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Kolby Kerr reflects on AP Summer Institute

August 27, 2012

New Tech High English facilitator, Kolby Kerr, received a CGA summer scholarship to attend the AP Summer Institute where he focused on the integration of project-based learning in AP courses.  Please continue for his fascinating feedback of  this conference.

As a facilitator of project-based learning at New Tech High @ Coppell, I am always differentiating instruction for my gifted learners.  Authentic projects emphasize individual problem-solving and product variation.  However, I have noticed an underlying antagonism between PBL enthusiasts and Advanced Placement supporters.  Those steeped in PBL often see AP as just one more standardized test, one more race to nowhere, in which learners are given a textbook’s worth of material and told to memorize and regurgitate facts on a high-stakes exam.  Conversely, AP defenders are dubious of PBL’s ability to teach content, to provide learners the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of a discipline at a collegiate level.

Of course, these are unfair characterizations.  Advanced Placement courses emphasize college-level skills and provide learners the opportunity to grow beyond the walls of their high school and take ownership of their education.  I owe my passion for literature and writing to AP courses I took in high school.  Project-Based Learning gives learners the chance to understand more deeply the content that has too often been delivered too rapidly and shallowly.  It allows learners to make authentic connections beyond the classroom and into the 21st century world.

However, because of this mutual skepticism, there has been relatively little professional development to help PBL facilitators integrate AP-level rigor into their courses without sacrificing the authenticity and creativity of the project-based model. I was able to spend an hour with the presenter of a session about Project-Based Learning in her AP class, only to discover that her projects (while perhaps valuable in their own way) did not reflect a deep understanding of true project development.  I met three teachers who were required to integrate PBL instruction in their courses, but had received virtually no training in the model.

Therefore, the main function of this conference for me was to affirm for myself not only the possibility of but also the advantages in a project-based AP Literature course.  From session leaders to conference colleagues, the conference gave me a broad perspective on ways that an AP course might be taught.  I spent the week prior to the conference developing my syllabus for this school year and I was able to work with several instructors and attendees who helped refine and hone my projects. Because of this training, I find myself uniquely positioned to offer confidently to my learners an engaging, project-based course that will develop them into collegiate-level readers and writers.

Most of the workshops I attended focus strictly on preparation for the AP test.  My belief is that by understanding every nuance of the exam myself, I can creatively integrate components and skills into projects seamlessly.  My question during and after each session was:  How can this material be integrated into one of my projects?  This will allow gifted learners to remain engaged in relevant, interesting projects without being bogged down by explicit, rote test prep.

Further, this conference will also help our Humanities department begin to develop a more focused vertical alignment.  If we are able to be more concrete in defining higher-level, content-specific skills that we want developed at each level, we as a team will have more freedom to build on those skills and create more opportunities for learners to showcase their unique talents.  To this end, I attended several sessions focused on Pre-AP and AP Language courses and will bring back notes and ideas to our department during summer inservice days.

This conference instilled in me a new passion to stand in the gap between Project-Based Learning and Advanced Placement.  If we are going to serve our gifted community, we must be able to reconcile the perceived tension between these educational paths.  PBL and AP share similar visions—to give our learners every opportunity to be challenged and to grow.  As more campuses recognize the need to innovate and turn to models such as PBL, the need will only expand for training in AP integration.  I am very interested in pursuing and/or developing this training for English content.

Several presenters stood out as particularly insightful and helpful.  Sharon Kingston is an extremely enthusiastic and very experienced AP instructor, with a heart for individual students and for her content.  Gretchen Polnak led several excellent sessions on poetry analysis, and, as a University of Texas education professor, likely has much more to share with teachers.  Finally, Jerry Brown offered a tremendous amount of resources and expertise in helping learners prepare for the actual AP exam.

Overall, this opportunity served to sharpen my instructional focus on the analytical and critical thinking skills I am hoping to instill in my learners.  I feel empowered not only to utilize the brilliant and individual talents of the learners who walk through my door, but also to offer them the necessary tools to guide those talents into awesome achievement.  I would like to thank the Coppell Gifted Association for giving me this chance to refine my craft and invest in my instruction.

Kolby Kerr
English Facilitator
New Tech High @ Coppell

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