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BHS Humanities Classes Deserve More Prioritization

76 percent of BHS students said they are not equally challenged in STEM and humanities classes — why is this?

The humanities teach us about each other — about how to understand one another and how to understand the world. And yet, they are undoubtedly losing status in education. Berkeley High School (BHS) is no exception. 

In an informal Instagram poll, the Jacket found that 76 percent of about 200 respondents said that they did not find humanities and STEM classes equally challenging. When asked what subject they found most challenging, 81 percent said a STEM subject, while less than 1 percent said English or history. When students were asked which subject was easiest, 71 percent chose a humanities subject, while 2 percent chose STEM. 

While not necessarily representative of the feelings of the entire student body, these results suggest a trend that cannot be ignored. 

A preference for STEM is also evident in the class choices available at BHS. Among core classes for underclassmen, the only “advanced” classes are Advanced Math and Advanced Placement (AP) Chemistry. Labeling a class as “advanced” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more challenging, but this says something about the school’s priorities, which are shaped by the community, and especially parents. Specifically, Advanced Math survives partly because of parental demand. 

This all begs the question, why are these classes deprioritized, and how can we fix it?

One reason for the disparity has to do with teaching style and matter. STEM classes typically rely on tests with objective right or wrong questions, whereas assessments in humanities classes are more based in expression and personal arguments. 

It’s also worth acknowledging that humanities classes may come more naturally to many students. 

“I think young people have potential to be more inherently successful in humanities because of the nuance or abstract structure of the curriculum, as opposed to math or science, where things are much more regimented, things are much more straightforward,” said Universal Ninth Grade (U9) English teacher Morgan Tigerman. “Therefore, [when] you miss a problem, you miss the following problem that’s built on the initial problem.”

It also sometimes seems that STEM classes cater to more advanced students, leaving struggling students behind, while English classes are designed to support less proficient students. Several teachers the Jacket spoke to said they thought more students received failing grades in STEM classes than humanities.  

Amanda Marini, BHS film teacher and former English teacher, understands why English classes prioritize accessibility. As an English teacher, Marini taught a very rigorous curriculum, but began to focus on fewer and less demanding texts, instead choosing to go more in-depth, when she found that many students couldn’t keep up with the reading. While this is an effective and more equitable way of teaching, it may come at a cost.

International Baccalaureate (IB) Coordinator Keldon Clegg pointed out that some humanities teachers limit the amount of work they assign because they know students are overburdened by the workload for their STEM classes.  

“Most of my staff say, ‘I would love to do other things, but I can’t because other classes are assigning you an incredible amount of work and they’re not willing to budge for me. So instead… ‘I’m taking the hit and I’m giving you less work because you might be drowning in other classes,’” Clegg said.

Berkeley International High School (BIHS) English and African American Literature teacher Alan Miller echoed the sentiment, noting that he constantly sees students doing other school work — especially for STEM classes — during his class, but doubts that students do English homework in other classes. 

“I don’t think the rigor is lacking [in humanities classes],” Miller said. “I think the time applied to the discipline is lacking … And I know where it’s coming from.”

One solution could be for humanities classes to simply match the same level of work, but, as Clegg said, that may not guarantee a higher quality education. 

English classes also often allow more time for mindfulness, flex days, or other types of community building and stress relief. BIHS English teacher Melissa Jimenez thinks this comes with the territory. 

“When you’re teaching storytelling and the impact stories have on readers, empathy is inevitably involved,” Jimenez said. “So when it comes to our relationships with students, it naturally follows that we maybe are quicker to empathize.”

Yet, it isn’t fair that these classes shoulder the burden of hard STEM classes. 

BIHS recently switched from IB Literature to IB Language and Literature. The course now embraces a more open definition of literature and allows teachers more freedom to design the curriculum. BIHS has reduced the amount of work assigned overall.  

Clegg said he used to hear from students that “the course doesn’t include me,” but now he hears more often that there aren’t enough essays. He still believes students are college-ready, and IB test scores have remained strong. 

“There were a lot of things [about which] students said, ‘wow, that makes the course rigorous,’ and we took a step back and said, ‘no, I think it makes the course difficult, but we don’t know if it was necessarily helping all students master the skills,” Clegg said. 

While it is important not to conflate rigor with education, the fact remains that students do not feel equally challenged in all disciplines. 

So what’s the solution? One thing’s for sure — it’s not separating students into more levels of classes.  Leveled classes, or “tracking,” segregate students and make it hard for less advanced students to improve. 

Marini articulated the problem many teachers have with tracking, saying, “if you [use more tracking], you’re compromising equity and the ethical choice.”

Instead, teachers need to highlight differentiated instruction more. This doesn’t just mean giving extra or harder work to the most advanced students (who might not do it). It could look like allowing for additional assignments and doing more small group learning, but ideally would actually be raising the overall level of the class, while still supporting those who struggle more. 

“The ideal in English in terms of differentiation would be to have time to prepare challenging assignments for your higher skilled students that they can do to move beyond what you are teaching at the baseline,” said Marini. “The reality of teaching English is that you rarely have time to differentiate on that level.”

To allow for teachers to differentiate effectively, they need a few things. 

First, although it’s a big ask, smaller class sizes. It’s not a secret that smaller classes are beneficial to all teachers, but they’re especially valuable for classes that focus on qualitative assessments and feedback. 

Differentiation can also be achieved through individual attention, with or without smaller classes. Currently, teachers make superhuman efforts to make time for the specific needs of each student, but the block schedule BHS is considering would create time for individualized instruction in the form of “flex” periods. 

It would also help if humanities teachers could sometimes consult on pedagogy across the discipline, as is done in STEM, with departments for each subject, rather than just each small learning community (SLC). Marini is a proponent of professional learning communities, or PLCs, in which a few teachers from the same discipline meet to compare notes on the effectiveness of different ways of teaching the same content. 

Another way to analyze success of English education is through common assessments, which would allow the school to understand how students’ English skills grow and change. These assessments give teachers and administrators more information about students’ strengths, where they need to improve, and what pedagogical approaches work best. 

It’s hard to say where the problem begins, but the solution begins with discussion — among teachers, between the school and the community, and between students and teachers. One of the best ways for students to make a change is by sharing their ideas in end-of-year surveys, according to Clegg.