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The Challenges of Teaching Honors Students

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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It's hard to compartmentalize middle schoolers. I mean there's just so many levels, cliques, shapes, and sizes. It's almost as if each kid is their own species for this brief time in their lives, bubbling in this brew of tween-ness until they all settle down and come together one day as sophomores.

And having taught them all, I know that each of the groups has their own blessings and challenges.

But there is a misconception in the civilian world that teaching the honors students must be somehow a more desirable gig than teaching the mainstream, or struggling students.

Now, I've taught many a subgroup in my time and I will say this: teaching honors and gifted kids does not an easier job necessarily make. It's great, don't get me wrong, but it's got it's own challenges and responsibilities. After all, if you're teaching classes designated as honors, you better also be teaching compassion, because elitism is a struggle. Taking criticism can be a struggle. Collaborating can be a struggle. If you're teaching honors students, you better be teaching them to keep things in proportion because that little tiny fraction of a percentage grade is enough to send them over the edge. And you better teach time management skills too, because in the world of standardized tests, there's no room for a ten-page epic novella.

I'm not going to belittle the great things about teaching the upper academic echelon in education. After all, you can tackle higher-level content, their product can be stunning, and their level of discourse can be exciting.

However, I will say this: a teacher should always hold the bar high for any student. For instance, I've taught Shakespeare to kindergarteners all the way up to adults. And I'm not talking about the "in their own words" Shakespeare. I'm talking about the Bard and his language. And you know who translates Old English the quickest? English Learners.

The fact is, many honors kids exist deeply emerged in their academic world, while other kids bring in both the academic world and real life. Some honors kids must have the right color pen to perfectly shade that icon. This works in the educational universe as an academic skill, but does it work in real life as a critical thinking skill?

And, yes, precision is a real-world virtue, but does it require critical thinking? I was pondering that very question when this incident occurred at my school:

My colleague, who teaches eighth grade Language Arts, tripped on a cord, flew to the corner of a table and was momentarily knocked unconscious behind her desk. It was during her honors class.

Apparently, the class sat stunned. Finally, and we're talking after a long "finally", one student, and I mean only one, crept around the teacher's desk, looked at the floor, and announced, "Um, guys, she's not moving."

The teacher opened an eye with a groan, whispered for the student to go to the office, and the teacher, bleeding from the head, had to sit up by herself and ask for a paper towel.

So my question is this: would you rather be hit on the head in a room of A students stunned by a spontaneous turn of events that would never be covered on a standardized test, or a room of struggling latch-key kids who have to juggle their own nightly homework with the added responsibility of taking care of their three younger cousins?

I admit that these are wide generalizations. I've taught enterprising honors students, and I've taught mainstream kids who wouldn't know what to do to get out a splinter much less how to handle a true emergency situation.

But my point is there are great things about every class and every student. And just as we shouldn't generalize the negative, so shouldn't we generalize the positive. No class is one or the other, and each class has things we must celebrate and things that we must work on.

Greatness comes in any form.

This nation's future leaders could come from any classroom. Treat each classroom like it's full of honors kids, and you'll find that you will have helped to raise honorable people.

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

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Carol Parker's picture
Carol Parker
7/8 Drama, Film, Honors & Regular Language Arts

I have taught Honors and Regular student classes' and mixed in those groups are high and low achievers. I have discovered the human element:
curiousity! The combination of socio-econoomic factors and twa-la I discover some children have been read to, taken to the library, puppet show, museums, beach, road trips, made cookies, made masks, built sand castles, been loved, laughed and some NOT. So, I squeeze in as much as possible plus the cirriculum, and encourage them to live life and never be afraid to dance and sing. I discover very bright children misplaced and not ready. I do my best to improve their world.

Every day is a journey in education. Every child opens up new doors in teaching and learning for me as a teacher. No matter their IQ, children are enlightening. It is amazing how fast the classroom changes year after year.

Michael Galligan's picture

Heather (or anyone else who has feedback),

We have classes for advanced students at our middle school (they are called Challenge Language Arts and Challenge Math) and students are placed into these classes by test scores and teacher recommendation - and I must add parent pressure. What we find every year are a few students placed in these classes who demonstrate high achievement on state and local assessments yet produce very little, and in some cases nothing, in the course of the school year! This is in spite of attempts to differentiate, accommodate, modify, etc., as well as in spite of parent contact and conferencing. That they be placed back in regular classes seems wrong: it is highly unlikely motivation will increase there. Yet, to build on what Darleen wrote earlier, there are very talented, hard-working students in other classes that would love to fill that seat! This coming school year we may try to institute a minimum grade requirement to remain in the "challenge" classes and a probation period.
What to do?

(I would like to add that the title of these classes is not the best! Of course, every student should be challenged...)

Lorna Guthrie's picture

Teaching Algebra 1Honors

I was asked to teach algebra 1 honors this fall and feel a little out of my depth as I have never had to teach honors in any math level before.

I asked a teacher who has taught it for years, what the syllabus was and he said " it is the same as the regular algebra 1 class but we just teach the honors students at a faster rate." When he said that I was shocked. It just some how seemed to me that we should be doing a lot more than just teaching them at a faster rate. I get it that they grasp the concepts quickly, but should they not be given some project related to the content to complete that would really demonstrate their grasp of the lesson?

Maybe I have spent too many years teaching the regular education students and I am so used to finding ways to get them energized and motivated to learn, but I for the life of me keep thinking .."should it be a lot more of something else for the honors class that really sets their learning apart than just speeding through the content?"

I unfortunately am not gifted with talent of coming up with great project ideas and so I am eliciting your help my fellow educators in coming up with the ideas and projects that I could do to get my honors students not just learning quickly, but really applying what they have learned to real life situations so that when they leave the class they really will feel honored to have sat in their and be taught.

I welcome the ideas of everyone who has taught honors algebra 1 to get me started this fall and to share their ideas not just with me, but with everyone who participates in this blog.


Jodi Null's picture

I agree that teaching honors students has its own challenges. I have taught honors students for the past 2 years and this coming school year will be my 3rd year teaching honors students. The challenge that I have faced is that they seem to always question everything you say to make sure that you are correct and the parent seem to always be questioning you as well. The class I had this past year also felt that they were entitled to everything just because they were the honors class.

I also feel that an honors class has its rewards. You are able to challenge them more with different activities. I also am able to have them work together more and tutor each other.

I agree with Michael Galligan that students in honors classes need to be monitored. If their grades are starting to fall they need to be put on probation and then if they continue to fall then you need to have a conversations with the students and parents about switching their class. At my old school we did and parents know at the start of the year that this would happen. I had two students who were moved from the honors classes because of their grades. This was able to happen because I worked with the students after school and stayed in contact with their parents throughout the whole process.

Beth W.'s picture

I really appreciate this post, Heather. I have taught 7th grade ELA for two years, and at my school we do not offer any honors or advanced courses. We sure have the numbers to do so. I have students in my classes ranging in reading levels from second grade to college level. I take the perspective that I teach an advanced class already. I truly believe in setting the bar very high for my students, and I consider our curriculum to be quite rigorous. My more advanced students need a challenge, and I always make sure to give them one, while at the same time I am challenging all other abilities in my classroom. Sometimes, I think I see the most potential in the middle-of-the-road students who excel in many other areas, not necessarily language arts. I think sometimes we train the gifted students so well academically, while leaving behind other important life skills that everyone needs to be productive citizens of this society.

Kate H.'s picture

Dear Michael and Jodi,

I, too, have a love/hate relationship when it comes to teaching Honors Language Arts. While I enjoy the complex material we read and the conversations we have, there are certain struggles that are specific to this group of students. For instance, I can relate to Jodi's comment about these students and parents questioning your every move. Every fraction of a grade must be thoroughly examined, and this group of students are more concerned about the grade than the journey of learning.

In my school, students are in honors classes by teacher recommendation or parent request. Unfortunately, the teacher has no say as to whether or not a student remains in the classroom, no matter what the grades and/or effort indicate. In fact, a couple of years ago, I had a conference with the parents, counselor, and a student about moving the student from Honors to General English. Myself, the counselor, and even the student wanted to be moved from Honors to General, but the parents insisted on keeping her in Honors, and so she stayed. I wish that I could offer you some insight as to how to overcome this challenge, but I am also looking for an answer to this problem as well.

As to the question of whether we should segregate kids into different level classes, I do think it is good to have different level classes, and then continue to differentiate instruction within the class. While the materials and depth of activities may be different between the levels, I ensure that both classes have fun and use some of the same resources. During my first year of teaching, I had my Honors students pilot an online discussion board for a novel we were reading, and a General student asked why they weren't doing it too. I feel mortified and terrible that I had not given my General students the same opportunity. From that point forward, I tried to make sure that the opportunities for both classes were equal despite the different material. I think that if we all keep that in mind, then different level classes are not a bad thing, but rather provide students with more skill focused instruction. I just wish we would call them by a name other than Honors and General, so it doesn't negatively affect a student's self-esteem because the students in my General classes are anything but "general."

Sue King's picture

I have spent most of my 25 year career teaching middle school mathematics. It is so disheartening to see the continued and persistent belief that we have to track students into different 'levels' in order to teach them. Those people who claim to offer all the same opportunities are simply not being honest with themselves. Kids in the lower levels never have, and most likely never will have, the same opportunities as the kids in the higher levels unless they are fortunate to have someone at home supporting and encouraging them to not accept the school system's labels, to do their best, and apply to a good college. Once they get into college (as my daughter did), no one tells them they are not 'bright' enough to take a class. Perhaps someday K - 12 schools will see that it is their structures that perpetuate the inequities in opportunities and resulting performance of students and the practice of "teaching" a specific, narrow body of content to an entire group that does not allow teachers to see any other way to manage.

Nikki's picture

I agree very much with you! The students in my advanced class refuse to think for themselves. Too often do they want to "just do the work and get the points," then actually stop and think about a new perspective or a creative solution to an intriguing problem.

I am often surprised at how much more spirited and adventurous my "reg. ed" classes are in comparison. And because of this, I tend to enjoy teaching them more, even if they do sometimes struggle with remembering the information or need a little more prompting to get where I want them to go.

Thank you for sharing this opinion. I was afraid no one else felt this way.

Nikki's picture

I completely agree with your opinion! My advanced class struggles with thinking creatively about an intriguing situation or considering new perspectives. Their continual argument is "I just want to do the work and get the credit." And I am surprised at how often my "reg ed" classes enjoy problem solving and trying to really think through a problem. Because of this I often find myself enjoying these classes more even if they do need more time to review or more prompting to get where I want them to go.

Thank you for sharing your opinion. I thought I was the only one who thought this way!

Jeannie Conroy's picture
Jeannie Conroy
Seventh and eighth grade language arts teacher from Indiana

I find so much truth in what you have to say. I have taught all levels of learners and each bring so much to the classroom. The school in which I am employed recently made a change to full blown differentiation within the classroom. We have special education students, honors students and all students in between spread out throughout a six period day.

At first I was quite nervous with how they would interact with one another, but the end result was better than what I imagined. Just as you stated each student brings something new to the classroom. I am a firm believer that students learn just as well if not better from one another. By having all of these learners in the same room I witnessed some students flourish that I highly doubt would have in a different setting. My group projects were much more successful and the end products were above and beyond what I expected. Even the students that weren't usually engaged (no matter what I tried) found a place in the group in which they were successful.

I felt this past year of differentiating in the classroom made the behavior in my classroom much better as well.

I would love to hear comments from teachers who use this same type of classroom setting. How do you feel it is working? Advantages? Disadvantages?

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