Starting with the End in Mind: Learning Goals and Differentiation in AP US History

An Introduction.

Summer planning! I’m starting a new teaching position this year, so my summer has so far involved slightly more prep work than it otherwise might. I have the deliciously wonderful privilege of teaching AP US History, which is the class in high school that started me down the career path I’m currently on. My academic work was also primarily focused on American history, so this also means that I get to think all day long about the one thing I think is most interesting to think about. So! all of that is to say that I’ve been mulling over how to make this class as fresh and exciting as possible and I’ve been feeling very fresh and exciting about that process.

AP US History seems to be one of those classes that everyone remembers, and that everyone either loved or hated. I have a working theory about those who fall into the latter camp. That theory is this: History is traditionally taught in such a way that only the kids who would naturally be inclined to like the subject do in fact end up liking it. History as it is traditionally taught (lecture/note/multiple choice) does nothing to hook the kid who isn’t a natural dork for history. So, most of the population ends up “hating History,” when in fact what they hate is sitting in a classroom, listening to a lecture while taking notes, and then trying to pass a multiple choice test.

I’ll admit that the following is just based on anecdotal evidence, but History teaching seems especially curmudgeonly, and resistant to 21st-century-type pedagogy. Maybe this makes sense, since we historians/teachers of history spend most of our time looking backward, and it seems a contradiction in terms to teach a subject whose content is backward-looking in a manner that supports the development of forward-thinking skills. Okay so anyway, I’m trying to do that kind of teaching, in this most staid of high school courses. Here’s the first step in that attempt.

Differentiation: Identifying Goals.

I’m currently working on Component 2 of the National Board Certification process, which deals with differentiation in instruction. This is the principle that curriculum and instruction should be designed such that it reaches a variety of learners at a variety of levels. This is also the aspect of effective teaching that in my experience freaks teachers out the most. I find that most early-career (and some later-career) teachers I know think that differentiation means you have to come up with different curriculum for just about each kid in a class. All the literature I’ve read suggests that this is not what differentiation is, and so I’m working on understanding how differentiating the curriculum for my APUSH class can make the material more accessible and interesting for each student, rather than just those who are, again, such natural dorks for History that they’ve probably already read the textbook over the summer for fun (not that I did that in high school, or anything).

The first step in effectively differentiating curriculum is figuring out exactly what that curriculum is! And that means identifying year-long learning goals. I just finished reading Carol Ann Tomlinson and Tonya R. Moon’s Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom, which emphasizes the necessity of identifying KUDs (What you want students to know, what they should understand, and what they should be able to do) before beginning the planning process. (Note that complex and engaging learning goals are NOT JUST CONTENT GOALS!) Effective differentiation means that the KUDs are the same for all students, and that the teacher provides multiple pathways toward meeting those learning goals. It’s like choose-your-own-adventure learning.

The College Board has a very clear (if lengthy) description of its skill goals for the APUSH course, so I worked from those in order to create this mind map (which I created with this cool tool!:

AP Mind Map
Ok, so it’s not that slick. I’m way better with a pencil and notebook.

By the end of the course, an APUSH student should have had the opportunity to develop the skills above. So here’s my homework:

How/when will I focus on each of these APUSH KUDs? What’s my instructional sequence? Which are foundational? Which can only be taught after the foundation is set?

I think the use of historical source material (“Use of Sources,” above) is pretty fundamental to the other prescribed skills, and so I’d like to start the year with an examination of how historians use historical sources to assess the past.

Ergo, for next time: A full-blown UNIT on the colonization of the continent, focusing on interpreting historical source material, and including a pre-assessment to support differentiation!

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