Teacher Talk: Reflections on AP® Participation from Salt Lake City, UT
Teacher Talk: Reflections on AP® Participation from Salt Lake City, UTGeorge Henry, AP® U.S. History Teacher at East High School, Salt Lake City, UT
It really is unbelievable that I have never read, let alone written, a blog. I am really not that out of touch with the wonders of technology, I just get busy working with the kids and forget about all the new things that could really make my life — and especially my teaching life — better. So, here goes … my first blog — whatever that is.
I live in Salt Lake City and teach at East High School, which has, over the years, changed demographically from an upper-middle class, fairly universally white school to an inner-city school with a population of 2,000 students, 62 percent of whom are students of color (mostly Hispanic) and about 55 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. I have been teaching for 39 years in three public schools and one private school in Salt Lake City. Originally, I went to East High to teach in the at-risk program, but the principal knew (as does everybody in Salt Lake City) that for the majority of my career, dating back to 1985 or ‘86, I taught AP United States History. So when the AP teacher retired earlier than expected — in midyear, no less — guess who, in January of 2013, became the AP U.S. History teacher?
I inherited two sections of AP U.S. History, with about 40 kids in each class (don’t gasp, this is Utah, where we “stack ‘em deep, and teach ‘em cheap”). There were about eight students of color in both AP classes combined. As a school, we had been talking about how to get our minority students to participate in AP, but frankly, it was mostly lip service. So, as a person of color, I decided that the enrollment in AP U.S. History for the 2013-14 school year had to be exactly like that of our school — 62 percent students of color. I only kind of knew what I had gotten myself into; the enrollment was actually the easy part. First, I asked for a list of all the students in 10th-grade World History, about 425 students. Next, I sent letters to the students and their parents explaining what AP is and why the students should take my course. Then, I identified the minority students and met with them individually, explaining why they needed to take AP U.S. History. If students were reluctant to sign up for the course, I made phone calls and home visits to the parents, registration cards in hand. What I learned was that many of the students had heard of AP, but believed that it was “too hard” for them. Many told me flat out that AP was “only for white kids.” In reality, most were afraid of failing and had incorporated what they had heard from other students into their self-image.
So, the new school year started, with 185 students enrolled in AP U.S. History, 30 percent of them students of color; not the goal, but a significant improvement. Then, the real work started. I found that students didn’t read well or enough, so I used a number of strategies from the AP Vertical Teams Guide for Social Studies. In addition, I used the strategies from the old “Building Success” workshop, renamed “Strategies for Social Studies and Language Arts Teachers.” Specifically, I used the Levels of Questions strategy as a place to start. Next, we used the SOAPS strategy. One of the first assignments was to read “The Strange Death of Silas Deane” from a collection called After the Fact. This article helps students to understand that history isn’t just the past, it’s how historians view and write about the past, and how they make selections about what should be included in history books. Next, we read a primary source (the police report) about the shooting of Trayvon Martin. I asked students if they thought that justice was served in the George Zimmerman trial. Once students got into the primary sources — studying conflicting sources, offering their inferences and opinions, and collaboratively discussing the evidence — they were hooked. From that point in the school year, the intellectual spark was lit, and we worked like we were on fire. I never focused much attention on taking the AP Exam — I didn’t want to create negative energy or stress. More than anything, the minority students in particular needed to believe in themselves — that they could actually do the work.
A friend of mine who is a professional photographer took pictures of every student, and under the headings “I Am Smart,” “I Am Talented,” and “I Can Achieve,” we placed 8 x 10 glossy color prints of each student. We called it the Wall of Fame. Were they prepared for AP? No. Was much of the work they did of AP quality? Eventually. My goal was to set the bar higher but not too high; like teaching kids to ride a bicycle, I raised the training wheels a bit every month. Every paper they wrote could be rewritten for a higher grade. We worked on critical reading skills, outlining, Cornell notes, and conceptual identifications. I held after-school seminars for one hour every Wednesday and Thursday, offering extra credit (a concept I hate) if kids would come. By October, I was working 80 hours per week, so I enlisted the help of my university students (I teach history part time at the University of Utah) to help score papers and tutor kids during class and after school. I awarded good grades for effort more than content, encouraging students to rewrite. I used lots of primary documents, real historical dilemmas, funny YouTube videos, and lots of positive encouragement.
Over the course of the school year, only one student had dropped the class. In May, 80 of my students took the AP Exam. I don’t know how they did — but that isn’t exactly the point. The goal was to build self-esteem and confidence; to help the students realize that college-level work is more about commitment and effort than about being smart or, for that matter, white. For some, just completing the course was a victory; for others, taking the test was a victory. Some may actually earn scores of 3 or above.
Next year, there will be 205 students — about 35 percent of whom are students of color —enrolled in AP U.S. History at my school going through essentially the same process as this past year but with the help of Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) teachers, who are trained in helping underachieving students with high academic potential to succeed. What I’ve learned from this experience is that first, students must develop confidence in their abilities; second, they need constant positive encouragement. Teachers need to be ready and willing to work with students of all academic levels, and to be ready to implement individual strategies and assignments as needed.
As I reflect on this school year, I am so exhausted that I can hardly believe that in about eight short weeks, I will be at it again, with a completely new energy and with a new AP U.S. History course to implement. At least, I hope I will have new energy — any energy would be welcomed at this point, but thankfully that’s why we have the summer.