Dear Sarah,

Just yesterday I accepted a new position at a very prestigious school where they are adopting project-based learning. I am contacting you to be proactive.

I am seeking out teachers who I can follow, read about, contact, and get ideas from who have experience teaching more elite students. This school is in a university town and these students are the kids of college professors. Bottom line is: I want to WOW them.  I don’t want to bore them or scaffold too much. If you can point me to some blogs, refer me to some teachers who might be approachable, or suggest some instructional videos, I would be very grateful!


Teaching “Elite” Students


Dear Teaching “Elite” Students,

Over the course of the last 18 years, I’ve worked with so many different kinds of learners. I’ve taught underclassmen and upperclassmen, the most at-risk and the most successful. I’ve taught the unmotivated and the hyper-motivated, the ones who struggle and the ones who are lulled by ease. I’ve taught they ones who want to consume every second of my energy and the ones who are happy to fall through the cracks. I’ve learned there aren’t “types” of students, there are only young people who come as they are, counting on us to see in them what they can’t yet see in themselves.

That said, I understand your enthusiasm and your desire to “wow” them. The first year I taught Advanced Placement I felt very much the same way. I had just finished a Masters degree in Literature, I was still new to the profession and I thought this meant I had earned a special opportunity. I was right and I was wrong.

I had earned a special opportunity. But, thankfully, it wasn’t the one I had anticipated. Here’s what I learned.

Any student can be “elite” one day and struggling the next. It’s true. No one is elite all the time and if we aren’t creating opportunities for our students to productively struggle, then we’re not really doing our jobs. Brilliance shows up everywhere, as long as we slow down enough to look for it. So, I learned that I needed to create experiences for all of my students where they would feel uncertain and curious, challenged and confident.

Everyone has a growth area. When I started to create these experiences for all of my students, they also revealed growth areas that would go far beyond a standard or a skill. I found that while one student may be advanced academically, she hadn’t learned how to collaborate with others. Or while another student could be brilliant when speaking, he really struggled to take those ideas and craft them into sentences and essays.

Experience matters too. Before I agreed to teach Advanced Placement, I told my principal that I didn’t believe in pre-requisites for the course. I believed every student had a right to be there. Opening up the course ended up being one of the most fortuitous decisions I made. Here’s why. Experience matters. Just because you can read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” doesn’t mean you know what it means to “force a moment to its crisis.” Experience creates entrance into an academic life and I found that different kinds of students needed each other. Some students struggled with unfamiliar words or language, while others struggled to put the words they could read into context or life experience.

Don’t be afraid of scaffolding. When I hear you say, “I don’t want to scaffold too much,” I’m reminded of a fear I harbored when I started this journey: What if they’re smarter than me? What if I don’t challenge them enough? My first defense to this fear was to grade really, really tough. Almost ridiculously, really. And it wasn’t as though I was grading for thinking and ideas, I was grading for following superficial procedures: Was the topic sentence in exactly the right place? Were there fewer than three mechanical errors in every essay? Was there a high enough word count or numbers of pages in every paper?

But I had it all wrong. A relentless focus on the superficial took me away from teaching kids how to think. We were playing my game. The truth is that some of my students were smarter than me. Some of them had experiences I hadn’t. Many of them had read books I hadn’t. As soon as I embraced this instead of being afraid of it, I was able to flatten the hierarchies of our classroom and gradually release the responsibility of learning to them.

That’s what scaffolding is. Releasing the responsibility of learning. So, just know you’ll only be using too many scaffolds when you subvert their chance to struggle and succeed on their own.

If there are differences, here they are. If there are differences between advanced learners and those who haven’t been labeled as such, I’ve found it comes down to three factors that are teachable to any student. 1) Vocabulary. Often those labeled advanced have a larger vocabulary. Yet, we can give students words and teach them how to use them. 2) Pace. Sometimes more advanced students can move at a faster pace. Not always, but for some content they can. 3) Background knowledge. Often, more advanced students have more academic background knowledge. This means they’ve potentially been exposed to more ideas or concepts in a variety of disciplines. However, we can slow down and teach ideas and concepts to all students rather than expecting them to come to us with them.

You’ve been given a wonderful opportunity at this new school and I hope you’ll find what I did: there aren’t elite students, just “elite” experiences that every young person deserves.

As you take this journey, perhaps some of these resources will be helpful:

Teach openly,

With Teacher2Teacher



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