AP History Workshops: Who Should Attend and Who Should Run As Quickly As Possible In The Opposite Direction

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

Now that I’ve received my AP results from this past year I’ve started to think about how to proceed in the coming year.  In thinking about this I was reminded of a workshop that I attended for beginning AP teachers at William and Mary two years ago this week.  I admit to having been quite nervous about the workshop and my first year teaching the class.  The AP curriculum is very popular at my school, and while no one made the point explicit, the school and the parents expect results. 

I was placed in a section with around 25 teachers and the instructor we were told was a seasoned AP History teacher.  Within a few hours of the opening session I literally thought that someone was filming me for one of those spoof shows on television.  The range of abilities was all over the board.  Apart from a few competent individuals there were people without any type of history degree, some without even a basic background in US History, and even first-year teachers who had to start their careers by teaching multiple AP sections.  It was the plight of the public school system in my face.  The first few hours were spent covering the basic time-line in US History followed by the basics of primary source analysis.  I was confused, depressed, and angry all at the same time.  During lunch I met two teachers in my group who were as upset as me.  Both were recent UVA graduates from the Currie School of Education and the History Department and were currently working in public schools.  They had taken courses with such notable historians as Ed Ayers and Michael Holt and they were both extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the subject and teaching. 

At the end of the day we approached one of the organizers to see about switching into the intermediate section.  She looked at us as if we were crazy and just a bit arrogant in thinking that first-year AP teachers could handle the intermediate section.  At one point we threatened that we would leave the program and complain to her superiors if we were not allowed to switch; of course, she finally relented.  Relieved that the rest of the conference would be more interesting we walked back to the hotel and later met for dinner to joke about what we had experienced that day. 

The intermediate group was not much better, although we talked much more about the analysis of documents and the structure of the course.  I remember the reaction of the class after analyzing two WPA slave interviews only to learn that the two interviewees were one and the same person.  One of the interviewers was black and the other white so we had to explain why the interviewee would respond differently based on race.   It was a reflection of how unsophisticated most of the teachers in the room were.  This is not meant as a condescending remark as I hope to make a point about the usefulness of these workshops.  Most of the people who attend these workshops have little background in serious historical study.  They may know a great deal about what happened in the past but their ability to teach students how to engage in an analytical discussion and prepare an analytical essay is lacking.  This brings me back to my two new friends.  As I mentioned they had both graduated with degrees in history from UVA and their instructors had taught them well in terms of how to think and write about the past.  In short, given the AP History curriculum there was simply very little for the instructors to teach us. 

I was surprised by just how little the AP History curriculum deviated from the way I teach my regular US survey courses.  My students routinely write short essays in which they must make use of primary sources in structuring their thesis statement.  They are forced to think critically about every paragraph and every sentence in that paragraph.  This dovetails easily with the goal of the DBQ essay.  And any serious history teacher who focuses on critical analysis already asks questions that would fall easily into the category of the Free-Response Essay

I now see the workshop as a clear sign of how woefully unprepared many history teachers are for the classroom.  In this I agree wholeheartedly with David McCullough who has been outspoken of the need to prepare history teachers with a solid grounding in historical understanding. 

We have to do a far better job
of teaching our teachers. We have too many teachers who are graduating with
degrees in education. They go to schools of education or they major in
education, and they graduate knowing something called education, but they don’t
know a subject. They’re assigned to teach botany or English literature or
history, and of course they can’t perform as they should. Knowing a subject is
important because you want to know what you’re talking about when you’re
teaching. But beyond that, you can’t love what you don’t know. And the great
teachers – the teachers who influence you, who change your lives – almost
always, I’m sure, are the teachers that love what they are teaching. It is that
wonderful teacher who says “Come over here and look in this microscope, you’re
really going to get a kick out of this.

So, who should attend the AP workshop?  Remember that AP Central is a business and like any business they need your money to survive.  The number of workshops offered for AP teachers reminds me of the pressure and plethora of offering that are designed to prepare our students and children for the SAT and other standardized tests.  The workshops (and I venture to say that even those courses advertised as intermediate) are really meant for those people who have little background in the critical analysis of history – background that you will receive from any competent history department at the undergraduate level.  For those of you who satisfy this condition my suggestion is to enjoy the last few weeks of summer, and if you are feeling guilty go out and buy a serious historical study that could be introduced in some way in your class. 

2 responses... add one

Great post, Kevin. I totally agree with you (and David McCullough). I spent the first seven years of my academic life advising social studies/secondary ed majors (a totally new experience for me; I’ve never taught high school). I was stunned to learn that education majors spend far more time studying “education” than they do their content areas of history.

To make matters worse, the new NCATE standards for our state did not even recognize a difference between U.S. and World history for purposes of licensing–that is to say, it was possible for a student to pass oneself off as teacher of “history” having taken all coursework in U.S. and non in World subjects, or vice versa. Amazing.

As for the AP–again, great points. I work for ETS grading these essays every summer, and I can tell you the skills exhibited by the essayists are all over the map. It is easy to tell who has been well prepared and who has not, and the variation is far wider than anyone would reasonably expect. I’m not sure how to fix the problem, but it certainly is a problem.

Hi Brian, — I was hoping you would comment given your experience as a grader for AP. The fact that your state does not acknowledge a distinction between qualifications for US as opposed to World is very disappointing. Perhaps at some point I will agree to grade for AP as it might be a worthwhile experience and a way to gain perspective on my own AP experience.

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