The Conference That Will Change Their Life*

Today was Scheduling Rollout Day at my high school.  I don’t remember if the counseling department actually treats that as a formal title in their emails, but it’s kind of a big deal.  At least I think it is.

In our building, my juniors face their widest array of options ever as they select their last English course of high school.  There are two different AP courses, an IB option, a “core” English 12 and an elective version of it (“Science and Literature”), and even a writing lab option.  

Having options is awesome, of course.  I’ve found over the years, though, that many of my students have no idea how to weigh them.  Which is why I offer our conferring relationships up this time of year as a sort of scale to help them do so.  I’ve learned a lot about them as writers (and readers) through our 1-on-1 conversations, and they’ve learned to talk more honestly about themselves as writers thanks to the chance to talk out loud about their writing selves.

Which is a good thing, because their scheduling concerns and headaches are myriad.  Some of our students have misperceptions about themselves; others have misperceptions about courses they might elect.  Some haven’t even considered the notion that selecting suitable classes might impact the success of their post-high school endeavors.  Some vocalize their concerns; others you sort of have to feel out. 

Conferring to the rescue (again! It’s ALWAYS rescuing students, you guys)!  You know them as writers as well as they know themselves.  So how do you help match your student writers with the right course to help them develop? 

“Will colleges think it looks bad if I take English 12?”

A question resurrected every year during the scheduling season.  It’s the undead corpse of student questions.  But.  It’s important to acknowledge that this is a question that is often driven by parents and counselors and even fellow teachers who imply that college opportunities are inherently tied to AP and IB courses.  It’s well-intentioned (and has at least a grain of truth), but such lectures have taught our writers that pursuing knowledge in “normal” classes is something that colleges inherently frown upon.  

Counselors are a reliable resource for kids who ask this question, but I also like to try and reframe the conversation around a student’s NEEDS.  We rarely seem to talk about classes as courses of study meant to instill knowledge and build skills–we talk about them as credits to be earned and GPA generators.  Remind students that finding a course that will push them and help them grow as readers and writers is more important than making choices based on what a hypothetical college will make of the class.

“Do you know which class has the most homework?”  

This is an easy question to roll your eyes at, but it speaks to a genuine concern students have every right to have–especially if you know you work in a building where old-fashioned approaches to teaching are still the norm.  Kids still, unfortunately, have to plan around multiple teachers who may cram their evenings with busy work that eats away at their sanity, not to mention the time they might have to invest in more carefully considered intellectual endeavors.  When a student throws this question at you, it’s tempting to just say that’s not how they should select courses, but I think it’s best to be honest with them.

I always explain the tradeoffs of courses with a heavier workload.  AP classes will almost guarantee them some longer nights, but if I’m having a conversation with a student who I know has outpaced my English 11 assessments and really needs to be challenged, then I address that with them.  They might not like hearing that they need more rigor, but that’s the truth of the matter for many of my top performers.  

The Quiet Masters

Kids who don’t ask any questions need scheduling help too.  Often my best writers have internalized the idea that since they’re “regular” English kids, they couldn’t possibly qualify for more challenging language arts courses.  It’s not always an issue of low self-esteem either:  If a student has never been invited into an “honors” (barf) or “advanced” (labels are bogue) class, how are they to have any idea when they’ve reached an ability level where they might enter into that world?  They just assume that those pathways of learning are beyond them.

When I speak with many of them about taking a class that will challenge them their senior year, many of them are pleasantly startled.  I’d dare say that some of them have maybe been waiting for years for a teacher to say such a thing to them.  Some worry about losing the “A”, but most recognize that the chance to prove themselves and make some serious writing gains heading into life beyond high school is a huge opportunity.

The Strong Personalities

This sounds like a euphemism for “problem kids” or something, but that’s not what I mean at all.  Some students are simply so personality and curiosity driven that there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop them or change their minds about whatever it is they do with regards to your course.  

They’re awesome and I love them.  They’ll read a class text and then go find two other books by the same author just because they love her work and then want to talk to you for hours about it.  And then they won’t turn in the paper about that same book because they just aren’t that interested in the assignment.

While they obviously need to find some balance between responsibility and pursuit of passion, there’s also something to be said for trying to match them with courses with room for curiosity.  Courses like AP Seminar where they can pursue their curiosity down the rabbit hole let them lean into their strengths.

“The Elephant in the Room”

So how do you direct students to take the next “regular” or standard course in the English progression if there’s all these other electives out there but they just don’t fit the student’s needs?  Again, the key becomes the framing: HS courses are supposed to be about learning content and mastering new skills.  If a student was appropriately challenged by English 11 and mostly met that challenge but didn’t master everything without some struggle, then I try to explain–and I mean EXPLICITLY walk them through–the advantages of good old, reliable English 12.  

I think these things are worth illuminating for your entire class–I don’t wait for them to ask me individually because the truth is many won’t.  But that doesn’t mean they aren’t listening when you explain why their most reasonable option actually comes with a lot of ginormous benefits for them.  It doesn’t hurt to sell it a little bit either–I don’t know what core courses look like at your school, but at mine there’s some pretty cool stuff going on in pretty much every English course.  Tell kids that–let them have some eagerness and sense of purpose about whatever class fits their needs.  

I know it’s hard to find more conferring time, especially this school year.  But if you can find the time to confer with your writers about their next steps, think about the growth and satisfaction they’ll feel a year from now sitting in the right class.  Imagine all of us sitting in classes like we used to–that’s an uplifting image too!

–Mike

Do you have any particular guidance you like to offer your students as they select their English classes or electives?  Let us know at our Moving Writers Facebook page or reach out to me on Twitter @ZigThinks! 

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