In Case of Teaching Emergency Read This: Too stressed to read? Just skip to the end.*
Welcome to the most anxious week of the teaching year!
T-minus 6 Days Until the AP US Government and Politics Exam.
The first year I taught AP I was filling the very large shoes of the revered AP European history teacher who had just retired. How on earth was I going to live up to the expectations of all the students who had signed up for his class? And it was his class - he had taught for over three decades! He didn’t just teach history, he was history. And besides, I was teaching three AP preps I had never taught before: Euro (all knowledge of which was somehow erased during college!), AP US Government ("Yes," I said, in my job interview "I'm happy to teach things I know almost nothing about!"), and Comparative Government (which I frankly didn't even know existed). I second-guessed myself every single day of that painful year. I struggled with the content, the skills, the students, their helicopter parents the pain of knowing how much better I could do given the time, support, and guidance. Our school day started at 7:10 am. I taught 5 classes. I had over 120 students. I stayed late, reading into the night, grading, grading, grading. I slept on the weekends. I changed a lot that year.
Old me: Multiple choice scores are an incomplete way to measure and evaluate the depth of learning of my precious students.
New me: Where the hell are those scantrons!
It was hard.I was drowning under all the ungraded tests and FRQs. And because I was so green to AP I didn’t really know what I was doingor where I was going. I was building the ship as I sailed it. And the students didn’t really like that ship. My ship was always trying to connect everything we learned about to current events, to their lives, so that they could really understand the meaning of their knowledge. Meanwhile, they just wanted me to sail their ship as fast as I could into AP Exam harbor. ”Just tell us what’s on the exam!!!!!”
As if I even knew! But gosh, we sure had a lot of stuff to cram in all those young noggins, and boy did I sail that ship fast!
This old chestnut from the great American philosopher, Yogi Berra is the perfect distillation of my first AP teaching year. “We’re lost, and I don’t know where we’re headed but we’re making very good time.”
And then when exam month came and I was NOWHERE near prepared, the panic began to set in. In AP US Government we hadn’t even covered civil liberties and all those hundreds of potentially tested Supreme Court cases yet (Wolf v. Colorado!? Give me a break). I wasn’t even to the 20th century in AP European! I started teaching faster and faster.
Pro Tip: the faster you teach the faster they don't learn!
On exam day, I was a wreck. I paced back in forth past the glass window looking into my classroom looking for signs of success from the students who crouched over their exams. So much was riding on this moment and there was nothing any more I could do about it.
And then, in the middle of this all important three hour exam for which I had prepared my students so carefully: some jackass ran down one of the halls and pulled a fire alarm! My teaching life flashed before my eyes.
All the kids had to immediately exit the building. Game over!
I stomped around the school, fuming over all the hard work lost. I think that was the first time I ever cried and cursed at the same time.
Fast forward 20 years.
Those kids did great! The College Board has a protocol for just about anything. "Proctor: A tsunami is approaching the test site, sir. Exam Administrator: implement ETS plan 3.c1 and baton down those hatches!"
A year of teaching is so much bigger than three hours. Your teaching is so much more important than just preparing kids for a test.
Today, I get a lot of emails from former students. And as I look back, sure I’m proud that I prepared my students enough so that if they put the time and effort into the course they could earn a really great test score (and most did.) But the student emails I receive are never about their AP scores, GPAs, or anything like that. The students I hear from (who are now VOTERS!!!) write to tell me about "this amazing article" they’ve just read in the Wall Street Journal about foreign policy, or to ask me to help them remember the name or send a link to the article we all read and did those labs on about social capital, or to ask how our global scholars exchange program is going, or to tell me about the U.S. Senator they are working for in D.C.
So fear not, brave teachers. And don’t panic. If you have taught the kids to think and really dig into and engage with the material they are going to be GREAT! A-OK!
All the groundwork you laid throughout the year really kicks in now.
The redesign exam emphasizes depth over breadth.
The redesign exam emphasizes understanding over memorizing.
The redesign exam emphasizes analysis over coverage.
Just like real life!?!?
No, you did not cover everything!
And actually you can’t cover everything!
And you don’t need to cover everything because the new exam is NO LONGER a vocabulary test on steroids. The new exam actually measures important things like students’ analysis and skills - what they can do with what they know. Remember, the first 23 of 55 multiple choice questions are all analysis of documents and visuals. If you have been having your kids explain the what, why, and so what of visual data and our class starters this year, your students are going to be successful: in the best way.
So take a deep breath. If you’re still feeling nervous I’ve got tons of stuff on my site that will help your kids think and do government & politics. You’ve done your job. You’ve taught your students how to think, given them great analytical skills, and instilled in them a passion for learning. In the end isn’t that the kind of citizen our country needs most?
And they all lived happily ever after.