This Feels Like Failure: Why Are So Many Students Dropping My Advanced Placement English Class?

I teach an Advanced Placement English class. It’s a challenging class. It’s hard. Really. There are times when it’s not fun. High school me would’ve struggled with it. Undergrad me probably would’ve struggled with it a bit. Shoot! Come to think of it, there are days when I would struggle with it now, if I were juggling what my students are juggling.

The students have to learn difficult vocabulary–words that show up frequently in classic literature–and they have to use said vocabulary in context. They have to learn how to identify AND write in sentence structures that I didn’t learn about until college or after. They have to read challenging, sometimes dense, sometimes archaic, sometimes confusing (but beautiful! controversial! poetic! lovely! wonderful! universally truthful), texts, rife with figurative language, dripping with irony, loaded with difficult-to-decipher symbols (but that have withstood the test of time). They are in charge of leading discussions. They are responsible for analyzing literature through writing.

I view this class as not just a way to prepare for the Advanced Placement test they will (hopefully) take (and DOMINATE) in the Spring, but to prepare them for college, and more importantly, to ready them for the cruel world after college. In it, they are exposed to rich content, but even more importantly–they practice and (usually) master transferable skills that they will use for the rest of their lives: effective writing in multiple modes, critical thinking, creativity, idea generation, collaboration, decision-making, time management …

They blog. They analyze. They interact face-to-face. They interact digitally. They do or do not hit deadlines (and there are consequences for both). They write. They speak. They think. They think. They think. They think and think and think!

They are currently synthesizing their skills in the form of a mimesis–an assignment that requires them to create an original short story that mimics (in more than one way) the work of a famous author, whom they have studied in depth. It is–to use one of their vocabulary words–arduous. It is hard work. It takes time. It takes tenacity. It’s not something most people can write in an hour and half (though I have a student who claims he did … !)

And, at the end of last week and today, nearly half of them brought me paperwork to drop my class at semester.

Herein lies my feeling of failure.

Some of the students have legitimate-sounding excuses for dropping the class. Some of them do not. However, underneath all these reasons–legit or not–is a nagging question: What did I do wrong?

I want this class to be rigorous. In fact, it’s required, by College Board standards to be rigorous. My district requires it to be rigorous. However, I don’t want to be so rigid as to drive away my students. They are, after all, some of my favorite people in the whole world! Don’t get me wrong: I realize that not every students is cut out for Advanced Placement English, and it is a typical event for some of them to drop at semester, but the sheer number of drops this time around has me in a bit of a stupor.

As a result of these drops, I’m not feeling like the greatest teacher. Not that I ever feel like I am THE greatest teacher, but today, I am feeling pretty down. It is my instinct to keep these feelings to myself or maybe to whine a little to one of my mentors, but I have decided to reflect here–”out loud”–because I don’t think we lament enough in public. It’s important to put our best selves forward to the world when we can, but it’s also okay to reveal the moments that are the most trying. This week has started out with a fizzle, but this anticipated mass exodus of students has deepened my resolve to continually improve myself as a teacher. But for today, I’m going to take some time to marinate in this feeling of disappointment and to labor over my aforementioned question, along with these:

  • What can I do differently to retain more of my students?
  • What can I do to impart–to students and their parents–that what you learn in a class is more important than the almighty grade?
  • Is this class’s level of rigor befitting a entry-level college English literature and writing course or have I taken it too far?
  • Are my expectation too high? (I don’t think so–but believe me–I will think about this.)

I’m holding onto the hope that tomorrow and the next day and the next day will be better days–as a result of reflection and time. I’m holding onto the hope that next semester, I’ll be a better teacher–as a result of this semester’s events and as a result of this public reflection on some very raw feelings.

9 thoughts on This Feels Like Failure: Why Are So Many Students Dropping My Advanced Placement English Class?

  1. Congratulations! Half of your AP students are giving it a go for another semester–you must have done something right. The good students who left left because they are overburdened and burnt out in lives that are insanely over-booked. The other students are lazy. (I couldn’t think of a nice way to put it.) Keep challenging your students. Please do not dumb down the curriculum. We need a world of intelligent critical thinkers.

    1. Your sentiments represent my instinct, which is to maintain high expectations. I also need to stop taking it personally. I don’t THINK anyone is leaving over a personality conflict. (I hope not because I love them all.) Most are leaving for the reasons you’ve stated. They are spread too thin and something has got to give! Thanks for your response.

  2. Oh girl. I feel your pain. I teach Lang and Comp and some days I think…what the HECK am I doing? Sometimes I think it’s too hard, other times too easy. If the kids are complaining I must be doing something right, right? What I have started to do is some creative projects that I somehow sneak some analysis part into. Using 2.0 web tools makes them happy. In November they presented Frederick Douglass through Instagram and spoken word poetry – catch was they were only assigned one to two paragraphs to analyze for diction and devices. They complained but knocked it out of the park. This week as we continue reading “Their Eyes Were Watching God” we are having a Harlem Renaissance Fair complete with live music, food, a living library and an art gallery…all student driven and created. No analysis there but we are talking Harlem Renaissance in class and hey, we need to let lose a bit. Bottom line is I have to FORCE myself to do fun things with the kids, otherwise they look at me like deer in headlights. But I question myself every day. Maybe their scores will be dismal. AP students are grade driven and as soon as they sniff a whiff of grades dipping they run for the hills. It’s nothing you have done or haven’t done. Hopefully the strong survived the drop-epidemic and they will knock you socks off. Good luck!

    1. Yes, the students who are in AP are not there because they DON’T care about grades! That’s for sure. Usually AP kids are some of the hardest workers in the school, so I guess this is why I’m so surprised by this exodus. I like your ideas for incorporating some fun into higher level thinking activities. I do try to do that, but sometimes the curriculum is so dense I do sacrifice “fun” … but not everything can be fun. Love the Instagram idea.

  3. I hear you. I see the pain you are in. I feel some responsibility in this as I worked with them before you as others worked with them before me. One might assume that somewhere skills were not drilled intently enough, their level of responsibility was not emphasized enough, the universal need for these skills beyond today’s selection was not communicated clearly enough. Yet, what has changed from just a few years ago when the number of drops was, in general, insignificant and, usually, warranted? Why is it that I, too, am seeing an increased percentage of students who are in need of extra assistance to complete what has been standard procedure for nearly a decade?
    I stand in awe of your creativity, your constant use of media that is in sync with their lifestyles, and, as proven by the occasional copies found on the printer, your relentless search for more tools, applications, activities to further your students’ knowledge of subject.
    Try to assuage your feelings with the knowledge that a semester with you in AP may still make a world of difference in their success at the next level. They may have struggled; they may be giving up for now, but they have learned! You orchestrated those experiences to the best of your ability. Take solace in that fact. I hope you find serenity in the days to come. Don’t beat yourself up too much. You can only lead a horse…

    1. I don’t know how you can feel responsible for this. This is a choice they are making. Thank you for your lifting message. I am so very lucky to work where I work.

  4. First off, let me start by saying I imagine you’re a fantastic teacher. In my sadly short amount of time of covering Platteview, your students were always friendly, excited and genuinely enjoyed being in your classroom.

    That being said, you need to realize college level English isn’t for everyone. Some students may have thought it’d be easier and went for the potential college credits. It turned out tougher than that thought, and in their defense, as well as yours, the same thing happened to me when I was in high school taking AP American Government.

    To encourage you, you still have half your class moving forward. I am not sure what your numbers are, but my best English courses at UNO were always smaller classrooms; it allows the potential for richer discussion, which is what drove my desire to become an English major. Studying authors and literary concepts were important, but it’s the discussions that really helped my deep learning and understanding.

    Hope this helped.

    Also, to answer question #2, some of my most valuable life lessons were learned in my English courses. For example, not sure if you teach any critical theories, but it was through learning different theories (historical, social, feministic, political, whatever) that I learned how to apply those same theories to a variety of mediums and situations; it completely changed the way I watched “A Fox and the Hound”, read Marvel Comics or interacted with people I may not fully understand.

    1. Thanks Vince. I hope that you have had an opportunity (or will have one one day) to tell your English teacher(s) the impact their classes had on your worldview.

      I do realize that A.P. is not for everyone–even those bound for college–but I am aware of what my students are capable of and in my opinion, they are selling themselves short. Then again, I’m not living their lives and they may be facing challenges of which I am unaware.

      For now, I’m going to focus on the positive — I will have more one-on-one time with the students who remain. I have been forced to reflect, so I will inevitably become stronger as a teacher and a person.

      Thank you for your input and encouragement.

  5. TO piggyback on V, I’ve been exploring critical theory because my kids struggle with analysis but I have been told it doesn’t have a place in AP Lang and Comp! What do you guys think of that? Do you agree?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *