Junior Honors English Cancelled

English Department Removes Junior Honors Route

ON THE WAY OUT (top) After this year, juniors will no longer have the opportunity to take honors English courses. (bottom) For the past two years, English teacher Janet Bilhartz has taught Junior Honors English students in a discussion-based class. Photos by Sydney

But for English enthusiasts in forms below with the same hopes of taking an advanced English course and succeeding at it, plans have changed. Sophomores filling out their four-year plans this past February had no choice in their English course selection. Each will take a regular Form III class with no option of an AP or honors designation.

“I think that if we are really interested in English, we should have the opportunity to do more,” sophomore Monique said. “And now, I almost feel obliged to take another honors or AP course, but in many ways, my schedule is set. I’m just disappointed that I can’t have another honors class.”

This also means that for the first time in over a decade, the English Department will not offer any advanced courses.

English Department Chair Dr. Deborah Moreland said that, at one point in time, the department did offer honors courses for forms I, II and III. Each year, students interested in the honors course would submit portfolios of their best analytical, narrative, and creative work to a panel of judges, who would then select the girls most qualified for the class.

But from this process, many issues arose, which ultimately led to a movement towards open enrollment—and, most recently, the removal of the honors route.

he largest problem that the English Department encountered through the portfolio process resulted from the subjective nature of critiquing students’ writing, Moreland said. She insisted that judging a paper can be a very difficult task “when it comes down to saying yes or no.”

“We continued the system of presenting portfolios, and that got to a point where it was just too difficult,” she said. “I found myself having to explain to a parent why her daughter didn’t make it.”

Not only did the panel of judges find it hard to evaluate the quality of writing but also the potential of each girl, whose work they examined in only a certain period of time. Moreland explained that students remain on all sorts of developmental levels and may have strengths in other areas besides composition.

“A student could be doing wonderful, analytical writing, but could really be struggling with narrative,” she said. “Or a student with a wonderful imagination could still be having trouble containing it into some kind of a form. It’s just so, so various.”

Due to the fact that “English is not a subject, such as math, that is hierarchically built,” Moreland said that pinpointing a student’s strength in English cannot be done easily as many elements go into that decision. The criteria for selecting an honors student thus became cumbersome and subjective, and so did the the selectivity it created.

The route often excluded girls who did want to learn in an honors environment, reported English teacher Janet Bilhartz, who has singly taught the honors class for the past two years.

“It was a very competitive thing. And the sense was that it fostered some elitism that wasn’t very pleasant,” Bilhartz said.

This portfolio process also became very “time-consuming,” Bilhartz said, with 30 student applicants submitting three papers to be read by a small panel of English teachers.

Inside of the classroom, the new process also negatively affected the learning. The teachers found the freshmen and sophomore students too young for their writing to be fully developed enough to be judged. At other times, their youth also brought disinterest.

“For all sorts of reasons, girls were just too young,” Moreland said. “Girls were still developing as writers. Some could be not interested freshman year, but could be passionately interested sophomore year. After a lot of discussion, we decided to eliminate it.”

Thus, due to the constraints that arose from this model, the department eventually whittled down the program to just one honors class for the juniors with open enrollment.

“We did ask sophomore teachers to give their opinions, but students were not bound by those views,” Bilhartz said. “It was really an entirely open enrollment. That changed it tremendously.”

Class sizes, enrollment and interest increased. But again, the English Department found issues with this model.

“Then the problem with the open enrollment became that it is so many that you are pulling all of the A students out of the other classes,” Bilhartz said. “Obviously, there are still very smart students. It is always a balance. Overall, you kind of find the place to be.”

After years of open enrollment, the English teachers found less and less differentiation between the regular and honors classes. The curriculum and the texts of both routes stayed consistent for each girl in the grade.

“We teach similar texts [The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, A Streetcar Named Desire], and we have similar core writing assignments,” Moreland said.

However, Bilhartz, through her years of teaching the honors course, noted differences in the philosophies behind each class.

“For me, teaching honors, it was about two things. My approach is more analytical than it would be perhaps in a regular class,” Bilhartz said. “But also in terms of writing, I expect more out of honors. And in terms of student class participation, I expect more.”

The shifting in the English Department curriculum represents two theories, which have dominated the discussion in conversations on education, the first being the belief that a mixture of talents and abilities creates the best class discussion and the most insightful works.

Bilhartz explained that many “would say that students learn best when you have a diverse group within the classroom and they can feed off of that richness and influence each other with that.”

However, another theory offers a different alternative. It argues that the more interested kids are better off together. An idea that, in a way, is “what a school like Hockaday is founded off of,” as Bilhartz suggests.

She insisted that the balance of both remains the most important thing in these conversations.

“I think we’ve moved one way and now we’re going another,” Bilhartz said. “There are advantages both ways. I am sure it will stay this way for a while, and then we’ll reassess.”

However, many of the junior students wonder about the reasoning behind the removal of Honors English from the course options. The class, to some students like Taylor, who took the course to her improve writing and analytical skills, is not about test scores as some say.

“I am not really an analytical person, so I took honors English to improve that aspect of my writing,” Taylor said, explaining that most do not take the class in anticipation of a higher AP score.

The reason for taking the honors course arises from the philosophies that differentiate regular from advanced. Taylor said she believes that there remains tangible differences between the two courses that still will make a difference in the students’ English education and skill.

“I feel like the Honors English course focuses more on improving your writing outside of just improving your score,” she said. “I don’t feel like they should eliminate the class. Even though the scores may be the same, the writing will not be.”

The designation also creates a whole other discussion entirely. With the designation of honors, the hope for ever receiving the AP credit as a class is gone as well, something that students like senior Mollie would like to see changed.

Though she understands the reasoning behind the decision, Mollie thinks that students should have the option to put the AP designation on their transcript if they take the exam, just like AP United States History or any other Advanced Placement course offered at the school.

Almost all juniors already take the Advanced Placement test in May, but do not receive any designation for taking an AP class even though the junior level course is simultaneously preparatory for the exam in May.

“I think we should offer AP English because all of our junior English classes are up to par with AP standards,” Mollie said. “And the AP scores show that.”

With this change, however, Moreland believes that many positive things will result. Now, the English Department can create more diversity in the junior classrooms as well as teach more skills most needed by older students, like writing research papers and other types of informative writing that will be required at the university level.

“I am particularly interested in pulling in the research aspect into this and writing to different audiences. I think it is all good news, but I understand that if students look forward to [the honors class] for whatever reason, it can be disappointing.”