How AP teachers use their post-AP class time for creative projects

7 mins read

Since most Advanced Placement (AP) teachers spend the majority of the school year preparing their students for the AP exam in May, the month after the test before the beginning of summer gives these teachers the opportunity to teach about subjects that they are passionate about and assign exciting projects to their students, often expanding upon the knowledge they gained throughout the year. Three of M-A’s AP teachers shared about their interesting post-AP assignments.

Shannon Kirkpatrick, one of M-A’s AP English Language and Composition teachers, frequently expresses her love for William Shakespeare’s renowned play “Hamlet.” When teaching her unit on the play after the AP exam, Kirkpatrick’s passion for the story shines through and compels many of her students. She shared, “There a couple of reasons I decided to [teach Hamlet]. One reason is that I want a good launching pad for all of [my students] for AP [Literature] because that’s where most of [them] are going next year… The second reason is that a lot of the AP [Literature] classes actually do ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern [Are Dead]’ which has a lot of [references to]… ‘Hamlet,’ so [they] should probably know the story. Then the third reason is just because I love it. It’s one of my absolute favorite plays to teach.”

Although Kirkpatrick first read the play as a senior in high school, she continues to find the story exciting and the message relevant today, and she predicts she will for the rest of her life. She described, “I really love that every time I either see it on stage, or I read it, or I watch the movie of it, there are so many different ways to do it… There are just all of these questions that every time I see it or read it I always come to a slightly different answer. It’s like a book that always changes, and I never get tired of it because I can never pin it down. I’m always wondering, or I always see something new in it. There are not a lot of books like that, and I love that. I just think it’s so fun.”

One of the reasons Kirkpatrick loves teaching her annual unit on ‘Hamlet’ after the AP test is she has the opportunity “to focus on questions about the characters, what they [are] feeling, and what [the students] think is really going on with [the characters] in the moment.”

If the class were to read the play before the AP exam, Kirkpatrick stated, “[The class would] probably write about [the play] more. Some of that ‘let’s break apart the psychology of this character’ is just one thing that is really fun for me, and it’s something I like doing… We have more freedom to do that because we don’t have to prep for a particular essay or talk about the literary devices a ton.”

Additionally, Kirkpatrick explained one of the reasons why she feels “Hamlet” is so important in today’s society. She commented,I actually think that [some] of the central questions that Hamlet is struggling with [are] how do I know what’s true, how do I make a decision, and how do I, especially with politics today the way they are… navigate a really sticky political situation. All of those things are questions that we’re always going to be asking ourselves. And Hamlet comes to different answers at various answers when he kind of pauses for his different monologue.”

She continued, “’Hamlet’ is something you can always come back to and see different stuff in your whole life. And it will be relevant your whole life because those are questions you will always have to ask yourself.”

By connecting Hamlet’s dilemmas to situations in our day to day lives, Kirkpatrick further demonstrates “Hamlet”’s relevance and value for her juniors.

Another AP English Language and Composition teacher, John McBlair, has two major projects for his AP students. He explained, “One is a small debate unit on different worldly topics that they’ve decided on. One is on how to combat climate change, another is on the UN, we’ve got one on [legalizing] drugs. A lot of interesting topics. And then the other activity that they’re doing is they’re taking questions from a book that we’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s [The] Better Angels of Our Nature[: Why Violence Has Declined], and they are following the footnotes.”

Elley Goldberg (left) questioning Alex Oesterling (right) in a debate concerning climate change prevention in John McBlair’s AP English Language & Composition class.

McBlair, M-A’s debate team coach, decided to have a debate unit for his AP students. He shared, “I think it’s a nice ending of the year. We’ve been working on critical thinking and argument skills all year long, and so, the debate unit is an opportunity for them to practice that in a unique way.”

His second project allows his students to expand their knowledge on topics from Pinker’s book, which they have been reading throughout the year. McBlair described, “What they have to do is they have to find a few articles that go deeper into one of the arguments that Pinker [makes] and potentially challenge it. Some students are reading psychology articles on whether or not empathy actually does increase with literacy. Other people are trying to figure out whether or not terrorism has increased recently or not because there are conflicting reports out there. Other people are looking into why there isn’t more data about [transgender] people and their murder rate. So it’s an opportunity for students to look into either history or anthropology or psychology or some other field and actually read some academic articles and follow the footnotes and try to come up with some conclusions. The product of their research will be a powerpoint presentation that they’ll do for the class where we can ask them about what they’ve been researching.”

McBlair feels this research project is particularly important as it gives his students an “opportunity to explore their own curiosity, to take some of the close reading skills that [they’ve] been working on this year and apply them to a specific question that they have.”

He added, “I’m hoping that that’ll emulate a lot of the self-directed research that students will end up doing in college and in [graduate] school, and will give them a bit of a taste for the field.”

To conclude, McBlair stated what he hopes his students gain from the research assignment: “Particularly with the research project, I hope that the students will understand that these issues are incredibly complicated, and so while Steven Pinker might spend five pages on broken windows policing and criminology, there are people that have written hundreds of pages in the form of books on these same questions.”

Overall, he hopes their biggest takeaway from reading Pinker’s book is “just to know that greater and greater complexity is always out there and that clean, and simple answers are hard to come by and worthy of suspicion.”

AP Physics students’ boat being built in preparation for Jeff DeCurtins’ annual boat race.

Lastly, the students in M-A’s AP physics class, taught by Jeff DeCurtins retiring after this school year, prepared for the eighth yearly cardboard boat race, a highlight of the year in the school’s community, after their AP exam. DeCurtins explained, “Students build cardboard boats, and they race them across the pool. They’re only allowed to use cardboard and tape, and they can only coat a certain amount of the visible surface with tape.”

Concerning the challenge of using only the two materials, DeCurtins laughed, “The one thing that the students don’t seem to understand is that when you put cardboard in water, it gets really weak and soft, and some boats don’t make it all the way across. I remember one year, a group made their boat out of cheap cardboard… and their boat dissolved before they got across the pool.”

Additionally, DeCurtins discussed some of the other requirements for the boat race. He explained, “The official rule is that at least two people have to be in the boat. The most we’ve had over the years is four people in a boat, but this year, the Viking boat [is]… going to have all five in the boat. It’s a long sleek boat that’s going to have shields along the side. It’s pretty cool, and they’re doing a good job of making it structurally sound.”

The viking boat under construction before the AP Physics boat race.

DeCurtins shared the story behind first assigning the project: “I realized from other students who I talked to… that most AP classes end up watching movies all the time after the AP test is over. And in fact, I had one year where one student told me that they were watching the same movie in three different classes, so they were really getting bored. So I realized — that was my first year teaching AP physics — that I needed something to do after the AP test was over. I was farming around, and I happened to notice some school somewhere had something posted about a cardboard boat race. I thought that would be a good thing, so I said let’s try it, and they did.”

In addition, DeCurtins disclosed his favorite part of the boat project and recounted his experience at the first boat race. He stated, “My favorite part is… when they’re racing, it’s so funny that I’m just laughing as hard as I can. I remember the first year that I was doing this I had a megaphone [for] calling out orders like ‘Get in your boats’ and ‘Alright everybody get going,’ and at that point, I just lost it. I think one boat just turned over, and another boat was struggling. Everything was so stupid and so funny, it was just hard to not laugh.”

The construction of the cardboard boats for the project is truly a collection of knowledge the students have gained throughout the year in a fun and exciting application. DeCurtins articulated that the AP physics students demonstrate their understanding of key concepts and their ability to combine and apply these ideas to create a sound, sturdy boat. The topics vary from using a model for air friction and adjusting it to create a model for water friction to comprehending why a boat floats.

While a difficult assignment, DeCurtins finds that the project is truly enjoyed by his students. He stated, “Everybody is kind of wound up from working so hard [with] all of this [AP] testing over two weeks… so it’s kind of unwinding, kind of a stress relief. I’m really amazed at how much they get into it. They’re arguing over shapes and construction and all that kind of stuff… They’re really talking physics principles even if they don’t know too much about what they’re doing.”

From “Hamlet” to debates to cardboard boats, Kirkpatrick, McBlair, and DeCurtins assigned engaging and unique post-AP projects that not only applied concepts students learned during the year but provided a compelling learning activity to end the school year.

My name is Alex Chang, and I'm a junior at M-A. As a first year journalist, I am excited to develop my writing and communication skills. Outside of school, I am very passionate about my faith and community service. This past year, I had the opportunity to go on service trips to the Bahamas, Guatemala and Mexicali. I also enjoy playing piano and participating on the debate team. I am looking forward to writing features and opinions for the Chronicle!

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