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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 05/17/2011

How a teacher turned a ‘B’ track class into honors

A teacher named Mrs. Eli changed Angela Valenzuela’s life by insisting on treating members of a lower-tracked 11th grade class of Mexican Americans as honors students. Now Valenzuela is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a leading voice on the needs of English Language Learners.

Her story about Mrs. Eli below is the latest installment in a series on The Sheet called “Faces of Learning,” a national campaign designed to explore what powerful learning environments and highly effective teachers really look like.

The campaign is designed to answer the following questions: How do people learn? How do I learn? What does the ideal learning environment look like? And how can we create more of them?

Everybody, regardless of age or occupation, is encouraged to go to the campaign’s website and share their story, said the creator, educator and author Sam Chaltain, who wrote a book entitled “Faces of Learning” that tells 50 stories of defining moments in education.

You can share your own story here, and also find a free tool that helps assess individual learning strengths and weaknesses and also provides research about how different people best learn.

Earlier stories in this series on this blog can be found here, here, here. here and here. And you can follow the Lifelong Learning series on WAMU radio with these and other Faces of Learning stories.

Here’s Angela Valenzuela’s story:

Perhaps the most significant, life-determining learning experience happened in the eleventh grade in Mrs. Eli’s class in my West Texas hometown high school named San Angelo Central High School. I remember the first day of the school year in her class. At first–in the brief moments before class was to start–it seemed like any other eleventh-grade class. That is, pretty normal.

Then Mrs. Eli came stomping into the classroom angrily, did a quick visual survey, and commented that we were not the class of students that she had expected. “I always teach honors!” she exclaimed. She then stomped back out of the classroom while mumbling something loudly about having to leave in order to go and talk to the principal about straightening this matter out.

Perhaps we were not supposed to take her attitude toward us personally since the “problem” was that there was a bureaucratic mix up. Regardless, the chill in the air that she left behind was palpable. Humiliated, we all gazed at each other through the corners of our eyes and we shrunk in our chairs. I attended a large, comprehensive high school and so I knew only a handful of the students in the class. It remains the most silent beginning of any class I had ever taken in my life.

Without a single word being said in the 15 minutes that Mrs. Eli was gone, we were forced to collectively contemplate the hard, cold fact that none of us were honors students and that our presence in her classroom was a mistake. We sat patiently, nervously awaiting the resolution to this problem.

At the time, the school’s tracking system was mysterious to me. I wondered how it was that others read novels and were able to take trips to Washington, D.C. when I was not. I knew what experiences I was missing by being a member of the band and sitting next to my Anglo band member friends in the clarinet and flute sections who seemed to always be reading interesting books and had more challenging homework assignments than me. They would innocently ask me if I had read John Steinbeck, George Orwell, or Lord of the Flies. My band friends would tell me what these texts were about and I wondered why I never got them assigned to me in my classes.

No one at school ever explained why these differences existed. In time, however, I came to understand that the culprit was tracking. After all, the band itself was tracked during the concert season into the A and B bands. It was uncanny that all of the Mexican Americans got tracked to the “B Band.” Unofficially, we called it “the Mexican band.” I was always between the A and B bands because of the inner turmoil that these exclusionary practices created for me.

I struggled with wanting to do well and fit in within the existing band hierarchy. In the A Band, I felt alienated because I felt subject to unfair, evaluative criteria which meant that regardless of how well I played, my rankings would never reach either a fair or high level. Therefore despite the seemingly endless hours that I dedicated to practicing my clarinet or even the outside recognition that I received from various regional and statewide competitive events, my merits as a musician were never fully acknowledged nor encouraged. The B Band was a different story. There, I was the best player in the clarinet section and I was psychically and emotionally at ease in a space that I felt honored and respected me. Because of my musical abilities, some students looked up to me in an admiring way.

Mrs. Eli’s entrance was just as startling as her exit. She walked back into the classroom huffing and puffing. With her mouth twisted in anger and frustration, she continued where she had left off fifteen minutes earlier. After stirring our deepest insecurities about whether an of us could possibly “make it” in an honors class, she loudly asserted, “Well! I am not going to teach you any differently than I teach my honors students!”

That day turned out to be a turning point for the rest of my life. In that class, I read my first novel. I wrote my first twelve-page term paper. I wrote about Charles Dickens. This assignment took me for the first time to my local university library and I was able to see all of the books written by Dickens. I read and memorized extended passages of Macbeth and Hamlet and was given the opportunity to read and fall in love with the romantic poets, including Wordsworth, Emerson, and Thoreau.

My family, church, and community imbued me with a strong, positive sense of self. Where I was lacking, however, was with respect to my academic self-esteem. Not only did I begin to genuinely cultivate a bona fide college-going identity, but this class also empowered me to imagine that I, too, could thrive in that environment. Mrs. Eli’s class liberated me from a subterranean, subaltern fear that I would never be “college material.”

In turn, I realized that I could rise to standards that were much higher than those that were set for me in my regular classes. It is therefore no accident that I later went to college and majored in English and minored in Spanish in the same hometown university to which Mrs. Eli’s class had sent me.

Despite our rough beginning, Mrs. Eli stood by her word. She treated us equitably, similar to all of the other honors students that she had taught previously and she was a good teacher to boot. She was always well-prepared, she encouraged discussion, and she shared her love of literature with us. While from a pedagogical perspective, Mrs. Eli was not particularly innovative, her uncompromising decision to teach “regular” students to a level of college-ready mastery redeemed her–at least as far as I was concerned.

I have always wanted to thank you, Mrs. Eli, for helping a rather nondescript, small-framed, Mexican girl in exactly the way that she needed to be helped at a crucial point in her life. Gracias!

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By  |  07:00 AM ET, 05/17/2011

 
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