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Expanding Access to a College-Level Environment


Students know they need to follow the “This is Howie do it!” motto on Tiffany Howerton’s classroom door.

Ms. Howie, as she’s affectionally called, “creates a rigorous learning environment in her classroom where all students feel heard, all students are engaged and students share in the commitment to pursue academic excellence,” says Daniel Cohen, assistant principal at Montgomery High School in San Diego.

Howerton, a Montgomery Advanced Placement English teacher and NMSI’s July Teacher of the Month, uses her role as curriculum specialist to “crunch the data” on students who aren’t on an accelerated track but have the capability to join. “It’s my job to find the kids that are lost in the shuffle and give them an opportunity to come in,” Howerton says.

One way she accomplishes this goal is by asking teachers for recommendations and interviewing students. “Everyone says AP is more work, but they don’t know what they can gain from it,” Howerton says. “It’s the benefit of being around people who really care about school. The environment gets you ready for college. I try to focus on things they might not have considered to get kids to try it.”

Another method Howerton used in the last school year was giving students who made a 2 on the AP English Language exam in their junior year a chance to double down as seniors and try to receive a qualifying score (3 to 5). By earning at least one point higher, students can save time and money in college by receiving the equivalent of three college credits in an English course. The class size for this second-chance group was 23 (a typical class has 40). Students reviewed the essays they wrote for the test as juniors.

“We could really target what they needed to improve and tailor the class just for them,” Howerton says. While waiting on AP results to come out this month, she is hopeful the experiment succeeded. Even if they don’t receive a qualifying score, the rigorous courses help prepare students for college.

“In AP classes, they feed off each other and gain a lot of critical thinking skills,” Howerton says. “I give them certain content that is unpredictable, and they have to think about all the perspectives before making decisions. They aren’t used to what college really is going to be like, so I like to put them in that environment as much as I can.”

Howerton helped create yet another way to reach struggling students with fellow English teacher Michelle Beauchamp called Operation GRIT, a student mentoring program focused on Growth, Resilience, Integrity and Tenacity. Junior and senior mentors are matched with freshman and sophomore protégés. They believe all students have the capacity to learn and succeed academically, but some haven’t been given the same tools as others and need additional support.

“I will never forget what a GRIT mentor told me,” Cohen says. “She said, ‘I won’t give up on GRIT. I love my protégé, and he needs me to be successful.’ This is a testament to the vision and inspiration that Ms. Howerton has in supporting all students to be successful.”

A common challenge among students is the belief that they must be good writers to succeed in AP English. Howerton believes that “what is truly rewarded is being a good thinker."

"When you’re writing and talking, and you make a good claim or a novel idea, you’re showing your brain at work and should be rewarded. I have to break them of bad habits of thinking a five-paragraph essay has to be perfect. It’s not what’s rewarded by the College Board and college professors.”

To engage students, Howerton asks them to fill out index cards about what they are interested in reviewing. Most ask for rhetorical analysis, typically the lowest scoring AP exam essay nationally. Howerton turns to a sports reference to help them avoid panicking when they can't find a metaphor or other elements in a passage.

Even if they’ve never watched football, she tells them, it’s still possible to watch a game, see a player running with a football and notice him stick out his arm to avoid being tackled. They don't have to know the term stiff arm to describe what’s happening.

“They look at me and say, ‘Oh I don’t have to memorize lots of AP English terms?’ and that really clicked, and they practice a body paragraph doing just that.”
Accepting New Challenges

Howerton believes it’s important to model lifelong learning. After reading an AP argument essay that said what most Fortune 500 companies want is creative employees, she enrolled in a class about teaching creativity, so she can bring this knowledge to her students. She gives up her lunch time to study. Extending this to her teaching philosophy, Howerton believes in a growth mindset. While many teachers think the test is the final assessment, she doesn’t see an end. “I believe you can always improve,” she says. “Students can do an error analysis to improve their scores.” 

Howerton knows to teach the art of persuasive rhetoric, she needs to be good at this skill. That’s how she convinced 100 percent of her students to participate in NMSI’s student study sessions four-hour sessions scheduled on Saturday mornings. 

“You can manipulate for good reason,” she says. “They know I am huge on accountability. They know that the packets given out (at study sessions) are used in class, so they have to have them.”

Continuing a lead-by-example mindset, the English teacher attends all the available NMSI teacher trainings. “I take it very seriously,” she says. “I use all the materials. If I’m going to preach it, I want my kids to know I’m not a hypocrite, and they have to do the same.”

Growing up, Howerton didn’t think she was good at multiple-choice questions. When she started teaching AP courses, she didn’t have confidence in this skill. “NMSI really helped me to not evaluate the test itself but to try and figure out strengths and weaknesses and play on your strengths as a way to improve,” she says.

The main thing Howerton wants to instill in students: What they think and say matters and has value.