This year I made a big change in how we homeschool. Up to now, I let them learn whatever they want, and when they needed help, I hired an expert: skateboard lessons, pottery lessons, and biology. And I taught the kids myself if I thought I’d enjoy it, like violin, and Hebrew and boogie boarding.
But they are older now, and I’m realizing that even though I never wanted to practice music, I have enjoyed it. I like learning alongside the boys, and I like knowing that no matter what, we’ll spend that time together each day. So when my older son had to start studying for the AP European History test this year, I told him I’d be his tutor.
Expect fights. From the start I experienced huge frustration. We had a lot of fights about that he was being an idiot. I didn’t say that because I know John Gottman’s data for what makes marriage work (which I have found applied to all relationships) says that you can’t have a good lasting relationship if you name-call. So instead of telling my son I can’t believe he forgot what happened in 1648, I just drank wine. I moved our history time to 4pm because I think that’s the earliest normal people drink wine.
Teach how to learn. What I realized, though, is that I’m not teaching him the dates and the wars as much as I’m teaching him how to think about history. Thinking in a historical way is first learning to put huge timelines into our heads. Then you have to be able to plug in the history of the nation-state system, or the history of ideas, or the history of trade. The third step is layering those ideas to see patterns and relationships. I told myself his learning to learn history is like me learning to play violin. That made me more patient.
Study like the kids who cram. All AP tests are in May. Most AP test prep books are for cramming, sometimes learning the whole year’s worth of material in a week or two. So if you start with one of those books in the summer, you feel like you are really far ahead. I made a chart of how much material my son has to get through each week in order to be prepared for the test, and it wasn’t very much. So when we miss weeks because he was slow or I was pissy it doesn’t feel that terrible. I just shift the schedule a bit.
Hack the essay portion. In most AP tests the scoring is 50% for multiple choice and 50% for essays and free-response. Our strategy for biology and chemistry APs was get 100% on the multiple choice and pray on the essays, and he got a 4 and a 5. In the sciences you can write a few words and get partial credit. But a few words won’t cut it for the longer humanities essays. It turns out there is a formula for how the essays get scored. And kids memorize it.
When I found that out I hired a tutor who is also a reader of the AP essays. My son said he’s fine having me teach him. I said, “I wish I could, but what I wish more than that is you know all the tricks to get a high score on the essay.”
The tutor says things like, “This test is easier for students who hate writing because they don’t get distracted aiming for high-quality prose.”
The way the tutor describes people reading AP history essays is the way I describe people reading resumes: when you read that many, you can read the whole thing in ten seconds. A reader at the Princeton Review told me AP readers spend about two minutes grading an essay; they look at the shape of the essay, then they look at thesis sentences, then they look for supporting documents. The advice: don’t add anything they are not looking for because they won’t see it.
Don’t make studying fun. I added stuff I thought my son would like. Like the history of disease. Who doesn’t like a bit of black plague and boils? And we watched the sanitary movement. But when I took a detour before Louis XIV to learn about Molière my son said, “This is not going to be on the test.”
I said, “It’s fun! You can throw it in an essay.”
He said, “Extra knowledge of the topic is only worth one point, and I just learned ten points worth.”
So I guess my last piece of advice is:
Be careful what you wish for.