As a teacher of high school juniors at a college-preparatory independent school, I am frequently asked to write a college recommendation for a current or former student. In a typical year, I will write about 20 letters for students, and it is a task I take seriously. While I know that most colleges weight the transcript, student essay, and standardized test scores over a letter from a teacher, I’d like to believe that my three or four paragraph missive provides some insights into how a student approached the study of American history, and what he or she contributed to the classroom each day.
Over the years, some teacher friends have suggested that I use a template or a formula, selecting stock phrases and sentences that are applicable to certain “types” of students. Other teacher friends get a little grumpy about requests for recommendations, seeing it as a burden in an already busy schedule. I genuinely like writing the letters and try to write the lion’s share over the summer, when I am not pressed for time and can revise and edit. Recommendations provide a chance to reflect on the growth of a particular student over the course of a year, and the letter serves as a tangible reminder of a year’s worth of research, essays, and projects. My classes are small and I am able to get to know students individually, both in the classroom and through community service projects and other campus activities. Also, since we have taken a “project-based learning” approach to the classroom, there’s so much more to say about each student. I can describe the energy they invested in creating a virtual profile for a historical figure in our Facebook project, or I can detail the intellectual process of finding and developing a topic for National History Day. The 2012 AP scores are out, too, which gives a data point to include in a letter.
Recently, English Teacher David McCullough gave a commencement speech at Wellesley High School in which he uttered the words “You are not special. Although a little harsh, his message was valid…he critiqued a culture in which young people are coddled and praised and told how awesome they are…before they’ve actually done much with their life. Further, he brings out the numbers, noting that there are 3.2 million students graduating from High School this year, which gives us 37,000 Valedictorians. In a world of 6.8 billion, if you are one in a million that means you have 7,000 clones. McCullough encouraged the students to seek a meaningful life and embrace challenge. Although the title of his speech and his frank appraisal of the life of a pampered and praised American teen drew laughs and media attention, note that he does end the speech by saying “the sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.”
So, what does this speech have to do with a letter of recommendation? Well, just about everything. As teachers, we can avoid drawing blanket comparisons between the student at hand and everyone else we’ve ever taught. I avoid statements such as “one of the best” or “one of the brightest.” We can focus on storytelling rather than platitudes. Who is this young person, and what did they actually do in a classroom? How did she approach a challenge? When did he struggle? And what did they learn in the process? Where was the growth?
We can write a letter that speaks to the uniqueness of our individual student, without “selling” him or her like a used car. We can find the special aspect of our student that stems not necessarily from a rank or a grade or an award, but from an attitude or approach to learning or life.
Tomorrow morning at 8 am, my 38 11th graders will rip open the seal on the 2012 AP United States History test. I’m not allowed in the testing room tomorrow morning…in fact, I’m not even supposed to talk to them for 48 hours. As of this afternoon, I’ve done my job and it is really on them to do their best. It feels a bit like my Bullis Community Garden plot. I can prep the soil, plant the seeds, weed and water…but ultimately the fruitfulness of my garden is outside of my total control. Like my tomato plants, ready to harvest in July, I will have to wait until mid-summer to get the results of the exam.
I know that standardized tests, particularly those administered by the College Board, have been under attack on many fronts. Some teachers complain that the tests kill creativity and freedom in the classroom and forces them to “teach to the test.” Students lament the emphasis that college admissions offices place on SATs and AP scores. In some districts, administrators track test results, trumpeting strong scores and hand-wringing over low scores.
My “history” with the AP USH test goes back 25 years…I took this test in 1987, as a high school student. For me, it was the culminating experience of my favorite high school class. I fondly remember Mr. Donald Stewart, and his enthusiasm for the American story. I remember being truly challenged in the class, as I sought to understand a broad narrative sweep of history and as I wrote essays and analyzed primary documents. I was proud of my 5, and I was able to use my AP scores to graduate from college in seven semesters, thus saving significant tuition costs.
I am on good terms with the AP exam. I see it as a tool–sometimes a carrot, sometimes a stick. I can use it to motivate my students to stay on task on a bright and sunny spring day. I appreciate the overarching structure and curriculum: there’s a beginning, middle, and an end, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when my students are “ready” for the test. I believe there is little about this test that is “rote.” While students need a sense of chronology, there’s no emphasis on memorization of dates and random facts. The three essays are robust, including one document-based question where students must interpret charts, maps, letters, cartoons, and other primary documents.
Over the years–this is my 10th teaching AP USH–I have gained a level of comfort and confidence. My students are strong students and good writers. They genuinely like the subject and are motivated to complete assignments and participate in class. My bigger challenge has been to find ways to move some of the content mastery outside of the classroom and to get the emphasis off of me as the “sage on the stage.” To that end, I’ve tried a few strategies. I make podcasts of lectures for each chapter, and students can view these at home to review or reinforce material. We now have “fabulous Fridays” where teams of students take their classmates through a DBQ, leading discussion and formulating a communal thesis statement. Most importantly, I’ve carved out time for National History Day (see my last post) so that all students have a deeply engaging research project.
It is 10 pm; my students should be in bed. You can’t cram for this test, and it is more important to get a good night’s sleep. I hope they get to school on time in the morning, remember their pens and pencils, and keep a steady pace on the essays. Finally, I hope they walk into the room tomorrow with confidence, knowing that they have worked hard and are all well prepared.
This Saturday, I will take 15 high school juniors to University of Maryland, Baltimore County for the state level competition of National History Day. This is the third year Bullis has had students make it to states, and while the novelty has worn off a bit I am as excited and nervous as I was in 2010, when we began participating in NHD.
At the start, I was a little reluctant to integrate NHD into our 11th grade US History curriculum. I especially worried that there wasn’t time in my AP classes for a major research project. My colleague, Lisa, sold me on the potential benefits and we have had a program ever since. With a little bit of creative scheduling (students covered much of Colonial America as part of a summer assignment, and I now make podcasts of lectures that students can view at home), we’ve managed to prepare fully for the AP exam AND engage deeply in research. The students are better for it, and I am a better teacher.
So, what is NHD? Briefly, it is a nationwide competition where students conduct research related to an annual theme, and present their findings in the form of a website, documentary, paper, performance, or exhibit. Visit www.nhd.org for all the details and rules.
Our first year out, we had students craft websites related to the 2010 theme, “Innovation in History.” I was thrilled when two of my students made it to the state competition, Catherine for her website on the Brooklyn Bridge http://www.brooklynbridgeaworldwonder.com and Kamar for his work on the Brownie Camera http://88782668.nhd.weebly.com
I was ecstatic when Catharine made it to Nationals. I was awestruck when she won a $5,000 prize from the History Channel for best entry on a historic site! And I was hooked. Catherine winning the History Channel Prize
In 2011, the theme was “Diplomacy and Debate,” and Lisa and I began to fine tune the process. Students began by exploring topics and conducting secondary research. They drafted thesis statements and outlines. They dug deep into primary documents. They interviewed professors. And they revised, revised again, and revised some more. We expanded the choice of formats and sent nine students to states in the websites and performance categories. Of those, five continued to Nationals and two won major prizes: Kane was a finalist for his website on the Iran Hostage Crisis http://67052664.nhd.weebly.com/ and Cami won a college scholarship for her work on the Bay of Pigs Invasion http://27907196.nhd.weebly.com/ . They were recently recognized by the Maryland State Legislature for their accomplishments.
This year, we pulled out all the stops. The buzz about the program is growing, and students began brainstorming in the fall. Every junior taking US History selected a topic relating to the theme “Revolution, Reaction, and Reform.” We had an awesome Bullis History Night where our students displayed their projects for family, friends, teachers, and other classmates. http://youtu.be/HNqoa8SFhYw
We pushed our students intellectually, asking them to dig a little deeper, provide additional evidence, and strengthen their arguments. After selecting the top students to compete at the county level, we have 15 students heading to states…with representation in all categories, including documentaries, exhibits, and a research paper.
I don’t know what the outcome will be on Saturday–hopefully a few students will have the opportunity to continue on. Regardless, the true victory has been in the process. We’ve nurtured scholars who have gained ownership over a historical topic and are proud to share their work. We’ve highlighted academic success and created a culture at our school where top history scholars are honored and celebrated.
Why NHD? Why NOT?
I am a spoiled teacher. I admit this freely and openly. I teach at a private school with many resources…our library, auditorium, and sports facilities rival those at many small colleges. My classes are small, typically about 14-18 students. There are no metal detectors at the entrances, and many students don’t lock their lockers. While my students have been known to get a little antsy on a beautiful sunny day, discipline problems are few and are limited to issues like a untucked polo shirt or a late arrival to class. My kids have books, computers, and supportive and stable home environments.
With all these blessings comes a bit of teacher guilt. Am I really “doing good” here in this setting, or would I be more useful in a city school with a high poverty rate, or in a rural setting where kids have limited opportunities? Do my students really “need” me, knowing that they will likely graduate from high school and earn a college degree?
Part of what I have tried to do as a teacher is to “widen the circle” and help my students gain a broader understanding of our community. While the “20854” zip code is very wealthy, just five miles from our school there are families living in poverty and truly struggling to pay the rent and buy groceries. This year, I am co-director of our Community Service Program and we have expanded our volunteer work and partnered specifically with a local agency, A Wider Circle. You can learn more about this amazing organization at their website: www.awidercircle.org , but suffice it to say that they work tirelessly to help meet the basic needs of families seeking to climb out of poverty. We’ve hosted a big holiday toy drive, a book and blanket drive, and have become regular volunteers in their warehouse. You can learn more about our work by watching this video. Martin Luther King Day of Service
Today, 30 members of the Bullis Varsity Lacrosse Team spent a chunk of the last Saturday of Spring Break moving mattresses, loading trucks, and organizing the warehouse. A number of the boys were partnered with families who were visiting the warehouse to select beds, dressers, tables, and other household items. I am hopeful that this service left at least a small impression on the volunteers…both reinforcing the fact that they are blessed with so much, and also that they have the power to positively impact the lives of those who are less fortunate.