I have been teaching AP United States history for the last six years. Every year I try something different hoping that I engage students in an exploration of historical thinking and reading. The breadth of the course is often difficult to manage and because we are on a block schedule, the number of time we spend in the classroom together is limited. That means I have to figure out how to make every moment count.
On Twitter today, there were a few people having discussions about the value of homework and I was left pondering the amount of homework students in AP classes receive. Two years ago I learned about flipped learning and began to find ways to flip my APUSH class. I spend far less time talking in front of the class. When I first started teaching the class I found that I would stand in front of the projector going slide by slide through everything I knew about US history. Now, that rarely happens. Instead, students do the background reading at home and we spend class time clarifying, discussing, and practicing historical thinking skills. But not all students do the reading. Many still come to class without the necessary preparation to engage deeply with the content. I cannot imagine not giving homework. I would much rather class time be spent applying ourselves in historical exploration. Sometimes students use the time to finish some background reading or watching CrashCourse videos about the content. This is a choice they make and I try and reduce their anxiety by not grading everything we do in class.
Every day there is some kind of activity that we do in class. That could be a discussion about the reading, analysis of primary/secondary sources, map activity about Manifest Destiny, or project to show what students learned about the topic. Yes, there are worksheets - but they really are organizers to help students synthesize information into manageable chunks that create visual tools for review. And at the end of the period many ask, "Do we have to turn this is?" And 90% f the time I say no. Much of what we do in class is practice. I don't need to grade every assignment. This does not mean that I don't check for understanding or walk around the room to visit with groups to see how they are doing with the task. By stepping down from the "Powerpoint stage" I have more time to engage with students individually and guide their processing of information.
But why don't students do the reading? Well, first, many don't like history. I can't change that - but I certainly can do my best to help them see the value of historical thinking. Second, the textbook is pretty boring. But I did adopt a new textbook last year that is pretty well written and much more engaging than the previous one. So instead of assigning specific pages, I constructed essential questions for students to explore. They can use a number of resources to accomplish this goal including the traditional textbook, audio lectures I linked on my website, John Green's CrashCourse videos, Annenbergs Biography of America videos, websites like Schmoop, etc. By giving students choice in how they study I hope to encourage the development of their learning modalities. There are times I expect certain readings to be completed because they are connected to class activities (chapters from Zinn's A People's History of the United States or primary/second source documents), but in general there are always a number of options for reviewing course material.
Myron Dueck's Grading Smarter Not Harder inspired me to really think about the ways students would "show" what they are learning. Additionally, his argument about grading policies and the use of zero's pushed me to reflect on the value I place on giving assignments points rather than providing students multiple opportunities to reach learning targets. I started to create a document called "Student Learning Objectives" for each unit of student so that students knew exactly what to expect in class. Students learned that what we practice under "Skill Targets" won't be graded, but the "Product Targets" will be. My focus for assessment is on how the students show their learning instead of what they know. There is a tremendous learning curve for students because they often want "credit" for everything that they do in class. They want the points just because they did something. So many of their teacher give stamps and checkmarks for completion and students know they just have to turn in the assignment to get the points. I want to continue challenging them to value the process of learning over the final grade. But this is extremely difficult in an AP class. The high stakes test already creates anxiety, but I try my best to de-emphasize the text but know that what we practice in class will definitely prepare them well.
Goals for This Year