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Coming from Behind: Tackling AP in Inner City Schools

This morning, I'm writing this blog entry from school while my AP students sit several classrooms away, hunched in concentration over their AP English Literature & Composition exams. Usually, I'd be teaching their class right now. But not today! We've spent the last 8+ months preparing in class, and now finally we're at the "big dance"--and as their teacher, I am almost as nervous as they are, but couldn't be prouder.

In inner city schools such as ours, there is often a struggle to populate Advanced Placement classes with students who can handle the workload. So many students come to our school with lower-than-grade-level reading ability, and limited verbal or quantitative skills. The unfortunate correlation between low socio-economic background and lagging academic skills is a bigger topic, the reasons for which are far too involved for me to tackle in this blog post alone. Suffice to say, AP is inherently a self-selecting group (students have to be both motivated and "advanced" in their abilities), and we sometimes don't have enough candidates to fill a class. In my school's English department, we've attempted to address this problem by alternating AP English Literature and AP English Language as the English AP course being offered in a given year, and making it open to both 11th and 12th graders (who either will have taken the other offering the previous year, or can elect to take it the following year). This way, we can have reasonably sized classes--it's important to fill the roster in any given room and period, since we're in a school where space is at a premium.

Even for our elite 11th and 12th graders, AP remains a big challenge. I've written before about the difficulties our students have experienced, merely in the process of taking the exam (such as one year, when a kid's house burned down the night before exam day--he arrived a little late to his test). AP courses are a serious undertaking for any student, but for kids in an inner city school, they represent perhaps an even more difficult endeavor than for their peers in affluent suburban high schools. Our students are attacking AP with a background of years in under-resourced, underfunded public schools, like the one they now attend; many of them work jobs after school and on weekends to support their families, taking away from their study time; some are recent immigrants to this country, for whom English is not a first language (yet, fluency in English is surely the baseline requirement to be on a level playing field, at least in this particular exam); few of them have been reading enough throughout their lives to truly be prepared for the level of text complexity and abstract reasoning required on these tests. When they finish taking this exam, the entire crew will descend to the cafeteria for free or subsidized lunch--every single student. This is the face of AP in inner city schools; no one's gambolling carefree around our lawns with stylishly untucked polo shirts and dog-eared copies of Walden peaking out of their back pockets.

Our kids really broke a sweat studying for this test. They read the books, they pored over the poems, they wrote practice essay after practice essay after practice essay. Many of them will not pass this exam; however, if past groups are any indication, the level of analytical writing and reading required for this course will ultimately serve them well in college, and they will often return to say so. But this year I'm very hopeful that a handful of our candidates will get good scores; over the past few weeks, I've been impressed by their thinking, by the originality of ideas put forth for discussion in class, and by the fact that they've been taking chances in their writing with "weird" or "outside the box" interpretations. This is the kind of thing, I tell them, that will get you a "4" or "5"--really original thinking, well-explained with evidence from the text, even if you think no one would agree with you. I'm so hopeful that they can demonstrate this level of analytical thinking today, and really shine.

TIME Magazine recently ran an op-ed (which immediately went viral) by a Princeton freshman who "refused to apologize for white privilege," saying that he had earned his spot at Princeton through hard work, that his family--including his grandparents who survived the Holocaust--placed a strong value on faith, hard work, and education, and thus that he deserved everything that had or would be coming his way. A lot of excellent rebuttal pieces already say most of what I'd respond with, so I'll let them speak for themselves, but I do have one comment: This self-righteous knucklehead's complete misunderstanding of the idea of privilege, and obliviousness to the fact that he has been in many ways incredibly and arbitrarily fortunate, is annoying enough. But his willful denial of the idea that so many kids his age grow up with infinitely more challenging circumstances than he does--and that all their faith, hard work, and value on education will not necessarily yield life outcomes so desirable as his, because he's already started with incalculable socio-economic advantages--is pretty appalling. I think of my students when I say this, as they are taking the same exams he no doubt took a year ago this week, and have likely struggled so much harder and overcome so much more than he did to get here. But it will be that much more hard-earned, more impressive, and infinitely sweeter when they ultimately earn their 4's and 5's.

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