High-engagement activities make for a strong end to the school year

What do you do with your class after an AP test?

  • Amuse the students with movies and games
  • Engage the students in a high-interest project or lesson
  • Count down the days till school is over
  • Nothing at all

Some AP teachers are done teaching on test day, thanks to their schools’ mid-May graduations. But for many of us in the Midwest and Northeast, school marches on for another 4-6 weeks. That’s one-third of our second semester — all after the big summative assessment.

It’s not easy to keep students motivated, but we can’t just waste this time either.

If we drag them to school every day to watch Disney movies or play Monopoly, we teach them two unfortunate lessons — that learning ends at the test, and that test scores are the only thing that matters.

I can’t live with either of those lessons, when there is so much more they can and should learn in an economics class.

I’ve tried a lot of different post-AP strategies in the past 15 years.

For a while, I assigned the students current events to research and analyze from an economic perspective. It was merely OK. As soon as they were done with their own presentation, they checked out. Definitely not 4 weeks worth of that.

Then I created an elaborate Economic Development Project, which I used for about 8 years. Each team of students researched one nation’s economy during the semester, applying each concept we learned along the way. At the end, they presented recommendations for fiscal and monetary policies, as well as other pro-growth strategies.

It was a pretty good project — a lot meatier than the current events — but sitting through six days of student presentations at the end was brutal. There were a lot of “put away your phones” reminders.

(On the plus side, a few students who didn’t excel on the AP test ended up becoming developmental economists.)

For a few years after that, we did the International Economic Summit, which is a gameified version of my development project. Fun, but maybe too much fun. I think the students spent more time on costumes and food prep than economics. Plus it cost $50/team, which is ridiculous.

This year, I think we may have found the best solution. Our four sections of Macro — about 110 students, mostly freshmen — are doing UrbanPlan, a problem-based learning unit managed by the Urban Land Institute.

The challenge is for students, working as development teams, to propose an elaborate, professional redevelopment project for a decaying city neighborhood. There is no right answer, and students have to make difficult decisions about whether to build a “Q-Mart,” whether to keep a homeless shelter, how much affordable housing to build, whether to restore historic properties and which amenities to provide.

The problem scenario is incredibly realistic, complex and layered — including letters from “neighbors,” zoning and parking requirements, and ROI expectations from fictitious investors. The ultimate presentation is to a panel of community experts, playing the “city council.”

You can see, from the picture above, that my students are pretty into this project. With one exception (a student whose attention has wandered all semester), I haven’t had to remind anyone to get on task during the past few weeks.

They’ve been building various plans, running the numbers, arguing the big issues and figuring out their various visions for “Elmwood” the entire class period every day. And they’re learning to manipulate spreadsheets and communicate with adults — added skill bonuses.

When I eavesdrop on the students talking with their volunteer adult facilitators (the ULI organizes two visits in addition to the judging), I hear them explaining which building uses generate the most profit, why historic buildings should or should not be preserved and why public goods, like parks, are (or aren’t) worth the cost.

UrbanPlan meets every criteria:

  • It’s meaningful learning (almost no fluff)
  • It’s intrinsically engaging (almost no disciplinary effort)
  • It’s fun (they build with Legos!)
  • It’s collaborative (each team has five defined roles)
  • It doesn’t require homework (so the kids can focus on other classes)
  • It’s a mental break from AP Macro

As one student, Tyler, said: “It’s so cool – we never get to do anything like this in our other classes!”

I’m already daydreaming about creating similar projects to help students learn macroeconomic policy, foreign trade and economic growth in a more engaging way throughout the semester.

Wouldn’t it be cool if we could hand students an elaborate trade war scenario and ask them to work it out, considering all the costs and benefits, rather than just tell them what economists think (and what politicians do anyway)?

Wouldn’t it be a relief to see our students testing different tax and spending policies with spreadsheets, to see the impact on jobs, wages, interest rates and investment, rather than just memorizing the cause-and-effect scenarios?

No, I won’t be blowing up my AP Macro curriculum any time soon. But since I’m teaching a brand-new Economics Concepts class next year (for kids who struggle in the regular Econ class), I’m going to start trying this approach with them.

In the meantime, I’m just going to enjoy a really pleasant, thought-provoking end to this school year.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author, speaker and College Board consultant. She is also Chief Educator-in-Residence at Quarter Zero. Visit NeverBore.org or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom