I will be teaching AP chemistry next year for the first time. I have a large number of students signed up for the course next year (mid-50s which is unheard of in my district). I am excited but nervous about how to properly support my future AP students. They are very excited to tackle the course but I want to make sure they know what they are getting into and that I have a strong support system for them in place on day 1. Can you elaborate a bit more on what kinds of supports your teachers have in place to support students who have signed up and eager to try but are perhaps less prepared than the “traditional” AP student?
This is a comment that I got recently and I wanted to respond to it since I have several suggestions that might be helpful. At this time of year, teachers are getting ready for the culminating activity of the AP exam while also looking ahead to next year as students are signing up for future coursework. Several years ago, I experienced a sudden jump in my BC Calculus enrollment. As we go deeper into the student pool, those new AP students are necessarily weaker than when we were just skimming the best students off the top. We want to make sure that all of the students have the opportunity to be successful without lowering the standards of the course. Here are a few suggestions:
Be very honest about the demanding nature of the class. I immediately sent a letter home to all of the students who had signed up explaining the level of difficulty, the homework expectations and the fact that they would need to attend extra tutorials and prep sessions. I warned them that they might experience lower grades than they were used to but assured them that they would learn a lot and be able to pass if they completed the requirements of the class. Students and parents signed the letter and I kept them on file in case I got complaints at the beginning of year. I had none since everyone came in with their eyes open.
Give them something to study over the summer. Many AP English teachers provide a summer reading list so that students can have time to truly savor the novels and then simply re-read passages or chapters during the school year. I warn students we will have a pop quiz on the unit circle (learned in precalculus) on the second day of school and that I expect them to be fully familiar with all families of functions. An AP chemistry teacher might have them practice balancing chemical equations or learn the periodic table. Try to identify some prerequisite knowledge or activity that would be very helpful in your class and include that in the previously mentioned letter.
Ramp up the rigor over the course of the year. For the first test, you might provide a review sheet and then assist students in making their own review sheet for the second test and make it clear they will need to do this on their own for the third test. Help them to develop the study strategies and tools that will serve them well as they go on to college. Provide plenty of support at the beginning of the year and then wean them from it as the year progresses.
Provide opportunities for small successes. I give daily pop quizzes over material that I expect them to have memorized (unit circle, derivatives rules, theorems and formulas). While grades are initially low, soon everyone is making 100’s and feeling positive about something in my class. Since I give so many of these quizzes, I can usually drop three or four so those initial low grades get tossed out.
Make it clear that failure isn’t fatal. If a student has completed all assignments and shown evidence of studying, I will allow them to re-take a test that they have failed in order to achieve a higher grade. They also have to write an essay explaining how they will improve their study methods in order to do better on future tests.
Provide special tutorials for the weakest students. At least once a week, offer a tutorial for students who are clearly lacking some prerequisite skill or who have been struggling with a topic. While most of my tutorials are open to every student, these are by invitation only. It might be a chance to fill in holes in foundation, provide extra practice on problems similar to those they will see on an upcoming test or to preview a topic they will see in the near future so they can feel ahead of the stronger students instead of perpetually behind.
Ask students for feedback. Some of my best ideas have come from students. Ask them what else they think you can do to provide greater success. When they see that you are honestly seeking ways to help them be successful, they will want to work all that much harder. Check in with them on a regular basis and warn them as you make changes. “In the past, I offered an AP question as extra credit. Starting in two weeks, those will be a regular part of your assessment.” The communication has to flow in both directions in order for both you and the students to make improvements.
I have a lot of readers out there and I know this is a busy time, but I hope everyone could offer one quick suggestion to this teacher. Here’s the rest of her note:
I have been reading your blog and I have found so many great ideas and am so excited that someone else out there is interested in making AP courses more inclusive. Thanks for taking the time to put your ideas and experience out there for people like me to benefit from!
There is a whole community out there who are committed to building more inclusive AP courses. We have a lot we can learn from one another. We can definitely all beneft from one another’s ideas, so make a comment now!