American studies blends two Advanced Placement curriculums

Kayla Guo

Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) underwent a course redesign for the 2014-2015 school year. College Board restructured the APUSH exam to emphasize skill over content memorization.

The curriculum focuses on students’ abilities to analyze sources, interpret documents, and synthesize arguments based on historical content. This shift towards a skill-based curriculum means that the APUSH curriculum is more aligned with the AP English Language and Composition curriculum.

History teachers Seamus Campion and Peter Anderson and English teachers Dawn Forde and Steve Heller used the redesign as an opportunity to pitch an honors-level American Studies course for the 2015-2016 school year. Although a college prep-level class already existed, students who take the honor level course will prepare for both the APUSH and Advanced Placement (AP) English Language and Composition exam in May.

“Adding an AP element seems to have increased the desirability of the class for students,” Campion said.

Enrollment in college prep American Studies has been declining past years. However, with the addition of an honor level course in conjunction with a greater push in teaching the counselors what the class would be like and what kind of students would be interested in taking it, enrollment in American Studies has rose to 110 students.

“The dynamics of the class really appealed to me when my counselor talked about it,” Cameron Welyki ’17 said.

One of the major differences between the honor level American Studies course and the college prep class is that an English teacher and history teacher co-teach honors American Studies. This allows for a more efficient use of sources, according to Campion.

“For example, the other day we were looking at Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,’” Campion explained. “I went through the importance and context of the time period, and Mr. Heller used it as an opportunity to teach rhetorical analysis. We were able to use one source to teach two different skills.”

For Forde, co-teaching is something she said she is stilling adjusting to. If successful, the expectation is that over a certain number of years, the English teachers would be able to teach history and vice versa, Forde stated.

“Just like how a metaphorical wall is coming down between educators, students are seeing the wall come down between subjects,” Forde said. “Whether it’s English or history or math or science, all academics use critical thinking.”

Often times, English can be an echo of the U.S. History curriculum as in the case of the “Scarlet Letter,” which is set in colonial times. The document-based responses students are expected to write in history class is simply a synthesis essay.

Despite American Studies being back-to-back English and social studies classes, students do get a break in between during a normal passing period.

“The combined classes work out great because we receive a lot less homework and assessments than in a standalone class, and there’s a connection between the readings I do in both classes,” Welyki said.

Creating the interconnected curriculum requires both teachers to meet on a daily if not weekly basis.

“From a teacher’s perspective, it’s a tremendous professional development experience because you’re planning collaboratively and teaching with another very experienced teacher,” Campion said. “We are better able to assist the students, and the class is more efficient. I believe this is how every U.S. History class should be taught.”