Getting my AP fix


The very first time I spoke to my friend-turned-boss Eric about the possibility of teaching at Research Triangle High School, he was quick to point something out.

“We’ll only have freshmen the first year, so no U.S. History or AP.  But in a couple of years…”

Anyone who knows me knows that my passion in teaching truly lies in American history.  I especially love teaching AP U.S. History.  I love it enough, in fact, to go grade essays eight hours a day for seven days every June.  So the thought of having to wait until 2014-15 to teach it at my new job was a bit of a bummer, but since the rest of the gig seemed so awesome, it was far from being a deal-breaker.

As I’ve previously shared in this space, since we only have freshmen, every student at the school is taking World Civilizations, a very broad overview of the scope of global history from ancient times to the present.  As we’ve gotten further along in the course (we’re currently wrapping up the Middle Ages), I’ve come to enjoy it a little bit more; for the most part, though, I care very little for the content of the course.  Teaching ninth graders is also not historically my forte, but as with teaching the course, I think I’m probably getting better at it.

Still, I missed teaching AP.  I miss the more in-depth discussions, the writing, the rigor of it.  Then one day while working at my desk after school, I overheard Lara Pacifici, our lead biology teacher, talking to another colleague about setting up some of her brightest students to work on AP Biology as an independent study.

I sat there for a second, dumbfounded.  How did I not think of that?  At Robinson, we had a few students over the years study on their own for AP World History, and they always talked about how easy it was and they usually scored well.  The thought that I could do that at RTHS, for whatever reason, had never even crossed my mind.  I had also begun to notice a core of strong students who were quite obviously bored and not being challenged in our mixed-level, differentiated classrooms, try as we might.  An opportunity to give them some AP-level coursework might be good for all parties involved!

That night, emboldened, I went to the bookstore and grabbed one of those test prep books – most people get them for the GRE or LSAT or ACT or whatever, but they also exist for every AP course – for AP World History.  I got home and leafed through it, and decided that it was totally doable for some of our top students.  I then went through my class rosters and decided who I thought had demonstrated the necessary chops to potentially pull this thing off – out of 105 students I teach, I emailed about 15 – and decided to talk up the possibility to them.  A few students came to me after that and asked to be included.

So yesterday, after setting up a Moodle page for the AP stuff and giving the kids some of our famous flipped videos to watch in advance, we had our first meeting with 14 students.  We’re only going to meet for about an hour once a week until after spring break, when we’ll increase two two days a week (the exam is May 16).  The good news is that I apparently covered the right stuff in our regular World Civ class, because yesterday all we had to do was review the ancient civilizations and societies, going into a little more detail on each one.  The way we did it, though, was so refreshing for me.  I divided up the kids into groups of 2 or 3, assigned each of them one of six ancient civilizations that the College Board says that AP World History students should be expected to know, and set them loose on a Google Docs presentation to create one slide each about their assigned civilization.  And they actually got into it!  They started adding tidbits of knowledge that weren’t really required, they added pictures, they explained their slides to the class afterwards without just reading their stuff verbatim, and at the end of the hour, they had a wonderful presentation that they can use to review this stuff before the test.

Eric and I have often mused during conversations in his office about missing “the nerds”; we’re both former AP teachers and quiz bowl coaches, after all.  It’s been probably the hardest part of adjusting to the new job – not having the older kids around that you can joke with and have adult-like conversations.  But yesterday was a small taste of it for me, and I think it’s going to be mutually beneficial.  The students get the opportunity to be pushed and possibly earn some college credit, and I get to teach some high-level stuff and be intellectually stimulated myself.

Everybody wins.


Undefeated, Pt. 2

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Back in August, Research Triangle High School’s first-ever athletics competition ended in victory when our cross country team smoked the field at the East Wake Early Bird Invitational.  At the time, I joked that even though it may not last, we were undefeated for the moment.

A trend seems to be developing.

Our boys’ basketball team has had a bit of a rough existence since practices began in October.  Since we have no gym, we have to practice off campus (the team also gets in some time during lunch in our parking lot where we have two portable goals set up).  Since we only have about 145 students, the pool from which to draw players is pretty small and made smaller still by the fact that many people who wanted to play didn’t end up making the requisite grades.  Even still, the eight players on the team worked hard during the preseason and were looking forward to playing some real competition.

Since most athletics scheduling is done in January and February and we didn’t even exist until March, we took what we could get in terms of getting games.  Richard Jowers, our P.E. teacher and basketball coach, was incredibly aggressive and persistent in trying to get Triangle-area charter and private schools to play us, usually to no avail.  A lot of schools told us they didn’t have any space for us in the regular season but that we could play them in a scrimmage; as a result, we played in three scrimmages (teams typically play in one or two).  We were outmatched in all of them, but the team did appear to be improving as they encountered some game-like situations.

Today was Opening Day, the first day of the regular season.  We played Triangle Collaborative School, a school in Cary that’s just one year older than we are, at a gym in nearby Morrisville.  Since the game started at 4:00 and school isn’t out at Research Triangle until 3:55, I missed the first quarter, but when I arrived at the gym, we were tied 8-8 early in the second.  Both teams were clearly young, inexperienced, and not accustomed to playing together, and many of the possessions ended in turnovers.  At halftime we trailed 15-12, and the made baskets remained few and far between in the second half.  We couldn’t seem to use the backboard on wide-open layups; the Flyers seemingly had every other shot it took swatted by Raptor post player Josh Bynum, who sent a few shots back with Olajuwon-like authority.

The Raptors took the lead near the end of the 3rd quarter and held it throughout the 4th; a few defensive stops in the final minutes preserved a 28-24 victory.

And just like that, the Raptor basketball team is 1-0.  Once again, we’re undefeated.

Of course, the cross country’s team undefeated streak didn’t last as the level of competition picked up.  The basketball team will undoubtedly encounter similar luck.  Our next game is against a 4A school in Robeson County.  And remember how I said that most schools weren’t able to schedule us and we had to take what we could get?  Well, Mount Zion – yeah, that Mount Zion – had an opening on the schedule and we’re playing them in January.  Are we gonna be cannon fodder?  Probably.  But the team can use it as an opportunity to improve.

Right now, though, we’re 1-0 and the school is proud of the team and the win.  The next game is tomorrow, so there’s not much time to enjoy the win, but I hope that tonight the boys on the team are feeling pretty good about themselves.

Go to the vote!

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In many ways, my first two experiences voting are my most memorable.

In 1986, just after my 4th birthday, my parents took me with them as they cast their votes in the midterm elections at the elementary school in my mountain hometown of Spruce Pine.  My mom even let me take the little stylus and punch the holes on the ballot – don’t worry, she told me which ones to punch – and I had a blast doing so, since that’s about the funnest thing you can ever hope to do as a 4-year-old in Spruce Pine.  Throughout the rest of the day I expressed my excitement about “the vote” to anyone who would listen, and begged my parents to let me “go back to the vote tomorrow.”

The only Republican presidential ticket I ever voted for.

Two years later, as a kindergartner, I voted in my first presidential election.  I looked at the two names on the ballot, and recognized one. I had no idea who Michael Dukakis was, but I had been introduced to George Bush when I watched his Republican National Convention speech that summer along with my parents.  “Who’s that man talking?” I asked them as we watched the speech on CNN.

“That’s George Bush,” Dad explained.  “He’s the vice president.”

“Why are all these people cheering?  This is serious!”  I guess I hadn’t yet grasped the concept of “firing up the base.”

But because of that speech, I did understand “name recognition.”  I circled George Bush’s name on my ballot and turned it in.  Bush carried Mrs. Sossamon’s classroom by a narrow margin of 14 votes to 12, meaning that Governor Dukakis polled five points higher in our classroom than he had in the state of North Carolina.  I guess we were a Democratic stronghold.

Anyway, when I got home, Mom met me at the door.  “What did you do at school today, Alex”

“We voted!!!”

“That’s great,” Mom said, smiling.  “Who did you vote for?”

“Bush!!” I excitedly replied.

Mom’s smile disappeared.  “Alex… go to your room.”  Four years later, not wanting to be grounded again, I voted for Bill Clinton.

So maybe voting isn’t as fun now as it was when I was a kid.  But I still get a little excited every time I go to the polls.  Since I turned 18 about a week before the 2000 election, my first ballot that counted was actually cast in the 2000 Democratic primary when I was a 17-year-old high school junior.  I got up super early that morning and went to the precinct at about 6:30 a.m., an hour before school started.

Between primaries and general elections I’ve voted at least a dozen times now, but that excitement is still there.  This year was a first for me – I voted early.  For years I always had the funny feeling that my vote wasn’t real unless I did it on Election Day, but I decided to take care of it early this year since my precinct is one of the biggest in Durham County and I didn’t feel like standing in line for two hours on Tuesday.  All the same, it was an exciting experience to know that I had a say, however minuscule, in who gets to shape public policy going forward.  And as I drove home, I called my mom to let her know that I had just “gone to the vote” – that’s what we still call it in my family.  Voting may not be fun to you, but it’s still a privilege and a right that many people the world over don’t get.  Cherish it.

So on Tuesday, regardless of who you’re supporting, make your voice heard.  Take your right to be heard seriously.  And go to the vote.