How to Support First-Time Honors Students in AP Classes
Steps teachers can take to help ensure that students who are new to honors coursework succeed in their AP classes.
Nearly 10 months into the global pandemic and almost seven months of teaching online, cracks are starting to show. Many students adapted with impressive speed, but now anxiety and a sense of alienation are increasing. For students who are already struggling, socioeconomically disadvantaged, subject to systemic oppression or bias, or marginalized because of language or ability, this stress is even greater.
Today’s complicated landscape demands that we refine curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment in a way that does not add to the net anxiety that students and communities are already experiencing but still ensures that students have the core proficiencies for the next step in their intellectual journeys.
For AP teachers like me, the challenges are amplified by the fact that we are midstream in College Board’s major revision of AP classes; we are stuck between the drive to expose students to complex material, the requirement that we adapt our instruction to incorporate the exam revisions, and the urge to slow down and focus on foundational standards.
Teachers and school leaders need to consider how to make distance and hybrid learning, especially in accelerated environments, more meaningful and manageable for all students.
Center the Marginalized
Every conversation about what, why, and how to teach should start with a consideration of who is in the classroom, whether in person, hybrid, or virtual. As the pandemic and its side effects wreak uneven havoc, teachers must emphasize the importance not just of rigor and standards but also of community and empathy.
My AP English Language and Composition class is characterized by a plurality of first-time honors students, English language learners, and students who traditionally struggle in English and need to feel like they have a real chance at sustained academic success. I make a point of putting the needs of marginalized, underserved, and underrepresented students (and their families) first and only then differentiating for students who need increased rigor or feel more comfortable in academically rarefied environments. I’m seeing this strategy pay off for all my students, and especially my marginalized students—their demonstrated mastery of skills and knowledge is consistent with what I would hope for under reasonably normal conditions.
Condense, Combine, and Cut
Since so much of teaching is done in isolation—now heightened—curriculum reflects an amalgamation of each teacher’s interests and values. Now, however, is the time for a critical eye: teachers should focus on nonnegotiable learning outcomes and test their material, asking themselves if it supports outcomes in a unique, indispensable, and irreplaceable way. If it doesn’t meet that acid test, junk it. That said, be sure to include not just high-value assignments that contain key standards, but also high-interest ones that might be meaningful and resonant with struggling, marginalized, and disadvantaged students.
Some of what remains can be folded into existing units, or units with overlap can be combined. For my AP English Language and Composition class, in which College Board’s recent revision suggested nine anchor units, I have converted that template into a framework of nine key writing tasks. Nine units over a course of a semester is daunting; nine writing tasks is manageable. And not only is the content much tighter, but the readings we rely on as high-interest and high-leverage anchor texts represent a wider range of experiences that emphasize our shared community values.
In my own teaching, assessments gradually expand into baggy catch-all tasks for gathering a cross-section of student performance data. While this is useful information that informs my decisions, under current conditions it’s excessive. I try to narrow and focus assessments to test the smallest number of objectives possible.
I’ve found not only that tightening assessments is just more practical right now, but also that doing so benefits students who struggle with school, particularly those who are marginalized in other ways; the objectives are more manageable because the expectations are fewer, clearer, and more important. Rather than assessing (and reassessing) a wide range of skills, I look for insight on student mastery with one or two key objectives.
For example, as we approach fall midterms, I’ve replaced previous exams (a battery of essays, peer review, and reflection) with a pair of detailed outlines—one for rhetorical analysis and another for the research-based writing that College Board calls “synthesis.” Will my students eventually ramp up to the full three-essay battery? Yes, eventually, but not until we’ve mastered the intervening objectives.
By slowly scaling up difficulty, using backward mapping and planning, and—most important—communicating this trajectory to students, we are carefully and consciously headed toward our destination, rather than racing there. This clarity serves marginalized students most significantly, as they not only learn the skills but also can understand how the skills fit into the course’s sequence.
Teaching has been made so much more challenging and taxing during these past few months. The job is now a battle of inches, for all those who work or participate in our communities. Everyone is struggling. If we can center empathy, justice, flexibility, support, trust, and solidarity as core values—as nonnegotiable standards—then we will exit this global crisis ready to begin the process of rebuilding our practice, schools, and communities.