classroom does not exceed twenty people. This has allowed us to know each other on a deeper level than that of just classmates. I feel as though each person in class is now someone I can call my friend. Through group discussions, the sharing of intimate parts of our lives, and just laughing together in general, we have discovered all the similarities each of us share. As a group, we have formed our own sort of community, filled with people of all different majors and parts of the country. I can confidently say that I have learned just as much from talking to my classmates as I have from the assigned class readings.

Despite the different reasons for each student being placed into Writing 101, we are each leaving the class with one commonality. We formed a special little community built on finding our footing in a new place, trust, and compassion. . . . We made connections that could last a lifetime and learned lessons from one another that changed our perspectives.”

Since classmates don’t assign grades, students are socialized to pay attention exclusively to their teachers. Watch for yourself, in the vast majority of classrooms, students completely tune out one another.

Dig this paradox. My teaching is most consequential when I fade into the background and get my students to listen to, and learn from, one another.

Preserving Privilege

According to the WaPo, several private schools in the D.C. area, including Sidwell Friends, are scrapping Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

The schools issued a statement explaining:

“Collectively, we believe a curriculum oriented toward collaborative, experiential and interdisciplinary learning will not only better prepare our students for college and their professional futures, but also result in more engaging programs for both students and faculty,” the schools said. “We expect this approach will appeal to students’ innate curiosity, increase their motivation and fuel their love of learning.”

There’s little educational value in the Advanced Placement program. It’s primary purpose is to give privileged kids a leg up on their peers.

The scrapping of AP classes is a smart move, but lets not kids ourselves, Sidwell Friends and company made this move not just to appeal to students’ innate curiosity, increase their motivation, and fuel their love of learning. No doubt they expect the new and improved curricula to do an even better job of preserving their students’ privilege. That’s the lifeblood of those schools.

Advanced Placement—Let’s Get Real

The single greatest challenge in teaching is helping disengaged lower performing students catch up while simultaneously challenging higher performing ones. That, pure and simple, is what distinguishes the very best teachers.

It’s so difficult a lot of times educators punt, organizing classes based upon, sorry for the jargon, “homogeneous ability grouping”. Instead of having four mixed ability classes, schools create remedial, standard, honors, and Advanced Placement (A.P.) ones.

Often within heavily tracked schools, one student ends up with nearly all remedial classes, and another, all A.P. The end result can be that the two students never interact in what is in essence “remedial” and “Advanced Placement” schools-within-schools.

The problems with Advanced Placement tracking.

1) Inaccurate perceptions crystallize and students get stuck in tracks  Also, research has shown teachers of remedial students have much lower than normal academic expectations. As a result, instead of catching up to their peers, the tend to fall farther behind.

2) Creeping arrogance. Too often, A.P. students develop a sense of superiority. They look down on their “remedial” and “standard” peers. Once when I was observing a student teacher in a “standard” or “remedial” English class, one of his A.P. students delivered a note from another teacher. After handing it over, the student asked, “What are you guys doing?” “Oh were just working our way through Chapter Two of Catcher in the Rye.” “Oh man,” he loudly announced on his way out of the room, “we finished that book last week.”

More widely discussed concerns with A.P. courses.

3) Students can earn passing scores on the end of the year exams through intensive memorization. This doesn’t prepare them well for college, the alleged purpose of the A.P. program.

4) Parents and students focus so exclusively on passing scores, that few develop any intrinsic appreciation or curiosity for the content. Just tell me what I need to memorize to pass the test. This doesn’t prepare them well for life-long learning (yikes, second use of jargon).

5) Usually, there’s a disproportionate number of Caucasian and Asian-American students in A.P. courses relative to each school’s demographics. Consequently, there’s a disproportionate number of Hispanic and African-American students in remedial courses.

A.P. programs exist because privileged parents want to extend their privilege to their children. A lot of these people are liberal progressives who talk earnestly about equal opportunity. “These people” are my wife and me and many of our friends. On this subject, we’re hypocrites. If we cared as much about other children’s futures as we do our own, we’d figure out a way to detrack our schools.