Thursday, July 5, 2018

Surviving My First Year of AP World

This. Course. Is. Insane.

That was what I thought a year ago sitting in APSI with Aaron Marsh as he explained, very eloquently, how he managed to teach a critical analysis of 10,000 years of human history, 3 massive writing rubrics, and still managed to give his kids minimal homework.

But then again, every AP class is borderline insane. In AP classes and on AP Exams we often ask very young people to do the extraordinary and this year I was excited/scared/terrified/thrilled/pumped to take on that challenge of helping students meet those goals. AP World History is often the first AP course students at my school take. To be honest, I am not the biggest fan of the AP model but I LOVE the content and skills that an AP course has to offer. When given the chance to teach this course, I jumped at it but, as I usually do I went in with some crazy ideas. I approached the class with three clear goals:

  • Goal #1: I wanted to give minimal homework and outside reading to ensure my athletes and performers and students with demanding outside of the classroom lives could thrive in my class. 
  • Goal #2: I wanted students to reflect on their learning regularly and use reflective grading to help them understand what they had learned and what they still needed to learn. 
  • Goal #3: I wanted to create an open classroom where students from all backgrounds felt supported in reaching their goals with the course and exam. 
Now that I've seen my scores I feel like a weight has been lifted and I can finally honestly reflect on the year and how I met and where I failed at reaching my three main goals.

Goal #1 I wanted to give minimal homework and outside reading to ensure my athletes and performers and students with demanding outside of the classroom lives could thrive in my class.


I am really proud of how well I managed this goal. For the most part, students left my class with a simple reminder to study daily. There was a suggested reading schedule but the essential reading was built into the class as much as possible. But I also had some moments of weakness. I remember freaking out towards the end of the first semester that I hadn't done enough of the traditional work with my students and giving them these huge review packets that they had 5 weeks to complete. It was a massive mistake and if I could go back I would burn all those packets. Students did what they do with assignments like that: they divided up the work and copied off each other. I couldn't blame them, I couldn't be mad, I should have used that time to have them prepare documents for debate or discussion or just not assigned any homework at all. I wasted their time, and while some students benefitted from the packets with the way they organized the content and worked as a review guide: for the most part it was a time waster. It was really just me lacking confidence in myself and my practices and taking that out on my students with an assignment that took too much of their time without giving them enough in return. 


Goal #2 I wanted students to reflect on their learning regularly and use reflective grading to help them understand what they had learned and what they still needed to learn. 


I have already talked about how AP and honors students are the hardest students to convince of the benefits of reflective grading. Overall, this went really well for my students but I still plan to make a few major changes to ensure more efficient and regular feedback to students to help them better understand what they already know and what they still need to learn. For this first year, they reflected on the big overarching Key Concepts. This year, they will only reflect on their writing and historical thinking skills and I will use a more traditional standards-based grading approach with content. My hope that is by doing so, students will have a much clearer picture of how they are doing and what they need to work on. You can see the process here. 

Goal #3 I wanted to create an open classroom where students from all backgrounds felt supported in reaching their goals with the course and exam. 


This is the area I am most proud of but in order to explain why I am proud of this, we need to talk about the culture surrounding AP Classes. In many schools, the culture of AP Courses is that what matters most is a teacher's pass rate. This creates a climate where students who might do well in the course, students who may thrive and reach their personal best but maybe NOT pass the exam are often kept out of AP Courses. They are sometimes kept out based on previous grades or scores, they are sometimes kept out with large quantities of homework that take hours each day, they are sometimes kept out because of past behavior concerns, they are sometimes kept out with lengthy and complex summer assignments. And sometimes, teachers feel the immense pressure of test scores weighing down on them so they encourage students to leave their course who they think might have the slightest chance of not passing. 

Before I go on, I want to make one thing clear: if you do these things I do not assume you do them to keep students out of your course. I do not assume you are doing it to hurt students. We all make complicated choices in our classrooms to serve the needs of our students. I am not here to make blanket judgments on your practices: I am here to be critical of the system and the culture - not the individual teachers who do their best to work within it. 

I have been incredibly lucky to have a supportive admin. I walked into my admin's office a lot at the start of the year asking what felt like 100 times if they really stood behind the fact the scores didn't matter. I wanted to make sure that what mattered to them was what mattered to me: teaching to the students I had. 

And I was consistently met with: the scores don't matter. Now, you might be sitting there ready to call BS and at first I felt that way too but when I finally accepted that the scores were not the priority it allowed me to take risks, it allowed me to do things others wouldn't dare do, and it allowed me to focus on where my students individually were at and how do I get them as close as possible to this insane goal called the AP World Exam. 

By not caring about scores, it allowed me to focus on the individual needs of my incredibly diverse students. It allowed me to create a culture of growth, support, and collaboration with my students that was far more powerful than any competition could have been. 

But most important to me and my goal: It allowed me to retain all of my students for the whole year. I didn't push them out. They did not run away. They did not give up. They trusted me and I believed in them. Many of them struggled but it is from the struggle that we learn the most. 

Too often, it seems, we allow the culture of AP and the drive for that perfect pass rate to keep us from teaching the students we have. We value the exam more than the path they take to get there and that does not align at all with growth mindset or developing lifelong learners.  All students deserve access to a rigorous education but to give all students access it means we have to let go of our pass rates, we have to get rid of walls and gatekeeper assignments we have created in the name of rigor, and we have to remember that the journey is as important as the destination.  

And Finally...
I know there is a lot I want to change for next year, assignments that didn't go as well as planned, more skill building early on, and so on and so on. But overall, I am really happy with how my first year went and I am so excited to try again next year. 


I look forward to reading your questions, comments, and opinions.

Kathryn Byars 

1 comment:

  1. I love Goal #1, years ago I skimmed through a book, 'The End of Homework.' My goal this year as well was to minimize HW. I definitely want to improve on this as well this year. I did try a summer assignment, which I know is controversial. It was really just to acquaint kids with period 1. So I will see how that went soon enough, but it was mostly to help with pacing and I tried to keep it simple to avoid significant equity issues. Working with AVID for 5 years definitely shapes perspective on student lives outside of school. I am still debating a flipped method. Content at home, low-risk assessments and all skills and activities in-class! Not sure how to go completely HW-free, but I have always tried to avoid busy work. And I totally relate to your admission of self-confidence. I find when I do assign packet type work, it is usually me worried about my performance and I quickly learn the kids just divide and conquer!

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Thank you so much for commenting! You can also reach out to me on twitter: @mrsbyarshistory

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