What biases may be inherently present in the concept of challenge, though? I want all students to be challenged, for each student to be in the class that challenges her or him appropriately. I’ll return to this later. First, I have noticed that descriptions of honors courses usually rely on terms such as “motivated, engaged, curious, and hard-working” – which profile a desired type of student, rather than set specific learning targets. The unwritten biases underlying such characterizations imply that non-honors students are unmotivated, lazy, disengaged, and lacking in curiosity. In my own observations within a heterogeneously grouped sophomore class, two small groups appear similarly self-directed, but students differ as to the type of questions I hear them ask each other. Those who will elect Advanced Placement in grade 11 are more often heard asking interpretive questions or wondering aloud, and their ideas are picked up by others, who carry them forward until a discovery is made; then they may determine to move on to other scheduled productive work (such as add to their reading-writing notebooks, write/revise papers, or read the next section); or someone may suggest an activity (“What if we designed a quilt that demonstrated connections between each of the symbols in Beloved?”).
In my upper division regular classes, I see more fragmentation: groups that don’t operate as a unit, or questions that peter out in minutes, because not enough students do the reading, display curiosity, or respond productively to others’ comments. Brief discussions tend to end with “What do you think will happen next?” There are outliers who try to get others excited about research, inquiry writing, creative writing, and book clubs. They are positive forces in the room, and do succeed in motivating people; they are effective leaders and decision makers, dabbling in the discovery that English class exists to serve their learning purposes. I have begun to make that discovery an explicit focus of my sophomore class, in hopes that, whether they choose an AP or regular English classes in the coming 2 years, they will feel they have a greater stake in their own learning. Students self-reported a high degree of satisfaction with the ability to have chosen their own book, set their own goals, and monitor their own progress; they saw my involvement not as intrusive, but as helpful when they invited me to observe and provide formative feedback on areas they chose to identify. Their increasing sense of independence relates directly to control over their own learning and heightened motivation; I am convinced.
Now back to the question of an appropriately challenging class. If I reason that every student capable of the challenge of an Honors or AP English course should take one, then I must be assuming there is a negative consequence associated with remaining in a regular class, at least for a gifted student. Yet have I been circumspect about this? Is it actually my own intolerance of people who will not use their giftedness that makes me cranky? It is likely that students limit the number of elective AP or Honors classes they take, calculating the advantage of more wiggle room in their homework schedule, of freedom from a stressful or rigorous environment. I am left, as I so often am, perplexed that student and teacher expectations of thinking and learning are not aligned. How can I both rid myself of bias and offer students greater control over their learning choices?
One shift I initiated this spring could help me move forward in a new direction – toward student ownership of learning. It has also helped me to address my own bias. I began marketing next year’s British Lit course (senior English) alongside my AP Lit course, so students could see up front exactly how the two classes compared. I sheared the descriptions of anything that smacked purely of student behavior, such as “motivated students take AP” and made it about learning targets instead. I produced a side by side comparison of units both classes will do on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I created a Haiku slideshow to let students see that both classes would be both FUN and CHALLENGING. I deliberately showed the challenges not as harder in AP vs. easier in Brit Lit, but rather as unique to a theme in each course. The student electing Brit Lit might learn if “the fault is in our stars” indeed, and how Hardy’s work relates to contemporary novels such as those of John Green or Suzanne Collins; the AP student would be opting for a focus on how an author’s literary allusions bring depth and relevance to a work. My aim was to aid students in selecting the class that was right for them by offering them decison-making tools. I presented both courses as English electives, instead of offering Brit Lit as the default [formerly seen as less challenging]. Of course, they have to choose ONE, but it is important to me that they see it is an informed choice they need to make.
Imagine how you, in your leadership role, can invite discussions about differentiation, valuing the choices of all students, and offering students ownership over the challenges in all classes, whether heterogeneous or homogeneously grouped, at your campuses. Consider how exposing your own biases creates vulnerability that might enrich the dialogue among colleagues at your school. There is value in the dialogue.