Sometimes as teachers we find that no matter how much we may have planned, we have to throw it out the window and improvise according to the situation at hand.
Normally I pace my instruction for Advanced Placement government to finish all the material about two weeks before the AP exam, and then have the students do semi-guided reviews for two weeks. For several reasons, that is not the case this year. For one thing, rather than being the test on the first morning of the several weeks of AP testing, this year we are on the morning of the 2nd week, May 15. Several of my students will be taking other AP exams earlier, which will (a) have them out of classes, and (b) interrupt the continuity of preparation.
Of greater importance, this year's students came in with far less background, and have struggled far more with some concepts than any previous year.
I had already implemented a change I made in the middle of last year. Instead of curving multiple choice tests (because the score on the AP exam is itself curved around the median), I would let students look up and correct their mistakes for partial credit to raise their grades. That is helping them correctas well their mistaken understanding. They had to explain for each correction why it was correct and their previous answer was not, citing the specific material in the book. Last year it seemed to help a lot.
Yet there still were not learning how to learn it correctly in the first place.
So this week I did something different. Before we began to review I wanted them to see where they had strengths and weaknesses across the entire range of material.
I gave them all the multiple choice questions of the 2009 released exam, BEFORE we did any review. This was not for a grade, but to establish a baseline. They could then by category find out where they were weakest, in order to focus their own review on that material.
The results were actually interesting. Let me explain.
The AP test has 120 raw points available. 60 come from the 60 multiple choice questions, 60 from 5he 4 Free Response Questions. For the test they took, I not only provided the answers and the categories of the questions, but also the data from the College Board on how the students who scored in a similar range performed overall on that examination - that is, the percentage of scores with, say, 41-50 questions correct, who got each of the five possible scores, from a high of 5 to a low of 1.
In general, because the AP exam determines a median score of examinees on that examination then centers the distribution of scores around that, with about 55% of test takers obtaining scores of the passing level of 3 or higher, one is hoping that students will on the actual exam score at least 30/60 on the multiple choice. In fact, my target is for them to score 45/60, which is the middle of the 4 range, in order to provide some wiggle room in case they do not know enough on one or more of the five Free Response Questions, where they have to provide the information, unlike multiple choice questions which can be answered by process of elimination.
Let me see if I can illustrate process of elimination. There was one multiple choice question about what interest groups do NOT do. My students had done a mini-project on interest groups. Thus they knew that they (a) lobby, (b) testify, (c) sue government agencies, (d) try to persuade the public. Thus even if they did not know what franking is (the ability of Congress to send mail to constituents without paying postage) that was the only answer left. Only a few of my students missed that question, even though many did not know or recall what franking is.
Let's say the results were pleasantly surprising. Only a handful of my student scored less than 31, with the vast majority scoring 40 or above. Remember, we have not yet had an overall review of content. Now I will not do such an overall review. The students know their individual strengths and weaknesses, and can use the various materials and sources I am providing them to more narrowly focus their own review efforts, and I can focus instead on a few topics where a larger number of students struggled. I can also spend more time working with them on how to properly prepare for the writing of free response questions.
Some of you may ask if I am teaching to the test. I am not. I do not know what specific questions will be asked, so I cannot. But the AP exam is an important target for several reasons. For my students, it can determine whether or not they get college credit for the course, which most would like. It is also, for them, a measure of how well they do.
It is, for better or worse, in part how others will evaluate how effectively I have taught. It is not my measure. If my students tell me on the afternoon of May 165h when I will see some or the following day when I see them all that they felt prepared and comfortable, then i have served them properly.
I am preparing them for how to take the test, which has stakes for them of medium weight. I think that is appropriate.
I am using material from released test as a means of them determining for themselves where they need to focus, in some cases going back and relearning, and in a very few cases my going back and reinstructing some material.
The AP exam scores will not come back until during the summer break. They will have no effect on the grades my students will receive.
They will do the multiple choice questions of one more released exam, on the clock, for a grade for me which will NOT be as a percentage of the questions they got right, but as a scaled score. That will have a modest impact on their grade for this final quarter.
Instead, almost half of their grade will come from two assignments. One is a final "fun" project which cannot be an essay. They must do at least four hours of work, and show me that they learned something. Yesterday I had out exemplars from previous years for them to explore, including videos, raps, mobiles, posters, games, etc. I describe some others. It is an assignment on which extra credit is possible, in recognition of the fact that many students go well beyond the four hour requirement. It gives those students for whom tests are difficult, for whom written expression is not their strong suit, a chance to work in a domain in which they feel comfortable and demonstrate some learning of the material.
They also have a final - two out of three paragraph-length response and one out of two essay-length responses. This is take-home, open-book, open-notes, and un-timed. It must be handwritten and I will spot check the contents for plagiarism (for which there is obviously no need). This will demonstrate the ability to take the material they have been learning and make an argument, supporting that argument with facts from the course and related material.
This year those projects (optional for seniors, since they leave us in mid-May), will be due on Friday June 1. I will stay at school until 7 PM that evening, grading those that are too bulky to easily take home, and absolutely enjoying myself, as I will over the weekend with those I can pack up and take home to read/watch/explore/pay (remember, some do games). It is one of the two weekends I most enjoy. The first is when I get to read the personal political profiles they develop, where they explore their political efficacy, their party orientation, their political tolerance, their ideology, etc.
I may yet be teaching next year: on Tuesday I am doing a demonstration lesson for a school that is very different than where I currently teach, and for which I have a great deal of respect. Several key people there are either those with whom I have previously worked in public schools in my district, or in one case the father of three students I have taught in AP Government.
But this is likely the very last time I will teach AP US Government and Politics.
Knowing I am leaving, I am now beginning to sort through what I will keep and bring home, and what I will either let other teachers have, or dispose of. I have been back at my school now for ten years, in my current room for 6. The task of sorting through is bittersweet, as one might imagine.
And yet ... yesterday morning, as I was putting out projects from previous years, I was remembering students from the past. It was a rush of memories,.
One project in particular stood out. It is full of misspellings, but I don't care. You see, Lorena arrived in the US August 1 with no English. She got a crash 3 weeks from her family, and somehow did NOT get placed into an English as a Second Language class, but into one of mine, with little English, and no prior knowledge of US History or government. That project was, given who she was, a magnificent achievement.
This is the time when I reflect on the school year. I can look back at some of the events and exercises we did with satisfaction, but I can also see where I could have done things to better serve my students. I can always see such things, but I don't obsess.
I am in the process of letting go - of the school year, of this group of students. I am preparing to say goodbye to my school community, a place I have been for 13 of the past 14 years. It is possible I may also be saying goodbye to being a classroom teacher.
It is a Saturday morning. As is true of most Saturdays between mid-August and early June, I am reflecting on being a teacher.
Perhaps these words serve only to help me with that process.
Perhaps that will speak toi a few others who might encounter them.
I have been a teacher since 1995. That is, I have been a public school classroom teacher.
I think, perhaps even before I knew it, I was a teacher.
And if this should be my last year as a public school classroom teacher, or a classroom teacher of any kind, I will still be a teacher, because my role, my function, is to challenge and provoke others, to work with them in learning more, becoming more skilled, understanding more deeply.
On this day many years ago the ashes of two men were sent into space. One, Timothy Leary, used drugs to try to expand human consciousness. The other, Gene Rodenberry, created a television show that in many ways challenged our notion of what it meant to be human. The mission of the Starship Enterprise was to boldly go where no man has gone before. Because each student who passes through my care is unique, and each should have the opportunity to develop that uniqueness, in some ways that line from Rodenberry also describes my life as a teacher. It is what I experience with my students in the process of learning with them.
It is also how I live most of my life. At least now, after 17 years being paid for doing something I love, learning and sharing learning with others.