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AP Gov Test Prep in the Age of Coronavirus

CDC-coronavirus-image-23311-for-webAs this pandemic continues to unfold, I’m realizing that it just may serve as the best opportunity we will ever have to study of how government works (and doesn’t work).

To that end, I’m thinking ahead to the AP exam and thought of creating a simple, yet comprehensive, ongoing e-learning assignment which calls on students to connect all of the areas of government with the crisis.

I’ve used questions directly from the AP College Board as the prompts. Clearly, not all of the questions fit perfectly but enough do to make this a worthwhile activity.

Coronavirus- Making the Connection


  1. Students copy assignment onto their own Google doc
  2. After competing assignment, students submit the link to their Google doc to teacher
  3. Teacher checks for inaccuracies and provides feedback for revision
  4. Teacher compiles a class list of student Google doc links
  5. Students study class responses

If your students suffer from biased thinking, try this– for 10 minutes.

There’s nothing more gratifying than watching a student eagerly share a heartfelt political opinion in class…. and nothing more, well, disheartening. Sharing strong opinions creates great energy for discussion. It’s infectious. It sets the model that all students should care about learning.   But then there’s this discomforting feeling you get when you realize that the student has completely ignored any opposing views.  There’s no flexibility, no openness. There’s no critical thinking. The student is confirming an existing bias. It’s so important for students to have passionate opinions; but it’s also important for them to cultivate a sensitivity to people with whom they disagree, even if that sensitivity doesn’t lead to a changing of their minds. Continue reading

Teaching the Letter From a Birmingham Jail… with an assist from Einstein

cellMLK’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail is a true classic, both for its historical significance and unapologetic endorsement of non-violent civil disobedience. It actually made the list of required readings for the AP government/politics course, a list that includes Federalist Paper #10, #51 and even the Constitution.

It’s not easy to teach, though. The letter has profound ideas about the relationship between the individual and the state which are hard for students to appreciate.

Here’s a different way of teaching the letter using a compelling quote by Albert Einstein to start things off:

“Never do anything against conscience, even if the state demands it.” 

Tell students to…

1. State the claim that Einstein is making by putting it in their own words

2. Establish a counterclaim which goes against Einstein’s thinking.

3. Share responses privately in groups of three

4. Share out with the entire class

The quote exposes the tension between an individual’s duty to follow moral conscience and the duty to follow government laws, duties which often conflict.  Einstein clearly provokes us to follow our conscience, not the law.

In the ensuing conversation encourage students to bring up situations where THEY must decide between obeying their morals or obeying the government. There’s always the refusal to go to war because of religious reasons, but there are others. This week I had a student describe how his father– who was religiously opposed to vaccinations for his children– was forced to obey the laws of the state of Illinois. He had a very difficult choice to make. This issue hits home emotionally in a very real way.question-mark-2525248_960_720

After the conversation, think about a really good essential question that puts everything together.  Here’s one I developed recently: Should you ever disobey a law if it offends your moral conscience?

With this question in hand, give out King’s Letter and tell the students to think and write about how MLK would answer the essential question using specific textual references from the document. You could give them this task as an in-class writing assignment, for homework or even as preparation for a Socratic seminar discussion. The possibilities are vast.

What has happened here?

Well, a lot.

You started the students off with a provocative quotation with a theme connected to a primary source.  You challenged students to think critically about the quotation by coming up with a claim and counterclaim and then had a thoughtful conversation about the meaning of Einstein’s quote as it relates to students’ lived experiences. Then you capitalized on their emotional investment in this conversation by creating an essential question designed to generate interest and excitement in the letter.

Yes, this process takes up a little class time and demands some careful thinking on your part. But think about what you are doing.  You’re ensuring that when students read this letter that it will be more interesting, more meaningful and connected to their lives in a real way. The upfront investment is worth it.

Here are some more examples of this 3-step process in action with other quotations. They come from Teach Different, a professional development organization geared towards helping teachers and parents have great conversations and essential-questions.

As you read these posts think about the primary sources you teach and how you might make them more interesting.

Don’t do this when a student interrupts you with a great question…

brown wooden gavel close up photography

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I totally screwed up last week. We were studying the basic differences between judicial activism and judicial restraint.  We had just finished up making the point that a judicial restraint oriented court is typically more conservative in that it is less likely to overturn precedent and more likely to see the law as static. A student disrupts the chain of thinking with this question… Continue reading

“Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men’s desires, but by the removal of desire.” Epictetus

EpicSeems counter-intuitive to me.

But maybe I’m missing something.

Inspired by stoic philosopher Epictetus, I worked through the 3-Step conversation technique from Teach Different to create an essential question for a US history unit on imperialism.

Continue reading

Sample prompts for Supreme Court comparison FRQ

Roscoe Pound, former dean of Harvard Law School, famously said “The law must be stable but must not stand still.”  Designers of the Supreme Court comparison FRQ for the AP government exam must have been listening.

Consistent with the expectations for this response, I’ve created a few sample prompts, each of which includes one the of the 15 required cases along with a case related to it.

I will add to this list leading up to the exam. Here is a chart with all of the cases– facts, holdings, precedents and significance.

(I’ve also posted samples for the argument essay FRQ here )

Continue reading

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” Sun Tzu


(This conversation comes from Teach Different where you can get a whole curriculum series of SEL conversations)

Was the Chinese philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu onto something? John Kennedy thought so.

A few weeks ago I shared a Three-Step method used to design essential questions and create great memorable conversations in class.

Here’s another example of how you might follow this process in a unit on the Cold War in US history.

Step One: Quote and claim suntzu

Pick a theme, primary source and a quote aligned to the theme.

You’re teaching the Cold War and you think your students would be interested in the theme of fighting— when to do it and how to do it to make sure you achieve maximum benefit. Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech is your target primary source because it demonstrates the value of using words, not violence, to solve problems.

Ancient philosopher Sun Tzu has a provocative angle on this theme:  “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”

Now pick apart Sun Tzu’s quote. Find the claim being made. 

Claim:  The best way to deal with your enemies is by not fighting them.

Step Two:  Counterclaim

Now articulate the counterclaims which assert competing perspectives.

Example Counterclaim:  Attacking your enemy– trying to overwhelm him– is the best path towards victory.

Have a silent conversation with yourself over the different ways you and your students may view this quote…It might sound like this:  It seems very counter-intuitive to claim that you can actually win over your enemies without fighting. Surely many students are under the impression that direct confrontation with others is the only way to win.  Sun Tzu is offering a different perspective here, one that must somehow incorporate other means of getting your way.

Step Three: Essential Question

After exploring the claims and counterclaims of the philosopher quote, slow down and think back to the primary source– Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech.  Think of a question that draws out the theme.

Here’s one:  Is fighting the best way to get what you want?

  1. Is it accessible?  Can students understand the question easily?  Does it make them want to share personal experiences?  √
  2. Is it provocative?  Does the question force students to take a stand on something and provide evidence to support their position?  √
  3. Is it complex?  Can the question be answered by multiple perspectives?  √
  4. Is it transferable? Can the question be re-purposed to apply to different contexts?  √

This question pulls students into an interesting conversation about the value of fighting and violence as a solution to problems.

To implement this lesson, post the quote on the board and engage the students’ ideas on fighting. What you are doing is preparing the soil for the introduction of your primary source.

Now, introduce the question as you share Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech. With the Big Question and Sun Tzu quote in hand, students have the tools to explore the historical importance of Kennedy’s decision and connect all of it to their own personal experiences.

This resource comes from Teach Different, where you can gain access to a library of these types of conversations.

Other posts you may like:

“Your silence will not protect you.” Audre Lorde

“Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men’s desire, but by the removal of desire.” Epictetus