Teaching AP Biology for the First Time

For teachers, taking on a new subject can be really challenging, but especially hard if teaching and AP class for the first time.  In this blogpost, I reflect on my first year teaching AP biology and some tips, questions to consider, and helpful resources for other high school teachers taking on the subject for the first time.
As we rapidly approach the end to another school year (how is it almost May?!?) I can't help but pause and look back on this year of teaching.  This was my first year ever taking on AP Biology so I thought it would be helpful (while it is still so fresh in my memory) to take some time to reflect on the good and the bad from this year and what I've learned from it all.  Hopefully this post will be helpful for any teacher who is attempting to tackle AP biology (or really any AP class) for the first time!

A little context...

To be perfectly honest, this was the 2nd hardest year for me of teaching ever (because of course nothing beats year 1 - ha!)  I think this is partly because: 

1. There was a lot going on in my personal life (you can read a piece of our adoption story here) that made it just a hard year in general.  

2. Taking on an AP course for the first time had me feeling like a 1st year teacher all over again due to the massive learning curve and amount of prep work.  Now that being said, this could also be because I had 4 other preps in addition to AP bio.  All of the other preps were classes I had taught before, so I at least had established curriculum for them, BUT I still had to grade, set up labs, deal with parents, etc. for ALL of those classes on top of taking on AP biology.  If you can only have AP biology and one other prep, I think it would be much more manageable. 

The HARDEST part of teaching AP Biology:

By far the hardest part for me was the amount of time I was having to put into this one course alone.  I was spending 10-15 hours a week preparing JUST for AP Biology, and even more when out on holiday breaks (hence why I have made ZERO new products for my TpT store this year.)  A LOT of that time was spent studying because, to be perfectly honest, I hadn't thought of biology to this depth since I took college biology my freshman year.  Once I felt like I really understood the content (this involved lots of reading and watching videos online), I began to do the part I really enjoy - writing curriculum that would allow my students to understand it.  This took SO MUCH TIME because I had to start entirely from scratch.  I couldn't build upon any of my existing biology resources because every student I had for AP was a student I had taught for physical science AND biology.  The AP teacher prior to me basically taught a 90% lecture-based class and did all lecture orally and by creating drawings on the board while speaking, so I had nothing I could use from him.  The College Board provided a ton of resources for test questions, but I had to read the exams over and over and organize the questions so I could have unit exams with only content related to a specific unit.  Finally, the textbook came with resources for teachers, but I have just NEVER been a fan of any textbook resources (hence why I started my TpT store) so I had to come up with entirely fresh content, and content that was college-level in depth.

The BEST part:

Despite all of the time and effort put into preparing for this course, it was above and beyond my favorite course I taught all year.  Those 50 minutes every morning were the greatest start to my day.  Having always taught lowerclassmen previously, it was such a joy to have upperclassmen that I didn't have to teach organizational skills to or implement classroom management strategies with.  They came to class interested and excited to learn.  They did ALL of the assignments I assigned - even the reading ones.  They came to class with questions and we had AMAZING discussions every day.  They were excited every time I brought in a new lab or activity to do together, and it made all of those hours of effort worth it.  I can honestly say I've never enjoyed teaching a group of students more!

Now of course, it may have just been an exceptionally awesome group of students I had this year.  I also have the benefit of having taught each student for 2 years previously, so I knew them all really well and we just plain got along.  I know this is unrealistic to be the case for me in years to come, or for you in your classroom. So here are some overarching tips and thoughts I have that will hopefully help you as you prepare to enter into teaching an AP class for the first time.  I have also linked some helpful AP Biology resources that I've stumbled upon along the way that I hope you will find helpful!

Tips and Resources:
  • DEFINITELY sign up TODAY for an AP Biology summer institute. I'm not sure where you are geographically, but I know they have them in nearly every state.  I am actually in SC and had to go to GA for mine, but it was worth it because of the WEALTH of information I received.  I would have been lost without it!!  I honestly didn't even know where to BEGIN tackling this class and the AP institute was extremely overwhelming at the time (I may or may not have cried every evening when I got back to my hotel) but it was absolutely essential.  I came home with tons of knowledge but also TONS of physical resources that were really helpful for me.  That should be your starting point for sure - and your school should pay for it because 1. It is expensive and 2. I THINK (don't quote me on this) you may have to be certified after a certain amount of time to keep teaching an AP course.  It is REALLY unfair to throw a teacher into this subject without proper training, so if your administration wants you be successful, they NEED to put this training in their budget for you. 
  • Ask what your budget will be because this REALLY impacts what you can do with your students.  It was especially helpful for me to know this (and to do an inventory of the resources currently available at my school) prior to attending the AP summer institute so that I could ask my instructor about alternative options for some of the labs that I knew I didn't have the resources for.  I basically had no budget and had to pay for everything out of pocket, so I only did 4 of the 13 required labs exactly like the AP manual lays out, and had to come up with alternatives to cover the content in the other 9 labs.  
  • Ask how small your class size will be.  I had a tiny class and was so grateful because it helped with my tiny budget!  Having a small class size was also REALLY nice the first year because it made grading a lot more manageable.  That was one area I was able to save a little bit of time.  
  • Inquire about the prerequisites students must have to be admitted into your course.  All of my students had previously taken honors biology and chemistry AND had to have a recommendation from the chemistry teacher.  Also our guidance counselor does a great job of informing students interested in taking AP biology of the massive amount of reading necessary to be successful, which honestly deters/weeds out a lot of students.  It would be really helpful to know going into the school year (especially if you haven't taught any of your students previously like I had) where your students are coming from. 
    • Another thought:  If you are at a school that does summer assignments, I would suggest having your AP Biology students do some sort of reading assignment in order to prepare them for the course.  I truly think my most successful students are not those who know the most biology content - they are the ones with the highest reading comprehension skills and who are the best at analyzing diagrams and graphs.  The book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is AMAZING and incredibly interesting, plus covers TONS of AP biology content you can refer back to year after year.  That is definitely one I would recommend!  Do know though that there is a movie out about the book now, so you would need to do some sort of assignment for accountability that would require the students to really read and not just watch the movie to get by.
  • Take the time the summer before to study and analyze the curriculum framework.  Use your analysis to create the outline for your course/your scope and sequence.  You can find TONS of other AP teachers' outlines/syllabi online but this WILL NOT BE HELPFUL FOR YOU IN THE LONG RUN!!! You HAVE to take the time yourself to dissect the curriculum framework ON YOUR OWN so that YOU understand exactly what YOU need to teach your students.  I suggest sitting down with the curriculum framework and your laptop (or pen and paper if you are old school like me) and creating a concept map or diagram of each unit topic.  Then as you read through the framework, organize the learning objectives and essential knowledge components under each unit.  I wouldn't just re-write them word for word, but summarize what you need to cover for each one so you have an abbreviated list (you will see that the curriculum framework is 200 pages long - not a super helpful reference on a day to day basis.  You NEED something simpler and easier to digest.) Also be sure to highlight what it says you do NOT need to cover, so that you don't spend time going further into detail than you need to. 
  • Memorize the 7 Science Practices.  You can find these in the curriculum framework as well.  Every question on the AP exam touches one of these science practices, so it is essential that these are integrated throughout your curriculum.  Every practice should be covered in every unit in some way to give students maximum amount of practice and skill building.  I'm even going back now and revamping my biology curriculum to incorporate more of these science practices to better prepare my freshmen biology students to take AP one day.  
  • Buy the AP Biology POGIL book right now.  This was a game changer and my students learned so much from doing these POGILs!  I used them to introduce a topic as an inquiry activity and then would lecture after.  It saved time when lecturing AND gave students a point of reference as they did their assigned reading for homework.  Plus it gives them GREAT practice with Science Practice #1 of using representations and models.  There are so many awesome ones but I did try to limit myself to only using 1 or 2 per unit so it wasn't overkill for my students.  I left a TON for my long-term sub when I had to go on maternity leave (pretty much every ecology and body systems POGIL) and the poor kids got really burned out. 
  • Prepare to spend a lot of time studying.  Hopefully you have access to a good textbook to help with this! I've been using Principles of Life 2nd edition and really loved it.  They will show you tons of different textbook options at AP institute which was really helpful.  My school didn't want to purchase me new textbooks but luckily I was able to convince them to because you have to use a textbook that is less than 10 years old (in order for your course to be approved in your course audit that you will do for College Board - you will learn how to do this at AP institute!) and the books at my school were, so that was awesome for me.  I also used the Strive for 5 workbooks that go along with the textbook as reading assignments, and they offered good deeper level questions.  The other resource I found super helpful was watching EVERY Bozeman science video to help refresh my memory on a topic before I read about it and taught on it.  For some of the trickier topics (like water potential and operons) I even had the students watch the videos as homework to introduce the content before we covered it in class.  The videos usually have guided listening notes linked at the bottom that I had the kids fill out as they watched.  Super helpful!
  • Try to acquire another teacher's lecture notes.  I spent way too long making mine (and I can't sell them because I use images from the textbook which is approved for classroom use but not commercial use. Even if I give them to you for free, it would be taken as supporting my business, which is against the terms of use) and this would be a HUGE time saver for you if you find someone who has them pre-made in a style that matches yours.  I'm also just really picky (hence why I make all my own curriculum) so I just may be too high maintenance on this.
  • Utilize the College Board resources to make your assessments.  I make ALL of my assessments from released FRQs (all online) and pull MC from AP practice exams which you will receive access to on College Board once you are registered as an AP teacher.  Although this took a lot of time to build my unit assessments with solely related content, I loved knowing that my students were REGULARLY getting AP level assessment practice in.  There won't be any surprises when they get to the AP exam.
  • Join an AP Biology teacher Facebook group.  I was able to ask lots of questions and get a lot of ideas from the Facebook group I was in.  To be honest sometimes this group was a little overwhelming (people would post about certain topics and I had NO IDEA WHAT THEY WERE TALKING ABOUT) but it was more helpful than it was harmful so I highly suggest it.
  • Accept now that you will not get through all of the material - and that is okay. It is really easy to get discouraged teaching this class and to feel like you are failing your students as time goes on and you get further behind "schedule".  You will feel really defeated and have a lot of the joy sucked out of teaching this course if you spend the entire year teaching for the test.  I never want to discourage discussion and inquiry-based investigation in my class because I am too worried about getting through all of the curriculum framework.  You will not get through all of the content in a meaningful way if you attempt to cover it ALL.  It is simply impossible unless you have your students for 1.5 hours every day, ALL YEAR.  This course covers TWO semesters of biology content, plus labs, potentially earning students 8 college credits.  There is NO OTHER AP COURSE THAT DOES THIS!!  I truly believe (based on what many experienced AP teachers have told me, obviously not from my own experience since I'm only one year in!) that if my students have fully mastered the 7 science practices and know a decent amount of biology content they can pass the exam without knowing EVERYTHING.  But I am also okay with them not passing the exam.  You can read more of my thoughts on that hereUpdated July 2018: I had an 83% pass rate my first year (insert praise hand emojis)!

Phew - I always end up WAY more long-winded than I intend, but I hope that this helps anyone who managed to read it all! 

Experienced AP Biology teachers - any other thoughts you think I should add? 

New AP Biology teachers - any other topics related to AP biology you'd like to me write about?  Any AP Biology related products you'd like to see in my TpT store?  As much as I'd love to write a full AP Biology curriculum like I've done for Biology and Physical Science, I know I won't be able to do it correctly due to so much of the content being dictated by College Board - aka I can't sell it.  I do have plans though to create some supplementary resources for AP over the next few months, specifically review resources, homework/practice, and alternatives for each of the 13 labs if you don't have any money (like me!!) but I'd LOVE to hear what you think would be the most helpful. 

Let me know in the comments below!
For teachers, taking on a new subject can be really challenging, but especially hard if teaching and AP class for the first time.  In this blogpost, I reflect on my first year teaching AP biology and some tips, questions to consider, and helpful resources for other high school teachers taking on the subject for the first time.

4 comments

  1. Thank you for your tips! Last year was my first year with AP Bio with zero training! Luckily, I had 2 friends who also taught it at other schools and shared all of their materials with me. I'll say year number 2 went much better. I'm in Alabama and I attended summer training before the start of this school year. It helped so much! I wish you luck in finishing out this year! I'm looking forward to seeing what you come up with in your TPT store. I was thinking of station type activities for notes/review. The kids get so overwhelmed and sometimes bored listening to lectures. I've recently been looking at Escape Room ideas, too.
    On a more personal note, I read your heartbreaking story. I know how hard it is to keep pushing through teaching while your heart is broken. I pray that healing continues and that a blessing will come your way soon. You are appreciated.

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. It really means so much! I cannot express to you how much!

      And YES! I couldn't agree more. I know year 2 will be so much better and I cannot wait!! I love the idea of Escape Rooms but they seem like a daunting task. I definitely want to make non-boring review materials, as well as some alternatives for the big 13 labs for teachers on a budget (like I was!)

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  2. As a very seasoned teacher of AP Bio, I'd suggest:

    1. Find a mentor. Having a good mentor who has taught this course makes all the difference in the world.

    2. I'd argue for making your own notes--especially since in doing so, you learn the framework better, you learn the content better, and you learn where your students will have misconceptions. I did this my first few years teaching the course (back in 2003, when I first began teaching AP, before there was a framework like the one that exists now), and it helped me tremendously. It's worth the time and investment and will save you time in the end. Trust me.

    3. Attend NABT if at all possible. Outside of an AP summer institute or 1-day training, the sessions at NABT are great for helping you to build your biology teaching toolbox, and to help you network with other AP Biology teachers as well.

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    1. Lee - seriously so humbled to even have you on here reading this!! Your advice is invaluable and these extra suggestions are golden! I especially agree with your point in #2 - it is really the only way you can learn it. My first draft this past first year were ROUGH but I learned so much in making them. After going through them once with students I can now make them so much better because I know what was harder and easier for them to grasp. I'm definitely going to look into going to NABT! I didn't have an AP bio mentor, but the AP chemistry teacher (who is my department head and I respect entirely) was the most helpful resource. An AP bio one would have been even better though! Again, thank you for taking the time to read and share your thoughts! I am so grateful!

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