Teaching “honors” students

Teaching in a new school comes with many new experiences. This year has been my “second first year” of teaching and it has been exhausting and challenging but also rewarding.

One thing that I’m experiencing this year for the first time is having a group of “honors” students.


  • School size = ~1,800
  • % free and reduced lunch = 90+%
  • % minority students = 90+%
  • # of 9th grade science students = ~500
  • # of 9th grade honors students = ~50
  • How honors students are selected = IHaveNoIdea

I have worked in two places and both were high poverty schools identified by our state as needing improvement. Similar schools, similar context. The big exception to the similarity is that my previous school had a graduation rate hovering around 50% and my current school has gone from 40% graduation to 80% in the last 5 years.

  • Effort - So, I have these “honors” kids and they like to learn. The compliance level is ridiculous, which scares me. The difference in innate desire to learn is dramatic – even when it’s not for points. Standards-based grading is rolling with these guys becuase they will go study and come back and re-assess when they aren’t happy with their initial grade on an assessment.
  • Computer access - Another key difference is that all but one of these kids has an internet connected computer at home. This obviously indicates a higher level of familial income than I have typically worked with. Most of the previous times I’ve polled classes about computer access at home, the percentage has been more like 50%.
  • Much greater parental involvement/ pressure - Many of these parents come to conferences. Several will call/ email me when they have questions. Kids report losing privileges at home for B grades.
  • Work gets done outside of class time - When I give homework, it gets done. Kids redo assignments that they didn’t do well the first time (and actually use my feedback!). My students are currently doing science fair. I gave the option to my non-honors classes and none took me up on it. In my honors class, 11 of 23 are participating in science fair. Nearly all of this work has happened outside of class time and yet they have made incredible progress, many of whom with complex projects (homemade motors, underwater robots, testing electrolytes in beverages).

The flipside of all of this is what keeps me up at night. What would my “regular” classes look like if each had another 2 or 3 “honors” kids returned to them? Does a rising tide lift all ships? Or would the “honors” kids just be bored/frustrated by the slower pace?

One thought on “Teaching “honors” students

  1. Re: Honors;

    I want to characterize a few modes of thinking for this group in school.

    To be part of the elite is a privilege, and to secure your place in that, you must be competitive. This is a factor in motivation for classes perceived as “difficult”. I recall in high school that some students would dominate the higher GPA’s and discuss the material to remain in the echelon. This is particularly easy to spot in freshman college classes, too.

    I have observed students with a high degree of self-regulation, and they earn trust, which snowballs into them being regarded differently. Because they act without needing significant outside motivation, they are more likely to be considered for honors, and are more successful.

    For the purpose of categorizing these students, these are broadly defined as students who are extrinsically motivated and intrinsically motivated.

    Although I can’t cite a reference right now, I am pretty sure that some of those honors students would fare much worse if they were not in an honors class. I hope you would agree that these would be the extrinsically motivated students.

    As a young person who took a great interest in music, I progressed quickly at home practicing my instrument, but the music theory classes in high school were uninteresting.

    Reflecting on all of this, I come to the conclusion that I am into learning for myself. If it will benefit me, then I will go ahead and bother with learning it.

    I need to show students how their learning in science is to their benefit. To make them more intrinsically motivated.

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