Saturday, February 22, 2014

Teacher Top 5: Strategies for Successful Teaching

Teaching is an art form, and the artistry in teaching can never be measured through standardized test scores or administrative evaluations. Great teaching can only be recognized in the same way that great art is recognized — you know it when you see it.

Students and their parents recognize when they have been blessed with a good teacher. Indeed, they can probably sense it on the first day of school.

Good teachers care about their students and know how to motivate them. It sometimes matters little to students what their teacher is teaching or how the subject is being taught. However, it will always matter why their teacher is teaching. Students have a sixth sense for whether their teacher cares about them and whether their teacher is dedicated to the profession. Above all, it will matter to students who their teacher is as a person. Students will work hard for a teacher they respect, and they will always remember their best teachers as the one who never gave up on them.
“You need one person to believe in you in your entire life, just one. Often, that one person is a teacher.”
Teacher Top 5 by T. Nick Ip
That quote comes from a Spirit magazine headline for an article about America’s Best Teachers 2011. I share the quote via T. Nick Ip’s just-published book, Teacher Top 5. Ip spent nearly fifteen years in finance and strategy before becoming an elementary school teacher to “find the poetry in his life.” Ip’s book, which is obviously a labor of love, has certainly found the poetry in those who have dedicated their lives to teaching.

Teacher Top 5 profiles twenty-five nationally recognized teachers and their Top 5 strategies for successful teaching. The book includes chapters on teachers who have been recognized as members of the National Teachers Hall of Fame, National Teachers of the Year, State Teachers of the Year, and numerous other awards. Each chapter in the book profiles individual teachers, exploring their backgrounds, their reasons for becoming a teacher, their desire for changes in the educational system, and, of course, their Top 5 recommendations for successful teaching.

The book should serve as a guiding light for young teachers and experienced teachers looking to revitalize their careers. Public education might also be well-served by placing the book in the hands of administrators and policy makers attempting to standardize and centralize how good teaching is measured.

Standardization and centralization often strangle the creativity and innovation that allows good teaching to thrive. Standardization and centralization are also cutting the heart out of a noble profession.

As Ip’s book makes clear, the nation's best teachers went into the profession for reasons of the heart, and they certainly remain in the profession for reasons of the heart. Policy makers might learn from Ip's book how they can avoid cutting the heart out of teaching.

Ip’s book is accompanied by a website at, which contains information about the teachers profiled in the book. If you are a teacher, you can also share your Top 5 strategies for successful teaching and possibly be featured on the website.

The website also offers a means of purchasing Teacher Top 5. As one of the twenty-five teachers profiled in the book I can send a percentage of the sales price to an organization of my choice.

If you buy the book through my referral, 10% of the sales price will go to the Arts Program at Canutillo ISD in Canutillo, Texas. For your donation to help promote an arts program in public education, you will need to purchase the book from and enter a referral code — JSTT5NM — in the “Notes” section during checkout. (I make no personal profit from sales of the book.)

Teacher Top 5 is also available through Barnes and Noble and Amazon

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Discover El Paso Speech on Billy the Kid

On Tuesday, October 22, I gave a speech to the Discover El Paso Association of El Paso, Texas. Although I spoke extemporaneously, the general text of what I said is provided below. 

The Discover El Paso Association of El Paso, TX
I was told that the Discover El Paso Association is composed of people who love this community and that the association was established to help introduce people to El Paso and the surrounding area. If so, I’ve got the perfect topic for you today, because Billy the Kid is probably the most famous person who ever lived in this part of the world. In fact, I challenge you to think of anyone from this area who is as well known throughout the world as Billy the Kid. People in other nations may have never heard of famous people from this area like John Wesley Hardin, Lee Trevino, F. Murray Abraham, or Neil Patrick Harris, but the odds are high that they’ve heard of Billy the Kid.

If you live in El Paso or southern New Mexico, you know that the iconic image of Billy the Kid standing with his rifle next to him is ubiquitous. You simply cannot avoid bumping into something to do with Billy the Kid. The Kid is our claim to fame. We cannot escape him. People from all over the world fly into the El Paso airport and rent a car to visit Billy the Kid country.

I have lived in southern New Mexico for over fifty years, and there’s no way to count the number of times I have eaten and shopped in businesses named after Billy the Kid. Like thousands of other people who grew up in this part of the world, I wrote reports about Billy the Kid when I was in school. For me, and probably everyone else in this room, Billy the Kid is part of our cultural DNA.

I’ll also say that my personal interest in Billy the Kid comes from my experiences as a high school teacher. Over my thirty years in the classroom, I taught lots of Billy the Kids. Those of you who are teachers can probably relate to what I am saying, especially if you look at what those who knew Billy the Kid in Silver City said about him in later years. Keep in mind that when he moved to Silver City he was only thirteen years old

Those who knew him at that time generally described him as a well-mannered and likable young man. He enjoyed music and performed in musical theater. He enjoyed reading. It was said he wasn’t as bad as the other boys in town and that he came from a good American home. His teacher said he always helped with chores around the school. She also said he had an artistic nature. He evidently loved his mother, and those who knew her described her as a jolly Irish woman who would do anything for her sons. The Kid’s mother died of consumption when he was only fourteen years old — and the rest is history. Without the guidance of a loving mother he ended up on the wrong side of the law.

I’m certain that those of you who have taught school have known students who were smart, likable, and cooperative, students who could have done something good with their lives, but circumstances sent sent down the wrong path.

And that’s the story I’ve tried to tell in my book Catherine’s Son. I wanted to tell the story of what might happen to make a good boy go bad. I used the historical record dealing with the years the Kid lived in Silver City as the skeleton of my book and then I fleshed out the story by simply making stuff up, which I assume is the approach any writer takes when writing historical fiction.

And I make no bones about my book being a work of fiction.

In the end, it’s difficult for the scholars to write about Billy the Kid, because we actually know so little about most of his life, and what we do know is often nothing more than myth.

Even so, the myths about Billy the Kid are endlessly fascinating.

For those of you who don’t know his story, let me take a moment and go over it. Even though much of what happened to the Kid is open to debate, what I’ll tell you is the standard, traditional story that has served as a foundation for an uncountable number of other stories created from his life.
  • William Henry McCarty was born in New York in 1859. Nothing is known about his father, but, as the story goes, his widowed mother took him and his brother west after the Civil War. His mother then raised him and his brother on her own while running her own businesses in Indiana and Kansas before she moved to Silver City in the New Mexico Territory.
  • While living in Silver City, the Kid’s mother died of consumption. He was fourteen and was left alone to survive a lawless and violent society. He got into trouble after his mother died and got arrested for stealing from a laundry. He then escaped from his jail cell by crawling up a chimney and heading toward Arizona. He was only fifteen when he left Silver City.
  • In Arizona, he became a horse thief. He also killed his first man in a bar fight, probably in self defense. He then returned to New Mexico and joined a gang of cattle rustlers and thieves. He also changed his name to William H. Bonney. Those who knew him called him "Billy" or "Kid." He wasn’t known as Billy the Kid until the newspapers created that name for him about six months before he died.
  • Within a few weeks after returning to New Mexico, he moved to Lincoln County in the eastern part of the Territory. In Lincoln, he was given an opportunity to make an honest living when an Englishman named John Tunstall gave him a job as a ranch hand.
  • The Kid worked for Tunstall only a few months before Tunstall was assassinated by men working for an organization called the The House. The House was a ruthless group of businessmen who had monopolized almost all business activity in Lincoln County. The House also had the support of a group of powerful businessmen and politicians who ran the entire New Mexico Territory, a group that was known as the Santa Fe Ring. After The House assassinated John Tunstall, the Kid found himself fighting in a war of revenge those who ran Lincoln County and the New Mexico Territory.
  • After the Lincoln County war seemingly ended with the defeat of Tunstall’s forces, the Kid would not give up and kept fighting, making himself a nuisance by rustling livestock from his enemies. In an attempt to put his life on the right side of the law, however, the Kid made a deal with the Governor of New Mexico, agreeing to testify in open court against allies of The House. In return, the governor offered him a pardon for any crimes he had committed. The Kid kept his part of the bargain and testified. Even so, the governor never granted the Kid a pardon.
  • Meanwhile, newspapers, in cahoots with The Santa Fe Ring, began portraying the Kid as the worst of the worst in the New Mexico Territory. The Kid became a scapegoat for everything wrong in New Mexico and a symbol for the lawlessness of the American West.
  • The Kid was eventually arrested and sentenced to hang, making him the only person convicted of a crime for actions committed during the Lincoln County War. However, in a daring escape in which he killed two guards, the Kid left his jail cell in Lincoln only a few days before his execution. He then found refuge among his friends and supporters near Fort Sumner.
  • Three months after he escaped from jail the Kid walked into a dark room at midnight where he was ambushed and shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett. The story goes that Billy the Kid was only twenty-one years old when he died, but historians are not certain. He may have been as young as nineteen.

All told, the Kid gave us one heck of a story! What happened to him has provided novelists, filmmakers, playwrights, and artists of all types with a mythic tale that can take a variety of forms. The Kid can be portrayed as a good boy gone bad or a boy who was born bad — bad to the bone. He can be portrayed as a cowardly punk, a black-hearted villain, a rebel without a cause, or a young hero — the American Robin Hood. His myth works any way you want to tell it, and his myth is as strong today as when he died 132 years ago.

Since my retirement from teaching high school, I have made my living as an education consultant. In short, I have become a person who teaches teachers. I train teachers to teach history, and a central theme of my workshops is that history teachers should not only provide students with historical information, they should also help students learn to think historically. It may sound odd, but Billy the Kid has become an essential element in the workshops I lead. The Kid’s story is perfectly designed to help students learn to think historically.

Historical thinking involves much more than I can really explain today, but let me give you an example of a few ways that I use Billy the Kid to teach historical thinking.

First, historical thinking entails the ability to ask questions. All historical research begins with a question of curiosity. History teachers should therefore routinely ask students, “What questions do you have? What do you wish you knew more about?”

And there’s no better way to help students learn to ask questions than to tell them about Billy the Kid. Almost anything you say about Billy the Kid generates more questions than historians can possibly answer. Our knowledge and understanding of the Kid’s life is so incomplete that students quickly learn to understand a standard rule for all historians — you must be able to tolerate uncertainty.

For historical thinkers, the Kid’s life is also a good lesson in contextual thinking. Good historians learn to place documents and artifacts from the past in historical context. Historians know that to understand the people of the past they must place them in the context of the world in which they lived. Billy the Kid lived in New Mexico in the 1870s, and it is impossible to understand him without understanding the society in which he lived.

During the Lincoln County War Billy the Kid was only eighteen years old and the men allied against him were the wealthiest and most powerful men in New Mexico. He also lived in New Mexico at a time when it had the highest murder rate of any state or territory in the nation. New Mexico had .2% of the population of the United States and 15% of the murders, and most of those murders were never prosecuted or punished. At least, they were not punished within the law. Billy the Kid certainly killed his share of men, but he also lived in an environment where killing was commonplace.

Another element of learning to think historically is learning to recognize how things change over time. Documents from the past change meanings according to the time in which they are studied. If you read a book from the 1920s about the Civil War, it will reveal more to you more about the 1920s than the Civil War. It will certainly give you a different version of the Civil War than books written in the twenty-first century.

The story we tell about Billy the Kid, like any story from the past, has gone through several transformations. The stories told about the Kid in the 1890s are much different than the stories we tell today. What’s important to keep in mind is that whenever the stories are told they always reflect the time in which they are created.

Let’s take an innocuous historical statement such as “Pat Garrett killed Billy the Kid,” and let’s examine how responses to that statement might have changed over the last 130 years.

If I had made that statement in the 1890s, I probably would have received responses that were variations on one theme: “The Kid got what he deserved.”

In the 1890s, people had been exposed to numerous newspaper reports, dime novels, and books that generally portrayed the Kid as a cold-hearted killer. The Kid represented the old ways of settling problems in the American West with a gun. Many Americans at the end of the nineteenth century were looking forward to an end of the Code of the West and the development of a modern and civilized urban society. Americans wanted nothing to do with people like Billy the Kid who settled their problems through anarchy and violence.

If I had said, “Garrett killed the Kid,” in the late-1920s or 1930s, I would have received a much different response. During that time, the Kid was generally portrayed as a hero. On the jacket of a bestselling book about the Kid, published in 1926, the Kid was described as the “Robin Hood of the Mesas.” In 1930, a movie film about Billy the Kid starring Johnny Mack, an All-American football player was shown to test audiences who were so disturbed by the Kid’s death that the producers were forced to change the ending. In the version released to the public, Pat Garrett fakes the Kid’s death and lets him escape to Mexico with the girl he loves.

The way the Kid’s story was told in the late-1920s and 1930s tells us more about that time in history than it does about Billy the Kid. At a time of gangsterism, financial corruption, and economic depression, the Kid was portrayed as a romantic hero fighting against the corrupt business forces of his time. In short, he was a heroic figure.

If I said “Garrett killed the Kid” in the 1950s or 1960s, I would probably get a response that provided some version of how the “system” or the “establishment” always wins — some version of how the good die young. During that time, the Kid was portrayed as a rebel without a cause, a James Dean or Marlon Brando of the Old West.

And what happens when I say “Garrett killed the Kid” in modern times? I have made several presentations and taught classes on Billy the Kid, and the reaction is often the same. It either sets off an argument over whether the Kid was a hero or villain or questions about where the Kid actually died in 1981. Someone always asks me, “Didn’t Billy the Kid die in Hico, Texas, in the 1950s?” To me, these reactions reflect how polarized we seem to be in modern times over every issue. The reactions also reflect how many people are likely to see conspiracy and coverup in any official story.

As I said before, I find Billy the Kid endlessly fascinating. For those of us who live in this part of the world, he is part of our culture and we cannot escape his presence.

As for where the Kid’s myth goes next, your guess is as good as mine. Wherever it goes, the new myths created from the Kid’s story will certainly reflect the changes in our world.

I am also certain that wherever the myth of Billy the Kid goes, it will not go away. Long after all of us in this room are gone, people will still be telling stories about Billy the Kid.

For more about Billy the Kid, read articles I have previously posted on this blog.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Teaching: The Role of a Lifetime

A few years ago I was asked to write an article about the similarities between between teaching and acting. The article, originally titled "You Are Who You Pretend To Be," was published in the second edition of Acting Lessons for Teachers: Using Performance Skills in the Classroom by Robert T. Tauber and  Cathy Sargent (Praeger, 2006). With a few minor revisions, here's a copy of that article and it's tribute to Frank Dooley, a master teacher who left an indelible mark on a multitude of New Mexico math students and basketball players.

It’s been forty since I took an algebra class, and I have long forgotten the process of solving algebraic equations. However, I have never forgotten the other lessons I learned from my math teacher Mr. Dooley, lessons that went far beyond learning algebra.

Mr. Dooley did not tolerate foolishness. His class was designed to help students learn, and he used time productively. He had a sense of humor, but his humor was geared toward the task of learning algebra. He could tell good stories, but the stories led to a math problem that needed solving. He was relaxed, but his students never wasted time. I knew to show up ready to learn or confront his disapproval. I felt compelled to do my best because I knew he would never accept a second-rate effort.

I am no longer be able to solve the algebra problems I conquered in Mr. Dooley’ class. I am certain, however, that if my studies in math had continued in college, I would have been prepared for success. After all, I had a great math teacher in high school. Mr. Dooley not only taught me to solve algebraic equations, but also to take learning seriously. He made sure I excelled at every task.

The fact that Mr. Dooley was able to make such a difference in my life — and in the lives of many other students — came from something intangible. His success did not come from the textbook he used or the teaching strategies he learned at a university. He was a successful teacher because of who he was as a person. Indeed, it may be that the secret to good teaching is found in one simple idea: Good teaching stems from good people.

Students will work hard for a person they respect. Students know whether a teacher is in the classroom for reasons of the heart. They know whether the teacher loves the subject and has faith in students. If students sense that a teacher is working hard for their benefit, they are more likely to put a little extra effort into an assignment. They are more likely to try to learn something new. Mr. Dooley was such a teacher. Students sensed that if they did what he said, they would succeed. Students sensed he was on their side.

Deming High School, Deming, NM
When I was in high school, I thought of Mr. Dooley as a mythical figure, a character larger than life. He was the basketball coach at my high school and had already won several state championships. Even so, I now realize something I would never have imagined in high school — Mr. Dooley was just a man, a human being like the rest of us. After spending thirty-five years as an educator, I now understand that the mythical Mr. Dooley that inspired me to do my best was in large part a role assumed by a man who understood the responsibilities of his profession. Teachers, like actors on a stage, assume a role to play. Mr. Dooley played his role well and, in the process, helped many students.

Success in the classroom depends, in large part, on the role a teacher plays in front of students. Can the teacher inspire students and ignite flames of curiosity? Is the teacher the type of person who challenges students to do their best? Good teachers, like good actors, know they must create a well-defined character for an audience.

Good teachers also know that teaching demands full immersion in the role they are playing. The teacher must continue to play the role in the hallways between classes, at the Saturday night basketball game, and when running into students at the mall. After all, it might not be what a teacher does in the classroom that most affects a student’s life. It might be the words a teacher speaks while talking with someone at the grocery store or in the waiting room at the dentist’s office that inspires that person to work a little harder or be a better person. Teachers might even find themselves playing a role in front of a former student several years after the student has left the classroom.

New teachers must be aware that once they enter the classroom their profession will require them to play a role. Whether in the classroom or at the department store, teachers have a deep and profound responsibility to serve the needs of their students. Teachers have an ethical obligation to find a way to inspire their students, and they must never abandon that obligation.

Success as a teacher demands that the character a teacher develops must seem authentic to students. In the same way that a movie audience can spot a bad actor in the first reel, students can detect a fraudulent teacher on the first day of school. Teachers must therefore draw on the imagination of an actor to capture a sense of authenticity in the role they play. Students know whether their teacher is dedicated to the profession or is just marking time until the bell rings at the end of the day.

Teachers, like actors, must find elements of their own personality in the role they are playing. Teachers must find the part of their spirit that wants to help students and then bring that spirit into the classroom. They must accentuate the part of their personality that is honest, caring, and full of love. They must shine a spotlight upon the part of their soul that wants to give students a bright future and make the world a better place.

As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be.” Teachers who might be distracted by circumstances in their personal lives must pretend to be focused on the concerns of the students. Teachers should hope that no matter where students end up after leaving school they will always remember their teachers as the people who never gave up on them.

Teachers are human beings, and they make mistakes. Like anyone else, a teacher might not always be the person he or she would like to be. Every teacher should try, however, to pretend to be the person who motivates students. Every teacher should try to act the part. Even if a teacher has played the part for several years, he or she can assume the attitude of a good actor and know that this year’s students have never seen the performance. Each teacher must play the part well. Nothing more than the success and well being of our children is at stake.

For me, nobody ever played the role better than Mr. Dooley.

Note: One of Bill Richardson's last proclamations as Governor of New Mexico was to declare November 15, 2010 as "Frank Dooley Day."
© 2005 James L. Smith

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Establishing a Well-Run Classroom: A Guest Blog by Mike Thayer

Many years ago I did my student teaching under MikeThayer and could not have asked for a better mentor. Of all the people I have know in education, Mr. Thayer is quite simply one of the best. Mr. Thayer, who is now retired from teaching, is a former New Mexico Teacher of the Year.

After 27 years teaching social studies in junior high, middle school, and high school, I spent three years creating and leading a beginning teacher induction program. In recent years I’ve continued working with pre-service and beginning teachers.

Beginning teachers often ask me what a well-run classroom looks like. Naturally, there are many answers, but let me suggest six elements of a quality classroom. The list is not inclusive, and I’m sure that experienced teachers could add more to the list.
  1. Furniture arrangement and seating. Many teachers are taught in college to place students in groups, but when they get into the schools they find most classes are arranged in traditional rows. For most teachers classroom management is easier when students are sitting in rows. Group seating (surprise-surprise!) encourages students to “talk” and pay less attention to the teacher. So, what to do? I recommend that students be seated according to the purpose of the lesson planned for the day. Group work and cooperative learning are important teaching tools and furniture should be moved to accommodate the day’s lesson. It seems like common sense to me. 
  2. Announcements. “What are we doing today?” “Are we doing anything today?” Teachers hear these words all the time and can expend plenty of energy trying to provide answers. Many master teachers post a daily, or weekly agenda on their board or overhead projector in the same place every day. Students are then taught simply to check the agenda, and most of the annoying questions should eventually stop. In addition to an agenda, I recommend teachers post assignments and due dates to help students stay organized. I also recommend a daily warm-up to start class with the warm-up posted daily in a regular location.  
  3. Taking roll. I see it all the time — an experienced teacher stands in front of a class and calls roll aloud. Name after name is called with various answers being received. Sometimes, when silence follows a called name, the teacher will stop and seem confused, often calling the name again. What a waste of time, and students know this. The professional teacher has a seating chart for every class and quietly takes roll by noting which seats are empty. It should be invisible. What a help this is to substitute teachers too.  
  4. Time management. This is always a struggle for beginning teachers, but will improve with experience. Time on task is what we see in a master teacher’s classroom. Class begins quickly and the transitions between activities are smooth. A teacher’s job is to teach (I didn’t say lecture) “bell-to-bell." Classroom observers should see little wasted time and students deeply involved in learning.
  5. Lesson planning. Many master teachers will tell you that an interesting, relevant, fast-paced, and even fun lesson will eliminate most of your management problems. Oh, it sounds so easy. I don’t argue with this, but it takes most teachers several years (3-5 usually) to become a quality lesson planner. Too many beginning teachers think they can make everything right if they simply create better lesson plans. In the mean time, they experience many long difficult days. Some teachers never recover and leave the profession in frustration.
  6. Establishing procedures and reinforcing them often. There are many important procedures used by master teachers. Here are a few to start the discussion.
    • Procedure 1: Beginning class immediately when students enter the classroom and getting right to work. A good warm-up assignment should see students quietly working, even before class begins, with no more shouts of “sit down and be quiet” from frustrated angry teachers. This procedure alone has changed the career of many fine teachers.
    • Procedure 2: Establishing a make-up work center for absent students. I also recommend setting up a few file folders in the corner of the room with daily assignments and handouts so students can collect missed work without direct teacher assistance. This is a big time saver.
    • Procedure 3: Student dismissal at the end of the period. In so many classrooms I find students crowding around the door anxious to leave long before the bell rings. Sometimes I see some students sneaking out early in the mob. Master teachers, however, control the dismissal. They have students seated quietly, ready to be released in an orderly way (by rows, groups, or all at once). A safe and well-ordered dismissal is a sure sign of an effective teacher.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Redesigned AP U.S. History Curriculum: A Beginner's Guide

 During the 2014-15 school year, the College Board will institute a redesigned AP U.S. History (APUSH) curriculum that for some teachers will require significant changes to the way they teach the course. I began teaching APUSH in 1985 and have been working as a consultant for the College Board since 1999. I have therefore become well-versed in the changes and am writing this blog to provide a brief explanation of the new curriculum. Whether you are an APUSH teacher or somebody who is simply interested in what’s going on, I hope I can provide some worthwhile information about the APUSH redesign.

For those who don’t know, the Advanced Placement (AP) Program provides students an opportunity to take college-level classes while they are still in high school. Student success in an AP class is gauged, in part, by a national exam, and a high enough score on one or more of the thirty-four AP exams can earn college credit for a high school student. The College Board created the AP Program in the 1950s, and its credibility with the nation’s top universities has been long established. AP classes help prepare students for success in college, and the number of AP classes on a student's transcript has become one of the significant criteria for determining acceptance to many universities.

The AP U.S. History exam serves roughly 500,000 students a year and next to AP English Language and Composition is the most-taken AP exam. Almost a decade ago, the College Board began the process of redesigning the APUSH curriculum, a process that garnered suggestions from APUSH teachers, university professors, test creators, and many others. The process has come to an end, and the new curriculum will be instituted during the 2014-15 school year.

The changes made to the APUSH curriculum will not affect every teacher in the same way. For some, the redesign will require substantial changes in how they teach the class. For others, the changes will be relatively minor because the new curriculum conforms to what they have already been doing with the curriculum.

Successful APUSH teachers have long known that they should take a posthole approach to teaching U.S. history and explore selected topics in depth while helping students develop the academic skills necessary for understanding those topics. "Posthole" teachers have discovered that the key to being a good APUSH teacher is to help students learn to read, write, and think at the highest levels. They also know that students should learn enough about the key concepts of U.S. history that they can pass any U.S. history exam — not just the Advanced Placement exam.

APUSH teachers taking the posthole approach know that the best way to prepare students for the APUSH exam is not to teach to the exam (which would be impossible), but instead present students with a comprehensive and rigorous U.S. history curriculum that requires much reading, writing, and analytical thinking. Student success on the APUSH exam does not come from knowing the answers per se, but from knowing how to figure out the answers. Both the multiple choice section of the exam and the essay questions require well-developed analytical thinking skills.

It should go without saying that the thinking and writing skills that students develop in a good AP U.S. history class will take them much further in their academic careers than their ability to survive a curriculum that simply requires them to remember a laundry list of trivial historical information. Unfortunately, the traditional design of the APUSH exam — the one that will be scrapped after the 2013-2014 school year — had led some teachers to ignore the posthole approach and take the ball-of-string approach to teaching the class. That is, some teachers had created lesson plans that put too much emphasis on unraveling a string of historical information for students to memorize.

Half of the final grade on the current APUSH exam comes from multiple choice questions that, for some, seem to require a memorization of an abundance of names, terms, dates, and events. For some teachers the multiple choice section of the APUSH exam drove their approach to teaching the class. They became so concerned with covering everything that might possibly show up on the multiple choice section of the exam that they sometimes felt a need to take more of a ball-of-string approach at the expense of lessons that developed analytical thinking and writing skills. The breadth of content covered seemed more important than the depth.

The problem with the ball-of-string approach has been that no teacher can possibly cover everything on the long string of information necessary to know everything on the exam. Teachers are often behind in trying to keep up with the curriculum and the closer they get to the end of the semester, the faster they unravel the string. The last fifty to seventy years can be described as the “dark ages” of U.S. history because some teachers never make it to more recent historical eras before the course has ended.

The redesigned APUSH curriculum should discourage this ball-of-string approach to teaching history. On the redesigned exam, 70% of the test grade will be based on written answers and only 30% on multiple choice answers. The written section of the test will obviously require students to have developed their thinking skills at the highest levels, but so will the multiple choice section. Rather than asking questions that require memorization of a long list of information, the multiple choice section will now test the specific historical thinking skills listed below:
  • Historical Causation
  • Patterns of Continuity and Change over Time
  • Periodization
  • Comparison and Contrast
  • Contextualization
  • Historical Argumentation
  • Appropriate Use of Relevant Historical Evidence
  • Interpretation
  • Synthesis
Successful APUSH teachers have already been teaching these skills and not letting the trivia of the traditional multiple choice questions dictate how they teach the class. The redesigned APUSH exam should drive all teachers toward teaching a class that focuses on thinking and writing skills, rather than the memorization of a laundry list of information.

7 Course Themes for AP U.S. History
And what about the historical content that must be covered? After all, students taking AP U.S. history are taking a history class. The framework for the redesigned course not only describes the skills that constitute historical thinking, it also provides detailed information about the big picture topics of U.S. history and the essential information that every U.S. history student should know. The required historical themes and concepts, as well as illustrative historical information, although detailed and extensive, leave enough flexibility in the curriculum for teachers to explore big picture topics in depth and present optional historical information that can be used on the exam.

I have been associated with the APUSH program for almost thirty years and am excited about the changes. All told, I think the College Board has helped bring the teaching of history into the twenty-first century. The string of memorized information that once formed the basis of too many history classes can now be accessed instantly on the Internet. If anyone has a need to know about something like the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, they can look it up with little trouble. The skills of reading, writing, and thinking, however, are not instantly accessible unless students have taken the time and done the work necessary to develop those skills at the highest levels.

The new APUSH curriculum should encourage teachers to take students beyond memorizing a superficial definition the Smoot-Hawley Tarriff and instead learn to place information about the tariff in historical context, generate questions about the consequences of the tariff, research those questions, and reach historical conclusions that can be explained and defended in writing. The “posthole” that students create by examining something like the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in depth will help them develop the academic skills that truly make history a subject worth learning. 

For more information about the redesign of the 
AP U.S. History curriculum see the following sites:

For more information about the posthole approach to 
teaching history see the article I recently posted on this blog:
The Posthole Approach to Teaching History