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...