Working Definition of an Honors Student

April 27, 2011
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The purpose I was given in writing this essay was to define what an honors student is. At the beginning of the year I thought this was just a reflective paper so that we would recognize how to be good little English students: read the book not SparkNotes, don’t steal other people’s work, and behave in class. That is what I wrote about in my first draft. Don’t get me wrong, these are good traits to have (and unfortunately not universal) but they were not a great explanation of what an honors student is; everyone knows that this is the correct way to be, even if they don’t follow it.

I now see how rudimentary my essay from the beginning of the year was. But since then I’ve grown considerably as both a student and a person and therefore believe that I can answer the question with more success.

In attempting to answer this question the first place my mind goes is to my experiences in elementary school. Instead of skipping first grade I went to the grade, but got to go to a class with the advanced second graders twice a week. This class was my first honors experience. I loved being in that class. In the regular classroom I learned stuff that I really already knew, but here everything was new. Even though I was so young, I still was able to recognize just how much of an impact on me this class had.

Time passed, and I moved to a new school. I slowly realized that I was no longer in the classes that I had been in. I became somewhat bored in class, though I was learning allot, it just was too simple.

Sometimes there were honors classes, small sections of the day in which a small group of students would do a workshop in one subject, but I was never in one. And in my failure to attain these classes I became all the more obsessed with getting into one. I never admitted it to myself back then, but what I wanted from this was really just to feel smart again.

In sixth grade this campaign ended, as I was finally allowed to go into a writing workshop class. I was so obsessed with it that I went, even though I was sick (I never went to school when I was sick). And in the end I don’t remember really learning anything from it. All I remember is that I learned a new rule in UNO that I’d never know before.

Until recently in my life I’ve equated these two experiences with each other. I believed that being in these classes bettered me. I believed I was an honors student for getting into these honors classes.

I now understand that this was not a correct assumption. The class I took in sixth grade was out of a desire for power. I wanted to be in the class so I could say I was in the class. So that I could tell myself I deserved this and was therefore a better person.

And this mentality only becomes more popular as one enters high school. It becomes a contest to see how many honors classes one can take. An A in gym isn’t good enough, because it only gives you 4 points instead of 5 and therefore brings down GPA. Sleeping for 4 hours becomes necessary. And we only need to jam it into our head if it’s going to be on the test.

The way things are going it seems as though almost no students in these “honors classes” are really there to learn.

And this is why I am proposing to redefine what makes up an honors student. The measure of an honors student should our measure of our devotion to learning: our intrinsic desire to learn the material in order to better ourselves. It can’t be actively measured by anyone but the learner themselves. It is what every student strives to be, no matter what classes they take.

I’ve probably just stepped on a bit of a hornet’s nest so let me clarify something. I’m not proposing that every student in an honors class is there just for the GPA. I’d bet that even the most GPA obsessed students have at least one class that they love intrinsically. And some of them may find intrinsic value in all of their classes. But I’ve seen too many people just take classes to boost GPA to conclude that it’s not a problem. There are just too many students merely taking in the information and spitting it back at test time.

And I’m also not saying that these “scanner” students are not going to learn anything. But the problem is that they are just learning, and not taking the chance to love something. Love math, love physics, love Hungarian basket weaving. With only memorization in play none of this love can be fostered.

This is because when a student becomes a scanner the no longer use the three most important letters in education: why? Being a scanner student is insulting to both yourself and what you are studying. It insults you because you are depriving yourself of a true learning opportunity. And it is insulting to the subject, because they were born out of curiosity and die through a lack of curiosity.

The other perception of an honors student that needs to change is that academics are everything. Academics are important, don’t get me wrong, but when they cause you to get 4 hours of sleep, regularly, is it really worth it?

This may seem like a contradiction, because once you find intrinsic motivation you will want to take all that you are able to take. You want to take all the honors classes there are because you’ll learn so much more from them. I followed this way and found that I’ve been doing homework ever since.

I tried my hardest in all of my classes and wanted to learn. But I was so busy with my school work that I started to not be able to do anything else. I didn’t give up sleep, like most students in my place, but I gave up my social life. And the whole thing backfired on me any way. I realized this when I failed my Wuthering Heights reading assignment. I put it off until the last minute because I was doing other work.

And I will venture to say that I lost any intrinsic motivation in my reading of the book as soon as the clock turned to 11:00 and I still had 50 pages left to go. I wanted to read the book, I really did, but I wanted to sleep more.

I had overwhelmed myself and hurt my love of learning by taking in more than I could handle. When I realized this my first reaction was to think that I would never do well in English. I would never have the time to commit to it.

But then I realized that high school is not the end. It is merely the beginning of a lifelong process of learning. I will have time in the future to better myself in English and so, in the name of my other classes, I chose not to take AP English again.

It needs to be recognized that what you can understand and what you can handle are two different things. In pressuring ourselves to do better than we realistically can we are merely burning ourselves out, lighting the candle at both ends. Eventually something is going to have to give and the cost is going to be higher than it would have been if we planned accordingly.

OK, I recognize that dumping honors classes doesn’t make you the most appealing college candidate. In fact this is probably the best reason to take more than you can handle. But there still needs to be a balance. If you don’t love learning you’ll drop out of college. If you don’t sleep you’ll eventually burn yourself out and stop being able to learn.

No student is always an honors student. An honors student is an ideal, what every student is at their best. This ideal should change how we think about our schooling. When we are at our best we learn to love what we do and want to strive to do better. What an honors student is can’t be defined in more detail by anyone other than you. And because you are the one who is defining it, it is worth more than any text book definition you could find.





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