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. 


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10 replies
  1. shelli
    shelli says:

    I love your posts and have been reading all of them lately. I appreciate your honesty and straightforwardness. My husband is a history professor, so this one made me chuckle. I created a huge timeline that hangs in our hallway. I don’t know if it’s helping my boys as much as it’s helping me, but seeing the big picture has helped me wrap my head around history unlike how I learned it in school. My boys and I also benefit from my husband’s tiny lectures that he adds to our documentary watching, etc. Otherwise, he’s pretty hands-off with teaching history, but maybe when the boys get older, he’ll become their tutor more than me.

  2. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Teach to engage. Teach to motivate more learning. Teach to ask more questions. But don’t teach to overwhelm or frustrate the student. All easier said than done and even harder to do in a classroom with many students who are comprehending at various levels what’s being taught. This post made me think of the various teachers I had over the years many years ago. I think the best teachers were those who could communicate complex ideas very simply and make them understandable without too much effort. I still think about what makes a teacher a good teacher to this day.

  3. Francis
    Francis says:

    I enjoyed this post. Spot on about hacking the essay. They are looking for the checkmarks on their scoring rubric, so just go by the rubric and as long as it’s generally cohesive (get comfortable with a variety of transition phrases and a succint conclusion,) it should be fine.
    Go get’em!

  4. Terri Torrez
    Terri Torrez says:

    We’re knee deep in AP U.S. right now. How did you find a tutor for the essays? We have the rubric but like you, I want to be sure we’re maximizing the essays.

  5. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    I emailed a guy who does a lot of AP Euro videos online, and asked for a referral. And on Wyzant I found a tutor for AP World history who is a grader for those essays. I bet you could do a simliar thing for AP US. I like the AP US videos at JoczProductions. Maybe that’s a good place to ask.

    And if you find someone. Let me know!


  6. Peyrot
    Peyrot says:

    This is similar to my style. I start with the Guide books and then toss them a used college textbook to go with it. I have not been so bold as to do the AP History tests just because I had such a wonderful AP History teacher in high school that I didn’t think I could measure up to. We did dual enrollment at a local private college for US History, which was a confidence boosting experience for my girl. I did tell her on other tests about the rubric-they’re just checking off a list for facts and such and not to stress on it.

    She did end up with a 3 on the AP Biology, but that’s on account of I signed her up on a whim around Christmas and didn’t realize how hard it was. She just drew the Krebs cycle and such every day and had had Biology the year before, but not Turbo-charged. After realizing how in-depth the AP was, I said, I apologize because as my oldest, I make the initial mistakes with you.

    She totally bombed the AP Chem, because she didn’t even try. Also, I recommend AB Calculus before you attempt the BC. We tried to “shoot the moon” and wound up crashing with a 2. Other AP victories included the Human Geography, Psychology, and English. We got an additional 23 hours dual enrolling, which in our state, is subsidized. She is now doing her second year in a computer science program.

    My next kid is opposite from her in every way, of course. I’m thinking CLEP for her: straight up multiple choice on almost all the tests and gets the job done.

    I enjoy your blog a lot.

  7. Kate
    Kate says:

    I love your more frequent posting and I binge on them every so often- tho this means I’m after way behind so commenting seems a bit… no point.
    I wanted to say… and this is probably massively outside the remit of what you like/ want to do… as a fairly disorganised INFJ home educating my eldest towards GCSE’s (in the UK) as that’s the direction she is interested in going, I’d love to see how you break down and tackle the subjects you teach/ cover. I just think BLEURGHHH when I begin to think about trying to do a couple of subjects in a year because despite having read that this is very possible with an apt and engaged child I find it hard to believe. I’m game to try but cannot think where to start to simply learn what we (she) need(s) to. I think maybe my executive function capacity is damaged or is it just a part of being INFJ? I have INFJ friends who are very together with planning / organising and carrying out practical stuff. Maybe it’s just me. I’m keen to blame all my faults on my personality type since I learned about it here a couple of years ago now.
    Gah. How to do charts for what to learn?? I might google it. I’m not sure what AP tests are for- are they a GCSE equivalent or not? (Here we do them in Two academic years from ages 14-16)
    Ok. Sorry- a bit of a waffle.

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