A Pre-AP Mindset

Just My OpinionI considered breaking this post into two parts – the first full of disclaimers regarding my lack of standing to officially throw around terms like “AP” or “Pre-AP”, and the second to say whatever it is I’m about to say.

I’ve opted to go a bit more basic, but you’ll have to take my word for it that nothing I say here reflects official anything. I’m a fan of the College Board (yeah, yeah – big picture, folks), but I certainly don’t speak for them, or anyone else for that matter.

I teach what we in these parts call “Pre-AP” History. My region’s use of the term this way is tolerated but not encouraged by the folks who own the copyright. For those of you unfamiliar with Pre-AP, the official definition can be found at http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/preap/220773.html.

I’d like to talk unofficially, however, about Pre-AP mindset. About approach. Maybe even grit.

I don’t mean the students’; I mean the teachers’.

Unicorn Farting a RainbowSee, in my part of the country, you commonly find Pre-AP classes offered in core subjects as early as 6th or 7th grade. They fade when actual AP classes become an option, generally around 10th grade. These Pre-AP classes logistically replace ‘Honors’ or ‘Gifted & Talented’, but the goals and strategies are substantially different. Or, at least… they should be. 

This is where I may get a bit preachy.  

It’s the time of year when rosters are being created and teachers are finding out which of their classes will be huge this year and which merely large. It’s when teachers from the 7th grade offer to fill in teachers from the 8th grade on ‘certain’ kids, and teachers from the 8th offer to do so for the 9th. 

You see the pattern.

Gossipy TeachersI can’t think of anything more horrifying than going into a brand new year with new students and pre-labeling them based on choices they made with an entirely different teacher a full 8% of their lifetime ago.

Wait – actually, I can. It’s a similar conversation that goes on throughout the school year. My apologies to those I may offend, but it’s one that turns my stomach. Sometimes it just pisses me off. 

“This kid just shouldn’t be in Pre-AP.”

“Half these kids are only in here because their mommies want them to be around the ‘good kids’, not because they belong.”

“I’m sure she’s trying, but she’s just not Pre-AP material.”

My favorite are the tones of voice when someone’s complaining about their district’s “open enrollment” policies – 

“All they have to do to take Pre-AP is just sign up, or Mom or Dad puts them in! That’s IT – no matter whether they’re ready or not!”

Hello LabelI certainly understand how difficult it is to lead a class through an advanced curriculum and facilitate higher level thinking skills when some members of that class lack the knowledge, know-how, or mindset to follow along. Since time immemorial, teachers have been fighting the sand trap of ‘teaching to the middle’ – losing the low, boring the high, dragging half the middle bravely towards adequacy. 

It’s not really what we signed up for.

But think about what we’re saying when we utter these words. We’re labeling young people in our care – in our GRASP – as fundamentally flawed, as less-than. We’re condemning them for not arriving ready to successfully leave our class and move on. We’re judging 13-year old students for their background, their knowledge base, and their maturity. 

We’re going to go to Teacher Hell for that sort of thinking. I’m serious.

ZPDOMG, this new 9th grader isn’t a good student? He’s not READY for advanced coursework? He’s not any GOOD at playing school? He’s immature, or ignorant, or annoying?


Of course they’re clueless. If they were mature and capable they could stay home and take this stuff online, save the district zillions of dollars. If they were ‘ready’ for advanced coursework we could simply promote them up a grade or two and let them get on it. 

But we drag their sorry behinds through the door as best we can in the hopes that YOU can cajole them. Inspire them. Trigger them. Reach them. Lift them up. And – check THIS out – some of them, for whatever reason, have landed in your PRE-AP SECTION(S)! That means they, or someone in their world, have given you the green light to stretch and inspire and challenge them well beyond whatever you manage in your ‘regular’ classes!

It means you have permission to treat them like they’re smart. Like they have potential. Like they have value.

Um... Students?

I realize that a lazy student may fail in Pre-AP, but… won’t they fail in a ‘regular’ class also? Do we HAVE a level of class in which you don’t particularly have to do anything? If so, we have a much bigger problem – we’ll still end up in Teacher Hell, but for very different reasons.

Rainbow UnicornPre-AP is a chance to find that spark, to focus on it and stir it up, in kids who may not understand what it means to play ‘smart.’ It’s an excuse to set aside some of the state standards over trout fishing and Reba McEntire to instead push our little darlings to think, and to ask questions, and to wrestle with point-of-view or how to write an effective argument. 

Pre-AP is not about screening out kids from AP a few years earlier than otherwise; it’s about recruiting those who might never see themselves as AP material to begin with. 

Yes, that’s more work. It’s frustrating and it’s not fair. Welcome to public education – have you been here long? 

There are arguments to be made for why AP itself must maintain a certain inflexibility. And we MUST wrestle with how to avoid yet again neglecting our top academic students as we spend all of our time and resources on those less willing or prepared. I realize that what I’m advocating is not so simple as a group hug and a rousing speech about equity. 

But I’ll risk a few more rainbows and unicorns to shout from this particular soapbox one more time. 

If you’re “tracking” kids based on their school performance before the age of 16, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re decreeing what they are and aren’t capable of based on their maturity and mindset as of 13, that’s just ignorant.

You might as well visit new parents in the district and critique the value of their homes, check their tax statements, and ask how likely they are to divorce in the next decade. You can tattoo the child’s forehead based on that.

Hell, skip that and let’s just assign coursework based on ZIP Code. It would certainly save some hand-wringing.

Blues BrothersOr, we can see every kid in front of us, in whatever level of class, as having possibility. If discipline becomes an issue, deal with discipline. If prior coursework is essential, work it out. And if they’re just hopelessly stupid, well… that may prove tricky. 

But let’s not get our panties in such an ongoing wad because too many hungry people keep showing up at the restaurant without their own silverware, or too many sinners keep taking up valuable pew space at church. Let’s consider being glad they’re there at all, and start figuring out how to justify their presence by what we can DO starting NOW rather than how to dispose of them based on our convenience or whatever’s gone on in their worlds before. 

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Once again, you've "hit the nail on the head" as the saying goes. I had never encountered 'Pre-AP' until his post. Unlike you I'm not a fan of the College Board and its programs and materials. In fact, I'm most bothered by the scripted approach to the AP classes. I'm bothered that any people would believe they 'know' what students should truly understand and be able to use. I'm bothered that they seem to think lesson plan delivery is the way to get there. I'm bothered that they believe a multiple-guess exam is the way to assess the level of learning. BUT I do like the "BlueCerealEducation" thinking on their Pre-AP program --> another opportunity for teachers to hopefully facilitate Effective Learning and Joy of Learning habit development for young students (as I interpret your points at least).

I love most of this post and your knack for expressing the thoughts so well. But this paragraph in particular grabbed me: "I certainly understand how difficult it is to lead a class through an advanced curriculum and facilitate higher level thinking skills when some members of that class lack the knowledge, know-how, or mindset to follow along. Since time immemorial, teachers have been fighting the sand trap of ‘teaching to the middle’ – losing the low, boring the high, dragging half the middle bravely towards adequacy." For me, the most critical and difficult issue is the students' mindsets.

I struggle as I expect you and many educators do with the issue of a student's Effective Learning / Joy of Learning mindset. Those that have it are the ideal students we like to work with - regardless of lack of knowledge or know-how. Those that don't have it somehow need help to get it... But there is no "Mindset Online Store" we can direct them to in order for them to get it! Sadly, they don't have it, most likely, because their family / neighborhood culture doesn't promote it.

So the best 'answer' is to somehow to facilitate culture change. One thought I've expressed often is to promote local dialogue led by LOCAL PEOPLE possessing the mindset - believing that they have the best potential to influence those who don't possess the mindset. It's what I refer to as the Spider Plant model. Local believers (spider plants) reach out (send out runners) and change non-believers (starting new spider plants) - and the cycle continues. But this takes time... I don't know any alternative.

Critical, however, is that teachers from pre-school on MUST also build upon even the smallest glimmer of motivation. The Spider Plant model can and will work within the classroom regardless of level as well.

I'm often asked about the LOCAL PEOPLE. They do exist. It might be the grandparent or uncle of the child; it might be a member of the clergy, a local business person, a community center staff member, a 'non-affiliated' local citizen, an older mindset-bearing student, .... But we read / hear about them frequently. I've got to believe they are in ALL local neighborhoods.


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