Assessing the AP Course in American History: A Few Thoughts

This year I am serving on a committee that is assessing our school’s AP program.  Our responsibilities include surveying teachers in various subjects as to their experiences as well as completing a report based on our findings.  I decided to write-up my thoughts regarding the AP American History course. 

This is my fourth year teaching the AP course in American history and during that time I have thought quite a bit about the pros and cons of the curriculum.  This critique should not be interpreted as a more general analysis of the AP program since my experience is specific to the course in American history.  The curriculum emphasizes breadth of knowledge that covers the entire expanse of American history along with relevant knowledge in world history and analytical writing skills.  At the center of the curriculum is the Document-Based Essay (DBQ) which tests students’ ability to properly interpret a set of primary sources as part of an analytical essay.  Students who score a 4 or 5 on the exam [graded on a 1 to 5 scale] have demonstrated mastery of the content [80 multiple-choice questions] along with strong writing and interpretive skills.  The AP History curriculum has much to offer both teachers and students.  For teachers with little or no training as historians the AP curriculum offers a taste of the skills that define the historical process.  Students looking for a course that goes beyond the traditional survey course can expect to be challenged in the areas of content mastery and analytical writing and thinking.  The AP History curriculum arguably serves best those schools looking to offer an advanced course in history that do not have the resources necessary to offer viable alternatives. 

While I acknowledge that the AP History curriculum has much to recommend it it has prevented me from teaching the kind of course that I believe to be appropriate for advanced learners.  The fundamental problem is that the AP course leaves little room for divergence.  Teachers are forced to cover a wide breadth of material superficially, leaving little time for in-depth analysis; semesters feel like a race against time rather than a serious exploration of historic events.  This is exacerbated by a reliance on textbooks which force teachers to schedule the year around individual chapters.  Chapters typically receive the same amount of attention even if the instructor acknowledges a hierarchy of historic events.  In other words, the Civil War and Reconstruction may receive the same amount of time as chapters that are not deemed to be as significant.  The adherence to a strict schedule is also frustrating for students as conversations and debates are often cut short.  Students also get bogged down memorizing facts that by any standard are not important.  I often find myself spending entire classes making sure that students understand the factual information.  I am the first person to admit that any serious history course must be driven by mastery of information, but that content should be tailored to the other skills to be included in an advanced course. 

I am confident that I have the skills and resources to develop a more creative and flexible curriculum that still demands rigor.  In fact it may even be more demanding and rewarding for students.  My advanced or honors course would look very different from my current AP course.  Perhaps the most significant change would be the a move away from the textbook as the core text for a short list of secondary sources.  A range of studies, including books and articles would be utilized to provide students with a more accurate understanding of how history is written and often rewritten.  Such an approach would immediately move the focus of the course away from history as memorization to interpretation.  Different approaches to the study of history could be introduced such as gender, social, racial and political history.  Topics could also be organized thematically rather than along strict chronological lines that define the textbook format.  In addition, textbooks almost always sacrifice interpretation for a narrative that is neutral and exhaustive in terms of content.  Class discussions would focus as much on factual content as on the decisions made by individual historians that enter into any analytical study.   

Primary sources and DBQ-type essays can easily be introduced.  More importantly, the narrowing of topics will leave more time for research-oriented projects that allow students to engage in serious research that utilizes online databases such as the Valley of the Shadow project out of the University of Virginia.  It is only from doing research that students learn to think as historians.  Students in Charlottesville have access to one of the largest archives at the University of Virginia as well as local historical societies.  Any number of projects could be assigned that would provide hands-on experience handling primary documents.  I do not mean to suggest that various supplements to the textbook or additional assignments are not possible in an AP course, but that the schedule makes it very difficult.  Again, there is always a calendar hovering overhead that serves to remind the instructor and students that it is time to move on. 

Over the past two years I’ve felt held back by the AP curriculum.  I don’t feel as if my talents are being fully utilized in the classroom.  To do so would involve having the freedom to create a curriculum for advanced learners from the ground-up. 

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Thanksgiving and 20th High School Reunion

That’s right…I decided to attend my 20th high school reunion which will take place on Saturday in Atlantic City, New Jersey where I grew up.  I made the decision to attend a few weeks back though I am still a bit ambivalent about the whole thing.  That said, I am sure I will have a great time and enjoy having the opportunity to catch up with old friends.  I had a hell of a lot of fun in high school, plenty of friends, and very good teachers.  My high school was one block from the beach and three blocks from the closest casino.  Need I say more?  [The photograph to the left is of me and my friend Gary Poetsch, which appeared in the yearbook in 1987.  I don’t think I ever lost that smile.]

As much as I look forward to seeing those friends I wish I had an opportunity to talk with a few of my teachers.  My English teacher, Mrs. Goldstein, took an interest in me even if I showed little interest in her class.  The only books I read in high school were by Ayn Rand which influeced my thinking on just about every subject.  Mrs. Goldstein was a rabid liberal, but she never dismissed me though on more than one occasion she admitted (in her usual pleasant manner) that I was one of the most obnoxious students ever to set foot in her class.  I don’t doubt it for a second.  I have no doubt that Mrs. Goldstein would be horrified to hear that I am now a high school teacher, though I would like to think that her facial expression would change after talking with me for a few minutes.  There isn’t much left of that obnoxious – narrow minded young man.  I would like to think that I bring just a bit of her passion for teaching and ideas to my own classes.

Even better I will get to spend Thanksgiving with my family, including my grandmother who is 94 yrs old and still going strong.

I wish all of you a very happy Thanksgiving.

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Is This Really A Hate Crime?

Some of you are no doubt aware of the story out of Montgomery, Alabama surrounding the vandalizing of a Confederate statue.  Last week the faces of Confederate soldiers were painted black with “N.T. 11 11 31” spray painted in reference to the anniversary of Nat Turner’s insurrection execution in Southampton County, Virginia.  Before proceeding I want to make it clear that this type of behavior is unacceptable and if caught the perpetrators ought to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

That said, I am intrigued by the talk of “hate crime” as a proper characterization of the act.  From today’s Montgomery Advertiser:

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center said while the action was “very objectionable,” painting over the face of a statue of a Confederate soldier was not an attack on all white people. The vandalism insulted people who respect the rule of law or admire the memories of the old South, said Potok, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project.  “It’s more an attack on the principle of the old Confederacy, but not to all white people in general,” Potok said Thursday.  He said a hate crime targets an entire group of people who share a common link such as race, religion, disability, nationality, gender, or sexual preference.  “If these vandals had written ‘death to whitey’ or ‘all whites must die’ it would have been a hate crime because it attacked an entire class of people,” Potok said.

Of course, representatives of the SCV and UDC disagree:

But representatives of the Alabama Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans want the defacement to be investigated as a hate crime.  The historical group is offering a $1,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the vandalism that occurred sometime last Saturday night.  Pat Godwin, a Selma resident and a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, inspected the damage Thursday.  She said she believes the reference to Turner is what makes the incident a hate crime.  Godwin said the numbers represent the date of Nov. 11, 1831, when Turner was executed for leading a slave insurrection in Virginia. The revolt resulted in the death of 57 whites.  “This speaks loudly to me as a white person that whoever defaced this monument must hate all whites by honoring Nat Turner, who slaughtered innocent white children by decapitating them in 1831,” Godwin said.

On the face of it I tend to agree with Potok.  This is not necessarily directed at all white people given that not all white people identify with the symbolism or history of the statue.  Godwin’s argument is on shaky ground for the simple reason that the reference to Turner could have been intended to honor a “freedom fighter” along with a statement pointing to the lack of statues honoring African-American history.

On the other hand, what both statements have in common is the implicit assumption that the perpetrators are black.  Now if I were a betting man I probably would agree, but it is worth asking whether that assumption tells us more about ourselves than anything about this particular crime.  It could very well be white southerners that are responsible for this incident, and it may also be the case that they are making the very same point that might motivate black southerners.

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Walking the Road from Slavery to Freedom With John Washington

[Click here for photographs from the day.]

I don’t really know how to begin this post about my experience yesterday in Fredericksburg other than to say that it reminded me of just why I find the study of history and the Civil War in particular to be so important.  It was a whirlwind day that began in the afternoon with a tour of John Washington’s Fredericksburg through his own words and memories.  Michaela and I were honored to be included in the afternoon tour which included Ruth A. Washington, granddaughter of John Washington and his great-great granddaughter, Maureen F. Ramos.  I was conscious throughout the tour that they were hearing the story of their ancestor for the first time.  For me it was a meaningful and entertaining way to broaden my own understanding of the past through the words of an actual participant.  However, as much as I was moved by Washington’s own words for Ruth and Maureen it was a much more personal and profound experience.  [The photograph at the left includes Ruth (l), David Blight, and Maureen (r).]

We toured various parts of the city, including the Farmers Bank where Washington lived for a time.  While on the second floor and in the hallway outside the room that probably served as his living space John Hennessy read from one of the most moving sections of Washington’s narrative:

The Night before Mother left me (as I was to be kept in hand by the old mistress for especial use) she, mother, came up to my little room I slept in the “White peoples house,” and laid down on my bed by me and begged me for her own sake, try and be a good boy, say my prayers every night, remember all she had tried to teach me and always think of her…

Then and there my hatred was kindled secretly against my oppressors, and I promised myself If ever I got an opportunity I would run away from these devilish slave holders–The morrow came and with tears and Lementations cars left with all that was near and dear to me on Earth.

One of the gems of the tour around Fredericksburg was a stop at the Minor – Maury House.  John read a few passages about slave life from the diary of Mary M. Blackford and then took us to the rear of the home where we could see the etching of slave names on the window of one of the buildings which was done as a reward for their learning to read.  Apparently Blackford went out of her way to defy the laws which made it illegal to teach slaves to read.  [Click here for the image.  I was intrigued to hear at this stop that nine black Fredericksburgers are buried in Liberia.  [In the photograph to the left you can see John Hennessy, Ruth, and Maureen by the window.]

From there we drove to the Taliaffero House where Washington also lived for a time.  We saw the slave quarters in the rear of the house which is believed to be where Washington lived at one point.  The structure is in remarkable condition and as luck would have it just as we were finished the owner pulled up and allowed us to peak inside.  The floors and beams are original and I can only imagine what Ruth and Maureen were thinking as they walked through.  I should point out that the two had flown to Virginia from Tampa yesterday morning and Ruth is 89 years old.  She didn’t miss a beat which was all the more impressive given the spectrum of emotions that the two exhibited.

Our final stop was the point along the Rappahannock River where on April 18, 1862 – and with the Union army opposite Fredericksburg – Washington crossed to his freedom.  John and Professor Blight made it a point to remind us that while our tendency is to see suffering and hardship for the residents of Fredericksburg following Union occupation for many it meant freedom.  Washington’s description of that moment can be connected to the experiences of thousands of black Americans whose memories have been forgotten by a nation that has since 1865 worked to distance the war from the central theme of emancipation that the slaves themselves helped to bring about:

Very soon one, of a party of soldiers, in a boat call out to the crowd standing around me do any of you want to come over–Every body “said no,” I hallowed out, “Yes I want to come over,” “all right–Bully for you” was the response.  and they was soon over to our side.  I greeted them gladly and stepped into their Boat, as soon as James (W’s cousin) saw my determination to go he joined me and the other young man who had come along with us–

Before morning I had began to fee like I had truly Escaped from the hand of the slave master and with the help of God, I never would be a slave no more.  I felt for the first time in my life that I could now claim Every cent that I should work for as my own.  I began to feel that life had a new joy awaiting me.  I might now go and come when I pleased So I wood remain with the army until I got Enough money to travel further North This was the First Night of my Freedom.  It was good Friday indeed the Best Friday I had ever seen Thank God–xxx–we were all asstire [astir?] very early next morning for the soldiers had a sad duty to perform. [Washington witnessed the burial of Union soldiers killed while taking Falmouth.]

About 12 of us went to dinner and I was lucky enough to sit next to Ruth and Maureen.  They are both educators which gave us quite a bit to chat about.  Ruth still volunteers three days a week reading to children in the early grade levels.  It was also a pleasure to be able to talk to Professor Blight whose work on Civil War memory has been so influential and inspiring to me.  During dinner I asked all three to sign my copy of a A Slave No More which, unlike most of my books, I will not mark-up but keep as a memento of the occasion.

The highlight of the entire day was a dramatic reading of sections from Washington’s narrative which took place at the Fredericksburg Baptist Church.  Readers included Dominic Green, S.J. Cordell-Robinson, Sarah Poore, and John Hennessy who provided a stirring narrative that placed Washington’s life in its proper historical context.  The reader’s voices blended perfectly with one another and were interrupted only by the beautiful voice of Jim Thomas who sang a few appropriate slave spirituals.  I was very impressed with John’s narrative which began with the word ‘silence’ repeated a few times to highlight the amount of time that Washington’s voice, along with so many others, have been ignored or forgotten.  John brought the story to a close by noting that “the silence is broken” – and indeed it has.

David Blight touched on the importance of Washington’s narrative and the story of how two slave narratives ended up “on his lap.”  Finally, both Ruth and Maureen addressed the crowd.  Both of them thanked the city of Fredericksburg for their hospitality and the chance to reconnect with their past.  Rather than try to quickly summarize what they said I am going to wait until I’ve thought about it a bit more.

Finally, I want to thank John Hennessy for including me and my wife in yesterday’s events.  To say we had a great time would be an understatement.  John is doing groundbreaking work with events like this.  In my mind yesterday was a triumph for John on a personal level, the National Park Service and the city of Fredericksburg.  I hope the success of yesterday will translate into additional projects within the NPS that continue to push the boundaries of what it means to do public history.

Congratulations John on a terrific event that I will not soon forget.  Now take a few days off and relax.  You can find a few more photographs here.

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Look…It’s a Black Confederate

Blackconfederate

See the story here.

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