October Newsletter

The TL;DR - November is a great time to start putting your kids in charge of monitoring their own readiness for the exam in May. Use this customizable Google Doc to have students compare their unit test and FRQ scores to the target scores* they’ll need to earn a 3, 4, or 5. After each unit/FRQ, encourage a bit of reflection on their own effort to understand the content and what they might do differently going forward into the next unit.

Hey colleagues, 

Last month, I shared a set of monitoring sheets that I give my students to track their progress through each unit. With the AP exam registration deadline looming on November 15th, I figured this month’s newsletter would be the perfect time to talk about tracking progress at the semester level. 

Teaching in a Title I school with many students who are taking their first AP course, I always forget how much help students need translating their performance on our unit tests and FRQs to the five point AP exam scale.

Now before I go any further, I need to offer the disclaimer that using unit tests or individual FRQ scores in September and October to predict exam scores in May is not how I frame this practice of progress monitoring with my students. I always remind them that the tests and FRQs in our classes don’t simulate the comprehensiveness or duration of the actual exam and that it’s much easier to recall nine topics worth of material from the past three weeks than nine units worth or material from the past nine months.

Nevertheless, I think it’s critical for students to have an idea of the target* multiple choice and FRQ scores they’ll need in order to earn the score they want on the exam in May. This is another great tool that you can use to conference with your students about their progress and even something that you could include in parent teacher conferences. I find that parents are really appreciative when you can lay out exactly how their student’s performance on your tests in class lines up with the scores needed to earn college credit on the AP exam. At our school, the parents paying the full $95 price for the exam seem to be especially interested in this information.

I really hope these tracking sheets are something useful for you and that your students are interested in taking ownership for their progress in your class. It makes a world of difference when you and your students are all aligned toward one common goal of thinking like mountains, writing like scholars, and earning college credit together. Happy Halloween! 🎃 🏔️

*For those who may be wondering how I came to these “target” scores, I simply took the average MCQ percentage for students earning each of the corresponding exam scores from form 1 of the exam, available in the AP Score Reports for Educators. For FRQs, I rounded the averages up to the nearest whole point because I think that no matter how hard we try as teachers, it’s really difficult to score our own students’ responses as stringently as the actual exam is scored at the reading in June.

If you want a more flexible way to predict student exam scores, try this APES Exam Score Calculator, based on the exam scoring worksheet that accompanies the three, full-length 2020 practice exams in AP Classroom.

September Newsletter

The TL;DR - Keeping track of learning, reviewing, practicing, and reflecting on 99 topics of content can be a daunting task; empower your students with progress monitoring sheets for all 9 units and put them in charge of owning their journey as an APES scholar. Or as Kati Morris likes to say, “release the learning to the students.” In addition to helping students track and reflect on their progress, progress monitoring sheets can also help students identify areas of weakness within units so they can study smarter not harder.

Hey colleagues, 

Is it just me, or does the pace of covering and practicing the material in this course make you feel like you’re sprinting a marathon? As I mentioned in my last newsletter, covering 99 topics of content and still having time for review before May 2nd boils down to covering roughly a topic per day for most of us (not to mention the folks who manage to do this all in a semester!)

Unfortunately, this leaves little time to slow down and have our students do the progress tracking and metacognitive thinking that we know is so important to helping them learn and master complex material. Between labs, case studies, discussions, and practice FRQ writing, there are so many time-consuming activities in class that leave few large blocks of time to have your students self-assess their own understanding of the content or even keep track of where they are in the homework sequence for a given unit.

Teaching at a Title I school with over 50% of my APES students being English Language Learners this year has reminded me of how critical it is, especially for first time AP students, to have some system they can use to keep track not just of their homework, but also to reflect on their understanding of the topics we cover.

Enter: progress monitoring. I pass out these progress monitoring sheets at the beginning of each unit to help my students keep track of their flipped video note progress, practice questions, and their own self-assessment of their understanding for each topic.

If you can build a habit of encouraging your APES scholars to take 2-3 minutes at the end of each class period to track their progress on any given topic, this valuable process can take up minimal class time and even become habitual so that they take ownership for it themselves. My “exit ticket” each day is for students to complete whatever “check for understanding” we end class with (usually a mini-FRQ or 3 MCQ topic quiz from AP Classroom), track their score, and then show me on the way out the door.

This provides so many benefits, but my favorite aspect of it is the transfer of ownership to students it accomplishes. When they have an idea of which topics we’ll be covering in a unit, how many homework assignments they’ll have, and how they should be practicing and checking their understanding of these topics, it really transforms the conversations we have about their grades and overall performance in class. 

I require any student who wants to talk about raising their grade to bring an up-to-date progress monitoring sheet to the conversation. This allows us to look at whether there’s been a lapse in their responsibility of basic content exposure through the flipped notes or if they’re struggling more to recall content on MCQ quizzes and articulate it on mini-FRQs, or as is often the case, both. 

If a student is on top of their flipped video notes and is diligently tracking their progress, but still isn’t earning the FRQ and test scores they’d like, then or conversation can focus more on how much they’re challenging themselves with their own retrieval practice/self-quizzing or how thoroughly they’re completing the targeted review guides that we use to prepare for unit tests. It could also be that they’re completing the homework and practice opportunities, but aren’t fully engaged in class and aren’t working to apply the content they’re learning in flipped video notes to the activities in class each day.

Regardless of the outcome, starting from a place of student ownership of progress tracking leads to dramatically more productive conversations.

If you’d like to try this with your students, there’s a key beneath the tracking table that explains how/when we fill out each column. As always, don’t hesitate to reach out with follow up questions about progress monitoring or APES in general. Hope your school year is off to a great start and happy progress monitoring!


Pacing your APES Class with Flipped Instruction

August Newsletter

The TL;DR - Planning out the pacing of your entire year and sharing it with students from day 1 can be a super helpful way to stay on track and make it through everything before the exam! Use this template to plan out your year and sign up for this free, one-hour Zoom call (8/16 from 8:00 - 9:00 pm EST) where Kristin Shapiro and I will be helping APES teachers with this process! If you can’t make it, the recording will be posted to YouTube the next day.

Update: The video recording is now available above.

Hey Colleagues, 

It feels like just a few weeks ago that I was enjoying the sights and sounds and craft beer of Cincinnati at the APES reading, but here we are all of the sudden in August! I would say that another school year is just around the corner, but I know that many of you are back in school already. At any rate, we’re all somewhere in the process of beginning a new school year or starting to plan for one, so I wanted to share some planning and pacing related resources that I’ve found really helpful in wrangling this 99 topic beast that is AP Environmental Science.

In some senses, the 252-page AP Environmental Science Course and Exam Description (CED for short) is a bit of a double-edged sword. One the one hand, many of us that taught for a number of years before its release in the summer of 2019 recall the difficulty of deciding exactly how to pace each unit and how deeply to delve into the various topics that our textbooks covered. On the other hand, with such clarity and guidance on what to cover and how long to spend on it, the CED has created two new challenges.

With such length and clarity, teachers now feel even more pressure to increase the pace of their teaching in order to make it through all 99 topics in class while still leaving a sliver of time for review at the end of it all.

Albeit a smaller issue than the first, the sheer length of the CED creates a second issue I like to think of as the “illusion of exhaustivity.” This is the idea that if you cover all of the terms and basic concepts in the CED, you will cover everything that could feasibly appear on the exam. We all saw that this is unfortunately not the case with the now infamous urban heat island question on question 3 from 2022 FRQ Set #1. While we could spend a whole newsletter on why you’ll never be able to guarantee that you cover every question on the exam (and why you don’t need to), I want to focus on the more tractable issue of how to make it through all 99 topics outlined in the CED and still have time to review before the exam on May 2nd.

99 Topics of APES on the Wall

Honestly, the advice in the old car-ride/time-killing song isn't all that different from my advice for pacing out the sequence and timing of your units in this course. You really just have to keep pulling topics off the wall (CED), passing them around to your students with some opportunities to engage with and check their understanding of them and then repeat.

The trick is not getting so bogged down in any one topic or lab that you fall behind the pace that you need to maintain for the year. So how do you identify that pace you need to maintain in order to make it through the year?

Well, if you grab your school’s 22-23 calendar, a copy of this pacing template, and a calculator, you can have your entire year paced out (with time for review) within an hour or two.

Before we actually get into the process, though, I want to talk about the “why” for a second. Why is it so important and helpful to pace out your entire year and commit to it before getting started? For me, this all boils down to transparency and accountability

I want to be transparent with my students about why we need to move at the pace we need to in this course (often much more quickly than they’re used to) and for us to hold each other accountable in the process.

By giving my students the homework and unit exam schedule on the first day or week of our class, I’m giving them the ability to plan ahead and see exactly when they’ll need to be ready for important dates in our class. If they play sports, travel with their families, or miss significant school time, they already know exactly which topics they’ll miss and can plan ahead to schedule make-up times for unit tests. This is also the way that college courses, which the AP program is supposed to emulate, typically work. 

I also want the transparency to hold me accountable to this pacing. This can be a bit intimidating if you’re a newer teacher or if you have helicopter parents or pushy students, but I think it can also be freeing. Since I’ve let students from day 1 when each unit test has to happen, I’ve already limited myself to only the number of labs and activities that can fit in the time allotted for any given unit. 

It can help you move away from “have I covered this topic well enough?” and towards “what is the most effective way to cover this topic with the limited time I have available for it?

This pacing transparency can also deflect criticism. If a student complains that we’re moving too fast, not doing week-long labs, or not watching enough documentaries, I can refer them to the schedule they got on day 1 and say “you can see the topics we need to cover in each unit and how many units we need to get through, so we don’t really have a choice if we’re going to get through everything and still give you time to review for that exam in May.”

When you and your students are all on the same page from day or week 1, it’s easier to build the mentality that you’re a team, working together to master the 99 APES topics before May.

Alright, back to the math that can help you work out this pacing:

Make sure you have your school calendar, this template, and a calculator.

Step 1: Figure out how many hours you see your students in a week. I have a block schedule of two 55-minute days and two 85 minute days per week, so 280 minutes per week.

Step 2. Use the chart below to calculate roughly how many weeks you should spend on each unit according to the suggested pacing from the CED. I’ve converted from the CED’s suggested class periods to minutes so that you can convert minutes into weeks or class periods based on your school’s schedule. This chart is also on page three of the pacing template if you want to work out your calculations there.

Note: this number of weeks does not include a review day and a unit test day. Just covering the content.

Unit 1: 13 Class Periods x 45 mins = 585 mins/ [your school’s mins/week] = # of weeks you should spend

Unit 2: 11 class periods x 45 mins  = 495 mins/

Unit 3: 13 class periods x 45 mins = 585 mins/

Unit 4: 13 class periods x 45 mins = 585 mins/

Unit 5: 19 class periods x 45 mins = 855 mins/

Unit 6: 17 class periods x 45 mins = 765 mins/

Unit 7: 11 class periods x 45 mins = 495 mins/

Unit 8: 19 class periods x 45 mins = 855 mins/

Unit 9: 19 class periods x 45 mins = 855 mins/

Step 3: Start at the end of the year with your two weeks of review time and work backward, scheduling your units to take roughly the suggested number of weeks/class periods. I try not to get too hung up on making my unit length matchup perfectly with the suggestions. I just don’t want to be a whole week off or more in either direction.

Step 4: Check with your admin to see if there are any important, school-wide events that aren’t on your master calendar that you need to plan around. 

Step 5: This is important. Accept that this is the pacing you’ll need to stick to and that when you inevitably lose a few days, you just have to keep going. This is why I love flipping my class. Even when we lose a few days, students can still keep up with the flipped videos and are just missing out on extension opportunities in class, not being exposed to and practicing the content altogether.

Note: If you lose a day that displaces a really important lab or topic, consider stealing some time from your unit review day at the end of the unit, or shifting a lab into the 2 week review period at the end of the year rather than shifting back the entire schedule. 

This can feel like a really time consuming process, but it is so worth it! When you plan ahead and commit to your 9 unit test/exam dates before the year starts, you save yourself from so much future decision fatigue. You move from weighing every possible lab and activity to just filling the allotted time with as much meaningful, engaging instruction as you can.

If you want to walk through this process with Kristin Shapiro and I, sign up for this Zoom call on Tuesday, August 16th at 8:00 pm EST where we’ll model the process with our own school calendars and answer all of your questions!