Holy Pedagogical Days (A Lesson In Progress)

Weird ChristmasI’m teaching AP World History for the first time this year, and it’s been… a fascinating challenge.

Fortunately, I’ve been in and around the world of AP and Pre-AP for nearly two decades, and I’m blessed to know several amazing APWH teachers and consultants – all of whom share generously and encourage unceasingly. There’s more of a learning curve than I care to admit, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it immensely.

Most days.

I have 93 students spread out over four sections. (I know, right? Fewer than a hundred kids on my roster – I didn’t think such things were possible.) I’m surrounded by experienced teachers who are supportive but see little reason to tiptoe when it comes to asking questions or making observations – my kinda people. My district has been struggling, at least according to those widely publicized test scores the state keeps pushing, but I see its heart and the talent gathered here, and I am at home.

Takin’ It To Dilemma

It’s in that context that I periodically find myself in something of a philosophical dilemma. See, AP is by design a more-or-less college level course. It certainly moves at a ridiculous pace, and students are responsible for an insane amount of information – most of which they’re expected to read, view, or otherwise digest on their own so we can focus on critical thinking, document analysis, and other essential skills in class. That’s without a doubt been the number one challenge for both them and me – keeping up with the content. It feels some weeks like I’ve left them to learn the material all on their own while I torture them in class with things like making good inferences or identifying points of view. 

For most of them, this is their first AP class of any kind. I have a handful of juniors and seniors, but the bulk of my darlings are freshmen and sophomores. Many are strong enough students coming in, but plenty of others signed up primarily to qualify for one of the eleventeen different flavors of high school diploma the state delineates; several require advanced coursework to get the shiny sticker at the bottom. There’s no Pre-AP program here to speak of – yet – so this is in many ways a whole new world for them.

That gives us something in common, at least.

Thus my philosophical dilemma. Yes, – it’s a college-level course. Yes, there’s a big ol’ scary AP Exam coming up sooner than it seems. I absolutely want to do everything in my power to push them to their lil’ limits, prepare them for the exam, and lay the groundwork for them to do well in subsequent AP or other advanced classes, and in college, and in life. It is without a doubt time to don their big kid panties and suck it up – we’re in HIGH. SCHOOL. NOW.

But see, that’s just it – they’re in high school now. Not college, not a career, not the post-secondary something or other for which we’re trying to prepare them. High school. Getting ready for those things, but not yet doing those things.

Therein lies the dilemma. Every teacher faces it in some form or another – sometimes daily. How much do I push, and how much do I bend? When do I draw hard lines, figuring that’s what’s best for my little cherubs in the long run, and when do I adjust based on the situation, the need, the individual, hesitating to put the rules ahead of the relationships?

It’s tricky even if we set aside the touchy-feely stuff. Sure, I love them dearly most days, and that’s part of the gig, but the answers don’t suddenly become clear when we prioritize the purely academic aspects of the equation. I know they need to practice independent reading and note-taking skills; they beg for questions, outlines, or something I can give them on paper so they’ll know what content matters most. I organize interactive small-group discussions and activities, which work well enough; they want me to lecture more and insist it helps them understand stuff when they’re later reading on their own.

We’re starting formal written arguments in a few weeks, but we’ve also colored. We’re still digging through primary source texts, but today we watched a musical parody video about the Black Death as a self-check on content (if you understand all of the references, you’re probably good to go on the Plague; if not, you might need to brush up). I have no idea if I’m doing it all “right,” but I’m genuinely trying to balance the demands and guiding purpose of the course with the dynamics and practical limitations of my kids – and sometimes myself.

And that’s OK. It has to be. (Whatever you’re doing is too, by the way. Those folks on the tweeter-blogs making sweeping pronouncements about what should or shouldn’t be done in every classroom for every kid in every situation can kiss my curriculum. Lay off the pompous teacher-shaming and go flip your classroom or something. Sorry, do I sound bitter?)

The Mayans and Groundhog Day

It’s in that spirit that I’m trying something stupid this week. Or brilliant. Maybe both. I finally snagged a classroom set of laptops for classroom use, and we’re going to break up the routine for a few days.

I’m giving my students a list of major and semi-major holidays from which to choose, and an organizational table to complete as they research each. While a few are uniquely American, most have roots much further back in history and have evolved over the centuries. Students will explore those roots and that evolution, zoom in on some of the rituals or customs associated with each, and – here’s the World History Part – try to make sense of it all in relation to the cultures from whence they sprang,

If the AP gods smile upon us, they’ll also be able to trace how some of these rituals and customs have evolved from century to century and place to place. Presumably those changes reflect aspects of the times and places in which they occur. A secondary goal is to determine the reliability of various online sources for this sort of thing – holiday legends tend to be ripe with after-the-fact sentimentality and artificial OMG. 

I know, I know – it sounds a little elementary on the surface. I’m hoping I’ve structured it enough so that it’s not. It has the potential to be ultra-productive – both in terms of engagement and in making connections between customs and cultures, between history and traditions. Not to go all crazy or anything, but what if they’re able to identify change and continuity over time, similarities and differences between cultures, or other baby steps towards legit historical skills and AP-level thinking?! LET THE LEARNING BEGIN!!!

Or, this might very well waste two hours of their lives they’ll never get back. That’s also a very real possibility.

On Day Two, they’ll be given the option to compare and contrast two of the holidays in terms of the information they’ve gathered in some yet-to-be-determined format, OR to compose for publication an article / blog post about one of their chosen holidays. I may offer a third option of simply adding a few more holidays for students who may not have more than that to give at this point; just between you and me, I’m waiting to see how Day One goes before finalizing that part.

I’m hoping many of them try the blog post / article. Like with the initial tables, there are guidelines and requirements and hoops through which to jump, but I’ve tried to leave them some creative freedom on exactly how to do it. I realize that edu-bloggers far more popular than I would insist in stuffy tones that I shouldn’t crush students’ personal learning journeys with things like word counts or formatting expectations, but I’ve met them and with all due respect, sometimes fences often set us free.

Assuming it actually happens, my plan is to then post the results for you and anyone else I can virtually round up to read and offer comments – good stuff, bad stuff, thoughts and suggestions, etc. I’m pretty sure that’s a trendy edu-thing to do these days – “authentic audiences” and all that – but mostly I just think it would be nifty keen and get them a better variety of feedback than I could provide alone.

Thanks in advance for helping with that, by the way. I’ll let you know when they’re posted.


I have no idea what to expect. As I type this, I should already be showering and on my way. With my writing time so limited these days, I’m often trading pithy commentary for pedagogical transparency and personal reflection. Hopefully some of you will find my periodic bewilderment and perpetual self-doubt either comforting or amusing in some way.

I certainly do.

I’ll post the actual instructions soon and let you know how it goes. In the meantime, Comments are always welcome below – except for you bots at the essay-writing service or selling the Russian sex dolls. Seriously, people – I don’t have time to monitor that stuff right now!

On that note, go change the world. Thanks for staying with me on this ride. You are needed, now more than ever.

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Dallas -

Like that you break away from the ‘routine’ from time to time. To me, the biggest reason is exposing your students to different concepts - hopefully getting closer to the point where they’re really controlling the specific questions being investigated (aligned with AP and local standards by your leading / driving questions).

How much of a starting table are you giving them? My preference would be to “build” a table for a sample driving question (OR start a table for the actual driving question) as a class and then turning them loose. A short paper / presentation introducing their table with justification for it (early on) would be so powerful to me at least!!!

Sounds like a good approach that you are using. Looking forward to update(s) and the student outcomes.

Older than dirt in Virginia,

Guess what I found out today...That is right, my APWH teacher has a blog! Now I will have to troll through this entire blog to figure out more stuff. This will be fun!!


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