This is the third in a series of blog posts I am writing in response to an article that I thought unfairly and inaccurately focused on the negative aspects of expanding access to Advanced Placement courses. It probably makes sense to read all of the posts in order beginning with “Advanced Placement Classes Saving Students” posted on August 22, 2013.
At the AP Annual Conference, I had the privilege of presenting with two very successful AP teachers. In my previous post, I introduced you to Katherine, AP Calculus and AP Chemistry teacher. Today, please meet Irene, an AP Biology teacher who has more successful minority/low income students achieve recommended scores than any other teacher of her subject in her state. Irene’s school is 85% low income, 77% Hispanic, with 82% of the students having a first language other than English—hardly the typical environment in which AP programs thrive.
Irene started her presentation by telling a hilarious story about attending an AP Summer Institute as a Pre-AP teacher and thinking, “I am SO glad I don’t have to teach this; it seems impossible.” The next thing she knew, the AP teacher had left and she found herself saddled with the course. She quickly discovered that the strategies the summer institute presenter had suggested would not work with her students. They were not capable of reading the textbook and then doing the complicated labs.
Irene wisely realized that she needed to scaffold her lessons and introduce her students to basic lab procedures through youtube videos and Pearson Lab Bench. The latter resource allows students to do labs virtually, perform data analysis and take a quiz prior to doing the hands-on lab in class. She had them begin with the most basic possible lab to address the concept and then challenged them to figure out what other variables they could manipulate in order to make the lab more complex. Such an approach would help students to master the experimental design question that appears on the AP exam.
Irene’s students are then responsible for group presentations of their lab results. This encourages collaboration and discussion that helps cement the material into long term memory and also helps students to focus more on the learning and less on the grade.
Irene also discussed her extensive use of technology to assist her students. She talked about the use of “co-teachers” such as Khan Academy and Bozeman Science. The disgusting videos she uses from youtube are certainly memorable. Facebook allows her and her students to communicate with one another efficiently and to connect with other science-related resources.
Irene concluded her presentation with a discussion of assessment and explained how she made extensive use of released AP questions, often giving several in advance and then picking just two of those for the test. She warned attendees that they should expect some low grades and have several strategies in place to allow students to remediate and improve both their understanding and their grades.
I think the main take away that teachers got from Irene’s session was that they need to tailor their approach to their particular situation. She tried someone else’s approach and, when it didn’t work, she kept trying until she figured out what would work for her students. She wasn’t willing to accept that they weren’t capable of being successful in her AP class. Too many people (students, teachers, administrators) simply give up when students are initially unsuccessful in taking on the challenge of Advanced Placement. They spend too much time rationalizing the failure (“We don’t have the right kinds of kids.” “They are simply unprepared/unmotivated/incapable.”) rather than finding solutions. Teachers like Irene and Katherine show what can happen when teachers work hard and inspire their students to work hard. We all have lessons we can learn from them about how to make AP classes accessible to a much broader audience of students.