Before students even step into the classroom, high school teachers have often already made judgments about their abilities. When educators are introduced to as many as 140 students each school year in leveled classes, from honors to Advanced Placement to college preparatory, they tend to assume that students in each class have similar abilities—for example, students in AP courses are ready for more challenging work than students in grade-level classes.
The reality is that for most of our students, placements are based on prior achievement—not necessarily ability. Students may have the capacity to do higher-level work, even if they haven’t had top grades in courses taken previously. And, unlike many of our elementary and middle school colleagues, high school teachers might not know that students in our classes are gifted and may not think to look for signs of their giftedness due to their class placement.
Because of this, high school teachers need to assume that we have heterogeneous ability grouping in our rooms—regardless of the class level—so that all learners have the enrichment opportunities that give them a chance to excel. Enrichment opportunities offer students a chance to extend their learning beyond the coursework, and are based on inquiry and student choice. They are also traditionally only offered to students in advanced honors and AP courses.
We want to encourage moving beyond deductive models of teaching, those that follow a prescribed and teacher-driven method, to allow all students to once again become procurers of knowledge and thinkers who create and question—students who learn to learn.
To facilitate the development of these passions for all learners, we’ve come up with four investigative enrichment options that can be adapted over the course of the school year in high school English classes at every level:
1) Pre-Learning Research
For most of our careers, we have begun novel study with pre-reading or pre-writing activities—introducing historical background, for example—with the intent of sparking curiosity about the book that would carry students through a given unit. Recently, we’ve turned these pre-learning activities into enrichment activities by allowing students to explore the historical and cultural context of the book themselves.
At the start of reading the novel 1984 by George Orwell, we listed the following phrases on the board: 1984, Eric Blair = George Orwell, 1948, and totalitarian governments. Students chose a phrase to Google, and then shared out interesting information, or “gems” as we call them in our classrooms, with peers. We found that students were more excited about the novel study when they contributed to the conversation. As we continued to read the book, we asked students to keep track of questions they were motivated to investigate. Some examples included how the title for the novel was determined, which totalitarian rulers were in power before the book was written, and how similar Orwell’s fictional world is to the current state of North Korea’s.
We have curriculum that we need to cover, but this initial activity is worth the time: Having students share their newfound knowledge is a beneficial way to begin developing the habits of mind needed to be confident contributors in the classroom.
2) Mid-Point Conferences
Mid-point conferences occur when students have read about half of the book. During the conference, we check in about their reading experience and ask students what topics connected to the text they want to explore further. The time we invest in meeting with each student one-on-one is well worth it—these conferences develop trust and help us guide students to delve deeper into the material.
The students’ preferred topic becomes the focus of a personalized mini-capstone project, which expands the understanding of historical, political, artistic, philosophical, or scientific contexts for the works we read in class. For the rest of the unit, our students investigate additional books, articles, and/or videos on the internet, and grapple with text that may have been above their reading levels. This project helps develop executive functioning skills, as students need to plan and problem solve to complete this research on their own.
3) Post-Unit Research
At the end of most of our units, there is often an opportunity for students to self-reflect and share out the results of their independent research so far. Students regularly make connections between the text and current events. During our study of 1984, for example, students discussed the Patriot Act, the use of propaganda during World War II, and the Manhattan Project.
During these last days of the unit, we have an “enrichment opportunity day” for students to wrap up their outside research. Students use Google Scholar, YouTube, and other school-approved resources, and teachers act as coaches. Struggling learners can reap the benefits of additional teacher attention, while gifted learners can work independently. While we are facilitators of their student-centered investigations, they become navigators of their own discovery.
4) A Research Project
Our final goal for enrichment is to make sure that student choice continues into a final product and that the students are advancing their thinking skills—regardless of ability. They synthesize all of their findings and create a product that is meaningful to them and allows for an audience beyond teachers. Students may choose to write an analytical paper, create a documentary, develop a website, write a review, or produce a TED Talk or a podcast related to the original text. The final product is tantamount to the students’ choice in their investigative topics.
The analysis, evaluation, synthesis, and creativity needed to complete an original end product validates the reasoning behind extending a unit of study to encompass enrichment through investigative learning. These opportunities help to develop a true trust between teachers and their students to learn, once again, for the love of learning.