Dina Kuttab is not a “C” student – not by a long shot, according to her. But when she walked out of her AP Seminar teacher’s office last October with exactly that grade on her first paper of the school year, she couldn’t have been happier.
“I spent half an hour with Mr. John [Leistler] going over all his comments on my paper,” she said. “His basic point was that it was not good enough, that he wanted me to learn how to write, analyze and think better,” the sophomore from Amman explained. “I came out of that meeting smiling even though he had given me so much criticism.”
Kuttab is one of 38 students in the AP Seminar course, which was added to the King’s curriculum in the 2014-2015 academic year. The course was designed by the College Board in the United States two years ago and is being taught this year for the first time at select schools worldwide. Upon being invited by the College Board to join this group of schools, King’s decided to offer the course – along with its sister course, AP Research, next year – to round out its Advanced Placement offerings, which now total 27 courses.
The Seminar and Research courses combine to create the opportunity for King’s students to receive an AP Capstone Diploma, which is awarded if a student does well in both courses and in four additional AP courses. The diploma is described by the College Board as an innovative program that helps students stand out in the college admission process by developing critical skills needed for success in college. King’s chose one of its leading teachers, Dean of the Faculty John Leistler, to head the course. He was assisted in the classroom this year by science teacher John Wolff.
When King’s introduced AP Seminar to students in the spring of 2014, it was unclear how many would be interested in taking it. Happily, however, scores of ambitious King’s students soon signed up, and the school decided to double its original plans to offer only one section of the class. Kuttab is one of only a handful of sophomores in the class, and she said it was nerve-wracking finding herself alongside bright and accomplished juniors and seniors. She didn’t want to raise her hand at first, but then quickly realized that her perspective and observations were valuable.
AP Seminar is unusual in many respects, first and foremost because it does not emphasize learning facts. Unlike all other AP classes, where teachers lead students through a prescribed curriculum in preparation for a final test, AP Seminar offers its students very little specific content. Topics vary day to day, and in a recent two-day span students presented and considered far-flung ideas such as the ethics of stem cell research, Jordan’s water shortage, capital punishment in Texas and the WASP legacy at American boarding schools.
“This course is bold. It fills in the gaps that most APs neglect,” said Leistler, adding that AP Seminar is intentionally designed to allow students the breathing room to become good thinkers, researchers, writers and speakers. “It’s about skills, not about content,” he said. Wolff and Leistler urge students to become deep thinkers, focusing not on obvious facts or data, but to synthesize information, understand implications and form opinions.
Leistler has been a teacher for 25 years and a member of the King’s faculty for eight. He’s a savvy and experienced Advanced Placement teacher, having taught five different history courses in the AP regimen over the years. But when he and faculty from across the world went for training last summer on how to teach the AP Seminar, Leistler said it was an AP teacher experience unlike any other.
“Our jaws were on the ground,” Leistler recalled when he and other teachers learned what their role would be in leading the class. Instead of giving specific guidance about a particular paper or project, Leistler said he is allowed only to talk generally about good ways to write and present. The main idea, he said, is to give students room and an environment in which they strengthen their analytical and inquiry skills.
In a recent class, Leistler came right out and told students that he would provide only limited specific guidance, which can be unnerving even to the bright and insightful students the Seminar class has attracted. “Do you notice that I’m not giving you answers today? I’m just letting you bubble around,” Leistler told the group. “But will you at some point?” asked a mildy plaintive student.
Kuttab admits she struggled a bit with the loose nature of the learning process, but said AP Seminar has opened her eyes to what real learning is all about. “I came from a system where if you used big words and good grammar on a paper, you were going to get an A. In this class, that’s not good enough,” she explained. “The grade stopped being the most important thing – that was new for me.”