Honors at Waring: Grades, Ethics and Community Voice

The Student Advisory Council had a meeting with the faculty on April 6th to discuss honors at Waring. To prepare for the meeting SAC discussed different possibilities for how to improve the honors system at the school. The honors courses at Waring start in Group 3, when students can decide to take their classes at the credit level or the honors level. Ideas discussed with the faculty ranged from eliminating honors all together to providing a cap for the amount of honors classes a student could take.

There are many contradictions, tensions and inconsistencies around the practice of awarding honors at Waring. Both departments and individual teachers have different interpretations of what honors work is for their class. There can be inconsistency across subject areas and between different sections of the same class.

Since, in most subjects, we do not offer AP classes, taking courses for Honors creates another level of achievement for colleges to look at. We spoke with Linda Crosby, the college counselor at Waring, about her thoughts on how honors appears on transcripts. “My conversations with admissions counselors about the value of Honors indicate that they appreciated having a way to understand a student’s strengths and academic focus, especially since Waring does not give grades.  I believe it is important to keep Honors but to address concerns about inconsistency and lack of clarity regarding requirements for Honors.”

Honors at Waring is thought about and discussed frequently, but not often considered as an overall system: why do have it?  What do we want from it? We spoke with students on the SAC about the conversations that were started with the faculty, and their opinion on Waring’s honors program. Jacqui Jutras, our Student Government Day Representative, said that “The format of the SAC-faculty meeting allowed the student body to more directly access the faculty, rather than going through a faculty proxy after going through the [SAC] representatives. However, if any tangible change is to take place, I think it is necessary to follow through and continue the discussion between the faculty and the SAC, and even talk directly with the student body itself. Having said that, the atmosphere of the faculty-SAC meeting, in my opinion, was more productive than all-school discussions of policy have been in the past. Given that the student representatives are doing their jobs well, polling their peers and asking for opinions to ensure faithful representation, I think that SAC-faculty discussions could prove to be a very valuable tool in ensuring more efficient communication between the student body and the faculty in the future.”

Jackson Tham added his thoughts as a representative of the junior class, “As for honors policy, I think that most students and teachers concede that the system is imperfect, but there is a lot of division when it comes to how to resolve these problems. It important for students to be involved in dialogue around the honors policy so as to develop an opinion on it before endorsing one proposition or the other. To express these opinions is to ensure one’s representation on the matter, whether this be through writing articles, talking to faculty members, or asking for student reps to bring them up in meetings. One of the most problematic aspects of honors is the social impact that it has.  It often creates a divide in the classroom; honors, and credit. This leads to social alienation between groups.  There can be much criticism between friends and cliques as to which honors classes you are taking. There is also an overall dismissal of the work that credit students are doing.  Honors students tend to [talk down to credit students with an attitude] that is something along the lines of ‘you can’t complain about how much work you have because you are doing credit.’ Credit students often feel shut down by Honors students, or told that their work is less valuable or valid. As a student who takes classes at both the honors and credit levels, we have experienced both sides of this binary. Overall, this is just unkind, and leads to social divisions in grades.”

The social ramifications of dividing classes between Honors and Credit students was perhaps one of the most surprising pieces of news for faculty. “It makes complete sense when you think about it,” Tony Boisvert said. “But it’s very disappointing.  A key part of Waring’s ethos, to me, is that you measure achievement against yourself, not against others.”

We also spoke to Dolly Farha, the Group 2 SAC representative. She has the unique perspective of a student who has not yet been eligible for honors classes. She was not able to attend the meeting, but shared her thoughts with the faculty through this letter: “When I was in Core, I never heard from older students what Honors was like or how they felt about it.  Not even in Group 1 did I fully understand what was happening.  But when I hit freshman year, SAC meetings really opened my eyes with how much people were displeased with what was happening with Honors. I think that many people, especially younger kids at our school, don’t fully understand what Honors is and what it requires.  I think that there definitely should be some standard requirements for what going for Honors looks like.  Honestly, communication is key.  And if students don’t understand what the work is or what they’re working towards, then they won’t try as hard.

“I think that it would be interesting to hear from graduates of Waring, such as Tony, who took Honors classes.  I would like to hear about what Honors meant to them when they were students and what it entailed.  Not to mention, looking at the Honors classes right now and hearing their opinions on how it’s changed.

“I also think that putting a cap on how many Honors classes you can take a year could be nice.  Maybe start off with three as a sophomore, move up to four as a junior, and finally five as a senior.  Mostly, I think that we, younger students, need to understand that you do not have to take Honors in every class and that it’s not required.”

Sasha Malley added, “Group 3 is new to the honors system, and we’ve already run into problems with the structure. Members of the grade believe that there needs to be consistency across the board about what honors means for each class. Additionally, we ran into the conversation about whether or not honors should be based upon additional work or simply quality of work.”

We then spoke to faculty members. It is important to remember that many of Waring’s  faculty have experienced the honors system as both Waring teachers and as students. We reached out to Edith Fouser, an alumna and faculty member at Waring.

“I feel perhaps a little differently about Honors now than I did as a Waring student. I believe that Honors was already in place when I arrived at Waring in 1990 as a Group 1 student. As a student, I loved Honors and I pursued it vigorously, like a quest. I wanted confirmation that I was doing my best; that my extra efforts were recognized and applauded by the teachers I revered. In those days we were okay with the idea that Honors was extra work. That felt like an obvious, basic truth.

“I remember that Honors was generally associated with the idea of an Honors Project. ‘“What are you going to do for your Honors Project?’ was the question I remember hearing from teachers, classmates and my tutor. The point was that you had to choose some aspect of the course that intrigued you or piqued your curiosity in a deeper way, and create a project that allowed you space to explore the topic in depth. You had to accept that the prospect of creating a project involved the risk of failure, such as with an ill-fated Science Honors project I did once that involved something to do with night-crawling worms. I had to purchase the specimens from a bait shop near the Salem-Beverly Bridge, and easily the best part of the project was driving down to Cabot Street with my brand-new driver’s license. On the other hand, going for Honors in Christiane’s French class inspired me to do a research project on the fashion designs of Givenchy and to sew a dress for myself from a Givenchy pattern, which I still wear (and get compliments).

It’s funny, I sat down fully intending to write to you that I’d be happy to abolish the Honors system, because a part of me feels that it is just a three-tiered grading structure. But when I wrote about the experiences I had working at the Honors level, I remember some of the most engaging, intriguing and satisfying phases of my junior and senior years at Waring. Knowing that I could pursue Honors, a goal above the standard or baseline level of “acceptable work,” sparked my motivation and what I remember as friendly competition and collegiality amongst my classmates. My closest friends were also working at the Honors level, and we kept an eye on what each other was up to, perhaps as a gauge for how hard we might push ourselves to work. We had much intellectual respect for one another and wanted to keep pace. We had enormous intellectual respect for our teachers, and wanted to impress them with how much we had learned and what we could accomplish.

“You ask how Honors has changed. These days I sometimes perceive that students want teachers to create a separate Honors-level class-within-a-class for them. Students want to be given different problems or different projects. To me, that is not the spirit of Honors that I so appreciated as a Waring student. Much of the appeal of Honors for me then (as I think it still would be now) was the intellectual freedom to create a project that inspired me. I had to settle on an idea with real potential for exploration, take major risks, invest myself in the process and see it through to some satisfying, concluding product. These are values I hope we will continue to uphold.

“I think Honors is a good thing. Let’s inspire our students and each other to dream, create, and see ideas through to the finish. Let’s encourage perseverance, inspiration, exploration and curiosity. Let’s reward diligence and eagerness to go above and beyond. Let’s keep Honors a part of Waring.”

Not all Alumni-faculty feel this way. Tony added, “My experience of Honors in the 80’s was very strange;  it was a brand new thing, and it was being made up, I think, as we went along.  I never had a clear idea of why I did or not receive honors; I do know that in at least one class I was granted honors when I certainly did not deserve it.

“I think Honors is essentially a grade. I don’t think there is any way around that, although we have spent a great deal of time and energy trying to deny it. In a regular school with honors courses, the main motivation for taking them is that they can increase your GPA, because while a regular course is worth up to 4.0 points, an honors course is worth 4.5. In an ungraded school like ours, having something that is really a grade creates a kind of spiritual crisis. Deciding whether or not someone succeeded in earning honors when they are on the borderline is hellish, because if honors reads as an ‘A++’ then Credit is perceived as a ‘B-.’ And that’s a tough gap, and almost necessitates inconsistent standards. Where do you put the student who, in another school, might get an “A-”?  Do they get bumped up or down?  Imagine if clothes came in only three sizes? Or shoes! Most of us would not be comfortable.

“I told my colleagues and the members of SAC in faculty meeting that I would rather start having grades than continue using Honors. At least then I would have some subtler gradations to choose from. I think some people were shocked that I said that. I don’t really want grades, of course; but if we are going to grade students anyway, then why pretend? Why do it with such an inflexible instrument?”

Lastly, we spoke with Joan Sullivan.

“I am so glad that we got engaged (with the Student Advisory Council) in the conversation about honors. Honors presents a dilemma that is hard for everyone. Accepting that we are a small school it’s necessary to meet the needs of all of our students. I want to be able to differentiate instruction and explicitly say that the course is meeting different students needs. That is the purpose of honors in my classroom to help differentiate instruction. Honors at Waring is not only a content based standard but also about what you are like as a scholar. Honors is not only doing excellent work in the subject, but I expect honors students to be active members in our classroom community.

“Honors should be a motivating factor that aids students to learn what they want to know.

I want to talk more about the unexpected consequence of Honors for the social experience of students. I was concerned to hear about the classroom stratification from the SAC students and it should be a topic of conversation going forward at Waring.”

There are many thoughts on what should be done to improve the Waring honors program, and it is a conversation that should be continued with the faculty and the students. There are many ideas to change or augment the honors system, and as any institution should, our practices should change with our student body. It is a discussion to be had between students and faculty, in classes, and around the Waring community.

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