One of the nice things about co-hosting a weekly education podcast is that I get an opportunity every week to take the various ideas about teaching that I have gathered over the span of a career and test them by talking about them. This is useful, even when it doesn’t result in major shifts in my practice, but when such things do occur, it’s invaluable. Such is the case with my AP Biology Summer Assignment; an exercise in needless assessment that no longer served any purpose for my course. If I hadn’t had the conversation with Paul, next year’s students would shortly be getting something that was not worth their time.
The Purpose of a Summer Assignment
I’ve been doing this long enough to know that at the AP-level most Summer Assignments serve one of two purposes (or both together). The first is as a device to cover some amount of content. This is frequently a response to a lack of instructional time in the course. The typical content that most AP Biology Summer Assignments seek to cover is either the front-end, chemistry-related material in a textbook (this type of Summer Assignment essentially demands that all students have a textbook prior to the summer), or the back-end, ecology-related stuff. The second major purpose that Summer Assignments serve is as a bar that students must successfully jump in order to remain in the course. In this function, the Summer Assignment is supposed to approximate the level of rigor in the course, so as to give students a taste of what’s to come, and to get them habituated to being in a course with a large work-load. This second type of Summer Assignment is not necessarily content-centered, and can often take the form of an assigned book to read, or other “high-level” task.
In my own course, content coverage is not a concern. We meet for 85 minutes a day, every day, from the beginning of the school year, until after the AP Exam. Informal surveys that have been conducted within the Larger AP Biology Teacher Community suggest that this volume of class time is well to the right of the distribution, which is demonstrated by the fact that I don’t ever seem to have an issue covering all of the material I want to prior to the administration of the exam. For the first few years of teaching the course, I did assign the first few chapters of the textbook, but it quickly became apparent that this was a waste of time for my students (as covering content by reading it in a textbook and taking some form of required notes is a remarkably low impact way to learn), and for myself (as I would still wind up teaching the material that was covered during the beginning weeks of my class due to said low impact).
For the last number of years, the Summer Assignment has endeavored to have students dwell in the realm of being a biologist in more thematic, and interactive ways. This always centered around whatever web resource that I was using in any given year from wikis, to course blogs, and most recently to discussion forums. But as progressive as I thought these variants of a Summer Assignment were, at the end of the day I don’t know that they added any real value to my course, or to my student’s summers. They were assignments without a point. It was this conclusion that presaged the death of the thing, something that my AP Biology co-teaching colleague was only too happy to go along with when I brought her the suggestion last month.
The Thing That Wouldn't Die
After discussion and agreement with my co-teacher (really the only person’s perspective on the topic that I care all that much about outside of my own), I figured it would be easy enough to bury our Summer Assignment. It was dead because we decided it was, and that should have been the end of it. But when I shopped the idea around to other AP subject teachers in my school, I was surprised to find that some of them were of the opinion that Summer Assignments could not be killed due to district policy. This was news to me, but I figured I should do my diligence, and ran my thinking up the administrative flagpole. To my surprise, the directive came back that AP subjects had to have a Summer Assignment, with justification being of the second type that I described above: As a rigor trainer for the students in the class.
On the one hand this was a confusing development, as our Summer Assignments have never actually been Summer Assignments. Which is to say that we are not allowed to require that students actually do them over the summer, the due dates being a few weeks in to the start of the new school year. For this reason, I had hoped that there wouldn’t be any major issue with killing the thing altogether, but apparently I was wrong in my thinking. On the other hand, I was now in a position where, having convinced myself that the Summer Assignment served no legitimate purpose in my course, I had to come up with something that could ostensibly be claimed to be the thing I wanted to extinguish.
Fortunately, I was prepared. For the past number of years, our Summer Assignment has always had an “Extracurricular Bonus Project” that we never required our students to complete, but that gave them an official reason to do a variety of interesting things that I always thought might be useful during summer vacation. These experiences range from the somewhat-Biology-related (“Take a picture of a deer somewhere on Long Island”), to the not-at-all-Biology-related (“Go to a water-based amusement park”), with all sorts of other notions in-between (“Sleep outside, under the stars”). And each one has some sort of “artifact” to document the experience (a picture, a ticket-stub, and another picture, for the three mentioned above). Rather than press my luck and burn some bridges by insisting that there would be no Summer Assignment at all in AP Biology, we simply made this list the entire assignment. Which is to say we made our Summer Assignment into enjoying the summer.
It was a simple fix, but the simple things are frequently the most profound. My AP students are some of my most favorite people in the world, and the summer that is coming their way shortly is going to be the last one they will ever have where they are still kids, before college, and all of the other things that adult life entails start to come their way. We’re going to have an amazing time learning about Biology next year, but until September I think the best thing that I can do for them is to let them slow down, breathe, and enjoy themselves and the time they have. I can’t think of anything that I could make them do outside of my class for the next few months that could be more important than that.