The Best and the Brightest

Lizbeth Schnabel, Advanced Placement English teacher, enjoys the intellectual challenge of preparing students for college-level work. Today, she's evaluating her AP students' fluency with the help of Literacy Specialist Melinda Hargett.

Lizbeth Schnabel teaches AP English at Doveton High School and finds working with these top students invigorating.

Lizbeth welcomes the challenges her advanced students present.

I’ll be the first to admit that none of my students is perfect. I have more than my share of students with emotional issues stemming from high expectations and intense competition. There are students who enroll in AP simply to make their college applications look good. Plagiarism is rampant. On bad days, I’m convinced that my students never will be prepared for the exam in May, that they really don’t care about literature and writing, and that senioritis deserves a billing code from health insurance companies. But on good days, the rigor of teaching AP compels me to be my best and draws out the full range of my intellectual and pedagogical skills. This is why I teach.

Imagine: Students who love to read, who enjoy analyzing literature, who actually seek out challenging books! Say that you’re reading Beowulf to the average person and they look as though they just ate all the chili peppers in their Kung Pao Chicken and their stomach’s on fire. Assign it to AP students, however, and most of them will be hooked within just a few chapters. I even give them passages in Old English from time to time, and they still end up loving this book. We pair it with Grendel and consider—among other things—the meaning and nature of truth, values in conflict, and the role of art and the artist in society.

View a course description of Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition.

See summaries of Beowulf and Grendel below:

Today, though, it’s still early in the unit and we’re working on the less heady assignment of a close textual reading. I am using oral readings more than ever in my classes this year.

See Lizbeth’s read-aloud assignment and informal assessment criteria below:

Compared to the last two years’ classes, this year’s students just don’t seem as strong. I’ve even noticed this with my AP students. Not like I’ve never seen this before: one year you get the class of your dreams and yet the next you’re pulling teeth to get them to think independently! Chalk it up to video games if you like, but sometimes it seems like our school does less and less to monitor enrollment in these advanced courses. It used to be that you had to be in the top 10 percent of the class even to be considered, but now, with open registration, our administrators encourage students to enroll without paying heed to the caliber of their work.

View AP student requirements at Doveton High School.

See demographic information about students enrolled in Lizbeth’s two AP English classes and for the school as a whole below: the school as a whole below:

Literacy specialist Melinda Hargett conducts weekly workshops for teachers at Doveton.

Melinda juggles a heavy workload in her new position as a reading coach.

I never thought my work as a reading specialist would cross over into the “land of the gifted,” but my job here is anything but predictable.

It has been… interesting transferring from elementary to high school. I mean, not only are the kids different, but so are the teachers’ attitudes, the scheduling, and the NOISE between classes. I didn’t ask for a position here, but it was a promotion. I was transferred as part of a new district initiative to “increase literacy awareness at the high school level.” I was lucky to get into this program actually. The school district is helping to pay for my masters through the initiative, and as a single mom that means a lot. So this past summer, instead of my usual days at the library or the pool with my girls, I attended workshops and learned how to “coach” teachers about using reading strategies in the classroom.

Read an article about reading coaches at the high school level.

I’m someone who needs to feel organized in order to feel good. Mornings are busy for me, yet I always feel like I’m the only person in the school who’s working. Up until first period, most of our staff can be found around the coffee pot in the lounge or fighting over the copier. Since I’m basically hopping from classroom to classroom all day, I don’t have time to waste socializing—I have to plan out my day. Today is especially hectic. Between finishing my PowerPoint on questioning strategies, attending the science department meeting, teaching two classes, and evaluating a transfer student, I’m supposed to observe Lizbeth Schnabel’s AP class readings of Beowulf. I have been trying to track her down all week, so when I finally spot her walking into the workroom, I feel relieved. “Lizbeth, what time should I stop in today to observe your Beowulf readings?”

“Good morning Ms. Hargett!” Lizbeth intones, pointedly using my last name. “I can’t wait for you to see our rubric in action. I think my second period might have a better handle on the material, but we’ve got some great performers in first. Lots of drama kids… should be a lot of fun!”

“So, nine?” I confirm as I type a note into my PDA. “I can’t promise more than 15 or 20 minutes. I’ve got a really tight schedule today.”

“Oh, of course,” Lizbeth practically swoons. “Nine o’clock it is, and I’ll put my most-prepared students first to keep you on schedule.”

The words, “Great, I’ll see you then,” seem to come directly from my teeth my smile is so forced. I don’t know why, but for some reason I am less than thrilled about this project.

For the past four weeks, I’ve been working with the English department on developing rubrics for assessing oral language fluency and Lizbeth has shown a special interest in the topic. She came up to me after our first session to talk about how her general English classes were going this year: how they were immature, how they were “low,” how it seemed like they’d never been challenged in their lives. Come to find out, quite a few of her students are in my Expanding Literacy class, and I know they could use some extra support in the classroom. I helped her revise her next unit, Persuasive Speech, to go along with the new rubric.

See the rubric that the English department developed with Melinda below:

See course descriptions of literacy classes at Doveton High below:

She must have seen some progress in her classroom because last week Lizbeth asked me if I would help her adapt the rubric to use in her AP class. That was a shock! When I was in school, we joked that AP meant “Absolutely Perfect,” given the way those students acted. I never saw them as people who asked for help. I was a good student back then, but Beowulf? Sure it was required for senior English, but I couldn’t begin to fully understand it. And now, knowing what I do about struggling readers, I just hope the general English classes are using more relevant literature.

According to Lizbeth, since AP classes are not required for a diploma, they don’t have the school-wide and district-wide assessments like our core classes, so they’re not often revised. The curriculum requirements are minimal; although from what I hear, that’s all about to change.

Read an article about recent changes at the College Board.

I want to help these teachers, and I’m happy to work with higher-level students, but I have to admit I’m concerned about how far ahead of the game Lizbeth’s whiz-kid students are. Am I wasting my time focusing on the best students in the school when there are so many other students who need my help? Will any of my strategies really make a difference for them?

Lizbeth prepares for Melinda’s visit as the AP class prepares for their readings.

Lizbeth’s students prepare for oral readings.

I love days like this. The excitement of having a guest in the room has me and my students working at full speed on last-minute details. With moments to go, I pull the files of the three students whom I’ve asked to read first. I know that Ms. Hargett said she was in a hurry, but with these kids, I find it useful to know a little about their backgrounds before I judge them. In fact, I always spend three entire days before school begins reviewing the files of my AP students. I love to tap into their individual interests during the course of the school year!

There’s one student in particular, Andrew Cade, whose reading, I just know will knock Ms. Hargett’s socks off. Although he’s not a popular student, Andrew does very well in this environment and has really excelled in this independent project—likely because of his theater background. In fact, it was Andrew’s idea to film readings and other class presentations throughout the year so that students could use them as part of their college portfolios. A fabulous idea, if you ask me, since he seems to do better before an audience than in writing. Fortunately, he is also an adept cameraman; we English teachers have been reprimanded for our lack of technology integration, and I have no idea how to use the digital video camera. Luckily, my students seem to be technological whizzes and, at this point, it seems like all my students are comfortable both in front of the camera as well as behind it.

As Ms. Hargett appears in the doorway at 8:59 on the button, I begin to smile. I have a feeling this is going to be the best part of her day.

“Hope I’m not too early,” she says. I wonder if she needs a cup of coffee, because she doesn’t sound the least bit enthusiastic.

“Not at all, Ms. Hargett. And we saved you the best seat in the house.” I lead her to a director’s chair right beside the camera so that she can hear every word.

Melinda finds out more about the students she is about to assess.

As students mill around me, I flip through the folders from Lizbeth. There’s a ton of stuff here so I glance at their scores and records, but mostly I look at the student interest surveys. A lot has changed since I was in high school, that’s for sure.

Student files: Tyler | Andrew | Josh

Tyler

I watch two boys, probably Tyler and Andrew, set up a video camera while Lizbeth strolls around the room with her clipboard, double-checking that everyone is prepared. I’m imagining how much time I could have saved as an elementary teacher if my students were this self-propelled.

“Dude, Andrew, you’ve got it. Relax,” I hear Tyler kid. He makes no effort to keep his voice down and constantly surveys the room to see if anyone is listening.

Andrew

“I am relaxed. I just need to check to make sure the microphone is hooked up right,” the boy comments as he fidgets with his loose ponytail. “Mrs. Schnabel said we have to do these presentations right the first time or we’ll run out of time,” Andrew adds. “Plus, I want to borrow the camera for the one-act festival next weekend, and she definitely won’t let me if I screw up this filming.”

I hear Tyler start in again, “Turn it so that we’re standing in front of the media collages from last month. Mine is so quality.”

“Well, I might have to. The rest of the room provides almost no light—but the collages are so inauthentic. We really should be reading somewhere where the acoustics are better.”

Josh

As the two boys get the video set up, another student, Josh, is milling around the same area alone, either reviewing the text or trying to look like he is, I’m not sure which. He looks up only to catch the glance of a few girls across the room, and he shoots them a sideways smile. It makes me happy my own girls are still playing dolls; I’m not ready for that phase of motherhood.

“Okay, ladies and gentlemen,” Lizbeth starts. “I am looking forward to hearing your interpretations today. As you know, you will be graded using the rubric you were given yesterday. Please make sure you cover the skills but also focus on your audience. After all, we have a special guest!”

Lizbeth gestures to me and the whole class seems to come to attention as if they hadn’t noticed I was there. She gets the class situated as an audience and gives a brief overview of the themes they’d discussed in Beowulf so far.

“First to read today will be Andrew, followed by Tyler, and then Josh.”

Well, I have to give it to them. This is a hard text to read. And yes, Andrew’s reading was amazing in terms of his rate, interpretation (with an accent!), and preservation of syntax. But, now that I’ve heard the boys read and I look back at this rubric, I think we could add more specifics. Maybe they’re not “Absolutely Perfect,” but at least now I can see a starting point for working with this group. Readings and ideas for lessons start to flood my mind…that is, until I catch a glimpse of the clock.