Last week I wrote about the decision made by the College Board to continue having an AP Exam this year despite most of the schools in the country being closed physically with only some engaging in distance learning. I’ll talk more about their specific decision in terms of the construction of the exam on Wednesday (spoiler: I’m not happy), but I first want to focus on how to teach this class.
My first thought when I heard we would be going to distance learning for a minimum of two weeks (which is now four at a minimum, and I suspect will be the rest of the year) was that my AP students were in pretty good shape. We only had the Civil Liberties and Civil Rights unit left, and we were a few days into it. Even if we were out for three weeks, I could likely finish the bulk of the content and then have a lot of time to teach test-taking strategy and review the content. Not that we hadn’t been doing test-taking strategy at various points during the year and regularly answer the free-response and multiple choice questions in both formative and summative assessments up to this point.
My initial plan was one I don’t regret even though it may backfire on me somewhat. I knew that we were in uncharted territory, that some students would be extremely stressed out, or might even be sick or have loved ones struggling with medical issues. And I knew that there may be some houses with weak WiFi or several students as well as parents working from home putting a strain on the digital capabilities of given homes. To that end I gave simplified versions of what I would have done in class. They would largely lack the opportunity to interact with one another or ask me questions that multiple students would benefit from, but the general content was commensurate. Once I got the hang of the Zoom video conferencing app I started to see possibilities for something actually approximating a real class’s interaction using breakout rooms for group discussions, and the “raise hand” feature for a useful method for soliciting participation.
And then a couple of things happened: Zoom got bombarded by a series of public relations issues related to their privacy and security, and the College Board reneged on its promise to give students the choice of two test dates. I only found out Thursday night what specifically would be on the exam, and as luck would have it, one of the two questions — the one worth evidently 70% of the exam — is one we haven’t gone over together as a class. I “met” with the students using Google Meet the next day, but at the time I’d scheduled our meeting (during my classes official time), the College Board hadn’t released the new rubric, making it a challenge for me to explain what was actually going to be tested, and clearly I couldn’t really prep any how to activity while there were uncertainties. Oh, and the next day our Spring Break began. I asked the students if they’d be willing to “meet” during the break and 2/3 of them said yes, so I will put some things together and we will meet tomorrow and properly go over the rubric and how to answer the essay question.
The College Board’s decision essentially pushed back the AP Exam only one week despite the situation the entire country is in. Because they had told us there would be a choice of dates, I was assuming I’d have closer to two months to prepare students. Even if that were on line, that should have been ample time to make sure they were extremely well prepared. But the sudden change announced this late in the process means I actually only have four weeks to teach Civil Rights, explain a type of essay they have limited experience with, and to review two units of material. It’s not impossible, and my students have worked hard this year. I think they’ll do fine on the exam, but I can’t help but wonder about the districts where there are students who aren’t able to participate in distance learning or weren’t as far along as my students work (both in content and skills).
And yeah, I’ve turned this into a bit of an editorial stealing my own thunder for Wednesday’s soapbox blog, but now we come to the question of what I’m going to do in the time I have left with my students.
The fact that the College Board trimmed the exam to just units 1 through 3 did me no favors, since I don’t go in order (something they’ve always said is optional). I taught 1, 4, 5, 2, and had just started 3. So the first thing that needs to be done when we are officially back in session is to finish the last part of Unit 3. Not all of my students are taking the AP Exam, so I have an obligation to teach them the entire curriculum regardless. I would feel the same had I taught in order, though I probably would have saved anything I had yet to cover until after the exam as our school goes for more than a month beyond the exam (other schools around the country finish in May).
But now I’ve got to strategize about how much I really need to cover. Most of these students are seniors who had US History II last year. They would have covered the Civil Rights movement, and they will have also read Letter From Birmingham Jail, the last of the required documents for AP Gov, in their English classes. It’s a unit that I typically zip through for those reasons, though with the contraction of the curriculum, I do worry that it’s more likely they’ll be asked something about the subject matter. (Though upon reflection, I wonder since they’ve eliminated the free-response question and multiple choice questions that invoke the required 15 Supreme Court cases, if they might find a way to address civil liberties in the argumentative essay.)
I haven’t worked out a number of days just yet, and one more huge unknown really ties my hands when it comes to planning: the day before break started, HHS staff were surveyed about whether they’d favor an alternating day schedule, where we would only have two classes a week Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday, with Friday being a vague flexible learning day. Although we’d have twice the allotted time on each of those days, I don’t think that really works in my favor. I could get away with occasionally giving my students more than the allotted 30 minutes because they’re in an AP class and gearing up for the exam. It would be harder to justify giving them more than an hour’s worth of work in one day — or specifically assigning work on a day that we don’t meet.
I find myself once again somewhat biding my time until I know the schedule. I’ll map out two different versions of the class over the break — one that occurs daily, and one with the proposed schedule. In the end, it will be what it always is: up to the students to prepare. I’ve had seniors with acute senioritis who do nothing to prepare for the exam, and unsurprisingly they do poorly on the exam. And I’ve had one who worked hard all year and then knuckled down for two weeks of review (which is what I typically allot), and they’ve done extremely well. I can say that my students have already surprised me with the quality of their work during distance learning, even when they’ve known it was unlikely to be graded. So despite all my frustrations and uncertainties, I think in the end my students’ scores will be what they normally are: significantly above average compared to the rest of the country. I just wish it could have been done with a little less anxiety.