I teach AP Language and Composition. It’s a tough course, and for most of my students, it’s their first AP English course (they take it as juniors, then go on to AP Lit as seniors). In the past few years, my school has embraced an open enrollment policy for AP courses in certain subject areas. The idea is to remove any barriers such as summer assignments and application requirements to get more kids in the door. Simply by taking the class, we’re helping more students gain exposure to the higher expectations of college-level scholarship and content. The trick, though, is retaining the students. After our first year of open enrollment for AP, I took a hard look at my AP classroom and thought about the personalities our program was attracting. This reflection allowed me to think more about how I could meet my students’ academic and emotional needs and keep them in AP once they walked through the door. Here are a few of my observations, presented to you as five key personalities I see in my AP classroom and how I try to reach each one.
They’re Gifted (and They Know It)
We’ve been trying to figure out what defines giftedness for over a century now. It’s hard to pinpoint, and it can be masked by other learning difficulties (twice exceptionality) or language learning. Once giftedness is identified (different states have different identification criteria—check out this link), the programming available to students varies from school to school, district to district, state to state. In my district, elementary and middle school students can attend a charter school through eighth grade. They then matriculate to high school, where they have options for acceleration and advancement such as AP classes and a partnership with the local community college. Naturally, I end up with a high proportion of gifted students in my AP classes. My gifted students tend to be some of the most self-aware, and they are highly attuned to their strengths (and sometimes weaknesses) in the classroom. They are also some of the best advocates for their own learning.
The Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence has published standards to guide teachers’ instruction and interaction with students (see page 78 of this document). These common-sense standards are, unfortunately, often missing or deficient in classrooms. Think about your own classroom. How often do you work collaboratively with your students to design or construct products or ideas (Standard 1)? Do you create opportunities for your students to build their literacy skills across the content areas (Standard 2)? To what extent is the course content contextualized within students’ experiences and interests (Standard 3)? How are your lessons maintaining—and often exceeding—the standards for content and skills (Standard 4)? And how often do you intentionally plan for and have one-on-one and small-group instructional conversations with students as an alternative to lecture-style teaching (Standard 5)? Take the time to look at your last week of lessons. If you’re not doing all of these things consistently in your classroom, it’s time to start. The thing about gifted students is that depth of learning is critical. They may outstrip you, even in your own content area. When you function more as a facilitator, allowing them to take ownership of their learning, you and your students will benefit.
I truly believe that the Bring-It-On-er distribution will make or break the atmosphere of a class. This is the student who is there because of his or her passion for the content. It’s the student who might not be up to par with the others, skill-wise, but signed up for the class because it was a challenge he or she wanted to take on. This is the can-do student who will find a way to be successful, even if it means daily tutoring, extra help, and risking looking foolish to ask legitimate questions that the rest of the class is pretending they don’t have.
The Bring-It-On-er is one of the most rewarding students to reach because of his or her growth mindset. Your guidance is truly taken to heart, and you see real results. The trick to supporting this student is not academic but emotional. As soon as you identify the Bring-It-On-ers in your room, it’s time to start building them up. Have them bring up work they’ve revised many times to show the value of multiple revisions and how impressive those improvements can be. Call on them to explain those difficult concepts you spent an hour going over yesterday after school. The Bring-It-On-er can get frustrated; he or she often has to work harder than the rest of the class to master the skills and concepts in the course. Validate the difficulty of the work then remind your Bring-It-On-er that the payoff of this challenge is tremendous. You both must believe in what you’re doing. One last note: this student can be your canary. If the class is struggling with something, it will show up here first. Pay attention to what you have to clarify and re-teach outside of class to help this student. It might be wise for you to address it with the whole class.
The Resigned People-Pleaser
Your best bet for identifying this student is outside the classroom. Back to school night, parent conferences—the dynamic between this student and his or her family and/or peers will be your cue here. Under different circumstances, this student might have taken your class because he or she actually wanted to. In this case, he or she signed up because of parental or peer pressure. Beware the helicopter parent, or worse, the lawn-mower parent (mowing an easy path by removing any challenge or difficulty the student might have to face). The people-pleasers have been some of my sweetest students, but they are often utterly overwhelmed with everything. Or simply checked-out.
There are two parts to supporting this student. The first is knowing and working with the person (people) the student is trying to please. Parents are easier. As teachers, we are constantly being asked to justify and explain what we do. Be prepared to do the same here. Peers, however, are trickier. The Resigned People-Pleaser might be afraid to ask questions in front of classmates for fear of revealing that he or she took the class to “keep up with the Joneses.” This student is also susceptible to very low self-esteem (think: class clown) and sometimes low skills or content knowledge. Be tactful here. Avoid embarrassing the student with cold-calling. Encourage this student to take advantage of your office hours for extra help, and don’t be shy with the praise when it’s earned.
The B Achiever
Let’s face it: AP is hard. Most of your students are not going to be earning A’s left and right. At the same time, most of your students are going to be reasonably motivated and skilled, so they’re also not going to be failing the course. Many quite capable and intellectual students will fit somewhere in the middle. Enter the B Achiever.
The key to reaching this student is to tap into his or her stamina. This might start with a pep talk. Then, focus on helping the student meet the standards by incrementally increasing the complexity you’re asking for. Intentionally plan for this in your lessons. Make a big deal about meeting goals, then follow up with a challenge to exceed the goals. Gently pushing this student to extend just beyond the goal will build confidence and willingness to follow your instruction through bigger obstacles. No matter what, make sure you celebrate with your student, even if the achievement is small.
The Quiet Creative
Introverts can be hard to reach (I know—I’m one of them!). Many introverted (and some extroverted) personality types tend to express themselves through creative enterprises. Note the student who intentionally sits in the middle of the room: it’s perfect for disappearing into the crowd. For the Quiet Creative, interacting on a whole class or assigned group level can be almost physically painful. Also consider the empathic personality type. Think Deanna Troi from Star Trek, minus the counseling skills. It is hard to go through your day feeding off the emotional readings you get from those around you. Being Quiet is an escape. Being Creative is a coping mechanism. Luckily, the combination can make for some impressively compassionate, talented individuals.
Don’t worry about cracking the shell you might find around the Quiet Creative. Instead, keep a respectful distance until the student opens up to you. In the meantime, show the student that you notice him or her. Demonstrate that unconditional positive regard. See your Quiet Creative carrying around some artwork from another class? Ask permission to put that piece up on the wall or commission another piece if the student doesn’t want to part with a particular work. The art gallery is my favorite way to connect with my creative students. I don’t care if it’s scribbled on the back of a multiple choice passage (actually, one of my favorite pieces was done on the front and incorporated the text as part of the art) or if it’s three-dimensional. If it’s cool, we show it off. Now and then, we even do rhetorical analysis of the argument in the artwork and use student art to model specific steps in the analysis process. Alternative assessments like performances or portfolios are excellent ways to measure the Quiet Creative’s growth and understanding.
There you have it. Not every student fits every stereotype, of course, but I find that it’s helpful to have a reference point, then work to know every student on an individual level. Try this: plan a day or two to include individual, partner, and whole class work. As students are working on their assignments, spend at least five minutes simply watching your students. Take notes on how they are interacting, whether they stick with the assignment for the entire time given, their affect. Once you start meeting them where they are, the growth—for both of you—will be tremendous.