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First Person: Greater Expectations

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Among the teachers at my high school, debates on tracking range from messy at best to vituperative at worst. Everybody has an opinion. Citing the "research'' does little to influence teachers who, rightly or wrongly, would rather rely on their own 20 years of classroom experience than on academic papers for evidence. As a beginning teacher, I am only slowly building up my own store of anecdotes. Today provided me with one of my first.

My course load this year includes a mix of "honors'' and "standard'' classes. "Honors'' carries with it obvious connotations. Only advanced placement courses out-muscle it in academic prestige. "Standard,'' on the other hand, comes with no bells and whistles. Special education students mix with mainstream students who did not receive the school's recommendation, or choose, to do honors-level work.

Almost all teachers will recognize standard students as ``good kids.'' But a definite gap in perceived academic seriousness and credibility separates one category of students from the other. While some teachers have made it clear that they only want to teach honors classes, one hears less frequently of the reverse situation.

From the first day of school, I noticed differences between the two groups of kids. My honors freshmen did a wonderful job copying down homework assignments and turning everything in neatly and on time. Their basic skills also stood out as markedly superior to those of the standard students. However, while my standard students jabbered away in class discussions, my honors students exhibited so much reserve that minute-long blocks of silence sometimes transpired.

I pulled my hair out trying to think of thought-provoking questions, ice-breaking techniques, even pop-psychology gimmicks to get my fifth-period honors students to talk. At the same time, I had to put an equal amount of energy into reining in my sixth-period standard class. All the while, period five's silence vs. period six's virtual symphony of voices amazed me. Listening, both to the silence and to the voices, proved illuminating. The silence of period five, interspersed with ``I don't knows,'' eventually took on a clear shape: Honors students winced at the prospect of giving an incorrect response. Open-ended questions, unlike questions on factual recall, lacked obvious ``right'' answers. For all my efforts to provoke thoughtful discussion, I had blinded myself completely to the honors students' ``imperative'' to avoid wrong answers.

Standard students, on the other hand, showed unlimited willingness to take risks. Thinking back to Gabe Kaplan on Welcome Back Kotter, I felt I had 20 Horshacks on my hands. Everyone had something to say, and, in the beginning, my greatest challenge lay in establishing order. With order in place, however, I could move on to loftier goals.

One day back in October, my sixth-period students whipped through material in half the time that I had anticipated they would need. On a whim, I decided to experiment. I introduced the class to some analytical language that my honors sophomore students were bandying about-- words such as ``ideological'' and ``demographic''--and began teaching them how to use such language in historical analysis. These ``standard'' freshmen soaked it up like a sponge. Even more surprisingly, they enjoyed the challenge of figuring out what the terms meant. Flabbergasted, I realized that, contrary to my best intentions, I had underestimated the abilities of my period six kids because they had come to me bearing the ``standard'' label.

Since that day in October, both period five and period six have undergone change. Period five has opened up; we have left the interminable blocks of silence behind us. Even the shyest boy in the class has found himself able to take the risk of answering less than obvious questions. Period six now performs cutting historical analysis on a regular basis. Students have traded their Horshack demeanors for a more considerate, although equally enthusiastic, approach to discussion. Classroom life during both periods still has its imperfections, of course. But something happened today that showed me in a remarkably clear way just how much my standard students have grown and matured.

Today, the teachers at my school had to submit forms recommending student placements for next year's classes. Suddenly, tracking was no longer abstract, something that somebody else had arranged. I had to decide what to put my signature to on the forms. Since teacher recommendations do not bind students, I decided to take a few risks.

I announced immediately to my sixth-period kids that I would not assign anyone to the ``standard'' track next year: ``You all have the ability to work at a sophisticated level,'' I told them. ``What you choose to do boils down to your own motivation. I have no control over that and no foreknowledge of the level it will be at next year.'' Then, doing what many teachers would consider heresy, I pitched a new advanced placement sophomore class to a bunch of standard freshmen. In gory detail, I described the back-breaking reading load and endless writing assignments and tests they would have to wade through. I also warned them that I would be teaching the class. ``If you think this year has been hard, consider it a warm-up compared with AP.'' Many of these standard students had the ability to do AP work, but they had to commit to performing it on a regular basis. I then wandered around the room and spoke to kids individually. I kept an ear open, taking in the surprised murmurs I heard around me.

Only three or four students in a class of 20 tried to get me to recommend standard. (In each case, I refused.) Many students left the space on the form blank until I got to their desks. They needed to hear me tell them individually that they could do honors or AP work. By the end of the period, at least four standard students had asked me to recommend them for AP history next year. Almost everyone in the class sat gloating over my having recommended them for honors at the very least. ``If she thinks I can do it, I must be able to,'' I heard one boy say to a friend.

Like so many other great moments in teaching, these words will fade in my memory with each new onslaught of trials and tribulations; calculating grades, attending meetings, completing paperwork all impinge on teachers' abilities to savor the specialness of what we do with kids day in and day out. So I have written down today's moment in the hope of preserving it and better absorbing its significance.

Students who have followed a standard track since elementary school will have to work hard to compensate for years of cumulative skill deficiencies. ``Standard'' demarcation sometimes indicates a dysfunctional home environment or some other external factor that interferes with schoolwork. Inspiring standard students to consider honors work is still a far cry from seeing them complete such work successfully. However, my period six standard students made it clear that, if encouraged, they would consider more challenging academic possibilities than they have thus far. If I had taken a more traditional approach to course recommendation than I did today, at least 75 percent of my period six students would be going into standard sophomore history. None of them would be considering an AP class. For many of them, what happened today may only amount to a momentary boost in selfesteem. But for at least a few, it might have a more lasting academic and personal impact. I can only wonder how differently these students' education would have turned out if they had not taken on the ``standard'' label before reaching high school.

As I prepared for my high school teaching career, people asked me what inspiration I could find in working with students too old to change their bad habits. At the time, I felt compelled to dismiss that characterization of high school. Today, my period six class let me feel I had made the right decision.

Eva Ostrum teaches history at Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough, Mass.

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