Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Way of Improvement Leads Home at the AP US History Reading in Louisville

We here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home are committed to covering all things American history.  This week we are pleased to have Jonathan Den Hartog writing for us from the floor of the largest gathering of American history teachers in the United States: The Advanced Placement United States History exam reading in Louisville, Kentucky.

As someone who spent six or seven years grading AP Exams when the event was held in San Antonio, I have a good sense of what Jonathan is going through.  But I will let him describe the experience in what I hope will the first in a series of posts from Louisville:

As excited as I am to be an “AP Correspondent,” that joy is
mitigated by the fact that in this case “AP” stands for “Advanced Placement,”not “Associated Press.”

I’m at the AP US History Reading in Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville saved some of its best weather for us—over 90 degrees every day,with humidity.

In early May, some 410,000 high school students took the AP US History exam, which consisted of a multiple choice section, coupled with 1 longer Documents Based Question and two Free Response (essay) Questions. That adds up to over 1.2 million essays that can’t be scored by a computer, so ETS gathers hundreds of historians to read all of the essays. This year, there are 1,250 readers. About 40% of them are university faculty, the rest are high school AP teachers. So, even if this isn’t a high-powered academic conference, there are still hundreds of historians here—hence it’s worth noting in the blogosphere.

Since the AP strives for strong academic leadership, the exam is led by qualified university faculty. Christine Heyrman has done it in the past, and this year the leadership is being eminently provided by Ernie Freeburg of the University of Tennessee and Fred Jordan of the Woodberry  Forest School in Virginia.

I think there are some very valid reasons for academics to participate in the reading. We find ourselves around people who are knowledgable and care about U.S. history. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a more engaged audience. They want to know what people are reading and writing. They want to have conversations about how to understand and teach US History better. They will laugh at history jokes and even appreciate it if you wear t-shirts that have the Mt. Rushmore presidents done up as the comic book characters The Fantastic Fore-fathers or one that reads “He puts the Cool in Coolidge” with a picture of the 30th president. If too often historians have to justify their work, that’s not the case here.

Further, It puts us in contact with real high school history teachers. I am more and more convinced that good academic history needs to filter down to the high schools, because very soon those high school students will be in college classrooms. This is a forum to encounter some outstanding high school teachers. These are people doing yeoman work and producing good results.

Finally, the reading does allow for some interesting professionalization. I always meet people doing interesting research that I may not have encountered otherwise. In the past day, I’ve had meals with people who work on Irish-American loyalty in World War I, Gender and Family Politics in the 1960s and 70s, and the formation of Dutch-American identity in the 20th century. The AP also goes out of its way to bring in some outstanding historians to lecture. This year on the docket is Gary Nash, Lizabeth Cohen, and Jonathan Chu.

I realize I haven’t said much about what gets done during the day. Maybe in the next post. One thing that does happen is you get to read an occasional howler, like this one: “Britain sent a man into America looking for gold, he went by the name Christopher Columbus. He didn’t have anything to return but brought back thousands of African-Americans.”