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Pushing Toward APUSH: Online Resources to Help Students Prepare for the AP US History Exam

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Friday, April 3rd 2020 came amidst a worldwide pandemic and self-isolation among most of the students and teachers in American High Schools. Comprising a decent chunk of those high school students are ones who are preparing to take Advanced Placement exams. On this particular Friday, students and teachers learned not only when the exams will be but also what students will need to do to demonstrate mastery and earn college credit. The “high stakes” world of AP testing became even more high stakes for AP History students when they learned their entire exam score hinges on a single Document Based Question, or DBQ. And while students have undoubtedly been schooled in the art of DBQ writing all year long, the College Board’s announcement heightened the awareness of students and teachers about the necessary work ahead in the next few weeks.

So, fellow teachers and students, where do we go from here?  

What shall we focus on between now and the new APUSH testing date of May 15th? First, breathe. Lighten the emotional and mental burden for your students. Next, focus on the fundamentals of the History DBQ.  Finally, help your students engage with some engaging resources that will help them supplement their DBQ and earn those “Outside Evidence” points. If there was ever a group of individuals who could contextualize our current moment and help students make sense of its meaning, it would be History teachers.  

Forgive Anxiety and Uncertainty - for Yourself and Your Students

Your students, along with mine, are anxious. Some of them might also be bored, stressed, fearful, or something else entirely, but the anxiety of the unknown is tough to escape. Mostly Juniors and Seniors across the country take APUSH. These are students who are seeing varsity competitions disappear, proms cancelled, spring/senior concerts shelved, and perhaps most importantly, uncertainty about what Graduation will look like, if there is a ceremony at all. Forgive them their anxiety. It’s warranted. What we can do as teachers in this moment is tell them we understand; tell them they aren’t alone. Their anxiety and uncertainty is shared not only by students across their city and state but across the country and world. That isn’t meant to add to their burden, it’s to help them understand that we are all experiencing this pandemic in the moment. The world is all together and as students and teachers of history, we know those events are rare. Frankly, as I have checked in with my students over Zoom for the past few weeks, I have been struck by how much they enjoy and miss each other. As seemingly insignificant as the remainder of a school year or an AP test is, it’s something familiar. Let your students know that their best effort is all they can give, and that you’ll give yours in return.

Re-focus on the Fundamentals

Over the next few weeks, focusing on a few fundamentals of the History DBQ should pay dividends for your students. Here is what we know: Students will have 45 minutes to respond to a single Document Based Question. Although the College Board has stated that Units 1-7 are fair game for the exam, the DBQ itself will focus on Units 3-7. That still leaves students faced with any and everything from 1754 to 1945, which if you’re new to U.S. History (I hope you aren’t if you are taking or teaching this course) is a fairly meaty period.  Although the list of topics to review is lengthy, it means paying special attention to those topics that bridge across units like American identity, immigration, changes in technology and economy, reform movements, and debates about the power and role of the government. For the DBQ itself, the number of documents provided by the College Board shrinks slightly from 7 to 5 and the scoring still relies on students forming a solid thesis, providing contextualization, and demonstrating that you understand the point of view of the document and how it is relevant to the argument. In the new 10 point rubric, students can earn an additional point for providing outside resources, and only one of the 10 points will come from “demonstrating a complex understanding” of the prompt. One sliver of hope for students is that they can use their materials - textbooks, notes, handouts, etc. Some students will be tempted to use their resources as a crutch. That will be a mistake. The ability to sift through materials and make sense of them, in addition to writing a decent DBQ, in 45 minutes is probably not reasonable. What students can do, and what you can help them with, is developing a clear guide for earning their points. What key phrases or transitions can they use to make sure the reader doesn’t miss the point?  How can students be sure they are crafting a thesis and not just rephrasing the prompt? These are the skills they can hone and resources they can create over the next few weeks.

Ready Resources: PBS LearningMedia and Ken Burns in the Classroom 

Finally, help students maximize their chances at earning the “outside evidence” points. There are two points available this time around. This is one of the most significant changes to the AP History DBQ rubric. The key question for teachers and students is where to spend your time between now and test day. What sources may provide the greatest potential payoff. I suggest paying a visit to the greatest American documentarian, Ken Burns. During the COVID-19 crisis, Ken Burns has worked with PBS to re-air some of his best documentaries.  PBS’s new site “Ken Burns in the Classroom” is a fantastic repository for film clips, documents, images, and even lesson plans. For the APUSH exam, I would suggest starting with “The Roosevelts.” This wide ranging documentary covers key concepts in nearly 100 years of American History. Topics like Imperialism, Progressivism and Reform Movements, and changes in Presidential Power are central themes in the collection. My personal favorite is the “Powers of the Presidency” media gallery. It tackles foreign and domestic policy, Progressive and New Deal Era reforms, and the increased power of the President in a coherent and seamless manner. The rest of the Ken Burns collection allows teachers to search by era or film, and find resources by keyword or theme. The best part is that you can share these resources with students - in 5-7 minute video clips and via Google Classroom - without suggesting they binge hours and hours of Ken Burns documentaries (although they could certainly spend their time less productively). Beyond the Ken Burns in the Classroom collection, PBS LearningMedia itself provides an easy platform for teachers to pull resources for practice DBQs and outside resources. When filtering your search for High School level U.S. History, you can easily browse by era and sort your results by media type. Create a practice DBQ on immigration/migration or imperialism for your students by searching for images, documents, or video clips.  

This Year’s AP Students: Prepare and be Part of a Historical Experience 

Students willing to forge ahead, undaunted by their circumstances, to demonstrate their learning on this year’s APUSH exam should be applauded. Their teachers should as well. Between now and May 15th, ease your students’ fears. Let them know that one day, APUSH students will write about their historical experiences.  After that, focus on the fundamentals. Help your students craft resources to make their writing clear and their points decipherable. And last, arm your students with some quality outside resources to take advantage of that extra rubric point. Take advantage of the work that Ken Burns has already done; tell them to “PBS and chill.”  You can do this, and so can your students.

David Olson

David Olson Educator

David Olson is a veteran teacher and leader in Social Studies and Civic education. He currently teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics, Criminal Justice, and Modern U.S. History at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, WI. David believes that many of his lessons are best accomplished with digital content, saying, “When I have my students experience life inside a solitary confinement cell using a VR headset – or [invite them to] create their own political advertisements, it sparks their curiosity and leads them to think of new problems to solve.”

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