Increasing Access to and Success in Advanced Placement English in Pittsburgh Public Schools

By Godley, Amanda; Monroe, Terry et al. | English Journal, September 2015 | Go to article overview

Increasing Access to and Success in Advanced Placement English in Pittsburgh Public Schools


Godley, Amanda, Monroe, Terry, Castma, Jaclyn, English Journal


It is September, and in Terry Monroe's Advanced Placement (AP) English Language and Composition classroom at Brashear High School in Pittsburgh Public Schools, students are practicing writing an AP exam essay for the first time. The 25 eleventh graders, many of whom have never been in an "honors" or "gifted" class before, are deep in concentration as Terry walks around the room, reading over students' shoulders and fielding questions. "Should we use 'I, me, my?'" a student asks. "It depends on how you use them," Terry responds, and writes this question, along with other questions and issues he has observed, on the whiteboard to later address after students are finished writing. As the last of the students puts down their pens, Terry tells the class, "OK, now I want us to make a list of challenges you faced doing this," and students start sharing the aspects of the task they found most difficult: starting their body paragraphs, thinking of a good attention grabber, creating logical transitions, and writing a commentary "without sounding stupid." Once the list has been generated and briefly discussed, Terry reassures the students, "It's normal to have questions about this. That's why we're practicing." He points at the list. "That's a manageable list. We can fix those. And these are important questions, not just for the test, but for other classes, too." Students nod. Terry promises the students that they will address all their questions in the weeks to come and moves on to the agenda for the second half of the block period-discussing Nathaniel Hawthorne's use of literary techniques in The Scarlet Letter.

This beginning-of-the-year lesson demonstrates several facets of Terry's approach to teaching AP English to students who have not historically been given equitable access to honors-level and gifted classes: regularly using formative assessment to guide instruction; teaching students to "go meta," that is, to reflect honestly on their reading and writing processes and strengths and weaknesses as writers and readers; normalizing the challenges that students are facing; and connecting the reading and writing skills students are learning for the AP exam to skills they will use in other classes and areas of life.

In this article, Amanda, Terry, and Jackie describe how Pittsburgh Public Schools, an urban school district, strategically redesigned its AP English program and diversified student enrollment in AP English classes as part of its equity plan. We describe how Terry expanded his instructional strategies to meet the needs of more linguistically, culturally, and racially diverse learners in his AP classes, many of whom had never been enrolled in "honors" or "gifted" classes before.

Reframing "AP," "Honors," and "Gifted" in Pittsburgh Public Schools

In Pennsylvania, mentally gifted is defined as "students demonstrating outstanding intellectual and creative ability, the development of which requires specially designed programs or support services, or both, not ordinarily provided in the regular education program" (PA State Department of Education). The term mentally gifted includes a person who has an IQ of 130 or higher or who meets other multiple criteria including academic achievement a year or more above the norm for the student's grade level, and a high rate of acquisition of new academic skills.

The push to open AP and "gifted" classes to more students in Pittsburgh Public Schools, particularly African American and low-income students, was a deliberate, carefully designed part of the district's equity plan. As in most school districts across the country, African American and low-income students had been underrepresented in Pittsburgh Public Schools' gifted and AP programs for decades. Although under Pennsylvania state law "giftedness" cannot be determined based solely on the results of IQ tests-tests that have been critiqued for being culturally biased toward white, middle-class students-underrepresentation of students of color remained. …

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