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Aurora Institute

The Perfect Grilled Cheese Sandwich and Honors in Our Competency-Based System

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Ellen Hume-Howard and Brian Stack

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction


The Need For Change: Brian’s Uh-huh! Momenthonors

I was watching a cooking competition on the Food Network the other day. The contestants were asked to create the ultimate grilled cheese sandwich for a panel of judges to sample. The judges then assessed the sandwiches on a variety of characteristics including overall taste, texture, presentation, and what they called a “wow factor” that included the use of unique ingredients.

This competition really got me thinking. Brady and Cameron, my 8- and 6-year-old sons, and I make grilled cheese sandwiches all the time. Through trial and error, we have learned what works and what doesn’t. Some of our discoveries have included what kinds of cheeses melt best, how much butter to use to get a crispy crust, what kinds of breads produce the best flavors, and how hot to make our pan to get the right sandwich. We’ve made plenty of mediocre sandwiches along the way – overcooked or undercooked, not enough cheese, not enough butter, soggy, or just too dry. Still, even the mediocre sandwiches satisfied our hunger at that moment.

That Food Network competition made me think more deeply about the shift our school has made over the past three years when it comes to working with students who regularly exceed the competencies we set for them. Consider these to be the kids who are ready to enter their grilled cheese sandwiches into a competition. In years past we had a separate honors track for these students. In the honors track, we expected students to perform at a higher level than their peers. Unfortunately for us, we used to define that higher level of performance in terms of the academic behaviors that students exhibited – things like meeting deadlines, actively participating in class discussions, producing more work than non-honors students, and working independently. The honors track at our school did little to challenge our students to learn at higher levels, and explains why for many years our top students failed to keep pace with top students from other high school on measures such as the NECAP, SAT, ACT, AP, NAEP or PSAT. Three years ago, we realized that we had to start thinking differently about what honors work looks like at our school because despite the honors distinction, they were still making mediocre grilled cheese sandwiches. We needed to get some of them ready to compete at the elite level.

 What Defines Honors Work?

In a traditional high school, honors course work is defined by a course you take. At Sanborn, our focus has been on personalizing the pursuit of honors work and the work produced by students. Sanborn provides students with the opportunity to contract for honors consideration. This means that students who elect to participate and then produce honors level work will receive honors credit. The option is not limited to only a few courses, but is open to students in all courses they take.

Shifting our thinking about honors is one step our district has taken to raise academic standards and to create personalized pathways for learning. By definition, honors work can best be described as a product that shows that a student delved more deeply into methodology, structure, and/or theory, addressed more sophisticated questions, and satisfied more rigorous standards. The content of an honors assignment can be one of two things; broader in scope or deeper in examination than in a comparable assignment.

Whenever possible, honors assignments should be done as an alternative to some or all of the regular course assignments. Simply increasing the volume of work required or the hours spent on it does not constitute an honors option. Honors work should incorporate all regular course content with added emphasis on student involvement in learning and demonstrating higher levels of intellectual skills.

Allowing students to direct their own learning creates a definition of achievement that has no walls, just possibilities. Students examine course material and use critical thinking skills in order to interpret the material. The work requires understanding and analysis rather than simple memorization or restatement of material. Students’ learning outcomes demonstrate that they have had to analyze problems, evaluate possible decisions or actions, and draw reasonable conclusions or generate unique solutions. These learning outcomes may be as varied as the students themselves. For example, one might take the form of cataloging specimens of rocks and writing a manual for other students incorporating the history of each specimen with the likely location of origin. Another might take the form of creating specialized educational tools for children with special needs after an investigation of critical periods of development in the brain. Still another may involve reading Aristotle’s Poetics in translation and applying it to another work of literature, such as a tragedy by Sophocles, Shakespeare, or Arthur Miller.

How We Shifted Our School’s Structure To Better Meet The Needs of Honors Students

Before 2010, the schedule at our school was one of the biggest factors in determining whether a student would be able to take a course at an honors level. Over the years, we had tried to find ways to make minor adjustments to the schedule to get more students into the appropriate level, but we were never able to reach a 100% success rate. Oftentimes, students who were scheduled for an honors science course were also scheduled for an honors math or English course simply because our school wasn’t large enough to offer enough sections of honors courses (our school has 750 students in grades 9-12). Something had to change.

In 2010, our school reorganized itself into small learning communities. For ninth and tenth grade students, this meant that they took all of their core classes with a team of the same students (90 per team in grade 9, 60 per team in grade 10) and the same team of teachers (five in the case of grade 9, three for grade 10). This reorganization allowed us to better personalize learning for students. We were able to group staff into professional learning communities with colleagues who shared the same students. We were able to break away from the imprisonment that our block schedule forced us into. With the small learning communities, we gave the teachers the control over time and how it would be spent with students. We encouraged them to build in flexible grouping periods for each community. To accomplish this, we had to abandon the tracking model that had been failing us for years anyways with our honors students.

The freedom to heterogeneously group students allowed us to reach nearly a 100% success rate in scheduling students for the classes they needed (and at the level they needed), but it caused us to have to think differently about how we provided honors instruction. Instead of offering separate honors sections, we allowed students to contract for honors within their existing class. With each honors contract, teachers and students came to an agreement over what their learning plan would look like, how their work would differ from a student who was not contracting for honors credit, and how the teacher would be assessing their work. This shifted our thinking of honors, from a definition of where they learn to an articulation of what they produce.

How We Are Supporting Our Teachers During This Transition

Thinking of honors as “what students produce rather than where they learn” offers an opportunity for a rich discussion among teachers about what we ask students to do to exceed the standard or competency. The discussion centers on the need to look at learning in all courses as an individual endeavor; all students are on a learning path and have different needs at different times. No two learning paths are comparable. Helping teachers develop instructional strategies that create appropriate learning paths for students comes with working to understand the bigger concepts and ideas of standards.

There are different types of courses in a high school system. Some courses are designed as advanced level course work, where the competencies of the course exceed the basic competency in that discipline, for instance, AP courses in calculus, statistics, and physics. All of these courses are examples of advanced course work. Yet within those courses are opportunities for students to produce honors level work.

Some courses are designated as required courses that all students need to complete for graduation. Courses such as global studies, physical science, or sophomore English are required courses in the program of studies and the competencies of these courses are the foundational knowledge and skills for the next level of courses in their disciplines. In these cases, advanced level students may demonstrate meeting the competency early in the course and work instead to meet the expectations of exceeding the standard throughout the course. Students focus on where they are as learners and work toward producing a product that reflects a depth of study and a level of expertise that exceeds the general understanding of the competencies. Even though students of all different ability levels may be learning together, the focus is on the individual student and their personalized learning. Teachers work on differentiating instruction and guiding students through the learning.

The work to support this type of learning comes at the beginning, when courses are designed and competencies are determined. Once competencies are determined, performance indicators and expectations for student achievement to meet the competencies are defined. Teachers work collaboratively to design rubrics that define the expectations for student performance at each stage of learning. Some rubrics reflect the lessons that scaffold and lead to a final product and other rubrics represent the expectations for an end-of-year summative. What is a key to working with standards and competencies is that the teachers deconstruct and understand their standards and competencies at all levels of performance. This understanding helps teachers identify the opportunities for honors assignments and sharing expertise helps create different pathways to guide students to exceeding the standard.

Allowing teachers to work collaboratively and providing time for teachers to do this work is imperative. As we embark on our fourth year as a Professional Learning Community, our emphasis on prioritizing professional time for standards work has made the difference.


Perhaps one of the most exciting parts of our journey towards becoming a premier competency-based grading and reporting school district is the potential this model holds for students who exceed the standard. Although our implementation is still in its infancy at year three, we are confident that our top students will show tremendous growth in their learning. For the first time ever, we have a consistent way as a school to respond to the question DuFour and Eaker (1998) pose in their groundbreaking work in Professional Learning Communities: How will we do when they (students) already know it? The result will be some fantastic, award-winning grilled cheese sandwiches!


DuFour, R. and Eaker, R. (1998). Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Student Achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.


Ellen Hume-Howard is the District Curriculum Director for the Sanborn Regional School District (SAU 17) in Kingston and Newton, NH. Brian M. Stack is the Principal at Sanborn Regional High School in that district.