A 2016 Student Superstar

Too often educators get caught up in negativity.  Like a peace officer who mainly interacts with the worst citizens in society and forms an overall suspicious attitude towards anyone he encounters, teachers often generalize about all students especially when they have several who misbehave or don’t do their work.

When a teacher, however, gets the opportunity to know brilliant students, it more than makes up for others who aren’t.  With high school graduations on the horizon, I’d like to devote this column to one such remarkable senior.

I have had the privilege of working with Kamilah Zadi for the past three years.  In addition to having her in the 10th grade honors English class, Kamilah has spent nearly all of her high school career in journalism working on Hoover High School’s newspaper The Tornado Times.

In the 23 years I have been teaching journalism, she may be the most passionate editor-in-chief (EIC) I have ever met.   She cares so deeply about social issues that she continued as opinion editor this year despite her EIC duties.

In addition to her column, Kamilah writes the staff editorials for the newspaper, often writing about national issues that she thinks teens should have an awareness of.  If she had her way, the opinion section would appear on page one.

The qualities she exhibits resemble those of a seasoned professional in the field.   Commitment to excellence may be the Raiders’ motto but it’s one that Kamilah adheres to, and it bothers her when she does not see it in her peers.

I asked her why more students aren’t involved in school beyond the classes they take and she matter-of-factly responded, “They don’t care.”

“They don’t seek something to be passionate about and people don’t encourage them to get involved,” she said.

Kamilah’s parents, food historian and writer Susan Park and chef Farid Zadi who has appeared on Cutthroat Kitchen, encouraged her to get involved beyond her own world, to experience other cultures at an early age.

Before she attended Hoover, she was homeschooled—by herself.

“My mom stayed at home with my brother and I and put a lot of energy into talking to us about the world and requiring us to know three languages,” she said.

After her mother laid down the foundation, she attended weekly meetings at Verdugo Academy, but did “everything on my own.”

She decided to attend a public high school “to explore my passions and figure out what I wanted to do.”

Even though she felt ready for college last year, she finished her senior year because she wanted to be EIC and lead her peers in the endeavor of producing an outstanding publication.

In terms of how schools could be improved, she thinks that “teachers are too lenient, coddling the students.”

“When the bar is raised higher, you’ll get higher.”

To prove that Kamilah follows her own advice, look at what this 17-year-old has accomplished and plans on doing:

  • created the SAGE club (Students Advocating Gender Equality).
  • member of the Gender Spectrum National Youth Advisory Council.
  • started a feminist newsletter/club, From Margin to Center, named after feminist Bell Hooks.
  • has an internship with political activist and CNN commentator Van Jones this summer.
  • works at her parents’ taco restaurant Revolutionario in Los Angeles.
  • plans on starting an online vintage clothing store with her mother called BAMN (By Any Means Necessary). Its purpose:  to provide clothes and funding for women in prison so that when they get released they have what they need for successful job interviews.

Such an industrious individual is the type of student that inspires even teachers.  Energetic, ready to take on the world, Kamilah enters UCLA this fall majoring in Pre-Political Science, feeling “pretty confident” about her future.  So should we all.

Have Separate Classes for Kids of Different Abilities

“I find rowdy kids intolerable and just plain annoying.”

This is not a teacher talking, but a student describing what it is like for a smart kid to be in a class with kids of lower ability.

About 15 years ago, a shift began in high schools instituting an open door policy that allows any student access to an advanced class regardless of prior achievement.  No more prerequisites.

This experiment has not worked.  In fact, little evidence exists proving that lower ability students succeed at a higher level when sitting next to their higher ability counterparts.

Gone are the days when all my “honors” students earned A’s and B’s.   Now I have students all over the grading scale.

In following an “all classes for all students” policy, all students are harmed by a system where competition is de-emphasized.

When I began teaching, there were English courses tailored for each ability level:  high, middle, and low.   That makes sense.

A teacher can do a more effective job tailoring lessons for homogenous groups rather than having to differentiate for all levels within the same class period.

Students who struggle need a properly trained teacher for their needs just as special ed kids need specially trained personnel.  Many low ability learners feel inadequate so having them sit next to geniuses is not to going to raise their self-confidence.  And gifted kids gamely sit through redundant lessons that their peers can’t handle.

More than 80 percent of advanced students believe strongly in having separate classes for high ability learners and low ability learners, according to a survey of my students.

The reasons they oppose grouping all abilities together include the harm it does to the advanced student due to the slower pacing and the disruptive environment.

“They frustrate you because they aren’t understanding what everyone else is talking about or they won’t do any work,” says one.

“The smarter people who understand the lesson have to wait for the others to understand the topic before moving forward which is wasting their time and keeping them from having harder and more challenging problems,” says another.

“I dread coming to class.  The concepts are dumbed down, the students are less mature, and they make a lot of noise and interrupt the lesson.”

Several students don’t feel their needs are being met.

“It is unfair to treat us as a collective body rather than teach each students’ personal needs.”

One exasperated student wondered, what’s wrong with “rewarding those who work for” high achievement?

How ironic that the higher achieving kids which school administrators love to spotlight as evidence of a school’s excellence actually are short-changed in their learning.

A long-running belief among education officials is that they don’t have to worry about the smart kids, and because of that view, they do nothing for them.  Funding for gifted students barely registers a sliver on the education budget pie chart.  In other words, the children who become  contributors to society are held back from even greater achievement.

In a way, public school is the antithesis of the American economy where competition does not exist.  Some schools have done away with ranking students which means there no longer is a valedictorian for graduation.  For an institution that is supposed to educate young people about the real world, this anti-competitive approach fails kids.

The one area in school where competition is allowed to thrive is athletics.  The coach is not forced to provide equal playing time for each athlete.  The same philosophy should be applied to academic classes.

If it weren’t for the College Board’s Advanced Placement courses, schools would not even offer any of those classes.

Probably the most help higher-achieving students provide for lower-achieving ones is by supplying free paper and pens.