I received an email from a parent who had asked the high school to allow her 9th grade daughter to enroll in AP English, rather than in Honors 9th Grade English. The school declined, and the parent wanted my suggestion on what to do.
Note: Frequently I get questions from parents or teachers about their children and students. It’s frustrated me that I don’t have time to write back to everyone, and so I’ve decided to begin a “Reader Q & A” feature on the site. You can find all responses here.
If you have a question about your child, your student, best practices, or anything Giftedesque, shoot me an email or comment below, and we’ll see what we can do!
Why the parent is concerned
Here’s why this parent was concerned. The parent wrote:
She was in the GATE program in her elementary school and took honors classes in junior high, including a Pre-AP English class during both 7th and 8th grade years. She took the AP English and Composition test this past year and scored a 5 on it. At the time she took the test she was 13.
What I Think
I’ll be honest: I was initially skeptical because whenever someone bashes the teacher, my hackles rise. A comment like the one above that reads, “This is a teacher who should not be teaching an honors level class” after meeting that person at a back-to-school event is absolutely going to make my left eyebrow rise.
Similarly, when someone says that the content in a high school class is the same as in an elementary class, it makes me sigh. I’ll explain more about that below.
However, the core concern is valid. More than valid, in fact.
You may wonder why I included the part that I then criticized. I did because it’s common, it’s normal, it’s how most of us think, and it gets in the way of solving the problem.
I wrote the parent back privately, but I think the issue is common, and it deserves some attention.
Many, many gifted kids are super strong readers, and this girl is not alone. These parents are right to be concerned. The school made a de facto promise by offering advanced curriculum in an early grade that those opportunities would continue. Then, they reneged on that promise. That’s patently unfair.
I appreciate the parent writing because it allows me to address this issue from a parent and teacher perspective.
What I’d Do
This is exactly what I’d do if I were that parent:
- I would try very hard to set aside my judgment of the teacher. Are there poor teachers? Yep, just like any profession. Are there teachers who are only teaching the advanced classes because of seniority, rather than expertise? Oh, friends, you have no idea. Are there classes that are a complete waste of time? You bet your lifesavers there are. But the truth is that irritation with or disdain for the teacher will not get you what you want. Focus on the goal.
- I would see if the district had a credit by exam policy. Mine does, and this student is a perfect candidate for it.
- I would spend some time considering how I could make sure the student didn’t lose his/her love of reading because of a bad experience. To do this, I’d make sure I had quality discussions about the difference between learning to be an analytical reader and academic writer (school) and engaging in the wonderful conversation with the world that is reading on one’s own.
- I’d make sure I understood what was actually going on in the class. This is tricky. When parents appear critical of the teacher in front of their student, they are (probably unwittingly) encouraging the student to find the worst in the teacher. Some kids get more attention from complaints about school than they do about compliments. I mean, when was the last time a parent you know fired off some passionate email at ten 0’clock at night because they were so happy they couldn’t hold it in? Who makes parent conferences or calls the principal because they want to share gratitude? Find out what’s going on, what’s being learned, without appearing (or being) judgmental. What are they reading? What are they writing?
- I’d be honest about my child’s skills. In this particular case, the AP test she took is a completely different content than the rest of language arts. It’s all about analyzing argument in writing, and it is distinct from the literature, so there is really very little connection between how a child would do on one versus the other. Secondly, virtually all of the students in a 9th grade honors English class are going to be reading on a twelfth grade level (whatever that means). It’s actually very difficult to measure reading level because there’s a huge difference between decoding, comprehension, and an analysis.
- I’d make sure I understood the concept of recursion in content. Remember how I mentioned that it makes me cringe when I hear people say content is the “same” in one grade level as it is in a lower one? That’s because of recursion. Recursive content is content we see spiraling upward from one grade level to another. It may look the same, but it most definitely is not. If you look at the standards for language arts in 3rd grade and 9th grade, they’re markedly similar, yet what the teacher and students do with those standards most assurednly is not. I can even read the exact same story very, very differently with 8-year-olds than I can with 16-year-olds, so don’t let standards fool you: it’s not the same class or content.
- Look at the assignments through the lens of learning. Take an assignment the student brings home and really look at it with the student. What skills was the assignment meant to improve? What were the skills of the student going in? Did the student learn the target skills? If the student did the assignment again, could he/she do better? If growth is occuring, then that’s a good sign.
- I’d wait until the student got a report card. If the first progress report or report card comes back with a really high grade or if the grade reflects lower marks because of non-ability-related factors (busy work, group work, strange grading practice, etc.), I’d go to the next step. If it doesn’t, I’d have a conversation with the child about what’s going on. You may find out that the class is more challenging than expected.
- Once I knew for sure because of data (super high grades, no real progress in skills), it’s time to approach the teacher. You do that with an email like this:
Dear Mr. Teacher,
I’m so-and-so’s mom. Thanks so much for [insert something good the teacher did/said here]. I appreciate the work you put into the class very much. I’m noticing that [student’s name] is getting very high grades and seems to have mastered some of the skills being taught. I’d like to ask for some differentiation for him/her. What are your thoughts?
Irritated but polite parent
- I would see what the teacher replied, and then if it was a good response, I’d go with it. A good response includes something from the section below on what teachers should do.
- If the response was vague or negative, I would send a more strongly worded email along the lines of this one:
Dear Mr./Ms. Ignoring My Student’s Needs Teacher,
Unfortunately, the situation has not improved, and my child is still not really making true progress in the class (note: don’t say “your” class). Please let me know what changes and adjustments can be made. If there aren’t any, then please understand that I’ll need to request a parent conference with a counselor and administrator to be able to more fully explore the options available.
Parent Who Reads Gifted Guru & Knows His Stuff
- If a parent conference is necessary, have reasonable, specific requests at the ready. (That will be the next article, so stay tuned.) Don’t just be vaguely waving your arm in the air saying that it needs to be better.
Advanced readers are common in Giftedland, and their needs are real. This email alone is evidence that differentiation at the secondary level can’t be just honors classes. They’re not enough.
Parents will be most effective if they are informed about what district policy is, what their student is actually learning, and what is reasonable to ask (be sure to see next week’s article for more on that).
It’s also critical not to be too critical. It’s the old “catch more flies” idea…
Thank you to these parents for caring enough about their child to reach out. Their question will surely help others (or at least make them not feel alone). If you have a question of your own, please feel free to contact me.