The WHAP Tribal Contest

Brothers front, they say the Tribe can't flow
But we've been known to do the impossible like Broadway Joe...

Asking a student to take on AP World History (WHAP) is quite a commitment. We ask our students to learn roughly 10,000 years worth of history, usually in the span of a single school year, and then cap it off with an intense timed exam. If you aren't familiar with the format of the exam, here's the "battlefield" that is the AP World History Exam:

I use the word battlefield deliberately as a necessary part of my course has become teaching kids how to deal with stress and time limits; for some of them it's a battle. It's up to me to help my students see this challenge not as impossible, but rather as a moment they should aspire to conquer. How am I currently getting my kids there? As a tribe of course.

What is a tribe to you?

What is a tribe? What image does that word evoke in you? For me the concept of a tribe has always brought to mind the ideas of teamwork, of camaraderie, and family. In my classroom I'm always working to help my students not only to learn about and engage with the course material, but also with each other. To what end? To help them flow as they learn.

What is flow?

A friend of mine once described the notion of flow to me. He described it as an optimal state of being in which one loses themselves in the task at hand, and operates at full capacity. That sounds like quite an ideal for a student to achieve! Imagine what they might feel like. Perhaps moments of inner clarity, or having a sense that what faces you is doable? Have you ever felt flow?

So my aim to help my students achieve flow--to help them aspire to conquer the course and its exam--I felt that it was imperative to put my students into tribes. 

What Being A Part of a Tribe Looks Like in My Classroom:

The idea of classroom tribes was born of a simple line of inquiry, "How can I structure my class in such a way that the students will have more fun and interact with their peers in a friendly manner?" My question took me to some interesting thoughts. The houses system from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series was a starting point as I wanted to emulate the house competition system. A lot of my students are HUGE Harry Potter fans so I figured this would go over quite well. For ideas on how to structure creative group projects I dug into my own past teaching experiences in Philadelphia. I went back to a project I designed with a colleague. Finally, I consulted with a WHAP colleague back in Michigan for more ideas.

Once I had a rough sense of what I wanted to do I created my own version of a tribal system, I call it the WHAP Tribal Contest. I absolutely welcome you to consult my materials online and beg, borrow and steal as you please. Here are a few key ideas about the tribal structure:

  1. The students are each in a tribe representing the earlier civilizations we study right away during the first marking period of the school year.
    • Our Tribes this year include: Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, Han, Rome, Gupta, Mayans
  2. The tribes are pretty competitive and always in the spirit of fun. It never truly gets out of hand and the students are well aware that negativity will great displease their Supreme Being.
  3. Tribal roles are always rather interesting. The students, be they priest or slave wear their roles like a badge of honor.
    • The Greeks eliminated the station of King in favor of Athenian Democracy. The Persians have considered eliminating slaves.
  4. The initial tasks given to the students: the dead body outline, and tribal propaganda presentations were both aimed at developing skills of comparison. The comparative essay is the first type that I teach. This project represented a way to introduce some basic concepts of how to compare, contrast and analyze without resorting to writing an essay.

For more glimpses at their work check out my "currently" page on this blog for a full slideshow of images. Here are few samples:

 Above: Here are some shots of the students prepping their body outline drawings.

 Above: Here's a finished body outline by Egypt. I posted them on the ceiling of the classroom.

Why A Tribe Called Quest?

In the back of mind as I wrote this post, I was drawn to the lyrics of A Tribe Called Quest:

"Brothers front, they say the Tribe can't flow
But we've been known to do the impossible like Broadway Joe...

I chose these lines for a reason. Perhaps its a stretch to compare our students to Broadway Joe, but I feel that an added implication of these lines is relevant, a tribe that flows can do the seemingly impossible. A tribe of students that can achieve a state of flow together can overcome self-doubt together, they can learn about World History and their tribe. Perhaps over time they will also learn what it means to flow on exam day. 

Full Disclosure: I'm a 2nd year WHAP teacher and I borrowed and revised the idea of creating WHAP Tribes from my amazing colleague Jason Hundey who used it to teach his students about post-classical Mesoamerica. Jason is a talented veteran WHAP teacher at my alma mater: Armada High School (GO TIGERS!). Here's a link to the WHAP Tribal Contest I gave to my students. Be sure to check out my "currently" page for more images of my students' tribal work.

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