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Harvard Credit for High-Schoolers

Literature professor Elisa New spearheads an online poetry course for talented students in underserved high schools.

March-April 2020

Photograph of Elisa New

Elisa New began teaching online humanities courses in 2013.
Photograph by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications


Elisa New began teaching online humanities courses in 2013.
Photograph by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

“This is a story about kids succeeding, about the success of an experiment,” says Cabot professor of American literature Elisa New, describing the online poetry course she taught last fall to an unusual set of enrollees: eleventh- and twelfth-graders from more than two dozen Title I high schools (serving mainly low-income students) across the country. At the end of the semester, roughly 250 students came away with four credits from the Harvard Extension School and a wider sense, New suggests, of what other possibilities might lie before them.

The 12-week course was titled “Poetry in America: The City from Whitman to Hip Hop.” Lesson by lesson, it walked students through poetic expressions of the ever-changing American metropolis: Walt Whitman’s New York (and Langston Hughes’s, Maya Angelou’s, and Frank O’Hara’s), Robert Hayden’s Detroit, Gwendolyn Brooks’s Chicago, Kendrick Lamar’s Compton, California.

Most weeks’ readings revolved around broad themes: work, protest, leisure, the Great Migration, urban adolescence and coming of age. In a video introducing students to a unit focused on the poetry of immigration, New highlighted Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus,” engraved on the Statue of Liberty. It is a cultural touchstone that “begins to unpack what we mean by mobility”—both literal and symbolic—she said, but also a poem that puts literary devices like rhyme, allusion, and formal rhetoric to powerful use. At the end of the six-minute video, New concludes, “From navigating its sonnet form to understanding its place in its own historical moment, and ours, you can be—we all can be—changed by this poem.”

The course is one of several online classes developed as a part of Poetry in America, a public-television series and multimedia digital initiative created and directed by New. But it is also a class that has been building since 2013, when New first starting offering poetry instruction online through HarvardX and discovered that almost half the people signing up were schoolteachers—and that they were hungry for more. She came to realize how “thin” humanities content was in K-12 classrooms, where teachers were tasked with presenting literature that often they themselves didn’t understand well. “And we aren’t helping them enough.”

New loved teaching the teachers, but she also started conceiving ways to bring her courses directly into high schools. In 2015, at the urging of one teacher, she offered an online poetry course to honors students in an underserved charter school, and the following year added another two schools.

Then in 2017, Lawrence S. Bacow became Harvard’s president and gave an inaugural address about the needs of the heartland and in particular, New recalls, about “the educational needs of the nation”—to which Harvard, he insisted, should contribute. Moved and inspired, New afterward wrote Bacow to explain the work she’d been doing, and he agreed to back a pilot project that would vastly expand the online course she’d developed. The result was last semester’s class, organized in partnership with the National Education Equity Lab, a nonprofit founded by Leslie Cornfeld ’81, J.D. ’85, a former civil-rights prosecutor who served as a public-policy consultant to New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, M.B.A. ’66, LL.D. ’14, and then as special advisor to U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan ’86 during the Obama administration.

The course enrolled students from 25 schools in 11 locations, from New York, Los Angeles, and San Diego to smaller places: Gallup, New Mexico (which draws heavily from a neighboring Navajo reservation); Meriden, Connecticut; Flint and Pontiac (Bacow’s hometown), in Michigan; and four cities in Louisiana—Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Opelousas, and Lafitte. Collectively, 85 percent of students in the participating schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and 92 percent are students of color. “The disparities in opportunities for students in these schools are often staggering,” says Cornfeld. Education offers the best chance for escaping poverty, but schools in the poorest zip codes are hampered by a lack of resources and supports; students often don’t have access to advanced courses or test prep for the ACT and SAT. A for-credit course from an institution like Harvard can make a profound difference. Duncan, who serves on the Education Equity Lab’s board, has called the Harvard pilot course “game-changing.” (The Education Equity Lab partnered with another nonprofit, The Common Application—whose CEO, Jenny Rickard, also serves on the Lab’s board—to match students with “college navigators” to help guide them toward colleges that fit their interests.)

The coursework in New’s class was rigorous. Written materials offered discussion questions and suggestions for further study; historical and biographical context for each week’s poems; and guidance on analyzing form, structure, language, and imagery. In multiple short videos, New unspooled those lessons further, dissecting poems in detail with other scholars, and often with the poets who wrote them. During the immigration unit, New sat down with Richard Blanco to talk about “Looking for the Gulf Motel,” a poem exploring his family’s Cuban heritage, and with Duy Doan, a second-generation Vietnamese immigrant raised in Dallas, to talk about his poem “The Cowboy.”

What New calls “the guts of the course” consisted of weekly quizzes on the reading (“not hard if you’ve read the material, but impossible if you haven’t”), along with weekly 250-word assignments, in which students were expected to make and support an argument analyzing the poems. At the end of the course, they each wrote a final essay. For some students, “The reality of having to do the work, having to meet the deadlines, that it’s not enough to simply be smart,” came as a new concept, she says. “I think that was really valuable for them.”

Crucially, students’ work was overseen onsite by teachers in their own classrooms, who helped keep them on task. That’s part of what makes this model novel. “Kids of this age need support, and for many of them, it’s not possible to get it at home,” New explains. “Some of the students were living in homeless shelters; some were living in foster homes.” Others had to care for younger siblings while their parents worked multiple jobs. The students also had regular video-conferences with Harvard teaching fellows, who graded all their work and helped coach them through the writing assignments. And the high-schoolers took part in online conversations with classmates at their own schools—and with fellow students taking the course across the country.

Preliminary findings show that of the 363 who first logged on to the course, 81 percent finished. That by itself is remarkable: the typical retention rate for online courses ranges between 5 and 15 percent, and an MIT study from 2019 found a 96 percent dropout rate over five years for online courses offered by MIT and Harvard. Of the 277 who finished New’s course, 63 percent received either an A or a B; 10 percent failed. One surprise, though, Cornfeld says: in follow-up surveys, students with the lowest grades were equally likely to report that the class helped prepare them for college, and some who failed have expressed interest in trying again.

Not everything went smoothly. New describes a blizzard of administrative problems: “Just any number of barriers and impediments to docking these two types of institutions together,” she says. “You have to have a certain kind of infrastructure to do group enrollment of high-school kids,” and Harvard doesn’t yet have it. She says about 100 students originally slated to be in the course were unable to take part, mostly because of scheduling or system login issues.

Money is another consideration. Extension School courses usually cost $1,800 per term, but New says she learned early on in designing curricula for wider public audiences that, “If you want to be making change in American education…outside of elite environments, you have to offer credit, and you have to make it affordable.” She has long pushed for reduced rates for the teachers and high-schoolers in her classes, and Harvard charged school systems only $250 per student to enroll last semester (the Education Equity Lab helped raise money to close the gap for schools that couldn’t afford to pay). Cornfeld notes that “Harvard has long demonstrated that universities can both do good and do well.”

“We proved that what Larry Bacow says is true,” Elisa New explains, “that talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not.”

This spring, New is offering her course again, to students in the same schools—but this time through Arizona State University, while Harvard steps back to assess last fall’s pilot project and determine whether to proceed with similar courses. (New and Cornfeld serve on the task force weighing this question.) In the meantime, New is immensely pleased. “We proved that what Larry Bacow says is true, that talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not,” she says. Her purpose is to change that. “We taught many very, very talented students who absolutely deserve to thrive in a college course.” 

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