Are you still with me? Great! I also had one of those "hooray" moments when I kid just gets it. S. - one of the students in my smaller class - observed as we were talking about the emergence of new monarchies in the 15th century how medieval monarchs seemed dependent - on nobles, on the Church, on the wealth generated by their personal property - while the new monarchs seemed to be trying to reverse that, and create dependency - professional soldiers and bureaucrats paid out of tax revenue. I thought that was a really great way to conceive of things - I told her I'm going to steal that formulation for next year, and wrote it down right there. She seemed very happy, which gratified me. Moments like that really make teaching worthwhile.
I've also been doing more team-type activities. Rather than having each kid do a separate assignment, I pair them up or put them in groups, and the pair or group submits a single assignment for a grade. Fewer papers means I can turn the work around by the next class and still provide lots of commentary. In a regular class, I'd shy away from this because too often a lazy or disinterested kid will just sit back and let his/her partner(s) do the work and just ride on coattails. But in this class, where everybody wants to be there, and the ability level is pretty uniformly high, those problems don't exist, and things go better.
But what I really want to get down today are some ruminations about summer reading. I inherited the summer reading assignment from my predecessor, and the kids seem to like some parts, and others don't seem to have worked as well as I'd like. I'm also in a quandary about some bits.
Basically the summer assignment has four parts:
1. read the background chapter on the later middle ages from the textbook - this serves to give the kids a sense of the type of reading they'll have to do
2. visit a museum and bring back proof - a ticket, a picture of you standing in front, etc. Also bring back a picture (postcard, photo, etc.) of your favorite work of art. I put all these on a wall display broken up by century. We'll refer back to it from time to time as we move through the year.
3. read a biography of Henry VIII - this is to expose them to a historical monograph and get them ready for a quick early writing assignment.
4. read a fun book from a list of historical novels and intersting monographs.
I think #1 works great and I won't change it.
I think #2 works great and the one change I may make is to tighten up the format of the image - I may make them buy a postcard of a favorite image rather than bring in a photo. Or at least tell them they can't just use a color printer and a regular piece of printer paper. But that's a minor fix.
I'm not so sure about #3. As it stands, my predecessor didn't give them much guidance other than a plug for Robert Lacey's bio, which is out of print (she was much more hands-off and let-them-figure-it-out oriented than I was). The downside is some kids end up saddled with a 600-page doorstop of a Henry VIII monograph because they order sight-unseen from Amazon. I may suggest a list of short, accessible bios that they could read. I'm also considering maybe expanding this list to include other key figures from the early modern period besides Henry VIII. Don't know who, though - this may take some investigation.
I'm really torn about #4. My feelings are twofold. On the one hand, some of the books on the list. One in particular, the Diary of Mary Antionette makes my teeth itch. It's done in a romance novel style with lots of really implausible plot points, like a torrid, years-long romance between Marie and a stableboy. Like some Austrian stableboy would have gotten busy with an imperial princess. Sheesh. But the kids who read it - and they're bright kids - say they liked it, even despite the cheesy teen-romance plot points. Do I ditch the book because I think it's ahistorical in places, or do I keep it because it engages a certain portion of my students? On the one hand, I really don't want them to be turned off, but on the other I don't want to feel responsible for exposing them to what I consider to be shoddy historical writing.
Here are the books that kids could choose from;
Basillica - a story of the building of St. Peter's. Good on the details, but a bit overwrought, and written by a travel writer whose Romophilia sometimes overwhelms the narrative. Also, nobody in either class read it, so it may look like a dud to the kids.
The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette - as noted above
The Professor and the Madman - a very interesting look at the creation of the Oxford Englsh Dictionary and one of its eccentric (indeed, technically lunatic) contributors. Popular with those who read it.
A Room With A View - Forster's classic on the stultifying nature of Edwardian manners. Panned by those who read it as too claustrophobic and dull. That's what he was trying to convey, of course, but if you're sixteen, that doesn't cut much ice.
The Invisible Century - a comparison of the two men who helped change how we look at the universe in the 20th century - Freud and Einstein. Not many read it, but a good one for scientifically-oriented kids, I think.
The Irregulars - a study of British espionage in the USA during WWII, focusing on the work of Willie Wonka creator Roald Dahl. Kids who read it loved it.
City of Thieves - a darkly comic, at times absurdist, novel set in Leningrad during the Nazi siege fo the city, the novel follows the adventures of an accused deserter and a teenage boy accused of looting. The pair can buy their lives if they can score a dozen eggs for the Russian commandant in charge of the city's defenses. But all the farms are behind the German siege lines. Horrorible violence, absurdism, and black comedy ensue. Most kids liked it, but a couple Jewish kids felt that even absurdism and black humor were not appropriate for touching on the Holocaust. Maybe a little disclaimer is in order.
Anyway, some flaws on the list - Forster is not well-liked and I don't like the Marie Antoinette book. Two books on WWII and nothing on the post-war period. Forster and "Professor" are pretty close in time - I could drop Forster for a post-war book, I guess. I have to decide if I should drop the Marie Antoinette book, too.
But there's a deeper problem here - the philosophy of summer reading. What's it for? Some teachers are against summer reading all together - let the kids have fun in the summer, they say. I can respect that position. But in an AP class, I think giving the kids a sense of what kind of work they'll be expected to do is worthwhile. Let them get out early if they find they don't like what they've signed on for.
Other teachers say expose the kids to the chance to read a book they'll like - share with them the fun of reading history. I like this idea, and it's what the current assignment strives for.
But there's another idea, one that I also find attractive, that summer reading should expose the kids to a single book that they can all share so there's a common experience to start the class. The book should talk about some of the big themes of the class, so you can refer back to it as the year goes on. I'm attracted to this idea, too - but I don't know how to do both. A fun book that most kids will enjoy that will also touch on the main themes of the course? Good luck with that, eh?
Ifyou have any suggestions - and they don't necessarily have to be historical - I'd love to hear them. Some of the big themes - the tension between growing government authority vs. personal freedom and autonomy; the impact of economic change, industrialization, technology; the power of nationalism. I could go on, but it's getting late.
There's a little book called "A Little History of the World" by Eric Gomberich, written in the '50s, that might serve as a good book - it's maybe 200 octavo pages in reasonably big print. I'll be reading it to see if it suits, and may have a place in the summer assignments.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this - suggstions for books, what to do about books I"m unsure of, but that the kids seem to like, anything!