Being Part of the Club…Being Labeled…

Have you ever been excluded from something? 
How did/does it make you feel? 

Do you carry a label? 
Was it of your own choosing, or were you labeled by others?

I teach children, bright, smart, sometimes discouraged children about algebra.  They are labeled…they label themselves.  The course of study I’m responsible for is called Algebra I.  Algebra I, not Regular Algebra I, not Intro Algebra I, we study Algebra I.  We label them as Algebra I students rather than Algebra I Honors students.  They call it Dumb Math. 

There are few things sadder to a teacher or parent than being faced with capable children who, as a result of previous demoralizing experiences, or even self-imposed mind-sets, have come to believe that they cannot learn when all objective indicators show that they can. Often, much time and patience are required to break the mental habits of perceived incompetence that have come to imprison young minds.
~ Frank Pajares,
Schooling in America: Myths, Mixed Messages, and Good Intentions 

They call it Dumb Math.  They perceive that they are incompetent.  It is sad to me.  They are bright young learners.  We learn a full course of Algebra I.  We study linear, quadratic, and exponential functions.  We solve all types of equations including equations involving right triangle trigonometry.    We analyze graphs and identify intercepts and other critical points.  We use technology to learn. If you would like to see the details, they can be found here: First Semester Essential Learnings and Second Semester Essential Learnings.  For those of who speak algebra, it is a good, solid algebra course.   

I struggle during this time every school year.  It is part of my job to label my students, and this label could be carried with them throughout their high school career. 

A couple of disclaimers…

1.       I do not have the first honors course on my transcript anywhere, and that is okay. 

2.      My biggest goal for each child every year is to help them see their talent and build their self-efficacy. 

I struggle when I receive this email. 

Dear Faculty, Your Honor and AP Recommendation forms are due to the office no later than March 4, 2011. Thanks for your help with this important process.

It will arrive twice, once for the handful of 9th graders that are in Algebra I, and then again for my 8th graders.

Now, even I don’t think we should mix our weakest and our strongest math students together.  It can be just absolutely demoralizing for both sets of children, particularly when we do not know how to differentiate our lessons any more than we are already doing.  Everyone seems comfortable differentiating lessons and homework, but are we ready to differentiate assessments? 

I’m wondering if we have to have the label.  We already differentiate by tracking our students.  There is no honors label in 8th English.  Part of me knows that we have to have the label.  They cover more algebra topics in Algebra I Honors.  We do not learn about fractional exponents, completing the square, and other topics.  Maybe it is the label “Honors” that I am discouraged about.  Would there be the same press or desire to enroll if we called it Advanced Algebra I or Accelerated Algebra I or Algebra 1.5? 

There seems to be this urban legend that our students won’t get into college if they are not in Honors Math.  Have we ever had a student not accepted into college?  I don’t think so. 

Our process this year for making these recommendations is much more data driven.  It is not about having a 90 average.  It is about how much you have learned and the depth of your learning.  Our formative assessments provide the data path about accelerating learning to the “honors” level. 

We hope that our learner serious about moving to the honors track will provide evidence of their ability to meet the additional challenges and responsibilities of the more rigorous course.  Of course, this evidence is still in the form of assessments, but at least we are making a move to differentiate.  We have more to learn, and that is okay. 




  1. I struggle with these labels, too. I especially struggle with the difference between “Experienced” French/Spanish in junior high vs. “Honors” French/Spanish in high school. “Experienced” is NOT an Honors course. It is simply a course for students with FL experience in the elementary school. I think the teachers themselves confuse these labels.

    I also struggle with the minimum average requirement for Honors, and I sometimes get flack for recommending students for Honors who are not considered “Honors material”. For me, student motivation, engagement, and desire are far greater predictors of student success (not necessarily measured by a high average) than a 92 minimum average. I think it’s great that students want to be in an Honors course who know they may not get an A (as opposed to a sure A in a “Regular” class), but who want to challenge themselves.


  2. I think that part of Junior High involves the discovery of how we are similar to and different from our peers. The way that we learn is to verbalize our thoughts. Unfortunately, that verbalization leads to naming, and so we have the other problems with stereotyping: dumb kids, regular kids, honors kids, athletes, thesbians, cool kids, dorks, emo kids, preppy kids, skater kids, ….. the list goes on. I wonder how we can allow the kids to build thier identities through naming without making those names permanent labels….


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