Wednesday, February 3, 2010


There's a new documentary coming out that looks quite fascinating, exploring the issues surrounding AP classes in high schools.

Most of my thinking about schools centers on elementary school practices, reforms and possibilities, of course, that's my chosen field. But sometimes my mind wanders to what could be done to reform high schools, and in many ways, I think it's a much more challenging prospect. The fragmented nature of high schools, from daily schedules to certification processes for high school teachers are so entrenched that instituting things like integrated curricula, project based learning, and so on seems much harder.

I've been watching my stepsister finish out her senior year of high school, and from my view, it seems not much has changed since my own high school days. She still stays up late answering the questions at the end of the chapter, memorizes vocabulary that is rarely used outside of textbooks, and writing papers on something for which I have to stretch my mind to see the utility of. In some ways, things are even worse - whether from difference in time or geography (she attends high school in an affluent Connecticut suburb, I attended a not-quite-as-affluent Western Pa suburb 10 years ago). The emphasis seems much greater on things like AP courses (motivated by weighted grades and college credit, not actual learning!), the SATs and college app process (it is the norm for these 16 and 17-year-olds to have tutors/prep classes/admission advisors that cost in the thousands), and attending prestigious private universities (State school? Ew.).

Throughout my professional experience, I've seen nine-year-olds so anxious over taking a test (which I thought failed to actually measure anything meaningful) that he couldn't function. I've seen four-year-olds so anxious about making a mistake in reading (Yes! Reading at 4!), she'd end up crying.

All this is summed up by a quote from the documentary's trailer, "Our students are pressured to perform...they're not necessarily pressured to learn, especially learn deeply and conceptually."

When I was in high school, my senior year I signed up to take 3 AP classes: psych, bio, and English. At the beginning of the year, I switched from AP English to "regular" "academic English." The AP teacher had a reputation for being deadly boring, frequently compared to Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller. I didn't think I could handle that for a year, so my best friend and I switched into 9th period English with one of the most awesome teachers I ever had.

He was a little crazy. Animated, enthusiastic, and demanding. I think he was one of those teachers you either love or hate. Or maybe both, as I didn't realize till later how wonderful he was. Because of that class, The Canterbury Tales remains on my list of treasured favorites. Many people tell me I'm insane when I say that.

My two brothers took him after me as well. My youngest brother also switched from AP to "academic" after I shared my infinite wisdom with him. ;)

My other brother, however, was already slated to be in this teacher's class. He had never considered himself a reader. (Despite the fact that he could name every bug, animal or plant we encountered in the woods after poring over nature manuals.) After taking that English class, Beowulf became one of his favorites. I've never met anyone else who loved Beowulf - though I'm sure you're out there. But for my brother, having a teacher who encouraged and helped him to access (among other things) literature like that: ancient, epic, thick and often difficult...changed his view of himself as a reader.

I don't know what grade he got in the class, or what grade I did for that matter. But I do know that a B in that class (aka 3.0) meant much more than an A (aka 4.8) in the AP class.

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