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A long-distance call
Posted 05/20/2020 08:46PM

As 10 days of AP examinations wrap up this Friday, St. John’s teachers offer their perspective

Advancement Placement classes and the subsequent testing that can earn high school students de facto college credit have been an annual rite of passage since the mid-1950s. This year’s examinations were unlike any other in history, however. And in a variety of ways.

First, as did all of their colleagues, AP teachers had to pivot to a distance-learning setting—only with a beefy College Board-mandated syllabus staring them in the face. Secondly, the subject matter covered by the exam was abridged, as dictated by the College Board in late March, requiring a redistribution of preparatory focus. Lastly, exams went from a three-hour pen-and-paper test with no resources to a 45-minute on-line assessment during which students were permitted access to notes and the internet; the only forbidden resource was collaboration with peers.

We caught up with AP teachers at St. John’s Prep across disciplines to get their feedback, impressions, and takeaways of the process as well as hear about the challenges and opportunities presented by unprecedented circumstances.

Sofia Sidmore—AP Spanish Language and Culture
“The modified, free-response exam allowed students to demonstrate their knowledge and skill through two speaking prompts. They had to perform a simulated conversation and also record a cultural comparison presentation. In our preparations for the test, my students continued to make cultural connections by researching topics related to the AP themes, such as families in different societies, the influence of language and culture on identity, and the effects of technology on the individual and on society.

‘I’m very proud of my students’ dedication to develop their oral proficiency. In any format, this exam is very difficult, and I know my students are disappointed that they weren’t able to demonstrate the full range of their skills (due to the exam’s truncation), yet I have no doubt that they rose to the occasion.”

Dave Hennessey—AP Macro and Micro Economics exams
“Any experienced teacher will tell you that they can accurately sense when the class didn’t quite grasp a concept. With remote learning, cues like that become tenuous. That said, I think the delivery of content since we left campus has been pretty reasonable.”

Hennessey explains that he structured his AP exam preparation around three foundational interactions. Primarily, two to three videos a week (which he created using the Educreations app), allowing him to deliver content to his students “to a degree that is reasonably close to a real classroom.” The app allows students to hear his voice and simulates him writing on a whiteboard. Secondarily, he assigned daily assessments consisting of 20-25 AP multiple-choice review questions and/or two to three ‘Free Response’ review questions. Lastly, Hennessey held two synchronous Zoom classes per week with each of his sections, during which he could share his screen to review concepts and worksheet answers.

“St. John’s is one of the few schools that covers both the AP Micro and AP Macro curricula in the same year, so it’s a real challenge to get through all the material, even in a normal year,” he says. “The abridged exam allowed us to complete the key concepts before the seniors’ last day. Another blessing is that the Economics exams are late in the cycle (Micro on May 20 and Macro on 21), so we’ve had two and half weeks to focus solely on exam review between the last day of senior classes and the exam dates.”

Susan Bavaro—AP European History
“We were right on track when we moved to remote learning, so we were able to cover the full year’s content. There’s no doubt it’s been a challenge, but synchronous Zoom classes have been great. I had convened full Google Hangout classes early on during our transition, and the students came up with a theme for each class. We dressed in sports jerseys one day, Hawaiian shirts one day, Cinco de Mayo one day, USA theme one day, and cowboy hats one day. They really made the classes fun, and students therefore wanted to be there.

“Another great attribute of remote learning using the Zoom app is the breakout rooms. It has enabled me to schedule my classes with part lecture, part group work in the breakout rooms, and then bringing us back together again as a whole class. I also offered a lot of optional review sessions after school on Zoom. Many students were showing up. They have been very motivated.”

Elizabeth Solomon—AP Latin
“The access to resources during the exam made the test much closer to the real-world work of a classicist. Even the most experienced among us will reach for a dictionary or check our own translation with another resource from time to time. The question types ensured that the students understood the Latin beyond a mere translation.

“The new format allowed students to really tailor their preparation to their own needs and preferences. In other words, some students perfected their paper notes, while others curated the online resources they felt best supported them. Another positive of the more manageable syllabus is that it allowed them to focus on learning the Latin rather than memorizing large swaths of the text. That also served to diminish some anxiety.”

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