Honors courses at High Tech High are unusual. In the 11th and 12th grades, students have the opportunity to earn honors credit in their “core” academic classes: humanities, biology, and math. Students opt in each semester to the honors courses, and the honors coursework takes place in the same classroom—and typically within the same projects—as the class as a whole. In other words, a student who chooses the honors option for biology stays in the same classroom as everyone else, they just do more complex versions of the work and take on additional responsibilities. This means that High Tech High can offer honors credit (required for admission to some universities) without segregating students by their perceived academic ability.
Colleen Stevenson is an 11th grade humanities teacher at High Tech High Chula Vista (HTHCV, and an Unboxed editor. Last year, she worked with three biology teachers to figure out how to incorporate honors in the world of Zoom classrooms. The biology team took the opportunity to reinvent honors in a more inclusive way, offering three pathways for students to choose from,. It replicated a college experience, in that students had a chance to not only pick a class that interested them, but also learn from multiple teachers in the same discipline during a single semester (a core part of college education that rarely happens at High Tech High schools due to their team-based schedule). .
The honors biology pathways allowed students to develop relationships with more educators at the school. This was particularly notable because no part of school felt more absent during distance learning than relationships.
One year later, the biology team has introduced honors pathways to in-person learning Yet again, they created a space of powerful collaboration, not only between themselves as teachers, but for junior students across HTHCV. Colleen sat down with the team to learn more:
Here are the teachers Colleen spoke to:
So, every year the three of you create your Honors Biology classes together. When does the year’s collaboration start?
Last year, we started thinking about it in May, then set up a couple meetings before the school year started. At the start of the year, we carved out a little bit of time after school. Since then we’ve met up a couple times to just talk about biology, and to talk about honors.
As a new teacher last year, I basically ran every idea I had past Elise at the beginning. Then I was like, “Wait, there are two other biology teachers at this school!” and suddenly the collaboration just clicked.
When I was first communicating to Elise and Zak, it was like, “Okay, we have a new team, what is going to be best?” And then we combined everything into one Google Classroom and suddenly had three pathways. Once we had the vision we were just figuring out the logistics of, “So how do we switch? So how do we incorporate this into the schedule?” But once was running, we realized “Oh, this is going well.”
What’s the structure of Honors Biology this year and how have you collaborated to create student voice and choice?
All 153 eleventh grade students are encouraged to sign up for an honors class, and about 118choose to do so. Those that sign up pick one of three pathways. Pathway one this semester is centered on reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Pathway two is centered on reading a new scientific article every week. Finally, pathway three is an independent project.
That first week of honors is a “test week” during which students figure out if they are enjoying their pathway. And if not, they can switch to another pathway up until the end of the week.
Then we meet with our honors students for 25 minutes during school on Thursdays. In my pathway, because it’s an independent project, most of my communication is done independently via Google Classroom, so the Thursday meeting is just a project check-in. For example, one I’m really enjoying right now involves a student painting two anatomically accurate pictures of a flower, as well as an artist statement that includes information about why she chose certain colors and why painted certain structures. The student has linked me to her research documents where she’s been studying her topic, and she also linked me to her art documents where she’s been making her sketches. But in person, I haven’t communicated with her too much because there’s a lot of students, so what I do instead is I put them in groups. I have an art group, I have a website group, I have a sculpture group, I have a zine group. Zines were really popular this semester.
Then, within their groups, they can offer each other feedback. So what we’ve been able to do so far is just modeling how to give kind, specific, and helpful feedback.
It makes me feel really good that the majority of our juniors are choosing to engage in biology more deeply through honors. If you’re going to increase scientific engagement and scientific literacy and positive feelings towards science, you have to give people good experiences. That’s a big part of what we try to do each week.
Has the work students are doing across pathways connected or built off of each other?
Last spring, one of the students on the “independent project” pathway designed a cultural responsiveness audit of the biology curriculum, which identified problems with how I was teaching the pathway on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The problem was that I was just using the comprehension questions from the publisher for each chapter, and the student said, “These don’t spark joy. These are not helpful questions, because they are not centering Henrietta Lacks and her experience.”
That was a great project for the second semester,because we knew the student well. So when she said, “Hey, I want to audit last semester’s curriculum because I didn’t feel seen, and it was supposed to be targeted to me and it wasn’t,” we were like, “Yes, we trust you. Great project.” It’s cool how much freedom they can have with the project. As long as we as teachers can be vulnerable and be willing to listen to our students, then we can see ourselves grow, too.
One structure that I have noticed is the student-created warm-ups or “small-ologies.” These are warm-ups at the start of “regular” biology class that all honors students are required to design and lead, regardless of their pathway, and I’ve seen students lead quick lessons on bacteria, animals, and even the menstrual cycle. Students seem empowered to share this biology knowledge, and students not enrolled in honors have mentioned that it is a structure they really appreciate in class. Can you tell me more about small-ologies?
The idea of small-ologies is to have honors students lead a warm-up lesson about a subject they are interested in. For the first four weeks of school, I led warm-ups every day, and after every warm-up, I said, “Here’s an example of a structure that could work in a small-ologies warm-up.” So every class I did about 15 to 20 minutes of a specific warm-up, and then we debriefed it. Honors students have been leading the warm-ups on their own for the past three weeks now. They’ve been getting tighter on their schedules. They’ve been getting more prepared. They’ve been coming up with really cool ideas.
What’s important to me is to make it accessible so that any student feels like they can do it, and I’m giving them responsibility gradually rather than throwinging them in at the deep end.
Students on my pathway have already signed up for two dates this semester, and they will lead a small-ology warm-up for the class or activity on that date (they also have the option to lead a small-ology warm-up in a pair. Then I’ll check in with them a couple days prior to them leading the warm-up just to be like, “Hey, what have you put together?” So if it needs some editing or revising, we go over that together. Then after they’ve led the warm-up we go to my office and debrief. “What are some things that they really enjoyed? What are some things to improve on for next time?” Because they’re signed up for two small-ologies, so they’ll get another chance to improve no matter how this one went!
In my class, they all present in pairsI told them, “I’m going to pair you with someone random, unless you want to go first. Then you get to pick your partner.” Then I sign them up with a random partner. So they get paired with somebody in class who’s also in honors. This allows them to work with somebody who they might not know that well. Another slight difference in my class is that we debrief the lesson as a class and say what worked, what didn’t work.
I have the class fill out a Google form of celebrations afterwards. That’s been really good because then the presenters see what their peers really enjoyed about it.
Yeah, I would love to get more student feedback because I’ve had some small-ologies that are fun and games, some that are serious. I have students who are very high-achieving in their reading and writing skills but were incredibly nervous to lead the class, and I also have students on the flip side who now have a lot more empathy for me when I try and quiet the class down because they led a fun, rambunctious warm-up, and then they lost control. So there’s just so many opportunities to learn with these warm-ups.
What’s awesome, too, is there are students who aren’t taking honors biology, but because they’ve seen a couple warm-ups being led by others in the class, they feel empowered to be like, “Hey, can I do this? Can I lead something?”
What advice would you give yourself now looking back? If you were at a new school, new biology teachers around you, what would be one of the first things you did to try and set up this type of collaboration?
As far as advice goes, just trusting in the process of trying something new, like we did with honors. If you have a hiccup or something comes up, then it’s something we can work through together. And just building on those relationships because as long as we’re openly collaborating, then we can figure it out together, and it’ll all work out in some way. I think that’s important to teach your students, too, being able to work through an obstacle. Since they see us working through an obstacle together, then that also translates to their lives in the classroom and the way they approach work with their peers.
My advice is to share your work! When we collaborate and Christina says, “I’ll design this assignment this week,” now she gets to focus more attention on that one assignment, so that assignment is more thought-out, and I get to just teach it without worrying about making it. So just trusting each other to create content is huge. We all tweak each other’s stuff. I’ll make a lesson because I have a surge of energy on a Sunday night, and then I’ll share it with everybody, and they’ll do it or not, but at least it’s there.
My advice is “get to know each other.” We tried to do some fun things together as a team of teachers and just put the relationship first. Early on, Christina did a Zoom with me. So just getting to know each other and asking, “What kind of biology do you like?” We all have different interests, which is really fun, because we complement each other well. So, really, getting to know your team as humans, I think, is really important for collaborating in general and finding similarities. Then, also, leaning on each other when you notice differences.
Thank you all so much! It’s been an inspiration to watch the three pathways grow and develop through your collaboration with each other. And I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed seeing the students take ownership of their work through small-ologies!