By Mariel Priven and Abby Fisher ‘19
Should students hungry for more challenging writing and literature assignments have the same access to advanced courses as those who crave challenging math and science assignments? Do proficient humanities students benefit from heterogeneous grouping? Year after year, the administration and English and social studies departments ask these questions as they struggle to come up with a sustainable solution to the oft-discussed problem of humanities tracking at Heschel.
Originally, these subjects remained untracked because former Head of High School Ahuva Halberstam felt it important to prevent a sense of elitism, which she saw as inevitable if students were always attending classes with the same exclusive group. But, this model frustrated students who wished to delve more deeply into humanities subjects, leading the administration to add honors seminars, additional courses to supplement the core English and history classes.
As 11th graders in both the English and social studies honors seminars, we can tell you this isn’t an ideal solution. Not only do these seminars eat up our limited free time during the school day, but they also add to our already extensive course load. Yes, it’s true that the seminars are optional. However, there is extensive pressure on students who aren’t especially skilled in STEM to demonstrate their strengths somewhere on their transcripts, not to mention that these students have to go out of their way to feel challenged in the courses they most enjoy. English Department Head Mari Tetzeli said, “With the seminars, students are able to encounter more,” but with nine other classes besides the honors programs, students are “encountering” quite a bit. We don’t feel that adding material sufficiently fixes the problem of having an insufficiently challenging humanities class.
This year, the English department added an Advanced English class for the junior class, mostly in response to complaints about the humanities as well as an assessment of the needs of this particular class. While this does allow students a much needed opportunity for advanced learning, because the honors seminars are still offered, students like ourselves feel pressure to take them and add to our heavy course load.
It feels as though the school’s approach to tracking privileges STEM over the humanities. Students who shine in math and science are automatically placed into classes that reflect their skill level, whereas stronger humanities students have to actively seek out enrichment opportunities while simultaneously receiving more work. It is true that harder STEM classes may require a bit more effort than the standard ones, but not in the same way that entire supplemental seminars increase demands on students.
The expectation is that as strong humanities students voluntarily taking on this responsibility, we should be able to handle the extra work. But, implicitly, the creation of an honors class and the elimination of the seminars would allow students to complete more work and to be set to a higher standard. In other words, there would already be additional work without adding the stress of an additional class. Ideally, we would want the honors seminar to be eliminated and instead have English and history tracked like STEM with one honors class, one advanced class, and two regular classes.
Although tracking seems like a simple enough fix, the question remains unresolved because in order to preserve certain educational values, the school wants to keep classes mixed, and though these values are important, heterogeneous groupings do create a high-stress reality for humanities students. High School Head Noam Silverman explained, “The ideal is a heterogeneous classroom encouraging different types of learning.” While we appreciate the potential value behind keeping these classes mixed, heterogeneous grouping is frustrating for us and many of our peers. Proficient humanities students feel that without tracking the pace of the class is too slow, and students who are less inclined towards English and history are sometimes overwhelmed and feel that they can’t keep up. Creating multiple levels would ensure that everyone feels that they are in the best place for their personal learning.
Noam also brought up the idea that tracking these classes adds to the ever-present college pressure on students because students want to show schools that they are taking the hardest classes available. In theory, this makes sense. But, the current reality is that students who aren’t strong in STEM feel the need to have their transcripts reflect their strengths and struggle to do so with only the honors seminars.
There’s no clear path to resolving this issue. When the theory behind something doesn’t align with its consequences in practice, it seems impossible to fix without losing sight of these values. However, it is our belief that rather than sticking uncompromisingly to values that aren’t being appropriately applied, the administration and department heads should listen to the complaints from students and think about what truly serves them best.