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I walk into my Advanced Placement U.S. History class, excited to teach the Vietnam War, yet knowing I will fail.
My students may learn some basic information about the war from primary documents and get a sense of its horror of it from film clips. But they will not have time to make deep connections to our world today — to wonder deeply about whistleblowers and government secrets, to connect it to “forever” wars, or to consider the implications of war and peace in Ukraine today.
But I smile at my students and queue up my slides because there is no time to waste on doubt. I only have one day for this topic.
For AP U.S. History, the number of units and topics — and their relative importance on the AP exam — are dictated by the College Board. Sadly, the last unit of the AP U.S. History course, Period 9: 1980–present, is the least represented on the exam, making up only 4-6%. The unit likely to be the most relevant to my students is the least tested, and preparing my students for the exam means giving it less emphasis in my classroom, too.
The “race across time” content demands of the U.S. History curriculum have also meant that I have to cover a different historical topic each day. It means I have had little to no time to have my students study current and recent history so that they can make meaningful connections between the past and the present.
It’s a frustrating state of affairs, especially when AP History courses are upheld as the model for educational excellence. The assumed supremacy of AP courses is explicitly reinforced through initiatives like New York City’s push to enroll as many students as possible and implicitly reinforced when a school’s “best” teachers are “rewarded” by being programmed to teach AP courses.
I have not found this to be true. To me, AP History courses represent an outdated vision: the idea that knowing more information, however superficially, is good.
In my one-day lesson on the U.S. involvement in World War II, for example, my class did learn about the important topics of Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and the use of atomic weapons in Japan by the U.S. However, how rich would our discussions have been, and how useful to our democracy, if we could have gone deeper? If we could have asked questions about if it is ever justified to kill civilians during war? If my students could have researched current issues of U.S. military interventions? How far we should go to prevent or start a war or terrorism?
How rich would our discussions have been, and how useful to our democracy, if we could have gone deeper?
But no. This is AP History. And there’s no time.
I am totally in favor of students learning historical content. Plenty of research supports the importance of factual knowledge for higher-level thinking and reading comprehension. Current and recent events are also historical content, though, content that students usually do not know much about.
We also know that adolescents learn best when they find what they are learning relevant to their lives. But the AP course rarely allows us to “make it” to the present. The format means never giving my students today a chance to learn about such important, relevant events as the end of the Cold War, September 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama’s presidency, or the Trump presidency. It simply does not make pedagogical sense to leave the current and recent past to the end of the year. That’s why this year, I opted to teach these more contemporary lessons first (albeit necessarily rushed) as an “entry point” to the other content.
I’m convinced that a more engaging course would prioritize deep learning and engagement by having students study fewer historical topics more deeply and including much more recent and current history. Every unit would include connections to more recent events. This is more straightforward than it seems: History happens chronologically, but history is not the events of the past; it is the study of the events of the past. We experience history by continually bouncing back and forth (cognitively) between the past and the present.
In my dream scenario, high school history classes would allow students to engage in civic action as they sow connections between history, their lives, and their hopes for the future.
Imagine a course where students spend 4-6 weeks on a Racial Justice unit, where students learn about Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, and choose a current issue of racial equity to research. Students could connect with an organization that is working on that issue, take some action on the issue, and write a paper reflecting on the experience.
This is the type of class I think my students need. I know it’s the type of class I need. And I think it’s the type of class our country needs.
Jeremy Kaplan is an assistant principal of supervision at High School for Health Professions and Human Services in New York City. He has been a teacher, instructional coach, and assistant principal in New York City since 1994.