13 January 2011

Since I stopped teaching to the [AP] test

Last year my AP class was a bit happy-go-lucky. They had a sort of attitude that went like this:

"Well, I understood that pretty well, that was awesome!"
"I didn't get that at all. Oh well! What's next?"

This year, not so much. This year's class is more like:

"I understood that, cool!"
"I didn't understand that at all. I'm dropping this class at Christmas. My life is over."
"We don't do anything fun anymore."

So I feel like I couldn't possibly say "back to the drawing board" one more time, but here I went anyway. I took a good hard look and determined that what we were lacking was focus. One of my students said something to the tune of "We should do a unit on dating." I pointed up at the title of Unit 2: "La red interpersonal." We did an entire unit on interpersonal relationships and they didn't even get the focus. So I thought, where do the students think this is going wrong? Where do I think this is going wrong? What can we do that might improve it while still preparing them for the exam (and more importantly, to communicate better with the Spanish-speaking world)?

1- They hated Triángulo. They groaned every time we pulled it off the shelf. I mean despised. So I decided to move to (almost) entirely web-based sources for assignments and my own topics and questions. I still can't find anything else that has as much and as good of a replication of the AP's interpersonal speaking (simulated conversation) as Triángulo, and that whole 20-second- talk til the beep thing just freaks them out.

2- They didn't understand the sources on their own in enough time to put together a good oral or written synthesis or argument. We were doing too many oral presentations and essays within a unit. So it started to feel like "here's a source, here's a source, here's a source, bam, good luck, say something, go." Their heads were spinning and often a few of them were still confused on what exactly the question was after 2 or 3 had already given their presentation, or well into writing their essay.

So, we focused. And I mean really focused. I took the same unit themes I have in my AP syllabus, and the same general idea, but we focused it completely so that all the assessments use the same idea, and the oral presentation and essay use the same sources, and we all discuss and walk through the sources together, and then they do their presentations and essays.

Take the unit on ecoturismo. The focus was that they were trying to convince either their classmates or the school administration to take them on an ecotourism trip to Costa Rica instead of their regular trip to Disney World, or write a letter to the director of an ecotourism-focused resort, etc., depending on the assessment, but all about the senior trip, ecotourism, Costa Rica, and issues involving indigenous peoples in Latin America. And you can bet at the end of the unit, no one even thought about wondering if we'd done a unit on the environment.

So, some of them are still frustrated, because they wish it were easy, and they wish they didn't have to do anything, and well, they all have senioritis. But the class has focus, and it's not about the AP test anymore--I hope I've finally convinced them of that--and things are looking up. And in the spirit of doing something fun, they've written so many essays that in this current unit I'm suspending the essays in favor of a video using our Flip camera.

I've never been a fan of teaching to the test. I should have lectured myself about this a long time ago.

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