“You can do that, right?
A common refrain from my wonderful, hard-working, tough-love principal last year when I started teaching at Pullman High School. Before, it had been about moving a chemistry lab, coaching the math team, then teaching our freshman science introduction class. Now it was in reference to teaching an honors chemistry course as part of a traditional college-prep chemistry class, the previous chemistry teacher had done it, so “you can do that, right?”
As a classic new teacher, I immediately said yes, and immediately had an influx of questions. What does honors credit mean? How does one teacher lead two courses simultaneously? Who goes into honors and who doesn’t? Is it more difficult types of problems, or do they learn more? How do I keep them on pace with the rest of the class for topics I know they haven’t learned before?
I couldn’t find a lot out there to help me, so it was back to square one.
I knew that having an honors option was important. Too often, high achieving students are simply given more and more work with no reward. In high school, I see those students push back and question the system of school while still aching for a challenge. This class within a class was a chance for rigidly structured differentiation that would allow me to push these students while they believe that the main outcome is to earn a distinction that will appear on their college transcripts.
So, let’s say that you want to try this, maybe you’re at a small school that logistically can’t offer a separate honors class, or you believe in keeping all levels of students in the same class but still want the ability to push students that need a push. I’ll share my trials and tribulations here in hopes of helping you nest an honors course. As I get into to what I have learned I would like to acknowledge Jan Estep, an incredible math teacher at Pullman High School. After I began my honors nesting journey, she decided to implement a similar plan in her pre-calculus class. We presented a PD on the topic and much of what we discussed together will be included here.
To provide cognitive challenges to talented students by enriching — not accelerating — the curriculum.
Highly capable students need time to:
- explore deeply
- manipulate ideas and make connections
- ask questions
My goal is always to encourage students to think about concepts in more abstract and complex ways. At Pullman, I believe that we have a problem where we accelerate students because they can get the right answer, not always because they are intellectually and emotionally capable of engaging with the concepts. I want to get students to grapple with tough problems and force them to ask questions and play with approaches. These are the skills that are going to nurture their learning for the rest of their lives.
- Any student can self-select to try the Honors problems and assessments.
- A student must opt-in by the end of the first six weeks of the semester so that they can be adequately prepared for the first honors assessment.
- Any student, who initially selects the honors option, may change their status. The deadline for this decision is the day before the midterm.
I didn’t think that I was math-capable until I was sitting in pre-calculus and my teacher told me that I was! I want ANY student to be able to try the work. So much of how we assign students into honors and AP classes is based on old highly capable testing from elementary school; or parents that require their students to take those classes. We must give students the opportunity to give it a shot, who knows that they might discover about themselves?
I also make it a very simple and painless process to opt out. Students just need to tell me. I repeat over and over that honors isn’t about being smart! It’s about a willingness to work hard and having the TIME to devote to it. A student that does three sports and cello lessons, might not have the time for honors chemistry, and that is completely fine. I will admit to talking some students into honors, one just couldn’t stop listening in on our conversations about mass spectrometry so I finally asked her if she wanted to join us? That was that, she’s totally devoted to the honors work now, an option she might not have had with traditional honors courses.
- Curriculum/Practice Compacting: I use Standards-Based Grading and do not require homework, instead I give out practice problems that may be done. These problems are almost always in order of difficulty and I push students to start on problems where they feel their understanding is. This gives honors students the challenge but also reminds them to go back if they need to build up their understanding.
- Tiered Assignments: My student teacher needed to differentiate for the EdTPA and so made a classic version of the lab for her lesson and a honors version. The classic had more scaffolding and assisted students through the problem solving, the honors version was more open-ended and free-form but still got everyone to the same end. It worked beautifully, and I haven’t gone back!
- Challenging Problems: Just find some good-old challenge problems (I love the nrich site for math and science) and make them available. You can easily sneak these into the end of a lesson, or the end of some individual practice work.
- Inquiry-Based Independent Projects: I created a bit of a silly assignment for students to make advertisements about the atypical states of matter. But, let me tell you, letting highly capable students research and get creative with photonic matter, bose-einstein condensates, disordered hyperuniformity, and supercritical fluids was an absolute blast!
The above are just some options for how to approach the in-class modifications, there are endless ways to change up your class to make room for an honors section. I have found that it is mostly about having the options for something MORE for honors students. This is also the most difficult part, in teaching a nested honors section you’re required to come up with an authentic learning experience that is somewhat connected to what everyone else is doing in the class AND doesn’t require you to teach an entire individual lesson to that group of students. Oooof, I’m tired just thinking about it.
Let’s look at an example:
All students learned about atomic mass and calculating average atomic mass. A classic chemistry concept. Honors chemistry students will learn how atomic mass is leveraged through mass spectrometry and how to read simple mass spectrometry data.
In this example, students aren’t learning concepts or math beyond what the regular class is learning. They are simply applying what they know in a complex and new setting. Here are the assessment questions:
- Classic Question: Magnesium has three naturally occurring isotopes. 78.70% of Magnesium atoms exist as Magnesium-24 (23.9850 g/mol), 10.03% exist as Magnesium-25 (24.9858 g/mol) and 11.17% exist as Magnesium-26 (25.9826 g/mol). What is the average atomic mass of Magnesium?
- Honors Application Question: A diatomic gas of an element with a single stable isotope is analyzed in a mass spectrometer. How many peaks will there be? How many peaks will there be if the element forming a diatomic gas has 2 or 3 stable isotopes?
Do I still expect Honors students to be able to answer the classic question? Yes! In this example, I gave students mini-lecture about mass spectrometry, as well as a reading, and posted a video on my website. This enabled me to keep them (and me) with the rest of the class for most of the day and pushed them to go out and grapple with the concept on their own. They still need to understand what we learning in the traditional class, but push it to new limits.
Important yet Miscellaneous Thoughts:
Preventing Overlap: Check with teachers that teach the next few classes beyond yours when planning honors content. You could even work together to join up some honors problems over the years! This about solving the same problems in physics using algebra and then using calculus!
What to call the “regular” class? I wanted to make sure that my non-honors students still felt like an integral part of our classroom culture. I opted to call that section, only when the need arose, “Classic Chemistry.” It sounds better than normal or regular and doesn’t make students feel less-than.
Are we allowed to just make honors classes? The final questions, and you’ll have to check with your administration on this. At Pullman, we need to submit our course to the Curriculum Advisory Committee for approval. At the secondary level, it is important to ensure that you can get that little Honors distinction on their transcripts.
I will admit, this did not always go well. Teaching a class within a class is a totally crazy endeavor that requires a lot of failing, tweaking, and communication. Luckily, my students were always up for trying and we built up the rapport so that they could tell me when they needed support.
Anyone else out there nest like this? What are ways that you are already modifying your instruction for those students that need a challenge?
Can’t wait to read your thoughts,
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