EdNet Learning Lab Teacher Summer Series: Act 1, The AP Gauntlet

September 06, 2017

I suppose I could have spent my summer poolside, soaking in the sun and watching my children eat popsicles all afternoon.  That’s what teachers do, right?  They spend nine months in the classroom only to fritter away long summer days until mid-to-late August arrives and we answer the siren’s song again.

It doesn’t happen that way.

I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t spend a portion - or sometimes a majority - of their summer preparing themselves for another year and growing as a professional.  Over the last few summers I have tried to devote significant time to deepening my knowledge of civic education and school advocacy.  This summer was no exception.  I made three trips to three time zones, all in the name of becoming a better educator.  At each stop, I collaborated with other teachers and learned valuable lessons that will show up in my classroom as I begin another school year.

In mid-May, millions of students across the country cram into classrooms, auditoriums, and convention centers across the country to take Advanced Placement Exams.  Their goal is to earn college credit for high school coursework.  I teach AP U.S. Government and Politics.  The course focuses on the institutions and framework of our Federal Government system.  In May of 2017, over 300,000 students took this exam.  Those 300,000 exams need to be scored, and it takes over 700 high school teachers and college professors to do it.

In early June, I made the trip to Salt Lake City, Utah for my third consecutive summer of scoring AP exams.  The scoring, which is not to be confused with grading, involves sitting at a table with 6 or 7 other teachers and a table leader in a giant ballroom (or in our case, the staging area/loading dock of a convention center).  Our group of 700-plus is divided into quadrants, each tackling one of the four free-response questions.  After some direct instruction on the rubric that accompanies each question, our groups set out to norm our scoring with each other and the rubric.  From there we dive into packets - 25 student exams at a time - and score until our eyes cross.  We spend eight hours per day, for seven straight days, reading exam after exam.  Our scoring is broken up by catered snacks and meals, but the pace and monotony of the reading can get the best of you by the end of the week.

So why do it?  It’s pretty simple, actually.  It makes me a better teacher.  This year, I scored over 3,500 student exams.  I know exactly what the College Board is looking for on free-response questions, and that translates into clearer teaching for my students.  I’m able to clearly articulate the difference between “describe” and “explain” when it shows up on our unit exams.  I can help students learn the nuances of when to provide a hypothetical example, and when they must include keywords in order to get the point.  It also makes me faster.  Over the past four years, my AP Government class has grown in size from 30 students to 90 this coming year.  That increased grading load can be difficult, especially when we move from unit to unit every 2-3 weeks.  My ability to score student exams quickly and accurately means timely and effective feedback for my students before we move on to new material.

The other benefit of AP Reading is the ability to network.  You share space, meals, and stories with hundreds of other teachers from across the country who share the same goal: student success.  Every year, I leave the AP Reading with new ideas for lessons, readings, and resources to help my students achieve at a high level.  Each year, the College Board also organizes a “Professional Night” for teachers.  This year was a major improvement.  The College Board invited teachers to submit proposals for a poster session to explain something unique or meaningful that they use in their AP Gov classes.  

Fellow iCivics Educator Network member Leigh Farrington and I submitted a proposal to talk about the use of iCivics in the AP Government curriculum.  During the course of the Professional Night, Leigh and I spoke with hundreds of fellow educators and extolled the virtues of iCivics.  I created screenshots and outcomes for how I use three different games in my AP Gov class.  I also was able to distribute my AP Gov syllabus, with annotations of where iCivics materials (both lessons and games) could be used during the course.  The response we received from teachers and professors was universally positive.  While most had heard of iCivics, many were only familiar with a handful of games or concerned that the materials may not be rigorous enough for AP.  Leigh and I could demonstrate (including some game demos) how each of us used iCivics materials to teach specific content in our classes.  I use my favorite game, Court Quest, as an introduction to the court system.  After my students play it, no one ever forgets the levels of the federal court system (something that shows up on almost every AP Gov exam).



David Olson has spent a decade in education at the Middle School, High School and College levels.  He currently teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics, Modern U.S. History and Criminal Justice at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, WI.  In addition to teaching, David serves as Department Chair, Tennis and Forensics Coach, and is a member of the school leadership team.

David graduated with degrees in Government and International Affairs and Secondary Education from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD and later received his Masters Degree in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He has presented at MPSA and received a Fellowship from the Center for the Study of the American Constitution.  He also regularly serves as an AP Reader.  David is honored to help spread his passion for civics and the Constitution (his students can tell you he always carries a pocket Constitution in his bag).

David grew up in the Twin Cities and retains his devotion to the Vikings and Twins (despite moving to Packer country).  He is married to Amy and they have two beautiful redheads - Caroline and JoJo.  David enjoys following professional and college sports, playing with his children, and reading the news.

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