I observed Gabriel Stewart’s 90-minute class on September 15, 2016. Stewart, wearing a maroon polo shirt over a muscled upper body with dark slacks, is a 19 year veteran teacher* at Los Altos High School** (and baseball coach). In this lesson, he had set aside this period to give a 75-item multiple choice test on early 19th century political and social changes during the first half of the class and then do a practice Document-Based Question in the remaining 45 minutes. The AP course is geared to the spring exam. Stewart alerts students often during this class about the importance of being aware of time in answering questions and knowing basic knowledge of the period under study. The text for the course is American Pageant by Thomas Bailey and David Kennedy.
The furniture arrangement is five rows of desks facing the front white board and teacher’s desk in one corner. Bulletin boards are filled with newspaper articles, maps, announcements and photos. On one side of the room bulletin board sheets of paper carried previous AP classes’ records in passing the AP exam (getting a three or higher).
During the test, students filled in a Scantron sheet recording their answers to such questions as
9. John C. Calhoun’s “South Carolina Exposition” was an argument for:
b. Protective tariffs.
c. Majority rule.
d. States rights
23. As a cure for the panic of 1837, the Whigs recommended all of the following measures except:
a. Expanded bank credit
b. Higher tariffs
c. Subsidies for internal improvements
d. The “Divorce” bill.
74. Most of the utopian communities in pre-1860s America held ______ as one of their founding ideals.
a. rugged individualism
d. opposition to communism
During the test, Stewart would walk around the room and from time to time tell the students how much time was remaining to finish the test. Early finishers turned in their filled-out Scantron forms and worked at their desks using their tablets and laptops, reading, etc.
After 45 minutes, Stewart asks for sheets from few remaining students. The student-produced video announcements come on the screen and for next five minutes those in the class are rapt and listening, laughing at the student anchor’s one-liners and funny events scheduled for the next week.
After the announcements Stewart asks students to take out their devices and go to the DBQ they will work on for the rest of the period. When he starts speaking there is a rising level of talk, and a few students say “shush” and the class quiet’s down.
There are six documents in this DBQ that the students are examining. The task is for the class to write an essay agreeing or disagreeing with the statement: “Reform movements in the United States sought to expand democratic ideals.”
Stewart directs the class to use the template that he has used with class before in analyzing each document and then begin writing “a coherent essay” about the six excerpts from primary sources.
The practice guide students use has the following directions:
For each DBQ document fill out the columns of the chart [see below]. Then write a thesis/introductory paragraph for the DBQ. After completing the first two tasks complete the chart by filling in your examples of outside information (the last row).
The three columns are labeled: Document, Context of Document, How will you use the document/outside info in your answer?
Below the three columns, the DBQ practice template leaves space for each student to write a thesis paragraph.
The documents for the students to analyze are quotes from leading figures in the various reforms in the early 19th century such as Charles Finney, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Samuel Morse, William Garrison, a chart about growth of political parties in the first half of 19th century, and a contemporary political cartoon on the temperance movement .
As he moves swiftly through questions on practice chart, he salts his sentences with “homeboy,” “dude,” and “my bad.” On one question about the Seneca Falls Declaration (1848), he asks what the word “domesticity” means. One student offers an answer and then without saying that it was correct, he calls on another student who says that Mary “nailed it” and she doesn’t want to add to it.
I scan the class and do not see any disengaged students, or ones off-task.
The teacher asks the class to work on filling in the DBQ practice chart with each document. “You can work together,” he says. “See if you can knock out the 6 items in 10 minutes.” Students turn to a partner sitting next to them or across a row and begin reading each excerpt and filling in chart. Teacher walks around to check what pairs and trios are doing on their screens.
After about ten minutes, Stewart takes some student questions about the timed AP exam next semester. The teacher says that time is crucial, he begins snapping fingers in time, saying: “Remember you are paying $93 and you spend four hours taking the test.”
Now, Stewart turns to next task of writing a “coherent essay.” He asks them to begin with a thesis statement for the essay. Again, he stresses the importance of time and how each student has to figure out how long it will take to read document, get at its essence, and begin writing a sentence that summarizes the excerpts. He asks students to “estimate how long it will take you to write a thesis statement .” Students respond with different amounts of time. Stewart listens and say let’s take 10 minutes to write the thesis statement. “You can work together.”
Before releasing students to the task, teacher says “let’s go over these ‘dudes.’ “ For the next 10 minutes, Stewart asks who each person is, what reform movement they were involved in and the connections between the reform and democracy in early 19th century U.S. For example, when Stewart comes to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, he asks class what “compact” means in excerpt. Student says the correct answer, “the Constitution.” This back and forth teacher guided discussion of the facts embedded in each excerpt including the cartoon continues for about 10 minutes.
Interspersed in the exchanges between teacher and student are references to the AP exam, in particular the importance of putting in details they know outside of the document. One student mentions the Masonic political party and Stewart says that such a detail may well convince the readers grading the exam that student is knowledgeable about this period.
“Can anyone think of outside details that can be brought in and discussed that would show you know this stuff?” Students mention Brook Farm, Transcendentalism, literature of the day. Another student offers example of Webster-Hayne debate over tariffs. Stewart adds in other topics such as states rights and nullification. “ You know a lot so remembering what you know when you are writing an essay is important.”
Stewart then asks students to write thesis statement for the essay: “Reform movements in the United States sought to expand democratic ideals.”
I scan the class and see that all pairs and trios are talking to one another, clicking away on their screens, and occasionally asking the teacher a question as he traverses the perimeter of the class.
A few minutes later chime goes off and Stewart reminds class of assignment for next class meeting and students leave. There is the scheduled brunch break for 15 minutes. Three students linger and ask content questions about the various reformers. Stewart listens and comments. Students leave after five minutes.
*I have known Stewart since he was student in my team taught social studies Curriculum and Instruction course in a university teacher education program nearly 20 years ago. I have not seen him teach since he was in that program although we have seen one another on occasion since we live in the same neighborhood. When I visited his high school to see other teachers in September, I stopped into his classroom to say hello, hearing about my observations, he then invited me into his AP U.S. History class.
** Los Altos high school has over 1900 students (2015) and its demography is mostly students of color (in percentages, Latino 28, Asian 21, African American 2, multiracial 2, and 45 white). The percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches (the poverty indicator) is 22 percent. Fourteen percent of students are learning disabled and just over four percent of LAHS students are English language learners.
Academically, 99 percent of the students graduate high school and nearly all enter higher education. The school offers 20 AP courses—37 percent of the student body take at least one AP course and of those students taking AP tests– 83 percent have gotten 3 or higher, the benchmark for getting college credit. LAHS has been rated repeatedly as one of the top high schools (52nd out of over 1330 in the state and 339h in the nation’s 26,000 high schools). The gap in achievement between minorities and white remains large, however, and has not shrunk in recent years. The per-pupil expenditure at the high school is just under $15,000 (2014). See here, here, here, here, and here.