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What to expect from my online course-- a letter from our AP US Government & Politics online teacher
Rachel Califf, 8/25/2010

Rachel Califf has been leading AP US Government with PA Homeschoolers AP Online for many years-- and earlier she was a PHAA homeschool high schooler who took part as a student in many of our classes online! She is a graduate of Grove City College, and a mother of three little ones. This article should be of interest to all families involved in having their students taking any online class-- the points Rachel brings up fit for many situations.

For eleven years, I’ve taught AP United States Government and Politics online through PA Homeschoolers. My greatest challenge and my greatest joy is encouraging students to engage with their peers in discussions about current events and political ideas that can be controversial in nature and inspire very emotional responses, particularly among teenagers who see the world as very black and white and who have yet to hone their diplomatic approach. It can be a challenge sometimes to teach students to be civil in their discourse.

Each year, I hope and pray that my students emerge from the course with more than just good grades. I pray that they will have grown in understanding and knowledge, in integrity and in maturity, and in stewardship over their God-given skills and gifts. That, in the years to come, they would go out into the world and impact it for good.

Toward these ends, and for the sake of class cohesion and success, I post a message to our class site outlining my expectations for the year. I’m sharing several excerpts from that message for the benefit of parents and students who are considering or have enrolled in an online class this fall. You will get a sense of both the broader sweep of my expectations and hopes for students and the day-to-day skills that help students succeed in the online and distance learning environment, as well as the developing of relationship between an online teacher and student. I hope that you will find this glimpse into online education an edifying one!

***

My dear Students!

I want us to have a successful year together and I have found that clear communication is the first key to that outcome. So, in the interests of a successful year, and transparency, there are some things that you should know about me and about the upcoming class. I believe these will help you to form accurate expectations and to understand what I expect of you in return.

 What I Value:
I value visibility. That is to say, in an online class like this it’s easy to become “invisible” and that is not a desirable thing. If all I ever get to see of you is your essays and your quiz scores, I will get to know nothing about you. Your classmates won’t know who you are. You won’t stand out as interesting to me in any way. Therefore, it will be hard to remember you. And it becomes particularly difficult to assess your grasp of the material, which is my primary job as your instructor. I won’t be able to write your references for college, because I won’t be able to say much other than “he was punctual/late” or “she wrote good/poor essays.” I know that it can be difficult to admit that you are confused about something, and no one wants to sound unintelligent when writing something for the whole class to see. But I value transparency, too, and authenticity! Don’t pretend to be something you’re not, please! Be honest with me and with yourself and with your classmates about what you know and what you don’t. Be humble.  And be courageous. Put yourself out there. Get in the discussion. Share your agreements, your disagreements, your confusion, your concerns, your passions and your fears. There’s a popular christian song on the radio now that I love and part of the lyrics go like this: “Don’t be afraid to stand out. That’s how the lost get found!” Also, email me as often as you like! With as many questions or comments as you like! Believe it or not, I like to hear from you.

Other things that I value are responsibility and punctuality. This is a college-level course and if nothing else, I expect you to treat my syllabus with responsibility. Know the deadlines, know what work I’m expecting from you and get it done. If you’re confused, let me know up front, and sooner rather than later. I don’t have a lot of respect for urgent questions sent at the last possible minute, but I love questions sent early in the week! Also, if you submit an assignment late or don’t read through my emails fully, I expect that you’ll accept the consequences gracefully and learn from your mistakes in the future. And if you fall really behind, remember that the sooner you admit your mistake (to both your parents and I), the easier it is for us to fix the situation! The best thing you can do for yourself is to stay on top of the assignments. But everyone makes mistakes.

I value respect and kindness and thoughtful discourse. We will all come with our own political, emotional and experiential baggage. We will hail from diverse ethnicities, socio-economic and religious backgrounds. We will each have different passions and blind spots when it comes to the issues. The most awesome thing that we can do with that is to share! We will discuss many controversial and heart wrenching topics. I expect you to be kind to one another. I expect you to be respectful. I expect you to enter each conversation with several goals in mind: (a) what can I learn about this person’s perspective? (b) What can I share about my perspective? (c) How does this change my perspective? (Please note: your goal is NOT to change your classmate’s mind.) As a result of such a conversation, you can either strengthen your position or change it. It may give you something new to think about. Either way, at some point in the conversation there will be a standstill. Some point where you are getting frustrated or emotional or it doesn’t seem as if what you’re saying is having any impact on the other person. That’s a good time to move on to a new conversation. Kind of like training a dog, stop the game while it’s still interesting (and you’re still friends)! If you notice a discussion that seems to be getting out of hand somewhere, please let me know as I am not, unfortunately, omnipresent! If you’re part of that kind of discussion, expect a stern reprimand from me and a round of sincere apologies from all involved, including you.

What do grades mean to me?
First, your grades are an indication of your aptitude. That is, your grasp of the material.

As such, your grade is usually a very good predictor of your performance on the AP Exam, with some exceptions. I have had excellent students who failed to take the Review Time seriously and received a poor Exam grade. And I have had poor students, who finally buckled down and studied nothing else, get a respectable grade. I have also had students who just hadn’t honed their testing skills (like timed essays or timed quizzes) who had a rude awakening.

Lastly, your grades are a measure of your participation in the class. And that participation is some measure of your respect for me and for yourself, not to mention a measure of the hard work you’ve put into the class. As such, I am not inclined to change grades and will be very clear about the circumstances under which I will or will not grant extensions.

What if you have a problem with someone?
I subscribe to the basic idea that you should respectfully try to deal with the problem individually first. Try emailing the individual personally and work out the differences. I think it’s only respectful to do this. If that doesn’t work, bring the problem to me. You’re big kids now, so turning to me to solve personal differences shouldn’t be your first resort. On the other hand, if the problem that you’re having is too big for you to handle, you should not hesitate to come to me or to your parents.  

What do you hope to gain from this course?
And how do you plan to gain it? You see, I can be the most wonderful teacher in the world, but if you don’t show up, it’s all for naught. I can’t give you a good grade on the AP Exam and I can’t teach you this material by osmosis. You have to read what I tell you to read, write what I tell you to write, study what I tell you study. You have to invest the time and effort. And sometimes, you have to go above and beyond. You have to know how you study best (with music or without, by reading aloud or by taking notes, by yourself or with a friend, etc…) and you have to make yourself do that.

If you want a good grade on the AP Exam, follow the syllabus. Do the required activities and study, study, study! If you’re consistently getting poor essay grades, do more than the required ten essays! If you want a very interactive class, do the optional activities. If you want less “busy work,” skip the optional activities and leave them to other students. If you want to make good friends, converse with your classmates. If you think a study group would be beneficial to you, invite some of your classmates to join you as accountability partners. If you want to explore the issues, dig deep into the controversial topics. If the discussion questions are not “deep enough” for you, make them deeper. If they are too deep, do some research or ask some questions about them. If you think we should be reading fiction and non-fiction related to politics, by all means, join our “book club” or go ahead and add it to your personal schedule and then tell us all about it! If you want to have more interaction with me, join the study sessions on Thursday mornings! If you want a shining reference from me for college, you better earn it!

My point is, to a very large extent, this course is what you make it. What do you plan to gain from this course?

So then, what can I expect from the instructor?
You can, and should, expect timely responses from me. Know then, that I rarely answer email on weekends. You can expect responses from me Monday through Friday. I usually check my email once a day, in the mornings. If you start getting emails in the afternoons or evenings, don’t get used to it. I can get obsessive about this course and have to rein myself in for the good of my family. :) Eventually, I will snap back to “once a day in the mornings.” Sometimes, it will take me two days to answer you, because I got a lot of email that day, or there was something in my life that disrupted my routine, or I really need to think about your question.

You can expect honesty and tough grades. I don’t give away good grades. You have to earn them. I’m especially tough when it comes to essays. Try not to get discouraged. The reality, however, is that the tougher I am, the more value the good grades have.

You can expect me to be pretty transparent about my personal beliefs. I was trained in journalism and many of my professors, and many in the journalistic world, subscribed to this (I believe false) idea that we can be unbiased and fully objective. I don’t buy it. I think the far more honest approach is to tell you what I believe, so you can then evaluate what I have to say based on your own values system. I think we all have biases and it’s important to evaluate our own biases and others,’ particularly when we’re putting them in a position of authority or getting our information from them. So, never hesitate to ask what I think about a particular topic. But if you do so, expect my honesty. And, by the same token, I need you to know that my opinions and beliefs will never impact my grading. And, as long as I feel that you are being respectful of others’ beliefs, I will always respect you for yours. That doesn’t mean I won’t discuss the issues with you or say that I disagree. But I will do my best not to do so in a manner that you find embarrassing or singles you out. I enter conversations with the same goals that you should, as well as the added goal of “sharpening you like iron.”

Being Your Best Self
Now, if the looming AP Exam, your parents and personal pride are not motivation enough to keep you working hard, I submit more motivation: People are watching you. You represent the homeschooling movement whether you want to or not. (Those of you who chose to read “Write These Laws on Your Children” know exactly what I’m talking about.) It is my hope that any observers of our class or my students would walk away from our year together impressed by homeschoolers, by how hard you all work, how punctual and how authentic and interesting and studious and respectful you are. Be your best self.

Now what?
This course is only going to be as active or as fun or as humorous or as educational as you want it to be. Let loose, get involved, talk, laugh, joke, share your opinions, put your best foot forward, argue your best argument, take advantage of the opportunity to interact with and learn from those on the opposite end of the political spectrum and make the most of your assignments. The more fun you have, the more time you'll spend on the course, the more you'll learn and the more you'll get out of this year.

Now, go study. :)


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