Approaching AP World History

When I started teaching AP World in 2016 I relied heavily on tips and advice from my APSI as well as resources from other teachers kind enough to share them. I also borrowed a few structures that I had been successful with when teaching AP Econ. Over the years my approach has developed into several core practices and beliefs. Few of these are related to specific resources even though there are many that I reuse every year, tweaking them as needed. I’ve never been one for the formulaic approach that includes the exact same structures, assignments, and protocols every day. This does not mean my course is not clearly organized, but I try to balance the formulaic with those spontaneous ideas that end of bringing life into lessons every year. Experienced teachers know that sometimes an opportunity presents itself in the moment and running with it can lead to exciting results. This post is a reflection on some of these core practices and beliefs that have developed.

Disclaimers: I have always taught AP World in international schools with class sizes capped at 20 students. Up until recently, my classes have always had a majority of students who speak English as a second or third language. I have been blessed to have always been given a wide range of flexibility by administrators in how I teach, and have had access to class resources like that public schools may not always be able to provide.

Flip the Classroom

As much as I enjoy lecturing on my content, it should not be a daily occurrence. When I do lecture, it is short, in the ranger of 20-25 minutes. It is also targeted at modeling analysis, synthesizing content, or unpacking key concepts rather than content acquisition. Content slides provide the visual notes to support this. Every now and then I do plan a larger lecture to establish context for a unit; though I try to make these interactive with moments for reflection or practice occurring regularly. Since AP courses move fast, there is always the temptation to lecture in order to move through content quicker. However, I have had significant success with staying true to the flipped classroom model even if it means making some courageous deletions.

The primary homework assignment my students receive is reading. I collect reading notes/guides as formative evidence, and I have daily reading quizzes to check students understanding of the reading. I allow students to use their notes on the reading quiz as an incentive for doing it. This takes up 7-8 minutes of my class time, but also acts as a review of the reading before beginning the lesson.

I am not so naive as to imagine that every single student always does the reading nor that my students always work independently on their reading and notes. However, It is easy to observe if a student has not done the reading and is not prepared for the skill-based activity on a particular day. The point of it all is to shift content acquisition outside of class so that skills and application become the focus of class; this is where I can best add value. It guides my feedback to students, gets them more engaged, and opens up more exciting possibilities for class. Content is still very important, the issue is when and where that content is acquired.

Through student surveys over the years I have gleaned that students are generally supportive of the structure and see the value. Even in a school that seeks to minimize homework, 30-45 minutes of reading for a block is an easy ask for an AP course. In my experience, parents get on board the most with this structure.

Put Skills at the Center of the Lesson!

Get more than two history teachers together and you will have a lively debate about the more significant or most important historical content to teach. Thankfully, the AP World CED offers many illustrative examples tied to the curriculum’s key concepts that offer interesting content for all persuasions. One things many experienced AP World teachers can agree on is that skills need to be at the center of instruction. You cannot teach and assess skills without content, but content without skills is missing the purpose of history education. Historical content is cool, interesting, surprising, scary, humbling, inspiring, and funny; sometimes all of those things. But, learning or memorizing content is not in itself and education. It does not train the brain to think critically, analyze, investigate, nor infer. It is the best part of the journey of historical education, but should not also be final destination for students. Teach content without falling into the “content trap.”

I introduce the skills starting with primary source analysis from Day 1 using the Ordeal by Cheque Activity. Throughout units one and two I introduce and practice every historical thinking skill in the curriculum. By the end of unit two, students are writing their first formative DBQ where they put these skills together. Throughout the rest of the course there are daily formative skill checks and opportunities to practice analysis with detailed content. I believe that this approach, more than anything else, is responsible for my students’ success.

I have been heavily impacted by both Sam Wineburg and Peter Seixas in how I teach the skills. Peter Seixas’ book, The Big Six, has been particularly useful in how I unpack and scaffold skills like causation, comparison, and CCOT. His guideposts provide a great philosophical framework for approaching the skills and help students build towards complexity in their thinking. In other posts I break down how I scaffold and instruct many of these skills. No matter how much I teach, students will get a question on the AP exam on something I did not directly cover. A skills-based approach that incorporates content alongside the course’s key concepts helps them survive these moments.

Allow Reassessment

I have never worked as a salesman, but teaching strikes me as having some similarities to the being in sales. If the student’s do not want to come into class, if they feel frustrated by grades, rubrics, and expectations, if they don’t see the value to what they are learning, then the teacher has lost before the lesson has even begun. Although I support reassessment from a philosophy of teaching perspective, I also appreciate how it helps “sell” my system to the students. Not every assignment is reassessable, but the most important things are.

Reassessment is a particularly powerful tool for DBQs and LEQs. I do allow reassessment on MCQ unit exams if a student has all formative work (including reading notes) completed, but this is far less common. I often tell students I will let them rewrite a DBQ two, three, or even four times for full credit. I don’t mind that the policy basically promises a full score on these summatives. Every time students re-approach a DBQ or LEQ, they are practicing skills, reviewing content, and increasing their odds of passing the exam. Yes, I have systems in place to prevent mass cheating, use of ChatGPT, or plagiarism from online exemplars. Yes, having smaller numbers of students and more planning time than when I was a public school teacher helps make this logistically possible. This year, for example, I have limited the rewrites to one extra attempt. But even if the occasional student manages to cheat, the way this policy refocuses grading on skill growth, honors effort and growth over time, and builds rapport with students and within the class is more than worth it.

Start the DBQ Early!

The DBQ involves nearly every historical thinking skill that is taught as part of the AP World curriculum. It is a significant part of the exam and one of the more challenging tasks of the course. It makes sense to start as early as possible. I understand the teacher who thinks they need to get through a lot content first and then can introduce the DBQ, or the teacher who worries the DBQ will scare students early on or make the course seem too difficult. I respectfully disagree with both. The DBQ can be taught through units one and two without the students ever knowing that’s what they are working towards. Content in those units is light compared to later units, and the end of unit two offers a great opportunity to pull all the skills together into a first DBQ…formative of course.

Other Strategies

There are other things I do throughout the year that do not demand a full write-up here. Some of these I have written about before.

  • Incentivize the complexity point as enrichment instead of grading it. Use unicorn erasers!
  • Write the DBQs and LEQs along with students – show them you can do the skills as well. These become useful models after opportunities for reassessment closes.
  • Use discussion strategies like Harkness to get students using content to address compelling questions.
  • Be passionate and know your content! Students know when the teacher is not interested in the content or feels unsure of what they are teaching.
  • Collaborate with other teachers and borrow ideas! There is always someone who does something better and we should constantly keep an open mind for new ways of reaching students.

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