Why I like being an academic brick wall

A few of my students from previous years eat lunch in my room from time to time because they’re not fans of the cafeteria. While I often spend those periods doing work–shuffling papers around, running back and forth to the computer lab or photocopier–there are times when we geek out about movies and comics and have the same type of dorky-assed conversations we would have between discussions of literature when they were actually my students. On Friday, the topic of conversation with one of them was current classes and what colleges she was going to apply to. I told her how excited I was that she was thinking of at least taking a shot at an Ivy League school because she’s one of the most brilliant students I’ve ever have (she will be graduating high school with an associate’s degree), and she mentioned papers and assignments that were tough.

“I hear you,” I told her, “I remember having that workload in high school. I think it’s why I like teaching honors students so much, because I was one so I understand how much you’re working. Then again, I also have no sympathy for you either.”

She laughed because she knew exactly what I was talking about. You see, to some extent, my advanced sophomore English class is an academic wall. Most of the students I have are AP-bound and will spend junior and senior year griping at one another over their placement in “the top 10,” so I have much of what you’d call the cream of my high school’s crop. Knowing that, I’ve designed a course that is pretty challenging and I honestly try my best to introduce them to the type of class they’ll be in when they pursue English throughout the rest of high school in AP (the AP teacher is next door and it’s a running joke that they work hard all year to travel all of five feet) as well as into higher education. What does this mean, specifically? It means that I don’t do reading quizzes or notebook checks or participation grades or put a score on every little thing that comes across their desks. There aren’t points for every discussion, if I ask them to do a writing exercise in the beginning of class, they probably won’t be handing it in for a grade, and when the gradebook gets filled by the end of the marking period there are probably five to six grades instead of twenty or thirty.

In other words, I know that they’re smarter than most other students–that’s why they’re taking advanced English–and I treat them as such, refusing to baby them. And while there is the occasional lecture period (as there are), I approach most class sessions as on-the-level discussions and conversations. Yes, I’m the teacher. Yes, I’m evaluating them at one point. But there’s no need for the ridiculous amount of structure I have to go for in other classes that would take any single second of downtime as an opportunity to recreate Lord of the Flies. The last two years’ worth of students seem to appreciate it, too. Sure, I’ve had complaints that “All we do is talk” in my class but I’d rather hear that than “All we do is take notes,” right?

But I’m not writing this post to pump myself up here because lately I’ve seen the downside to my approach, which is something I see at the beginning of every year but just haven’t taken the time to write about. There are always honors students who, well, never seem to fully grasp the idea of their own academic responsibility, at least not at first. Sure, there’s always going to be the “Are we watching movies in this class?” kids–one of whom asked me that question with the principal standing right behind him … and I think my principal liked my answer about how film is literature and when we watch films it won’t be “We read the book now we’ll watch the movie”–but I’m talking about the sort of unpreparedness that comes with not being used to steering your own ship.

Here’s a great example. During the course of the year, I plan ahead by several weeks. This comes as a result of being a yearbook adviser for nine years–when deadlines ramp up in the winter, I plan English as far ahead as I can so I’m not completely overwhelmed all at once. For advanced English, I print out a syllabus at the beginning of each unit that reads much like your average college lit class: here are the dates we’re in class, here’s what we’re covering each day, dates/topics subject to change. It’s a pretty straightforward handout that’s also published to my class website. I’ve lost count of the number of students who have been confused by this; in fact, earlier this week, I told one of my classes that the work has already been assigned and it’s up to them to figure out how they want to manage it and that no, I don’t baby them along the way.

Sure, this means that I get days like Wednesday in first period where nobody had done the reading and the fishbowl discussion was painfully awkward with extended periods of silence because I just stood in the back of the room with a look on my face that said, “It’s your discussion, not mine” and then told them at the end of the class that they were pretty “sad and pathetic” (yes, I used those exact words), but it also means that if not at first then maybe eventually they realize that I’m giving them a lot of what they’ve probably wondered and asked for over the years from teachers and they’ll figure out how to deal with it and use it to their advantage. It’s not lip service when I tell them that I use former students’ work as reading assignments; if someone really likes a story or essay I’ll make 30 copies and we can have everyone read it and discuss it; or if there’s a novel or play you really liked, you can definitely include it in your paper on the book we just read. I’m also not kidding when I say things like “You’ll have to lead the class discussion for 30 minutes and I’ll be in the back of the room taking notes and probably won’t jump in with questions until the en end,” or “This might be the first time you ever get a C in anything and it may also be the first time where you’re proud of a B+ or an A-.”

This sounds obnoxious and arrogant (which, if you know me, you’re like, “Well … duh.”) but I like the fact that to a certain extent my class is an honors student’s brick wall. Because let’s face it–they could ace the standardized tests in English right now and really are above most of their peers academically. So why not treat them like that and throw them into the deep end on day one (to use a tired metaphor)? Sure, I’ll never let anyone completely drown, but they’re high school sophomores and there’s a reason they’ve made it this far, so when I bloody the hell out of first drafts or make them not just speak in front of the class but actually encourage active discussion, I’m doing what I can to make my class worthy of being called honors and not something they’ll coast through again because it’s another joke.

To bring this back around and try for a decent conclusion, the student I was talking to is probably going to pursue a career in either medicine or biotechnology and on back to school night told me that my class made her like English class again. I thanked her and told her that she was going to love AP English (and so far she does, although the jury’s still out on her opinion of Holden Caulfield). But I couldn’t help but smile very wide because it was one of the best things a student has ever said to me.

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