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History Hysteria: How Oklahoma's Teachers Are Tackling The AP U.S. History Course

Christine Bond teaches students in her AP U.S. history class
Kate Carlton Greer
Christine Bond teaches students in her AP U.S. history class

Oklahoma lawmakers are criticizing the new outline for the high school Advanced Placement United States history courses, saying it doesn’t emphasize key figures in American history and that it focuses on a negative view of the country.

But history teachers say otherwise. Educators say they are experiencing more freedom - not less - with the new framework.

Teenagers rustle through backpacks early Monday morning and pull out reading guides for Christine Bond’s AP U.S. History course at Edmond Memorial High School.

Bond has taught this class for more than 15 years, and she’s been a consultant for College Board, the organization behind the Advanced Placement courses, for most of that time. She trains educators on teaching strategies and how to best prepare students for the yearly exam. But when it comes to what she tells teachers to teach, she follows the same guidelines she’s had in her classroom since 1998.

“The content and how I present it has not changed,” Bond says. “I did not go from last year teaching all of happy history that slavery was a really happy flash mob, to ‘Oh my gosh, America sucks’ this year. That did not occur.”

This new framework, which went into effect last autumn, is the first of its kind since the course’s inception nearly 60 years ago. Teachers like Bond now focus less on rote memorization, and more on critical thinking.

John Irish is on the College Board’s AP U.S. History Test Development Committee, a group comprised of high school teachers and college professors who create the exams and oversee any framework changes. He teaches history for a North Texas high school, and he says the redesign has been a long time coming.

“This began in 2007. We're just now seeing the fruits of that work” Irish says. “It's been an evolutionary process of a lot of people, a lot of input, and a lot of people that are really concerned to put together a good test and a good curriculum.”

Before the redesign, the framework was less than ten pages long. Irish says it was pretty vague. While it did contain some proper nouns and specific ideas, the on-paper aspect of the course didn’t reflect college-level curriculum.

“University professors are very active in this process, and they had some concerns. They said, ‘That's really not the kind of things we're doing in our history classes, we're doing more things like articulating an argument. Do you think the New Deal was a turning point for America? Why? Why not?’” Irish says.

Moore Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Rick Cobb says you just can’t teach all of American history in one year.

“Let’s face it. American history is huge,” he says. “You have to really connect the dots from era to era the best you can.”

Cobb says the criticisms from university professors are valid, and the new framework helps high school teachers better equip college-bound students.

“The standards really can be tailored to what the teachers know the most about, to what's most relevant in a particular community. I don't find anything in the framework that's limiting in that sense.”

Christine Bond, the College Board consultant and Edmond Memorial teacher feels that freedom in her classroom.

“If you look at our framework from last year, it would say ‘President Polk, the Mexican American War and the Oregon Treaty and Manifest Destiny,’” Bond says. “It was just a laundry list. And that has been converted to a concept of Manifest Destiny, and then we as teachers can choose an example to teach.”

“That's where the beauty of the framework comes,” says John Irish from the College Board’s Test Development Committee.

“It does allow local teachers and states the ability to bring in their state standards and state requirements.”

Both Irish and Bond insist students are learning the same knowledge as previous AP US History students. It’s the method that’s different. But what is hardest for Bond isn’t what’s happening inside the classroom; it’s the noise coming from outside.

“I wish that whatever legislator would come and visit my classroom or speak to the great AP US History teachers in this state, and I think that's what offends me the most is that we weren't invited to the conversation,” she says.

Until lawmakers reach an agreement, Bond says she’ll continue to teach the content she has taught these past 17 years.

In her classroom, American history is American history. And that’s what she wants to instill in her students.


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