Sunday, September 28, 2008

Teaching the Free Response Question

Free Response Question Tips

Having graded the AP Government Exam for seven years, I have a handle on what it takes to score maximum points. As I said last week, after becoming a first year "reader," and realizing what it took to score high on the free response portion of the exam, my students' grades took a significant jump. I would like to pass on to you what I learned.

Here, however, is a caveat for this week's blog: I am only speaking for myself and not for College Board, Educational Testing Services, or even the hundreds of other AP Government readers. Yet I feel confident the following tips will help your students as much as they have helped mine. Here goes!

Tip 1: Look at each free response question very carefully. Each question begins with a factual root statement. Then several (usually three) sub-questions are posed. Starting with the first and working to the last, each question requires a higher level of response on Bloom's hierarchy, and in turn each will have a higher threshold for the grader to award the points. Thus, the first question may only need to identify (knowledge level), the second question may require application, and the third may request analysis.

Tip 2: Be sure to do what the questions ask. Questions typically ask to define, describe, or explain. If a question asks to select from a list, no points are awarded for that.
is asking the student to give a thorough explanation of the term, case, or item listed. Students should try to use the proper vocabulary in their explanations. Examples are helpful and can often help clarify poor writing. Define is usually worth one point.
Describe is connected to a particular activity (such as lobbying, or writing a friend of the court brief) and is asking for an in-depth discusion. Students should try to give examples and draw connections. Again, to describe is usually one point.
is asking for detailed analysis. Often the question will juxtapose two concepts, and ask for a comparison or Venn diagram type of a discussion. I tell my kids to take the time and make a t-chart or Venn diagram on the test booklet and answer the question from that source. Explain can be one or two points. Thus a typical free response question is worth 5 or 6 points.

Having the students underline or circle the action words in the question also helps ensure they do what the question ask of them. Nothing disappoints a reader more than to give an essay a low score because the student, who appears to understand the topic, does not follow the directions exactly!

Tip 3: Write a short introduction demonstrating you understand the subject . This introduction should not be long, but should demonstrate the student understands the purpose of the question. I also advise my students to write a summary conclusion. While a conclusion is technically not necessary, readers often "discover" points in the conclusion that were not in the essay. In an attempt to summarize and clarify, students can "back into a point" by giving additional necessary information in their summaries. The process of summarizing forces the writer to reflect on his/her attempt to answer the question and allows a few additional lines to "beef up" an answer.

Tip 4: It is OK to bullet the answer to match the sub-questions. As a matter of fact, as a reader on my 91st essay of the 5th day of reading, I loved bullet format answers. I did not have to hunt around for the answer in a long essay. Remember, these are free response questions and a free response answer if perfectly fine. I realize that AP hardly ever shows a bullet format answer in their samples online, but that does not mean they are not acceptable. In a day and age when young people are used to writing in short, clipped responses, the bullet format can meet the student's writing style and the reader's desire to minimize reading time per essay.

Tip 5: As an instructor, study the AP rubrics and start grading your kids in the fashion of the AP test NOW. We are all tempted to grade essays with a heavy dose of red ink. Save it! Grade on a rubric system (give old AP questions to your students and use the online rubric) and then give the rubrics to the kids and have them try to defend their answers. It will force the students to write in the style that will maximize points on the test in May.

Tip 6: The essay does not have to be long; the essay must be thorough! On a five or six point question, a one to two page essay is usually adequate. Succinct writing trumps long, flowery, wordy essays. There is no your way through an AP free response!

I was at a one day seminar in Kansas City a few years ago where a teacher was complaining that her students all wrote four to five page answers to each question and still received poor grades. Don't equate length with depth...they are often different beasts.

I hope this helps. If you have specific questions about how a free response question is rated, a comment about my tips, or just want to say hello, drop us a comment. We will love to hear from you. Until then...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Becoming an AP Grader = Becoming a More Effective Instructor

A Band of Brothers?

When I began teaching Advanced Placement Government and Politics I was totally overwhelmed by the task. The prior instructor had a phenomenal pass to failure ratio on the AP Exam, consistently producing "5" students. Upon taking the job, I knew I had to accomplish several goals. First, be as successful as my predecessor; second, create an interesting curriculum that would draw more students; and third, not just teach to a test, but teach practical government capable of helping students navigate the world of politics. My first several years were mildly successful. I did grow my program. I like to believe I gave the students a practical, in depth class. I was not, however, successful in maintaining a high passing ratio.

To be fair, it is hard to "grow" an AP program and maintain scores. If you are recruiting students from beyond the elite students in your school or district, test scores are most likely going to drop. But do they have to? Is there something we can do to be inclusive and successful?

In my quest to raise scores, I tried a wide variety of tactics including Summer AP Institutes, mini-AP seminars, meetings with other district AP teachers , and reading books and guides on improving AP scores. For a couple of years I watched scores slowly creep up. Then came the epiphany. At a one day AP seminar at the University of Kansas the presenter highly encouraged us to become AP graders. His argument was simple. It will help you become a better teacher and raise the test scores.

The grading gig sounded a bit tedious. For one week you sit and grade essays. OUCH!! I was desperate, however, and signed on and was selected by Educational Testing Services (ETS) to be a grader. My first year grading was at the University of Nebraska. The next year, my students scored much higher and I have never looked back.

Here is what you gain from the grading experience. First, you become totally immersed in the free response question aspect of the exam. Grading gives you new insight into the grading rubric, its application by the graders, and the writing methods that will give your students the best score on that portion of the test. I found that much of the advise found in self-help study guides was incorrect. Tips that I had been giving to my students that I had gleaned from those sources were not always beneficial and even harmful.

Second, the formal and informal professional sessions gave me huge insight into the workings of the exam and proven methods for teaching AP Government and Politics. During the grading week, Professional Nights are offered by College Board with selected topics to help instructors. These are always very helpful, but more helpful were the informal sessions that occurred in the evening when groups would gather and do what teachers love to do: talk about teaching. The mixing of college professors, community college teachers, high school teachers, online teachers, and others is the richest experience you will ever have. During my seven years I made close friends from Maine, Texas, Florida, Michigan, and many other states. We email constantly sharing lessons and ideas. I am never alone. I now have a band of brothers always there to assist.

I would highly encourage you to apply today as an AP Grader. ETS is constantly looking for new graders (there is a six year limit). The current grading is in Daytona Beach. Graders stay at the Hilton on the beach...not bad. The stipend is adequate, but more important, if you are looking for that edge to make you a better teacher, this is a sure fire way to acheive your personal instructional goals. Next week, winning tips on writing the free response questions. Until next time...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

AP Goes Hollywood...continued

Films We Can Use in AP Classes

A couple of summers ago at the Advanced Placement Government and Politics grading in Ft. Collins, Colorado, I sat with a group of college and high school instructors and chatted about video as an educational tool. The group collectively believed that video carefully used was an effective method of engaging some of the hard to reach students in either e-courses or in face-to-face classrooms. Here is a summary of that evening's discussion:

Hollywood loves the President, but often inaccurately. A couple of good flicks on the presidency are HBO's Truman (based on David McCullogh's book) and Oliver Stones's Nixon. With Truman, primary resources are found at the Truman Library site. Speeches, policy statements, and Presidential papers are easily accessed making unit building a snap.

Nixon is also brilliantly done, but always use caution with Oliver Stone's history. The Nixon Library online is a gold mine. On the topic of Nixon, All the President's Men is a classic. You can create a unit on the role of the press as "watchdog" as well as expand on Watergate. The Washington Post site is excellent to direct students or find teaching material. Interviews with Bob Woodward are also available on line.

If your clientale will tolerate R raged language Wag the Dog is a cynical look at Presidential misuse of office. It is not an acceptable film for high schoolers, but if you are teaching community college it seems to be a solid catalyst for discuss on government ethics (excuse the oxymoron). The president as crisis manager can be studied in the classic Missiles of October or you can opt for Kevin Costner's Thirteen Days. In either case, Robert Kennedy's book is good primary material.

If you have access to the West Wing on DVD, teaching moments are endless. On the lighter side of the topic, one could use Dave or the American President. The former really has limited teaching moments; the latter does get into the policy making cycle and the relationship between interest groups and policy.

Someone once said that there were two things you do not want to see made: sausage and laws. Hollywood picked up on that an has maded few films on Congress. I personally have used Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Filmed long before cloture rules, it is still not a bad look at Senate procedures. Born Yesterday (the remake) has some interesting moments concerning lobbying and ethics. I can't say it has much other value, but it does introduce students to DeTocqueville who is generously quoted throughout. Distinquished Gentleman is a fun flick, but very limited in educational value.

The Supreme Court lends itself to some good dramas. I mentioned Simple Justice last week. Several docudramas on the Brown case have been made, most are good. Gideon's Trumpet is a classic about the Gideon v. Wainwright case. Warren's decision, the peitition for writ of certiorari by Gideon, and Anthony Lewis' book (same title) are all excellent resources.

As far as trials and litigation, Run Away Jury (the bathroom scene with Hackman and Hoffman is worth the time) and A Civil Action are useable time permitting. These films highlight social/political/judicial issues of gun control and the environment. Twelve Angry Men is often mentioned in these discussions, but I do not feel it portrays juries accurately for the students.

Elections are of course popular Hollywood subjects. I have used The Candidate along with Joe McGinnis' book for years. Primary Colors is a thin guise of the '92 Clinton presidential primary, but again the language is highly inappropriate for a young audience. I wish there was a sanitized version of this film, but about the only way to do it is to hit MUTE.

Although this does not exhaust the discussion we had that summer evening, I will stop here. Feel free to chip in with your favorite films and their primary supporting materials. We would love to hear from you. In the mean time, I will be working on next week when I will be discussing the benefits of becoming an AP Reader. Until then...

Sunday, September 7, 2008

E-School Goes Hollywood

Using Video to Make Your Point

A couple of years ago I was invited to teach a class at a Gilder-Lehrman Saturday Academy in Wichita, Kansas. The purpose of the Academy was to promote the teaching of social studies using historical documents and introduce creative means of weaving primary resources into curriculum. Given few guidelines other than these, I created a course called "Government in Modern Motion Picture". My audience consisted of 9th through 12th graders from public high schools who were willing to sacrifice six Saturday mornings in the middle of the school year. The students received no credit, but there was no homework and free donuts. Pretty good deal!

Within this class, I married primary resources and Hollywood with thematic teaching of the institutions of government and modern policy concerns. For example, the students one week viewed the PBS American Experience film "Simple Justice" and then read Earl Warren's opinion in the Brown v. BOE case followed up by a short piece by Robert Carter (the other major attorney in the Brown case). On a Saturday morning, these kids probably learned more about the litigation aspect of the civil rights movement than many kids learn in a semester.

Let's face it...this generation of kids prefer to absorb information in an engaging manner. In the high tech, video rich world in which they live "edutainment" makes sense. Give them a compelling tale in an sensory rich environment and you can throw in the facts with few complaints. My attitude: if you can't beat them, join them.

To this end, I believe a list of highly recommended movies can be a healthy addition to any e-class, particularly in the field of social science. Of course, some caveats have to be given at the onset of releasing such a list to students. First, the students must realize that at best movies are an interpretation of life. Artistic license will always clash with actual events, so a young viewer can not rely on Hollywood to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So help Cecil B. DeMille. After all, I have the sneaky suspicion that Moses did not actually speak English with a Chicago accent.

Second, having reviewed scores of government textbooks over the years, I have yet to read one that does not show some bias and/or a tendency toward a particular ideology. Edwards/Lineberry, Wilson, Sabato, and the rest of the best for AP Government all have their bones to pick and causes to champion. In the same way, movies ALWAYS posture and often in the most liberal of ways. While this posturing is seldom subtle to cynical APGOPO teachers, the bias of Hollywood can be totally lost on a naive seventeen year old. We must give them some fair warning and careful guidance through these intellectual mine fields.

Finally, at the very best, a movie is the Cliffs Notes version of a complex topic. Having the students read Carter, Marshall, and Warren is a bare minimum in any decent introduction of Brown v. BOE. It is the ultimate fantasy, by us ever hopeful Pollyanna types, that some day the student will be motivated to pick up Richard Kluger's definitive work and delve into the facts behind the flick. Then again, I made it through English Lit with the yellow and black booklets and a Blockbuster membership. We can only do what we can do!

Next week I will get into my video selection and some of the documents I use. Remember, in any e-class format we need to rely on Netflix as a helpmate and hope the students take the initiative to view our suggestions. This means using the films as supplemental resources or, if you have face time, using them during these times. The former can again be Pollyanna and the latter not necessarily the best use of precious face time.

You might be thinking about how to best utilize video with Hippocampus or any other e-school curriculum and give me the benefits of your ideas. Blog me back and pass on the benefit of your experience. If you are teaching in a regular class setting and reading this please share some of your experiences and ideas with political science related video in the classroom. Until then...

Monday, September 1, 2008

Teaching with and Around the Election

Election 2008

Last week was quite a week to be teaching government! The Democratic National Convention lived up to its pre-show hype, and then some. Hillary was gracious in defeat and defiant in her defense of the Party. Bill gave both silent and vocal approval to the proceedings. Joe showed his willingness to be the attack dog even though the victim of his attacks will be an old and close friend. And Barack...well, Barack had his defining moment.

This week the Republicans will light up the Twin Cities with John McCain and company playing the rebuttal role. As always, the Republicans will show a dignified and united front...but this year some cracks might appear and the behind the scenes compromises will need to be ironed out before the Grand Old Party lights up their own showcase. With a surprise VP pick in Governor Palin of Alaska and Hurricane Gustav knocking on New Orleans' door who knows what will play out in St. Paul?

In the coming weeks and months, it will be difficult not to keep some focus on "the race". The media will follow the horse race effect of the various polls as their reports recount every step and misstep of both of the candidates, their running mates, and even the spouses. At this writing, the polls are showing an even race with Obama enjoying some bounce from the DNC. But we know that with gaffs (I'm not sure how many houses I own), perceptions (he is too young to be the commander in chief), and the BIG MO (momentum) polls will shift and swing on a weekly basis.

While the rat race of Presidential election is going on, the teaching points for the 2008 election season will pile up. I thought I would touch on some topics that I have already pegged as topics of discussion and bulletin boards. Here is my list:
1) The selection process for VP...factors considered by the candidate for his # 2 position
2) Presidential election strategy...where to campaign, when to throw the dirt, how to spin the polls
3) Elections ads...looking at the past classics (Willie Horton and the Daisy Girl) and the present efforts
4) Election finance...PACs, 527s, and campaign finance reform
5) The Electoral it works and should we keep it
6) The Selling of the President...I still like to drag out the Joe McGinnis stuff and see how McGinnis flies with this generation.

In the mean time, we shouldn't forget the vital Congressional election. With a slim lead in the Senate and House, the Democrats need to build on their 2006 successes. It will be a great time to watch some pretty interesting Congressional contests around the nation. This summer I read that the GOP will be defending 25 open House seats (retirements and running for higher office) while the Democrats are looking at only seven. If those numbers have held, it will make for an interesting campaign season.

In the Senate, some GOP safe seats are being challenged by strong, well financed opposition. Again, teaching points pile up including incumbent re-election success rates, PACs and Congressional elections, Presidential election year races versus off-year elections, the role of the media and polling. I suggest having the kids watch the classic Robert Redford "The Candidate" and compare issues from the 1972 film with current topics. Environment, health care, and jobs top the 1972 list. HMMMMM!

Enjoy some great moments from this week's GOP convention and as always, if you have any questions or comments we encourage you to blog in.