The Goldilocks of English class

Reading books

Throughout high school, I alternated the difficulty of the English classes I took. First regular, then honors, then regular, then Advanced Placement.

The regular classes I found to be fairly easy to the point where I became the point person in group assignments because no one else had ideas or they just didn’t care. I also had a perfectionist streak in me in these classes, I suppose, an air of wanting to do very well. So I guess my classmates and group members knew that if they slacked off, the work would still get done. I also felt confident that we would be graded as a group, not for how the work was divided up. Meaning if someone fell through with what they were expected to do, it would impact the entire group instead of just that individual. So I never wanted to let that happen.

But in the advanced classes, I felt lost and like I was drowning. I felt unqualified to offer an idea and like I could make no proper suggestions in group projects. Which in turn made me feel like the slacker and the free loader.

There was no happy medium, the right amount of challenge. Which in many ways just further made me feel like I didn’t belong.

I’d hear classmates after the AP class got papers back say something like, “I totally BS’d my way through that and got an A.” Which should have told me I wasn’t alone in being confused, but they were at least able to sound convincing or stumble upon the right answer. For all my effort, I didn’t make as many  A’s. And it seemed unfair if they were barely trying and could make better grades. Although another explanation, that didn’t occur to me at the time, is that they were trying to downplay their ability and make it sound like they didn’t care as much, trying to be cool instead of nerdy.

I was still stuck in the loop of comparing myself to others, gauging my progress against how I stacked up. (Trying to find my own path with personalized goals is an ongoing problem.) I wasn’t able to measure my own progress and cheer myself on for improving throughout the year with writing essays and so on, but instead felt trapped in evaluating myself based on how my scores compared to others’. How is that helpful? How does that track my progress? It doesn’t.

We also completed practice response papers that were graded on a 9-point scale to replicate the AP system for grading essays. I made a lot of 6’s, 7’s and 8’s on this scale. I should have been happy with the 8’s especially, but I wasn’t. I was still striving for that elusive goal of perfection. I wanted to feel satisfied with what I submitted and to get the validation in my score and teacher feedback.

Yet, another way of looking at this situation is that my 12th grade classmates had a full year of experience writing at this higher level during 11th grade. I didn’t get that same practice. So once again, I was using a measuring stick to evaluate myself that truly didn’t offer relevant results.

It also didn’t occur to me to be excited or proud of myself for qualifying for these advanced classes. I could have stayed with college prep courses and done very well but been bored to a degree without more of a challenge. But I scored well enough to qualify for honors in tenth grade. And even though I felt like I was struggling, I still did well enough again that I had the option of taking the AP English class in eleventh grade. I actually qualified for the AP history course at the same time. So I opted to take one, thinking two might be too much. But I failed to recognize the achievement of qualifying for these classes, especially considering how much trouble I had at the beginning of that 10th grade honors history class.

So many opportunities to celebrate achievements that were completely overlooked or downplayed.

Reading journals
Over the summer before beginning that senior AP English class, we had to read four books. Yes, this was a pretty serious summer assignment. On top of the reading, we were expected to keep track of a reading log of sorts, summaries of what we read. This part of the assignment was two-fold: to prove we read the books over the summer and not just rehashing details from Cliffs Notes and also to be used as a reference later in the year when we studied these books in more detail. I suppose we were asked to do the main reading over the summer so that during the year we could re-read the books for a refresher or to hopefully notice things we overlooked the first time.

This would have been a straight forward assignment, but I managed to make it more complicated. I still had trouble with determining minor from major plot points. My entries weren’t very helpful. I was doing more of a page by page account instead of highlighting specific things from a chapter.

When everything gets viewed as important, with no discrimination of what’s included, then nothing stands out. It’s no longer a helpful resource for reviewing highlights from the book; it’s just a slightly shorter version of the book. And when you’re busy focusing on the smallest of details, you overlook trends. It’s hard to pick up on relevant patterns and themes or character arcs.

Note-taking in general
Teachers only modeled note taking by writing things on the board, or having a pre-written outline for the overhead projector for us to copy down. (Anyone else remember the overhead projector?) I don’t remember anyone offering a guided method when transitioning to a lecture style lesson. We were supposed to figure that out on our own, I guess. Or it was supposed to be obvious.

There was nothing obvious about it for me. If the teacher is talking, surely it must be important. Of course it probably would’ve made more sense if I understood what I read in preparation for class. Then some details wouldn’t seem like new information and could be viewed as a mental reminder versus imperative as a note.

I essentially took dictation. As close to word-for-word as possible. This approach to note-taking was driven by that same fear I had in sixth grade: “I’m going to miss something important” so I act a bit irrational.

In ninth grade there’s a lot of guided note taking. But as you progress through school, it’s expected to be more independent. That’s where I had problems.


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