Years ago my teaching partner (now retired) started using the term "contextual pool" to describe the knowledge our students had about the world around them. Some of them had deep, rich contextual pools full of information about history, pop culture, and politics. Others had...kiddie pools. Those kiddie pools were problematic because when it came time to write an argument essay for the exam--when students are often asked to take an abstract question and answer it with concrete evidence--students without deep contextual pools struggled.
I've spent every year since then trying to help my students deepen and fill those pools, but the shift to the new analytic rubrics a few years ago really helped me articulate to the students why this is so important. Row B requires students to have specific evidence for all their claims and commentary that connects it all. If they don't know anything, that's nearly impossible.
This summer Fall Out Boy helped me out with what I hope will be the perfect introduction to the idea of contextual pool. They covered Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" and the updated list is fascinating. Things are on there that I wouldn't have considered; things are missing that I am certain should have been included (no Covid reference?!). When I look at the original version, there are things that I think any kid today would recognize (Belgians in the Congo--thank you, World History curriculum) but plenty they might not know (Studebaker? Mickey Mantle?).
For us, this is going to pair perfectly with the article our students read for their summer reading. The article went with this summer assignment we gave and (hopefully) set them up to begin thinking about all of the "stuff" that makes up our shared contextual pool. These slides will be guiding our work on the first day and setting us up to begin our year's work with paying attention to the world around us. Students will discuss the article they read, and then listen to both the original "We Didn't Start the Fire" and the cover. In small groups, they'll compare the lyrics and work as a team to decide what's missing. I'm hoping this will be the perfect, first-day blend of low stakes activity, a little social interaction, and some foundational work to set the tone for the year.
How are you starting off your year in AP Lang? Or if you already started, what did you do and how did it go?? What are you doing to help your students begin to deepen their contextual pools of knowledge? Let me know in the comments!
If you found your way here, you were likely in one of my APSIs for AP Language over the summer. This blog is intended as a place to continue our work together. Please email me if you're willing to write a post!