What Should We Call THOSE Kids?

This issue may be trivial, but it’s been gnawing at me for a while. When we separate students into English classes based on ability, scores, clout, or any objective or subjective measure, what should we call the classes and the students in those classes—Accelerated, Advanced, Honors, Regular, Remedial? I have a suspicion that the labels we choose may reveal our subconscious attitudes toward those students.

For example, if the courses for our brightest students are “Accelerated,” does that mean we go faster? If so, then the label is accurate. But I’m concerned that “acceleration” is not necessarily a desirable quality for literacy development. Do faster reading and faster writing make a student a better reader and writer? I don’t think so. If we refer to our brightest students as “Accelerated,” what is the comparable term for our struggling students? Decelerated? Slow? Certainly not the R word!

Many schools refer to those courses and students as “Remedial.” But remedial doesn’t mean slower; it means to remedy or fix something. Is that what we’re doing in those classes—fixing those kids? Does that imply that something is wrong with them, that they are somehow deficient? If so, then what about those bright kids? They obviously don’t need any remedies or any kind of “fixing.” (Or do they?) Are we just improving them without any sense of them being deficient in any way? Couldn’t we do that with students of any ability level?

If our brightest students are “Advanced,” what exactly does that mean? Are they more sophisticated in some way? If so, that’s great, and Advanced is a good word for them. But what should we then call the students at the other end of the spectrum—Regressed? Uncivilized?

Which brings us to Honors. Honors. What makes a stratum of the student body worthy of being institutionally labeled “Honors”—IQ? A particular entrance exam score? Parental insistence on registration in a particular course level? Do intelligence and integrity go so hand in hand that a bright student must automatically be regarded as inherently worthy of honor? If the brightest students are honor students, does that mean struggling students are dishonorable, and the regular-level students are simply un-honored? Is it possible for other students to become “honor students,” or are most students forever consigned to academic castes devoid of honor regardless of their character and behavior?

I know I’ve raised many more questions than answers here. Students pay attention to labels, probably more than they should. I’m concerned though that the way we label our students before they even walk in the door may have unintended effects.

Originally published in slightly different form on English Companion Ning.

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3 Responses to What Should We Call THOSE Kids?

  1. I like “nerds.” Kids who use the term to describe others say it with a negative connotation, which makes them feel better, and those who the term is used to describe embrace it as a culture. “Ravenclaw” works too. Of course, this is between the students. I wouldn’t be able to determine a “proper official” label.

  2. glenda says:

    I think I remember reading your EC version of this post. Rereading these ideas makes me think about Maja Wilson’e “Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction.” Maybe it’s time for “Rethinking Honors Classes in the High School.” We did not have an honors track in my high school, yet I managed to learn enough to qualify for that track in college. How did that happen? Isn’t “honors” and its offspring just another form of tracking anyway?

  3. suha says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself!

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