Advanced Placement courses in high school have both champions and critics (see here and here). Millions of high school students take AP exams ($92 for each test). Those who get a 3 or above (1-5 scale) can opt out of college courses saving money that would have gone to tuition. Recently, the largest growth in adding AP courses has been in schools enrolling large percentages of poor and minority students. Since most charters promote going to college and are located in cities, AP enrollments have soared in these publicly-funded but privately run schools. And that has been the case for the network of Summit Charter schools in the Bay area. In the two Summit schools I have observed lessons, I sat in AP classes. In Summit AP courses, students have a choice in whether or not they take the test. Not all Summit students take the AP test.
Edwin Avarca teaches AP U.S. history at Summit Rainier and I observed his 90 minute class on March 15, 2016 (for a description of Summit Rainier, see here). Avarca is completing his sixth year of teaching. A graduate of a Bay area teacher education program that awards a masters and teaching credential after 14 months, Avarca’s first job was at a charter school in downtown San Jose. After two years there he joined Summit Rainier and has been teaching the AP U.S. history course since. He estimates that about one-fourth of his students take the test. To help those AP students who do take the test he convened a lunch hour AP club when he coaches students for the test.
The portable in which Avarca’s class meets has an upright piano as one enters the room and in the back there is a comfortable chair and hassock. I sit in rear of room next to a TutorCorps aide (a Yale University graduate, who joined Americorp, a public service organization). She tutors a few students in the class. Today is the first day of a unit on the Civil Rights movement.
Avarca welcomes back the 19 students from the two weeks they spent in Expeditions, elective courses (e.g., music, yoga, computer science, drama, video production) that they take with a different set of teachers. Avarca asks how it went, and a few students respond with a mix of positive and negative comments. He then segues to the lesson. “Today,” he says, “is the first day of our unit on the Civil Rights movement.” Avarca points to the Warm Up written on the agenda printed on the white board and then shows a video called Poisoned Dreams , about African Americans seeking equal treatment in the 1950s and 1960s. After 10 minutes of watching the video, the teacher stops it, tells students to put away their cell phones, and points to three questions on the interactive-white-board:
–“According to the video, what injustices were were people trying to overcome?
–What methods were people using to overcome these injustices?
–How do the topics discussed in the video continue to affect us today?”
The teacher switches easily between Spanish and English when giving directions and explaining certain points to Latino students and does so in elaborating these questions when he sees puzzled looks. He asks students to open their Chromebooks and type in their answers to these questions in three minutes. He says they can work collaboratively at their tables. As I scan the classroom all of the students are clicking away. After three minutes, Avarca calls time and asks students at each table to discuss their answers with one another. After a few minutes of table talk, he asks each of the three questions of the class and conducts a whole-group discussion. Avarca, carrying a pack of note-cards in his hands with the names of individual students, picks out cards and calls on students randomly. For example, to the first question, he calls on one student and the student answers, “segregation.” Teacher follows up and asks the class, “is everyone aware of what segregation is and can you give examples?” There is a few minutes of back-and-forth with the entire group–with the teacher using cards to call on different students– about different kinds of segregation including racial. Avarca then offers very specific examples of separation of people past and present.
Avarca then turns to second question of methods to fight injustices. Students picked up quickly on “sit-ins” from the video and a flurry of answers bounce across the room, mostly call-outs from different students. The teacher gives specific examples of sit-ins including a hypothetical situation at Rainier about students protesting over the quality of school lunches by sitting in at the school. He quotes one Civil Rights protester who said he became free after being arrested for sitting in a restaurant in the 1960s. Avarca poses the statement as a question: how can you become free by being arrested?
Dispensing with the names on his cards, the teacher calls on students who have raised their hands to answer. After a bunch of student comments about the question, Avarca segues to existing inequalities in the U.S. today. Students mention Black Lives Matter, and rich and poor. After about five minutes of whole group discussion, Avarca brings this Warm Up and unit Introduction to a close. Using the interactive whiteboard, he then moves to the logistics of covering the unit and what he expects students to do for the next few weeks.
A slide flashes on the IWB revealing the Civil Rights Movement Project Calendar. Avarca goes over each item (e.g., Timeline, research essay) and explains which tasks will be collaboratively done and which will be done individually including students choosing to study a group that was part of the Civil Rights movement (e.g., African Americans, Chicano, Asian American, LGBTQ,* Women rights, Native Americans). He asks students to open their Chromebooks and go to link entitled “AP Resources” and then click on Civil Rights movement. In that electronic folder, different groups are listed with readings and videos for each. He then illustrates creating a Timeline by using the Chicano movement beginning in the late-1960s with the high school student walkouts in east Los Angeles. In scanning the class, I see nearly all of the students are raptly listening to teacher as he describes students refusing to attend school until their demands are met.
After this example of creating a Timeline, Avarca then moves to crucial task in starting this unit, getting students to choose which group of Americans they will study during the project. He says to the class: “Pick a group that you are passionate about and want to learn more. Don’t pick one that your friend chose.” He gives the class a few moments to consider their choices and then he asks students to move to different parts of the room for African Americans, Chicanos, LGBTQ, women rights, Asian Americans. With a lot of chair scraping, joshing, and moving about, students settle into groups they want to study. Avarca then directs everyone to open Chromebooks and find Task Card for their group which lists questions, tasks, and sources students can use (e.g., African Americans, Womens Rights, Asian Americans) to build a Timeline, the immediate next task. Teacher calls on one of the groups to click on to their Task Card and has each student in group read the questions and other items on the sheet. Keep in mind that Avarca had created these Task Cards for each minority group, selected key questions, and compiled sources for students to read. A few students have questions and teacher answers them. Avarca then asks students to begin work on their minority group by creating a Timeline.
For the remaining 40 minutes, teacher and TutorCorps aide consult with each group to see if members have any questions, clear up any confusion over immediate task, and their doing individual research, a task that comes later in the project. As I scan the class, every group of students is engaged in reading sources and talking to others in group about key events that have to be on Timeline. About ten minutes from the end of period, Avarca reminds class of how much time is left. With five minutes remaining, Avarca claps his hands and does countdown from 5-0 to get attention. “Time to wrap up,” teacher says. He asks students to close their computers and then asks class: what inspired you about what you read and saw today? What did you think was cool?” Students raise hands, one mentions Civil Rights law of 1964; another mentions American Indian takeover of Alcatraz; another was surprised by the Stonewall riots during the gay movement’s quest for equal rights.
The 90 minute period comes to an end and Avarca dismisses the AP class.
*Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer