Sunday, December 20, 2009

Presidential Approval Ratings Revisited

How Mr. Obama is Faring

If you are like me the closing of 1st semester usually finds my classes on the topic of the Presidency. For some reason this year I am a tad behind schedule, and will need to finish the Executive branch when I return after the holidays. And that is just fine with me! I believe this is a unique opportunity to analyze the presidency. As Mr. Obama finishes his first year in office, we can look at several aspects of his administration and then apply it to the lessons in Hippocampus.

Last year I blogged on the idea of Presidential approval rating (see December 7, 2008) by directing you to look at a Wikipedia site on the topic. I would like to send you there again this year to see the (Obama) updates. As is apparent by the current polls, Mr. Obama is now at or below the 50% approval rating. Having entered office with a 70% approval rating, we have to ask why the 20% drop in his first year of office. The year has not been a disaster for the new President. The recession according to economists has lessened, the bail-outs to banks are being repaid, the war in Iraq has quieted, and the Nobel committee saw fit to award the President it's Peace Prize. On the other hand federal spending is out of control, the health reform bill is dragging through Congress, the situation in Afghanistan is now demanding a troop buildup, and a right wing backlash led by television pundits and Sarah Palin is vocally attacking the White House relentlessly. So why the drop?

Here is a lesson plan I intend on using in class when the semester resumes that will address this issue. My students have already looked at Rossiter, Neustadt, Burns, and Barber in the Hippocampus lessons and in the Lineberry textbook and we have had an opportunity to digest these in class. We have also discussed as a class the process of polling (see Hippocampus). I will now put the kids in small groups of 3-4 and have them develop a plan for the President to improve his approval ratings by developing policy statement in the areas of a) domestic policy, b) international policy, and c) economic policy. I will give them a class period to define statements from each area. They can use the Internet to develop ideas and as they work in groups I will circulate and give them suggestions and ideas. This most likely will result in some out of the classroom work. Students can so easily communicate today via email, texting, and vehicles such as Google Docs that this can be finished in the day I don't see them.

During the next class each group will present their statements to the class. As they do so, these statements will be recorded on the board. Then as a class, I will ask for a critique of each of the statements as far as how would it be received by the public, by the media, by the Congress, and by the President's party and the opposition party. I anticipate that this activity will take the remainder of the second class.

Following this, I will ask that each student write a page to two page reaction paper based on the activity speculating on how President Obama could raise his approval rating while meeting the needs of the nation and his party. I will also ask them to comment on what they have learned from the lesson concerning the chief executive and his job.

This is a messy assignment. It does not have neat boxes to fill in or specific instructions for the students to follow. It is extremely open ended, and the results of the groups and the content of the reaction papers vary greatly, which is exactly what I want to see. A wide variety of results can come from such an assignment. I first hope students really understand what an impossible job the President has trying to fulfill his many roles while pleasing his multitude of constituents. This usually comes to light as we critique the policy statements of the groups. Second, I hope the students fully understand Neustadt's idea of the President as a Clerk. As the students create policies and as we critique those policies in class it becomes apparent how dependent the President is on his Cabinet and bureaucracy as well as Congress in carrying out his wishes. Finally, I want to revisit the expressed goals of the President as a candidate and see if those goals were achievable in the political climate. This is the Burn's idea on presidential greatness. I always like to ask the students if a modern president can ever be great given the political realities of our time.

I tend to like this type of class project. It forces the students to apply their reading and Hippocampus lessons to the current political climate and analyze and predict outcomes. It is definitely an assignment on the top side of Bloom's Taxonomy. I am fortunate to have students who will take the assignment seriously and will give a reasonable effort in the groups. Since right and wrong answers don't exist for the group portion, the participation in the group is the key issue in establishing a grade for the activity. The response paper can be customize to meet your personal teaching style and student expectations.

In the end, I believe the time we spend with the students discussing policy development and the many snags that policies can create for our leaders is time well spent. Opening dialogue with the kids and encouraging civil discourse can only have positive results.

This is my last blog of 2009. Thanks for your readership this year. I hope your holiday season is happy and that your homes are blessed with the laughter of friends and family. I look forward to sharing my thoughts and ideas with you in 2010. Until then....

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Those Pesky Founding Fathers

Who Were Those Guys Anyway???

For the last couple of years, I have found more frequently that students are entering my class with some pretty heavy preconceived notions concerning government and politics. These opinions seem to be on the extreme ends of the political continuum...that is to say the kids have an unusually conservative or liberal bent prior to walking into my door. Have you also noticed this?

Class discussions that once were based on readings and lectures now become tainted with partisan politics. It seems that the confrontational banter of the more extreme televised pundits has worked itself down to the level of teen audiences and is creating a red/blue divide in the classroom. I feel like Rip Van Winkle; I fell asleep one day and when I awoke the world was a strange new political place.

The advent of President Obama's election and the rise of Sarah Palin as the populist icon of conservative America seems to be the fuel for this fire. I suppose it is only natural that as the nation moves towards moderate liberalism on one hand and grassroots conservativism on the other that the kids will be pulled into the fray. What is interesting in my classroom discussion when we deviate into these ideological detours is that the students all claim that they have the Founding Fathers on their side. Those pesky Founders!

What is precipitating this blog is that for the last couple of years I have felt compelled to interrupt my scheduled lesson plans to return to the very first unit on underpinnings and have a further discussion on the Founding Fathers. There seems to be a great deal of confusion on who these people were and what were their intentions. The deeper into the course I travel with the students the more the Founders seem to intervene. Why is this? I have a theory.

Most American like to believe that our nation was founded by a marvelous group of like minded individual. Some how we have glorified the Founders as intellectual giants, courageous in their opposition to tyranny and self sacrificing in their march toward a democratic government. While this may or may not be true, what was true was the Founders were a factious lot representing many diverse elements of the former 13 colonies. The wealthy landed, the indentured, the small shopkeepers and the yeoman farmer all had their representatives as did the western settlers, the southern plantation owners, and the urban shipping commercial interests.

I don't reject the idea that the Founders were a unique collection of men unmatched in history. I do reject the notion that they had much in common with each other ideologically, economically, or politically. Madison had good reason to fear factions...they were everywhere particularly among the nation's leaders.

On the other hand, which group of Founders do we want to point to? Only four of those who signed the Declaration of Independence also signed the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Are the grass root revolutionaries such as Sam Adams and Patrick Henry to be put in the same category with later politicos such as John Jay and James Madison? Some how I doubt Sarah Palin looks to Alexander Hamilton, the father of big government, as her role model.

The practical side of today's conversation is that maybe I need to take more time at the start of the year and clarify some of these issues. I have always spent considerable time on ideologies and political beliefs; however, in the highly charged political society we now find ourselves in it might be beneficial and save time in the long run if more time is spent initially on topics like the Founders and their philosophies. I am sure thinking that will be the case on my next go around in APGOPO.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Iron Triangle

Teaching the Triangle

I forget the year, but I remember the deafening groan heard nationwide when the Iron Triangle appeared on the Free Response section of the APGOPO Exam. Students and teachers alike were first amazed this was on the test and then dismayed that so little time had been collectively spent teaching and learning the concept. In fact, students who were using the John Q. Wilson book had never heard of the Iron Triangle unless it was a topic of their their teachers lectures. The concept is covered in a different manner with different nomenclature by Wilson.

I have always been big on teaching the Iron Triangle concept. I understand that many college professors will argue that it is over simplistic (true), demonstrates a Pollyanna approach to law making (true), and can be even misleading if not taught correctly (also true). Yet I cling to this model of law making for high school students for several simple reasons. First, it does graphically demonstrate the necessity of all three entities needed in creating good legislation. The simplicity of the Triangle is its strength. Students can relate the inter-governmental relationship between sub-committees, the departments of the bureaucracy, and the clients for whom laws are crafted. While over simplified, it is something they will remember for years.

Second, I strongly believe the Iron Triangle is a perfect way for us to bring some relevancy to the topic by incorporating current events into this topic. Since I am in Kansas, I always first demonstrate the Triangle to the students using an Agricultural scenario. The Congressional Committee is the Agricultural Committee, the bureaucracy is obviously the Department of Agriculture, and the client/interest group is the farmer across the street from our school as well as the Kansas Wheat Grower, the Farm Bureau, giant end users such as General Mills. My bill usually concerns wheat subsidies which allow us to discuss the fact that Kansas receives more government grants and aid than it actually pays in taxes. The kids can understand these concepts even though none of them actually live on a farm.

For the last couple of years my second example has been the highly controversial Air Force Tanker program. Since Wichita's economy is highly tied into Boeing Military Aircraft the tanker program is salient for the students. Many of my kids have unemployed aircraft builders in their family or neighborhood. Discussing current (and recent past) events on this issue and tying it to the Iron Triangle makes tons of sense to everyone. It sure brings the level of interest in a rather dull topic up in a hurry. It also gives us a chance to explore as a class what happens when the Iron Triangle goes wrong.

Finally, using the Iron Triangle model does allow us to ask the question: "What could possibility be wrong with this system?" (See the 2003 AP question) It seldom takes long for my kids to look at the triangle on the board and understand that PAC money could "buy" votes for committee members, that the Bureaucracy and the Interest Groups might not see eye to eye and cause conflict on the information Congress received as feedback, and that Committee oversight might cause a conflict of interest when the Bureaucracy was supplying information to the committee. I seldom have to pull these concepts out of the they look at the board they become rather obvious.

While I seriously doubt the Free Response portion of the test will ever have an Iron Triangle question again, I still maintain this is an important concept to work on. I encourage you to seek out good local examples for your presentation on the Iron Triangle. Or, as the nation follows the Health Care Reform bills as they pass through House and Senate these can become the focus of your lecture.

It was once said that two thing you don't want to watch being made are laws and sausage. As a born and bread Wisconsin boy I saw a lot of sausage made as a kid, and it wasn't all that bad. Watching laws being made can be down right exciting. You can call me "old school," but that doesn't necessarily mean "bad school"!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Teaching the House of Representatives

A Daunting Task Involving Much More Than a List of Terms

This week I will begin to start the teaching of the institutions of our national government to my AP class. This is always a daunting task knowing that a large percentage of the AP Exam will be centered on these institutions. The multiple choice questions don't worry me so much. Based on released exams from the past, many of the questions on the multiple choice section dealing with the institutions of government seem to be definition in nature...that is to say, if the kids know what a sub-committee is, they will be able to figure out the answer to the question. This isn't true of the Free Response portion of the exam, however.

If you look at the questions on the Free Response portion of the AP Exam, these often involve so much more than just knowing the vocabulary. The folks at AP don't expect the kids just to understand the structure of the House or Senate, or the roles of the Congressmen in committees, or the influence of interest groups in the legislative process. The questions posed to the students will often involve the juxtaposition of their understanding of Congress with one of the other branches of government.

This means that our job in preparing the students for the exam (and indeed for a life long understanding of the government) involves making sure that they understand the links between the House and Senate and the White House, the Federal Bureaucracy, and the Courts. This means that topics such as Committee and Sub-Committee interaction with the White House staff and Executive Offices need to be discussed. It means that the Iron Triangle needs to be thoroughly understood. And it also means that the tailoring of legislation to withstand judicial scrutiny must be become a topic of inquiry. These and many, many topics need to be touched upon.

It has taken me the better part of 40 years to get a good handle on Congress and its interaction. I don't find it surprising that they say it takes a freshman Representative his/her entire first term just to understand their jobs. And yet, we are pushing our students to get a solid insight on this complex issue in just the two or three weeks we have to dedicate to the topic. Daunting!!!

I do not believe that the textbooks or even Hippocampus can fully do the job of making the connections for the kids. That is why I believe the most important thing we can do for them is to get them following the news and really getting connected with all stories dealing with Congress. Right now we have the Health Care bills that are getting great press. The news stories in the weekly magazines and the newspapers are a tremendous source of real world examples of the inner workings of Congress. As the press is following Committee hearings, interest groups both pro and con on health reform, and the debates within the chambers of the House and Senate we can find many real world examples to help the students really get a grasp on the complexity of our legislative process. At the moment in history, the controversy of health care reform has given the congressional process a transparency seldom afforded. Take advantage of this wonderful teaching tool and bring the real world into your lesson plans.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Elections Can Be Confusing!!

Helping Our Students Make Sense of Elections

As adults who have watched countless election cycles come and go, we have a pretty good idea about the processes and mechanics of the campaign cycles. We also are able to differentiate between the elections that are simultaneously occurring. What I have discovered in my quarter of a century of working with kids is that this whole political circus that we call elections is a very confusing mess to them!!! We never should forget we are working with 17 and 18 year olds who maybe paid a little attention to the last election, but who completely ignored any previous election that happened in their lifetime. Remember, these guys were only 13 during the Bush/Kerry election and 9 years old during Bush/Gore contest. They don't have a lot of experience to work with here.

To make this worse, many of our textbooks approach the topic of elections in a very unified way. That is to say, the texts lump together the process of presidential and congressional elections and present the topics of finance, polling, campaigning, voter behavior and so on together. When the students finish reading the chapters they have a pretty fair picture, but it is blurred on the edges.

For example, in an essay on Presidential financing, I always have students want to enter into a protracted discussion on PACs. Fine, but PACs should really be discussed in congressional elections since their influence in presidential elections is less vital. On the other hand, in essays on congressional elections I will have students discuss targeting messages to certain groups which can be very relevant in Presidential politics, but much less relevant in House elections, especially in geographically small districts that are somewhat homogeneous. While these mistakes are minor in our our classrooms, on an AP Exam, they can become disastrous leading to low scores on Free Response Questions or incorrectly answered Multiple Choice Questions.

My point here is simple. We need to separate presidential and congressional elections and create lessons, essays, and assignments that will focus on each topic individually. In my classes I intentionally and specifically tell the students, "this week we are working on congressional elections!" Everything for that week to totally focused only on House and Senate elections. We have class discussions, look at the Hippocampus lecture on Congressional Elections, watch Robert Redford's The Candidate, and write essays only on congressional elections. The next week I proclaim Presidential election week and we follow suit. During discussions I always am very careful to delineate congressional vs. presidential politics. (See the blog I use with my own students on this topic: Vix's APGOPO Heights High School)

Now, the experienced viewers are saying to themselves "ah, duh!"; and rightfully so. Most of us who have been around for a while have realized just how confusing the whole election process really is for kids. We have answered student questions time and again that should seem obvious, but in fact really are not. So for you who are just getting into the teaching of government and elections, take heed from us old timers. Never assume the kids understand a thing about the process. Explain every teaching point in fine detail. For while us older, more experienced adults have watched, participated, and voted in many election cycles, for the youngsters in our class, we are awakening them to a whole new and confusing world.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Political Parties...Teaching Controversy

A Funny Thing Happened in Class This Year...

Teaching the Political Party unit in APGOPO is usually a great deal of fun. By the time students are seniors they have become aware of the political environment in the nation and many of them watch the pundits on Fox or CNN or Comedy Central and have entered the earliest stages of forming a political philosophy. This can make for a very fun class discussion on political parties...but it can also lead to controversy that can be fraught with land mines for a teacher.

With this in mind, I try to always begin a unit on political parties with a couple of class rules firmly entrenched. First, we are discussing politics and all discussion should be done as the Founding Fathers intended..with civil discourse as the basic rule. I like to relate the story of Jefferson/Adams to the students. While these two towers of the early republic differed on almost all subjects of government, their respect and admiration for each other resulted in civility that should become the model for all Americans.

Second, all statements of political philosophy must be backed up with factual evidence...we are after all Political Scientist. The science aspect has its traditions back to Francis Bacon who would argue that observation and experimentation are necessary to understand a theory. Thus in my classes if students want to expound a theory they must produce the facts. Mindlessly repeating babble from televised "experts" is not allowed.

OK, with these rules I have an activity I like to do in class. I divide the class into two groups (after giving a very brief explanation of the political continuum) based on party affiliation. Typically my classes break 50/50 Republican and Democrat, or at least near enough to do the activity. Once we are split, I ask each group to produce a large poster (I give them a 3 foot by 3 foot sheet of butcher block paper) with their concept of what their Party stands for (a) socially, (b) politically, (c) economically, and (d) Constitutionally. They are not allowed to use books or Internet...this is just an activity to see how accurate they understand their Party's core beliefs.

Once this is done each group presents to the other and then the posters are hung in the room. during the presentations I allow questioning and a free flow of ideas to happen. Step two involves some real work. Each group is then charged to view the most current (2008) platform of their Party and to tear that platform down, summarize it, and present the summary to the other group. In the process of the presentations, we compare the assumptions of the group on the Parties core beliefs to the reality of the Party's Platform. (Republican Platform Democratic Platform)

On any given year I find that intuitively the students' perceptions are fairly accurate and that while there are always a few surprises in the discrepancy between assumed Party issue positions and the reality of these positions, these tend to be minor. What happens, however, is that in the process of relating Party lines to each other, the students come to understand that while the means to achieving the end may differ somewhat, both Parties have common goals. In other words, the students are able to understand that the Parties gravitate toward moderation and that the extreme views often shouted the loudest in the media are not the core values of their respective Party.

Several things happen in this exercise. First, students learn to discuss political ideologies and philosophies with civility. Second, students better understand the Party that they believe best reflects their own budding ideologies. The former is a valuable lesson for not only the class, but also for entering life. The latter can either entrench a student in their early ideology and party identification or it can challenge them to reevaluate the values they thought they held.

This year I did have a problem that never occurred before. In one of my classes I ended up with 95% of the class claiming to be of one party, leaving only a couple of students to shoulder the work in the other party. What was interesting was that after the first day, several of the student in the major party came to me and asked it they could switch groups. While one issue drove them initially to one party, the more careful study of the platform demonstrated to them that the other party's umbrella was more inviting.

Here is a fun twist on this project...make the groups look at the Platform of the opposing party and then make the presentations. The results end up very similar, but it puts a new light on the process. The bottom line in teaching the political parties is to embrace the controversy while encouraging the civility.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Teaching Federalism

A Tough Topic in both the Classroom and American Political Life
Every year as I begin to think about teaching the concept of federalism I cringe. Do you? This is just a tough topic to get the point through to the students. I can't think of any topic in American history or American current events that has had a greater impact. Yet the concept of federalism is just hard to get across. Later in the year as we start to look at important Court cases, federalism creeps into many of them. Obviously Brown v. BOE was central to the federalism problem...can the Court order states to desegregate schools? Wasn't education a state power neither given to the national government nor denied to the states. Yet the Fourteenth Amendment clearly forbade the states from denying the civil rights of its people. Again, in the Gideon v. Wainwright case Florida's case was simply that it did not have to appoint lawyers in non-capital cases. It came down to the issue of federalism in the end.

In the newspapers today we see federalism challenged by states that wish to ignore the full faith and credit clause in the case of gay marriage. And last week in Kentucky a federal census worker was brutally murdered and "fed" inked on his body. There seems to be a renewed call to state's rights in every corner of the nation. So in short, federalism matters. This isn't an irrelevant issue of philosophy to be bantered about. This is a topic the students need to understand and understand well. But how do we do that?

This year I am taking a strong vocabulary approach to the subject. Hippocampus and my textbook do a good job covering the topic, so I am hammering on the vocabulary of the topic and making sure that the understanding is not superficial. To that end, here is the list of words I have generated to focus on during class time. I started this exercise by having the kids list on the board every term they could think of that had to do with federalism. I then linked those terms together and helped them clarify their definitions.

  • Supremacy Clause
  • Elastic Clause
  • implied powers
  • enumerated powers
  • shared powers
  • concurrent powers
  • delegated powers
  • Commerce Clause
  • 10th Amendment
  • 14th Amendment
  • full faith and credit clause
  • privileges and immunities clause
  • dual federalism
  • layer cake federalism
  • Federalist Papers #16, 17
  • cooperative federalism
  • fiscal federalism
  • marble cake federalism
  • carrot and stick policies
  • grants in aid
  • block grants
  • categorical grants
  • revenue sharing
  • formula grants
  • mandates
  • unfunded mandates
  • nullification
  • McCulloch v. Maryland
  • Gibbons v. Ogden

What makes the teaching of federalism so difficult is that all of these terms are quite vital. The above list is not just a scattered group of sort of connected thoughts...they are are totally relevant to understanding the concept. I really believe that if the list is not mastered by the students, then they will be missing huge chunks of the concept in their minds.

The trick is to drill these terms and concepts into the students without totally losing them in the process. In today's world, not an easy job. Yet I am convinced that it is the job at hand.

I may have missed something on the list, I did it from my memory which at my age is a dangerous thing to do. Let me know if I need to add something. In the mean time, start hammering away at these. It seems to me it has been a while since we have had a pure federalism question in the free response section of the AP this the year????

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Blog Number 1 for the New School Year

Welcome Back To the HippoCampus Blog

A hearty hello to all of the faithful readers from last year and any new members of the HippoCampus Teacher Blog. I am excited to be back in the saddle and shooting out ideas, lesson plans, and topics for you to consider and use in your classroom. As a veteran AP Government and Politics teacher, an experience AP Grader, and a life long learner, my intention again is to share ideas that you are welcome to adapt to your teaching situation. I also encourage you to utilize the comment section of this blog and add any ideas of your own to the discussion. I never pretend to have all the answers and I look forward to learning from your ideas over the course of the year as I share mine.

This year the blog is scheduled to be updated bi-weekly, but I may slip in some ideas and comments between the scheduled posting dates. So stay tuned!! I also encourage new readers to check out topics that are archived from last year's blog. While I may make some references to ideas given out last year, I am going to make every attempt not to simply repeat those past thoughts. The archive has some great ideas in it you may want to view and use.

That being said, I want to venture into this week's topic...reading the Constitution. As you follow the HippoCampus curriculum we start the year with a good discussion on the underpinnings of our government's traditions. This, I believe, is essential background information for the students to acquire so that once they begin examining the major documents of our government they can have a reasonable understanding (and hopefully discussion) on the original intent of the Framers and the ramifications of that intent today. Without some cursory knowledge of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Paine the students will simply not get the work of Jefferson, Madison, and the cast of characters present in the convention of 1787.

This said, I believe we can move through the Underpinnings fairly rapidly until we reach the Constitution, at which point we need to apply the brakes. A few years ago I read a survey by a major US newspaper (and I admit I don't have this with me right now so please trust my memory) but when asked how many people had actually read the Constitution the number was shockingly low. If memory serves, the percentage was quite a ways below twenty percent. When further questioned, most of those surveyed actually did not know the difference between the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence.

With our AP students we can not let this happen. I strongly suggest that if you are not having the students do a thorough reading of the Constitution you amend your lesson plans (excuse the pun). I like to take an Article by Article look at the document by breaking the class into groups and using the Jigsaw method. The students are not only asked to report back what the document says, but what was their interpretation of the original intent of the individual clauses they read, keeping always in mind the historical content. Thus when the students are reporting their sections to the class, I attempt to draw out the intention and ramification of the sections.

For example, when in Article 1 the students tell me that the House members serve for a two year period and I will ask why two years? Depending on their response I will ask whom did the Framers assume would be the Representatives. In 1787 would it have been reasonable to assume a Representative would run more than once? Was it possible then for the House to see a 100% turnover in an election? Was that a good or bad thing? Is a two year term reasonable in the 21st century? What has changed?

I had some very stimulating, thought provoking conversations come from this type of in depth examination of the document. But here is the takes time and time is not always available. You need to pick and choice your topics to discuss very carefully and be sure to not squander too much time on interesting subjects that fall off of the AP radar. This is the tough part. I also want to add that I spend most of my time on Article 1 and Article 2 and then move much more quickly through the remainder of the Constitution. Section 8 and Section 9 get a great deal of attention during the time with Article 1.

The bottom line is simple...however you do it, make the kids read the Constitution with a careful eye to the details and intent. This will make the rest of your year so much smoother and so much easier when you are all speaking the same language in class and have a common starting point.

In two weeks I intend on discussing Federalism. This is a tough topic for the kids and is often a tripping point on the AP Exam. Until then, have a great start to the school year....RV

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

AP Reading is Completed

Sorry for the Glitch...

Sorry that I did not live up to my blogging promise from the reading this year. I had a glitch with my laptop that was not repairable until I returned home. I didn't mean to leave you hanging...sorry!!!! The picture to the left is one of the incredible sunrises on Daytona Beach. The majesty of these events seemed to be outdone with each and every new day.

The reading went very well this year. We finished the entire project about 1/2 day early! Now that is smooth work. The thousands and thousands of essays were completely graded and we had an afternoon to enjoy the beach and the local shops and restaurants.

Monday was a bit of a sad day for me. My schedule for the next couple of years will not allow me to return to the reading, so I had to spend some time saying good bye to friends I have enjoyed for the last 8 years. I must say that life long friendships are developed at the AP Readings. I continually communicate with three or four people in particular that I have graded with over the years. Even this year, in my last year, I met some very interesting people that I really regret not getting to know over the years.

Again this year, as every year, the informal sharing with some of the best teachers in the nation was a real privilege. You would think that after 25 years of teaching I would know it all (ha ha) but again this year I picked up several great ideas for teaching AP from conversations in the evening. I would really like to try some of these ideas next year, and I will give you some specifics on them at the start of the year in my early blogs and then let you know how they work out as time goes by.

I did meet several Hippocampus Government users at the reading this year. I enjoyed hearing their feedback, both good and bad, and intend on passing the information on to MITE. One user in particular was an old friend from the Colorado grading who wasn't aware I was involved with Hippocampus and had not been a reader of my blog (HMMM!) She was telling me how great Hippocampus was and shocked to hear I was involved with it.

In general, the food was great this year. Grading AP can be a bit like being on a cruise...they really feed you and if you aren't careful you can gain a ton during the reading. On Monday night to celebrate the completion of the reading we had a Prime Rib dinner complete with all the trimmings including incredible cheesecake for dessert. The travel arrangements this year were the smoothest since I have been doing AP Reading...all arrangements were made online and the travel service really outdid themselves on getting the best flights for us.

Rumor has it that we will be in Daytona Beach for one more year. Next year the Comparative Government Reading, which has traditionally been with US Politics, is moving to Kansas City. Rumor also spread that in two years APGOPO will join them there...this is totally unofficial so don't bank on it, but many readers would like to try a new local just for the change of scenery. KC is a great town with tons to do in the evening! We will have to see. Again, this is speculation, nothing official on APGOPO was said by ETS.

I hope you all enjoy your summers. I expect to begin this blog back up in August, so look for new entries then. I intend on doing a great deal of bike riding, camping, fishing, reading, and relaxing and getting my reserves filled for another great year of teaching. Until then.......

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Thursday In Daytona

OK my friends...

If you look at the picture you might notice it is a bit different than that of the other day. Storms are rolling in off the ocean, the beach is empty, rain is coming down, and another day of reading APGOPO is finished. Those are not blue skies in the pix, those are dark dark gray skies!!!

In the dead quiet of the reading room inside the Ocean Center we could hear the rain beating on the roof as the squalls moved inland this morning. As a land lover from Midwest the ominous skies and rough seas looked pretty bad. The locals, however, said this was nothing. I will take them at their word, but it looks pretty scary to me!

I had a great day reading today. Everyone is saying that the reading is going extremely smooth, which is great news. As a reader today I really felt confident in the job and was able to enjoy reading the students' answers. All in all, the day seemed to fly by and now I am ready for the evening. While the weather outside isn't the best, tonight is Professional night and as I mentioned earlier, D'Andra Orey (PHD) is giving an address on race and elections. I have know D'Andra since I first read on a table with him at the University of Nebraska. He has done some outstanding work in this area and I am anxious to hear his address.

First, however, I am headed down to the workout room and put a little time in the gym followed by a little dinner. Speaking of which, we get fed pretty darn good here! We get the three squares plus morning and afternoon snacks at break. I have to get into the gym just to keep the pounds off. This isn't a bad gig...great food, a room with an ocean view in the Hilton, great friends, opportunities to get intellectual stimulation....what's not to like?

Hard to believe tomorrow is Friday already. Another day of reading is in store; I'll let you know how it goes. Until then...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Day Two of the Reading

Good evening my friends...

Yes...that's me standing in the ocean. I had a really cool video of the sunrise this morning, but for some reason I was having trouble downloading it...I'll try tomorrow

OK, other than standing in the ocean, I actually got quit a bit of work done today. We did grading in earnest more calibrating. The grading room, which had a buzz of conversation yesterday, is dead silent today as 600 readers are busy scanning your student's essays.

Scoring the AP test is a complex task. The buzz from those who know is that the flow of essays seems to be rather smooth as the readers are dealing with the intricacies of applying the scoring rubrics to the essays.

So what does this mean? Overall, the reading is going super. When one stops and thinks of the enormity of the job you realize what a great job the folks from ETS do in preparing for the readers to score your kid's essays.

Tonight we had a College Board Open Forum night. Tomorrow D'Andra Orey will be the main presenter for the Government and Politics Professional Night. Most of us have taken time to spend a little time on the beach, do a little shopping, or just visit with old friends. There is always plenty to keep us busy in our off time.
I will keep you posted tomorrow. Until then...

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Day One of the Reading

Dear Readers...

Well, Day One is over. Today began the process of readers learning their jobs and beginning the readings. For the readers there is always an air of anticipation and excitement. I always feel like a kid on the first day of class on this day.

The first day is always a bit arduous, the process of internalizing the rubric is not easy. We read, discuss, debate, and eventually reach a consensus that allows us to grade many, many essays fairly, quickly, and accurately. As always, ETS is organized to the max and we are off and running in great shape.

The weather here today was great with temps in the 90's, a slight breeze (great for para-sailing), and clear skies. We had a great treat this afternoon about 6:00. The shuttle mounted on top of the Boeing 747 flew right over the beach on its journey back to Cape Kennedy. What a sight for us from the Midwest who never get to see such sights. The locals were a bit less amazed than we were. You could tell tourists (AP Readers) from locals; we were all focused on the Shuttle, the locals never even glanced up. Hmmmm!

Tomorrow grading starts in earnest. We are all very excited to get started. We will start getting packets and the reading will begin. If you were thinking about coming to Daytona Beach this year, but didn't apply, be sure you apply next year. The weather is great, the fellow graders are the best people in the world, and while we have a hard job, we have a great deal of fun. I'll fill you in more tomorrow. Until then...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Sitting In Daytona Beach...Wish you were here

Dear Readers...

Here I am in Daytona is Monday evening and after a long, arduous day of travel I have finished a workout in the fitness center, had a nice dinner of fresh salad, fried chicken, and corn, and am drinking a cold glass of lemonade while writing this entry to all of my cyber friends.

Sitting with me is my good friend from Texas, who is celebrating his 17th year as an AP Reader. He and his fellow table leaders arrived three days ago and have been hard at work for the last two days learning the rubrics, reading essays, and learning the job of a table leader. Like my friend, most of these folks are veteran readers who know the ropes and completely understand their jobs; however, the folks of Educational Testing Services (ETS) are thorough in all of their procedures.

Tomorrow all of the readers will have arrived and the actual reading will begin. The day will go as follows: first, we will be given our questions and all of the graders for each question will be given a "seminar" by the Question Leaders on the grading rubric. Following this we will go to our tables where each table leader will be prepared to help us internalized the rubric. We will begin reading essays as a group making sure that each reader is grading exactly like every other reader. This process of calibration will last the entire day and possibly in the next morning.

Tomorrow is a critical day for the individual reader. He/she will become an expert on the question assigned to them. The rubric will be totally internalized until it's application becomes second nature. By the end of Tuesday and the beginning of Wednesday, the we will be off and running in a full blown grading session. The first day is critical in giving the reader confidence in the rubric and their ability to apply it in all situations.

According to my friend, the first two days of this year's reading went very smoothly. Rubrics were presented and tweaked, the table leaders had great dialogues on the questions furthering their understanding of the grading, and the actual reading of questions was concise and productive. These are all signs of a great year.

I am excited to get with my table leader tomorrow and begin reading what the students had to say. As I am sitting at my desk on the 11th floor of the Hilton listening to the surf pound the sandy beaches of Daytona I am thinking about having a great day tomorrow. I will report back tomorrow evening and let you know what is happening. By the way, thanks for staying with me at the end of your school year....until then...

Monday, May 25, 2009

My Last Regular Blog Post for the Year!

Dear Readers:

I have a hunch many of you have already abandon me for the year! Your school year is probably over, or like mine, grinding to a slow death. There is something sad about the end of the the school year for me. Every year I look back at unfulfilled promises of the late summer and early fall. Kids I wanted to reach, lessons I wanted to teach, goals I wanted to achieve. Somehow there are always kids that "get away" from me...ones who I wished I could have made better connection with. I always end the year wishing I had taught something different. And the thing about goals is that they are just that, goals. Some get accomplished, some don't. The great thing about the teaching profession is that there is always a next year. It is what keeps us coming back, staying fresh, and becoming better at our craft.

This is my 43rd blog entry for this school year...and I am not finished yet. A week from today (I am writing this on Monday, Memorial Day) I will be flying to Daytona Beach (see the picture) for the AP Government and Politics Reading. Once there I will be doing a daily blog with interviews from readers, questions leaders, and hopefully the chief reader. I will try to keep you up to date on what is happening during the reading, how questions are progressing, and what to expect for grades from your students.

I hope you will follow along with me on this adventure. In fact, I hope that I inspire some of you to join me in the future and help with the reading process. I have said several times this year that if you are a fairly new APGOPO teacher, the thing that will improve your teaching the most is participating in the Reading. This well could be my last year of AP reading. It will be my eighth year and the following two summers I have vacation plans that will conflict with the reading schedule. So, this year, follow along with me in virtual reading land and next year head to Daytona in person!

I would like to take a second to thank my friends at Monterey Institution for Technology and Education for underwriting this blogging effort. I truly have appreciated their encouragement, patience, editing, and suggestions during this year. Their dedication has insured that Hippocampus remains an outstanding on-line teaching tool. Teacher supports, such as these blogging efforts, demonstrate the commitment to maintaining a user friendly education site. Great job MITE!

Next week...on site coverage from the APGOPO Reading in Daytona Beach...until then...RV

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Looking at Small Changes

What to do Different Next Year

My seniors are officially gone. Tuesday will be their graduation ceremony, but as of Friday, they left the building and began that long journey to further education, careers, and hopefully, great lives. Before they left, I did ask them what they liked and disliked about my class. I also asked them what seemed to be the most effective teaching strategies in so far as preparing them for the Exam. Notice I didn't ask what they liked to do the most...but what was the most effective in preparing for the test.

Based on this very informal survey, I will make some small changes next year. Not huge earth shattering changes to my style of teaching or assignment structure, but changes should be made none the less. Here are some of the things that I will probably do next year to save time, make teaching more efficient, and try to adjust to the ever changing learning styles of students.

1. First, I am going to cut back a bit on the historical aspect of political science. College Board seems to be less interested in the historic aspect of political science these days, and much more interested in the juxtaposing of the branches of government, the institutions of policy making, and the linking institutions that bring people and government together.

What exactly does this mean as far as change? I believe I will spend much less time on the Federalist Papers and the Constitution Convention itself. I will also spend much less time on colonial development of democratic institutions. I will also cut out some of the time spent on the documents of the colonial and early republic periods. While I believe these are very important, I have spent a great deal of time in the past with these items (mainly due to my love of teaching them) but have seen almost no questions for several years on the Exam over this content.

For those of you thinking that I am walking on thin ice here please notice I said I will spend much less time...not cut out completely. I think a quick look at the Federalist Papers is still in order and a review of the Constitution Convention is mandatory, but I will severely slash the minutes spent on these topics.

While I don't believe in ''dumbing down" a course, the kids struggle with the Federalist Papers to the extent that I am not sure how much of the actual texts need to be read and how much can be summarized. I know for some of you I have just uttered a profanity, but folks, I teach in a low income school with not always the best readers and if anything I am a realist. I want to challenge and prepare my kids to reach their highest potential. I just don't believe in beating a dead horse to make it move. I do use the Woll Reader which has vital excerpts from the important Federalist Papers which I think is the adequate amount to prepare them for the Exam. For my top kids who look for more challenge I can give extra readings and still not loose the bulk of my class.

2. Interestingly enough, the kids told me that lecture was the number one way that they felt they learned the most. Yet I am planning on much less lecture. I have a series of over 30 power points (if you would like a copy of these let me know and I would be glad to get them to you) but I will probably never use them again. Instead, I am relying almost entirely on the Hippocampus presentations outside of the classroom as the "lecture" for the kids. In class, I am going to make the time more of a dialogue/discussion.

Why? A couple of reasons prevail. First, I hate being the recipient of the Power Point lecture. They are boring! About 90% of our district's in-services are done as Power Points and I tend to sleep through most of them. Am I that boring to my kids????? Lets hope not, but I don't want to take any chances. Power Points have their place, but I have cured my last insomniac; there has to be a better way!

Second, as the demographics of my students have changed over the years, I find that while my current students are as bright as those I had 10 years ago, they tend to be poorer readers, in need of a more stimulating and entertaining delivery of information, and a bit less motivated to hit the books for hours after class. More of them work jobs, participate in extra-curricular activities, and have less structured homes. I need to reach these kids slightly different than those I had a decade ago. It isn't that I didn't reach them this year, but I can improve! I have only been at this job 25 years and every year I can learn something new. If I expect my kids to be life learners and be willing to adapt, then I better show the way!

Thus, out with the Power Point and in with the dialogue/discussion. I am intending on making these multimedia using Internet sites, video clips, and short reading handouts. I am still in the planning stages on this, so I will discuss it much more next fall when we resume the Teaching Government Blog. I also did an in-service on pod casting this year (it was done with Power Point and yes, I did snooze some) which peaked my interest...what if I pod cast my lectures and place the PP notes on my class blog??? HMMMMM!

3. I want to incorporate a great deal of cooperative learning using G-Docs. While I don't want to use power points any longer, I do want my kids to make more of them. G-Docs will allow me to put the kids in teams, have them create projects on important topics, and then monitor who is doing what using the review features of G-Doc.

I was turned on to this over Christmas this year when my son's girlfriend told me that G-Docs were used in her business (she is an automotive mechanical engineer for one of the Detroit automakers). She asked if I utilized G-Docs in my classes. When I pleaded ignorance, she showed me examples and gave me a quick orientation on the "software" found within Google.

Again, I am going to explore this much more this summer and next fall I will report back to you what I am doing with the G-Docs, but it will become a part of my curriculum and will add to the project based nature of my classes.

In short, this summer I am seriously going to review how much of what topics I am spending time on, I am scrapping 15 years of developed power point lectures for a more interactive, dynamic classroom, and I am looking into using Google tools for cooperative project development. I still intend on fishing some too!

I will keep you posted on my progress. Until then...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Quick Look at the Free Response for 2009

Not A Difficult Exam for the Prepared Student?

My kids came back to my room this year following the exam looking like the cat that swallowed the canary. They were very confident that they had done well on the Exam, especially the Free Response portion. On Wednesday, we looked at the Free Response questions, analyzed their worth, discussed likely rubric approved responses, and estimated our scores. They were right!!!! They did do well, very well indeed. So lets look at this Exam this week and see what was in it.

Question Number One had an extremely long and descriptive stem this year. After a summary of the purpose of Federalist #10 (previous knowledge of #10 was not required) and a statement concerning majority rule three tasks were asked. First, the students were required to identify the House of Representatives as the branch most closely linked to the citizens. Students also needed to be able to explain why (frequent elections, direct vote, smallest constituency). This would have been worth 2 points.
Next they were asked to explain two Constitutional limits on majority rule (term limits, indirect Senate elections, electoral college) for two more points. Finally, they were asked to pick from a list of three choices and explain two 20th Century developments that made the US a more democratic political system. Softballs such as the 17th and universal suffrage were obvious options. Primary elections may have been the more challenging choice in the list. In all, a relatively easy 6 point question on the basic underpinnings of the US political system.

Question two was also based on the underpinning of government and focused on elections as a linkage institution. The first task was quite easy, asking students to explain how age and education equated to voting patterns. Part (b) asked for one electoral requirement that hurt voter turn out (registration seemed to be the most obvious). Part (c) simply asked students to identify either the media, political parties, or interest groups as alternate linkage institutions and explain how the one they selected connects citizens and government. Again, this was an easy six point question that most students should have done well on. Hippocampus covers this material very well, and even gives a special chart to help students understand this.

Question Number Three was straight out of the Hippocampus unit on the legislative branch. Again a lengthy stem gives students a great deal of information on the concept of partisanship in Congress and then asks three tasks. First, students needed to identify two advantages the majority party has other than voting (the Speaker of the House, controlling committees, setting the agenda, controlling who goes on what committee, controlling the Rules committee in the House, being able to filibuster with 60 votes in the Senate). Part (b) checks to see if students know the basic differences between House and Senate procedures and Part (c) attempts to clarify student knowledge from part (b). This was probably a five point question and again, if students had reviewed how a bill was made in Hippocampus, this should have been another softball!

Question Four was a graph question, but a very easy to read graph concerning age and media news gathering. Again, this question required students to know the policy making cycle of government from the first unit in Hippocampus. Part (a) was a pure definition question on what is the policy agenda. Part (b) asked how the media was a linkage institution...several of my kids claimed to have answered this in question Number 2 (c). Part (c) was looking for a discussion on the changing face of media and part (d) was a simple chart interpretation. Part (e) was trickier, but not impossible. It asked students to discuss how a president could manipulate the media to project his/her policy agenda to the public. This appears to be a six point question with very little challenge for most students.

Ok, my initial impression is that this was an extremely easy exam for the kids IF they were well grounded in the underpinnings of democracy and the flow of issues from linkage institutions to policy makers to actual policy. With very basic electoral knowledge and very fundamental Congressional knowledge, this was a very, very doable test! Of course we will have to wait and see the scoring rubrics and how tight or forgiving those rubrics are. Sometimes very easy questions have very tight rubrics and the scoring is more difficult that first thought. We always hope for forgiving rubrics that leave a bit of latitude for the students, but we will see.

Well, this year is over!!! The next couple of postings will be covering what I will be doing over the summer to prepare for next year. It is never too late to start planning and next year I intend on doing a few new things with my classes that I would like to share with you. During the first week of June I will be doing a daily blog from the grading site giving you up to date information on how the grading is going, interviews with readers, table leaders, and question leaders, and information on how you can join us next year. Until then...

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Big Day is Finally Here

Now Can be a Time for All of Us to Learn!

OK my friends, here is a new one for you...I am speechless. Some of us started in August on this quest to impart the mysteries of US Government on unsuspecting high school students. Others had to unfortunately start in January with the same, but more daunting task. Now is the time that we will find out just how well we did. Monday at 8am the games begin.

Frankly, as I am sitting in my favorite coffee shop downing shots of espresso and typing this, I am nervous. What are those pesky Free Response Questions going to cover this year, and did I do an adequate job of coverage in class on those topics? Will the Exam resemble the practice questions I drilled the kids with? Are there impossible to read charts and graphs this year on the multiple choice portion? Are the political cartoons so obscure that the artists weren't sure of their meaning? What esoteric Court case will pop up and baffle the masses? These and more questions race through my head. But in the end, we are finished and now it is up to the will they do?

The next time I see the kids, I will do a couple of activities that will give me some insight on how they did on the exam and how I did as a teacher. First, we will discuss the multiple choice test. What were the difficult questions can they remember? How many questions did they leave blank? Were there political cartoons and what were they about? Were there graphs and charts and what were their topics? These are all debriefing questions I will go over with the kids in an attempt to ascertain just how well they think they did. The big question for some is, "did you finish on time?"

Second, we will look at the Free Response Questions( you should be able to get the booklets from the test administrators 24 hours following the exam). With these we will first figure out how many points each question is worth. This means giving each question pretty intense scrutiny.

Second, I will give examples of answers that I feel will be on the AP Readers Rubric and then ask the kids to self grade themselves. We will actually do this as a class in a discussion setting.

Finally, I will ask the kids if they felt I prepared them well for the questions. This last part can be brutal. I demand the kids be honest... and they are!!!

I have done this activity for 12 years and explain to the kids that their honesty makes me a better teacher for the future years. Over the years I find I have to apologize for less and less, but even now I sometimes just don't give the coverage on a topic that I need to give. I also ask the kids how they could have learned hard topics better. Would a project on Federalism helped? Would a cooperative learning activity on Civil Rights better ingrained the ideas and facts? If you can take the blunt truth, the kids will hone you into a better teacher and give you insight into what you did well, and what you can do better in the next year.

The truth can be painful...but our goal is to always be better teachers and meet the needs of the kids in front of us. I have been doing AP long enough to be able to say that a decade ago my students seemed to be more interested, better readers, better writers, and maintain a higher level of motivation. But frankly, that doesn't matter. My current students are great kids, just as bright, but in need of different types of teaching styles and different levels of teacher involvement. I need their input to improve my craft and help make them as successful as my past students were. Now is the time for that input. I hope you will take advantage of the last few days of having your students and learn from them how to become the teacher they need.

Next week I will have a chat on my class discussions following the Exam, and on this year's exam questions. Until then...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Count Down...T-Minus 7, 6

Using the Last Week Constructively

OK folks, the final count down begins. I get pretty nervous/excited about right now. As a teacher I have invested almost nine months instructing, guiding, honing, directing, and cajoling my young charges in the hopes that all would pass the AP Government and Politics Exam. I have given lectures, reading assignments, essays, quizzes, tests, group activities in every size, shape, and format that I could invent. Now it all comes down to them...have they learned?

The last week before the test can be important in the entire process. 8:00 am on May 4th is fast approaching, and as the students start to feel the pressure and begin cramming for the Exam you can be a huge help. Two weeks ago I discussed writing the Free Response Questions. If you missed my blog, skip back and take a look at it. One day this week could be used to review the writing process and looking at for clues into writing point earning answers. Having student practice a couple of questions time well spent. I even let them do the practice in pairs. This takes the pressure off the students, gives them a chance to communicate and collaborate on an answer, and makes the review process less stressful.

A second day this week could be used for looking at the multiple choice section of the test. Last week I had a discussion on this, so again, if you missed that blog take a peek back at those suggestions. One thing I encourage my students to do is take a practice test (this can be done in class or as homework) and grade it using the AP method (number of right answers minus 1/4 number wrong equals points off for blanks). I then ask them to take the questions they missed and analyze what type of question it was they missed using the Alisal High School site's question classification. This may help them understand why they missed the question: was it wording of the question's stem or wording of the several choices? Was it the type of question? For example, students seem to struggle with the "sequencing a series of related ideas or events" type of question. Was it the time factor? If the student can identify a problem area and come and talk with me, we can usually work things out and develop a comfort zone for the student on the problem area.

One other thing I will be doing this week is using Hippocampus. I will start with the 1st section, Underpinnings and Documents, and using the glossary, will go term by term until I get to Civil Liberties and Civil Rights. We will define each word and have a quick discussion on the concept. I will also throw out questions AP might ask concerning a word. For example, the term Linkage Institution might draw a question from me such as: "describe 3 ways he media can have an effect on public policy". Or for Policy Making Institutions I might ask: "Describe 3 ways the Courts can affect public policy". It can be a bit of an ardious task going through all of the terms, but for several years now students have come back after the Exam and have said it was very effective in triggering their recall and recognition memory.

I am preparing for a wild week with the kids. Prom, spring sports, graduation, and other AP Exams are competing for space in the kid's gray matter. I hope I get a cell or two for APGOPO! We have all done our best...we will just have to wait and see. As they say, the die is cast. Have a great week and I'll write a few comments next week on Exam Eve! Until then...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Reviewing for the Exam

Multiple Choice Review

Last week I had a discussion on the Free Response section of the AP Government and Politics Exam. I hope you found a few ideas that were useful for sharing with your students. I don't pretend to know everything about the Exam, but after Reading for seven years, serving on the Question Writing Committee one year, and teaching AP for what seems an eternity, I have a pretty good handle on how students can be successful. To sum up my advise from last week: read the questions carefully, follow the commands exactly, be neat and organized, and write succinctly.

This week I wish to have a short discussion on the multiple choice section of the Exam. This, as we all by now understand, is a 60 question test. The students have 45 minutes to complete the test. This is different from some of the AP Exams that give the students 100 minutes. They need to work very efficiently to get done in time. During the year I give my students 20 question quizzes on each unit and give them 15 minutes to do the quiz. I try to prepare them for the time limit. Every year I have students return from the test saying they did not feel they had adequate time to do the multiple choice. I believe some of this is test anxiety, but some of it is good kids struggling to complete a very difficult exam.

A couple of things to remind your kids before they begin on the multiple choice section of the test. First, and most obvious, read the question carefully. I tell my kids to be an active reader. Underline key words, circle words that would be critical to the answer (such as "except" or "always"), and look for patterns in the answers that help to understand the question.

Second, be sure to tell the kids that guessing is not always the best policy. One quarter of a point is deducted for each wrong answer. If a student can not narrow the selection of answers down to two and make an intelligent guess from the two possibilities, then guessing may be costly.

Leaving too many unanswered questions is also a problem however. While the student does not get penalized for an unanswered question, it cut away from correct answers. I always tell my students that they need to get at least 40 correct answers on the multiple choice. If you leave 10 unanswered, that means you don't have much room for error on those you do answer.

The multiple choice questions fall into three basic types of questions. The simplest and often easiest to answer are the identification questions. These usually are asking students if they understand a principle, concept, or term. Reviewing vocabulary and basic facts will help in the studying for these types of questions. The next type of question are the analysis questions which go beyond simple identification and ask for interpretation, compare/contrast, or cause and effect. Like the Free Response Questions, the multiple choice questions are scaffold. AP test writers include easier questions, moderately difficult, and very difficult questions. The higher threshold of questions determines the "5" student from the "3" student.

The final type of question, those that ask for interpretation from graphs, charts, political cartoons, or other data sources can be the most difficult and time consuming of the questions. These questions will give a data input and expect students to use their understanding of the topic to interpret the data and find the correct response to the question. During the year it is important to give students charts, graphs, cartoons, quotes, and other data sources and have the students respond to these in writing. At this point in the year, a short lesson on reading charts and graphs would be a good reminder of these skills. It is also good to go do a short lesson on analyzing political cartoons and give students examples.

Sample AP multiple choice questions are not hard to come by. AP Central has 20 or 25 sample questions (see the hyperlink) for you to look at. I have found several useful sites online also. Alisal High School Social Studies Department in California has some great test taking strategies. They break down multiple choice questions into categories and discusses how to answer these types of questions, and have a breakdown of the percent of topics covered on the Exam. I highly recommend looking at this site. I do not know who is responsible for developing the information, but it is very complete and should be helpful to your students.

60 question tests are also available from the many AP study guides available at your favorite book store. The Princeton study guide has the best tests in my opinion. I do not like the Barron's tests as well. The questions are less "APish" and actually more complicated and more difficult than the actual test. Peterson's tests are pretty good and look much like an AP Exam. REA's guide is also good, and they have come up with a CD with tests that are good. I have a small library of these books that I have purchased and lend to the students to use in study groups. Browsing the study guide section of Borders, Barnes and Noble, or local book stores will give you an idea of the large number of offerings available for you to suggest to your students. Sparknotes also has a 4 page quick study guide that I recommend to my kids for the last minute cramming session. It only costs a buck or two and has all the important facts of government in chart form. I suggest to the students to get in groups and quiz each other on facts from the charts.

May4th is fast approaching. We should all be in review mode pretty soon. We have had the year (or for many of you only this semester) to impart knowledge, now it is time to prepare the students for the exam and review those areas most covered by the test. We all have a busy two weeks ahead!! The picture this week is the convention center in Daytona Beach where 600 or so Readers will begin the grading process in the first week of June. If you happen to be there this year look me up. I will be doing a daily blog keeping you posted on what is happening at the reading with pictures and interviews from Readers, Table Leaders, Question Leaders, and hopefully the Chief Reader. Until then...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Writing the Free Response Questions

Some Tips from a Reader

I feel it is important that your students really understand the construction and style of the AP Exam. As we all know, there are two parts to the Exam; part one is the sixty multiple choice questions that need to be answered in a 45 minute time span. Sample questions can be found on-line in the so-called Acorn Book. Part two is the Free Response portion with four mandatory questions that need to be answered in 100 minutes. This is the part I would like to discuss this week.

First off, if you are unaware, the last 10 years or so of AP Free Response Questions are available on-line at AP Central. This is a site you should go to with your kids and really go over very carefully. First, they list the questions from the previous year. It is important that your students understand the way the questions are written and what is expected of them. As an AP Reader I am amazed every year how many students do poorly on a question simply because they have not taken the time to read and understand AP expectations. This is very avoidable!

Each question will begin with a factual statement concerning the topic. For example, question number one in 2008 started with: Congressional reapportionment and redistricting are conducted every ten years. When redistricting is conducted politicians often engage in gerrymandering. This should clue your student into the subject including: reapportionment, redistricting, and gerrymandering. I have my students underline or highlight the important key words in this opening statement of the question. On the side of the page I also tell them to make notes on any other word, phrases, Court Case, or current event that might come to their mind. So in this case in the margin of the test booklet they might note: census, Baker v. Carr, one man one vote, losing or gaining Congressional seats, moving district boundaries, and party interests.

These are all things we discussed in class when we did the unit on reapportionment (Hippocampus unit) . The key teaching point for your students right here is don't ignore this factual statement....use it! Too often as an AP Reader I see where a student starts to answer the questions without taking a moment to read this opening statement resulting in a total misunderstanding of what the topic is about.

The next portion is a series of short questions labeled (a) through (d). Have the students look at Student Performance Questions and Answers. This will explain the purpose of the questions and what the question writers were looking for in the answer. If you look at the Scoring Guide, you can see the actual rubric Readers used in evaluating the responses. A few years ago I was on the question writing committee at the AP Grading. I learned a great deal about the writing of these questions. You too can understand this process by reading these descriptions in the Student Performance Question and Answers. (Incidentally, my proposed question appeared on the 2006 Exam)

There is something important to notice about questions (a) through (d). They start fairly easy with question (a) which asks for a simple definition and a simple explanation. The definition will be worth one point and the explanation is worth one point. Most students should be able to gain these two points. Question (b) again is a definition, but a bit more difficult. AP expects most students to be able to understand redistricting, however it is a bit more complex than reapportionment. Part (b) is worth one point. At this point, most students should be able to have gained three points on the question (Q #1 is a 7 pointer).

Now, the threshold for difficulty increases. Question (c) asks not only what gerrymandering is , but the question seeks to determine if the students know the goals of the state legislatures when they attempt to gerrymander. Question (d) is extremely difficult asking the students to know and understand two limits the Supreme Court has placed on the states during reapportionment and redistricting. AP understands that part (c) is getting to a place where students need a fairly sophisticated understanding of the issue.

Notice that while part (c) is pretty tough, it is worth two points and student might be able to gain one of the two. The same with part (d). While this is a hard question, if you have covered the idea of one-man-one-vote, Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims, and discussed the concept of fairness in redistricting, even an average student may gain one point.

Part (d) is just down right difficult. AP knows that. It also understands that only a select few students will be capable of answering the question correctly and completely. These are the "5" students who make up a small percent (about 12%) of the nation that year. This scaffolding is intentional and you will notice it on all Free Response Questions.

So, how did the nation do on this question? The Student Performance Question and Answer will give the students some clues and the Scoring Statistics show that national mean score was 2.68 with a standard deviation of 1.77. Very roughly translated, a student who could get 3 points on Question One would be about average in the nation. A student with 5 points on this question might be in line for a total score of 4 on the Exam, and a student who could get 6 or 7 points might be on schedule for a 5!

Here is the point I make to my students: maximize your points! Look at the question carefully. Try to estimate how much each part is worth (it isn't exactly rocket science) and then answer as as full as possible trying to be sure you get the point for each question segment. I also emphasis this...there are no points deducted for incorrect or false statements. False statements in the Free Response are simply overlooked by the Reader. So if your student said, "gerrymanding was named after Jerry Mander, a famous map maker" I would laugh, but I would not deduct points. My point: tell the kids to write as much as possible on each part of the question and don't worry if you give a detail or two incorrect. Also, try to include any current events or historical events that would back up your answer. You can not write too much!

A final point is formatting the answer. As an AP Reader I will read several hundred answers in a day. I will be back-checked by my Table Leader and even double checked by the Question Leader, but ultimately, I will be responsible for the grade on your student's paper. Students need to format their answer in a concise, organized manner that is easy for me to read. You will notice on the example the students did not write actual essays. If you are having your students write essays on the Exam, you might actually be hurting their chances for the best grade. Here is what I tell my students.
  • Write an introduction demonstrating you understand the concept in the factual statement and including some of the additional information you noted next to it on your test booklet.
  • Answer each question segment and include the letter to show what you are answering (a), (b), etc. Do these in order as they appear on the Exam. (As seen on the samples on-line)
  • Include examples from history, current events, Court cases and so on when ever possible to supplement your answer. This can help me as a Reader understand your answer better.
  • Write a short conclusion summing up your ideas and the concepts you remember from the question.
The introduction and conclusion are not necessary; however, I can not tell you how many times students have an additional point awarded for information in these two paragraphs. Readers actually have a term for these "out of place" points...we call them backing into a point. Often students will say something just a bit different and add just the right terms or words in the introduction or conclusion to allow us to give them the point from one of the questions.

The above picture is 1/2 of the AP Reading facility in Daytona Beech. In the first week of June me and 600 of my friends will be there, busily reading your student's Free Response answers. The room will be dead quiet as we use the pre-determined rubrics to assess how much you have successfully taught this year. We will be reading over 125,000 tests...over 500,000 Free Response answers. It is an daunting job, but in six days we will finish the task. Consider joining us next year. AP is always looking for new Readers. It is hard, but rewarding work and the week in Daytona Beech is a blast. Until then...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Last of the Bill of Rights

A Quick look at the 8th, 9th, and 10th Amendments

This is the last week I will dedicate to the Bill of Rights. Mainly this week I will discuss the 8th Amendment and in particular the cases dealing with cruel and unusual punishment. A quick couple of comments on the 9th and 10th Amendments and we are done!!!

The students should know the entire Bill of Rights! However, it would be accurate to say that parts of the Bill of Rights are somewhat ignored by the AP Exam. For instance (and concerning the 8th Amendment), I know of no time in recent years when a question on bail has been asked. Nor has the excessive fines clause been a topic of much concern. Teach this stuff, but don't over teach it.

Cruel and unusual punishment, however, has received some notice. This of course concerns the death penalty. I would not be surprised to see (in the next few years) a Free Response Question concerning some aspect of this. The death penalty has been in the news and in the Court a great deal in the last few years and could be on the minds of those constructing potential questions for the Exam. I try to avoid guessing what College Board is asking, but it doesn't hurt to try to think like test makers and cover your bases.

Those bases as far as Court cases are concerned are fairly limited. I think it is essential to cover Furman v. Georgia. The Supreme Court basically ended the death penalty due to the capricious nature of sentencing in Georgia and other states. Most states responded by enacting a bifurcated trial system. This was tested in Gregg v. Georgia and the Court responded by saying that while the death penalty was extreme, the two trial system ended the arbitrary nature of sentencing and thus the punishment could be carried out with Court approval. At least part of the Court's approval.

Since this time, many states have allowed the death penalty to be a part of their punishment for murder and rape. My home state passed a death penalty in 1994, but has yet to carry out the punishment. We have a fairly large number of persons on death row, and within the last couple of weeks we added two more. The state is considering ending the death penalty however due to cost which amount to about 70% more than non-death penalty cases that are similar. Obviously this is a controversial topic and one AP might pick up on.

As far as the 9th Amendment is concerned, the issue of Privacy is the most important. Of course the two major cases are Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade. You need to run the kids through these and they should understand the Court's logic. It is always possible to see a privacy question on the Exam, but I wonder if AP doesn't stay away from Roe due to the explosive nature of the topic. Is there a more knee jerking issue in America today?

The 10th Amendment needs to be covered and explained, but we should have covered this fairly well in the Federalism Unit. I always revisit the 10th and really emphasis how the central issue in many incorporation cases became a battle between the 10th and the 14th Amendments.

My deepest apologies to my faithful readers if this long discussion has killed your interest in this blog. I promise this is the last time that I subject us to such a tedious discussion over so many weeks. I did it to help the newest of the AP teachers who are wondering what to cover and what they can pass over. I hope for the new teachers, this was a helpful instrument.

Next week my discussion is on the actual writing of the Free Response answers. From a Readers view point, what are the do's and don'ts for the students. I will share with you things that the Readers really love to see, and the things that will hurt your student's chances of getting maximum points on their answers. Until then...