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With a push of a driven teacher, students prepare for the test of their lives

With family zooming around him, sheltering-in-place South San Francisco Burton High School history instructor Eirik Nielsen teaches an AP history exam class online.

MELINA MARA/THE WASHINGTON POST

By LAURA MECKLER | The Washington Post | Published: July 14, 2020

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March 13: 69 days until the AP exam

As usual, Eirik Nielsen is running late. It’s a Friday in March, the day that turns out to be his last inside Burton High School, and his carpool is waiting. Traffic is brutal across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, where the city’s wealth boxes out teachers and strains the lives of his students, some of the poorest in the city.

As the day ends, two freshmen stop him to turn in applications for next year’s Advanced Placement World History class. Of course, he’ll accept them. He accepts everyone who applies. He slings his backpack, overstuffed with 220 essays and 80 problem sets to grade, as he rushes to his car, knowing he’s likely to be stopped by students on his way out.

Nielsen has 112 sophomores this year, spread across three sections. Since August, they’ve been working their way through all of world history, preparing for the national AP exam given each spring. A passing score — 3, 4 or 5 — can boost a college application and deliver college credits.

At Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School, which sits in the working-class outskirts south of the gleaming tech towers, 69% of students come from poor families. So Nielsen knows his kids start far behind their peers at wealthy private and public schools. Now, as they empty campus, he worries that the gap will grow. They’re about to lose at least two weeks of classroom time, as San Francisco schools respond to the spiraling coronavirus pandemic by expanding a weeklong spring break into three.

“The AP test waits for no one,” he warned them in class that day.

His students are mostly relieved for the break.

Jonathan Tran has been sick for weeks, teased by classmates and terrified that maybe he is infected with this strange, new virus. A straight-A student, he started the year strong but lately has fallen behind. With three weeks off, he thinks, maybe he can catch up.

The AP test waits for no one.

Lilian Emelife, too, is excited for a break, though a remark from one of her teachers unsettles her, about how campus might be closed for a while. Lilian’s got big goals: Berkeley, or maybe Stanford, elite universities a world away from her home country of Nigeria. She doesn’t know how online school would go. Still, she spends her final hours on campus laughing with friends.

Am’Brianna Daniels leaves school early that day, after presenting her research on the Sokoto caliphate, a West African Islamic empire established in 1804. The murmurs of remote learning leave her uncertain, too: She doesn’t have a laptop or WiFi.

Ryan Yu leaves without worrying about the sneakers in his locker or drums in the band room. It’s only two weeks, he figures. After school, he gets milk tea with one group of friends and hangs out at the local rec center with another. That’s his life: school, sports, band, friends.

It is, in effect, Day One of a grand, involuntary, national experiment in remote education that will expose systemic inequalities in education like nothing else before it. Family dynamics, poverty and social isolation will test even the most steadfast students. For Jonathan, Lilian, Am’Brianna, Ryan and their peers, the pressure will steadily build over 69 days, as they prepare for an exam that might persuade an elite college to give a kid from a nonelite high school a second look.

But for now, it’s just the start of what’s billed as an extended, three-week spring break. And for Nielsen, 36, in his sixth year of teaching, it’s time to meet his carpool. He rushes out of the building, cutting through the library and down the back stairs, hoping to avoid getting stopped too many times. Still, he runs into half a dozen of his students.

“Do your homework over break,” he tells them.

“We gotcha, Nielsen,” the kids say. “We gotcha.”

 

March 16: 66 days until the exam

Am’Brianna is the kind of kid Nielsen works hard to recruit into AP World History. At Burton, like most U.S. high schools, African American students are vastly underrepresented in AP classes. Every February, Nielsen gives freshmen a heavy sales pitch, promising the class will boost their grade-point averages, hone their writing, unfurl the course of human events and help get them into college.

“I promise you this,” he tells them. “If you come in and you do your best every single day, you will walk out of my class with a C guaranteed. I haven’t failed a kid in three years, and it won’t be you.”

The pitch appealed to Am’Brianna. Over the years, she missed a lot of school — truant in elementary school, and absent in later years to help care for her 95-year-old great-grandmother, who has dementia. Now she gets good grades and is heading for college, though neither of her parents has a degree. She keeps a folder filled with certificates marking her achievements; in eighth grade, she won honors in the Black Minds Matter competition, for her proposal to create healthier eating options at her school. Still, she wasn’t sure she was AP material, and she thought hard before applying for the class.

Remote learning quickly proves challenging. She lives with her mother, who’s been in and out of the hospital with health issues. She was cleaning houses but is now out of work. Their small house also includes her great-grandmother and four dogs (and, for a time, four puppies). Sometimes her 11-year-old brother is with them, but lately, he’s been staying with his dad.

The assignments from Nielsen start immediately, with videos posted online and questions to answer. With no computer or WiFi, Am’Brianna has to improvise: She pulls the assignments up on her iPhone, writes the answers in her notebook and emails Nielsen a photo of her work.

 

April 3: 48 days until the exam

It has been three weeks since school got out, and Nielsen — his students call him just that, “Nielsen” — puts on a shirt and tie for his first attempt at teaching by Zoom. If he dresses like he is going to real school, he figures, maybe they’ll conclude that everything else is weird, but at least he looks normal.

Broadcasting from his small, Craftsman house, across the bay in Alameda, he positions his laptop in front of his couch, with photos of his two small children in the frame behind him. Just off camera to his right is a kid’s play tent; to the left is an elliptical machine that Nielsen uses to work out, often late at night.

He’s anxious. He’s used to running around, telling stories, leading games, calling on students randomly and seeing when kids start falling asleep. “I can raise my voice, I can lower my voice, I can put on a show,” he says. “Now it’s just me with a PowerPoint.”

For a while, Nielsen wondered if there would even be an AP test this spring. But the College Board just announced that the tests would go on, administered online, at home and open book. The World History exam, pushed back to May 21, would be just 45 minutes, with 10 extra minutes allowed for students to submit their work.

There would be no multiple-choice or short-answer sections. Instead, a year’s worth of work would come down to a single essay on a single topic — a document-based question, or “DBQ,” in which students read five documents and weave them together with historical context to prove a thesis.

Nielsen was cautiously optimistic. All year long, he drills his classes on how to write DBQs. By the time they take the test, they will have practiced 19 times.

He has all this and more to explain in this first Zoom class, and no idea how it will go. Students are still technically on spring break, so this session is voluntary. He stares into the camera, pushes away a flop of brown hair, and smiles widely. Within minutes, 83 of his 112 AP World History students are logged in.

“Look at that!” he said. “Hello to everybody. I’m excited. I hope you’re excited.”

AP World History is meant to span all of human civilization, from the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago to the present. When school closed, he was about to teach World War I.

Today, he explains the changes to the AP test, then speeds his way through the war’s causes: world powers gaining military strength and swelling nationalism across the globe. “New countries are forming, and they want power, they want prestige,” Nielsen said. Industrialism. Imperialism. Alliances. Colonial rivalries. And, of course, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.

He covers the material but ends the class fearful that he moved too quickly. It went so fast that Ryan, whose face fills one of those 83 tiny Zoom boxes, was frantically snapping photos of his screen, unable to keep up.

Nielsen has other worries, too. What about the kids with their cameras off, those faces he couldn’t see? What about the 29 students who didn’t show up at all?

 

April 6: 45 days until the exam

Jonathan’s day begins early, in front of a computer screen, in the sunny living room of the three-bedroom, subsidized apartment he shares with his mother, two sisters and their grandmother. Burton, like schools around the country, is now closed for the year, and Nielsen’s Zoom sessions are no longer optional. This is school now.

They used to rent the bottom floor of a house, but they moved here after monthly rent neared $4,000. His mom, who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam, scrapes by on earnings from a small nail salon. But her shop was closed by the pandemic, so she spends her days handling the family affairs while Jonathan watches his little sister, Gabrielle. Sometimes, she perches on his lap while he attends class. Mom takes over about 7:30 or 8 p.m.

He doesn’t mind helping.

“I want my baby sister to grow up without any stress, without having to move because we’re pretty close to being homeless — anything like that, I want to shield her from.”

It’s not easy. It never has been. A few years ago, he had a baby sister who died suddenly of pneumonia when she was just 3 months old. After that, he found himself breaking down in class, consumed with guilt that he wasn’t with her when she died.

This school year was hard, too. This winter, he was hit by a car on the way home from volleyball practice and was on crutches for several weeks. Then he got the flu, which became pneumonia, which left him coughing up blood and terrified.

He’s a strong student, interested in engineering, his eye on the University of California at Los Angeles. But he missed a lot of school this winter and fell behind. When he was in school, he wore a mask, prompting taunts: “Oh, he’s got the corona — stay away from him.” One day, he went to the school nurse and fell apart. What if those kids were right?

Finally, now, a couple of weeks into remote learning, he’s feeling better. But now his grandmother is in the hospital with her own case of pneumonia. They share a twin bed most nights, and though he slept on the couch when he was sick, he worries he got her sick.

His mom “Lysoled the entire house,” but she still doesn’t allow anyone in that room. So he eats most meals on the couch and studies there, too. If he wants to have a private phone call, he steps into the bathroom. His mom won’t let him go outside unless it’s absolutely necessary.

But in the evening, freed from Zoom and babysitting, Jonathan can set his own agenda. He pounds through his AP history and other work. Then he stays up doing push-ups and playing video games online with friends late into the night, when he falls asleep on the couch.

 

April 20: 31 days until the exam

“Hello, students!”

Nielsen starts class with the enthusiasm of a telethon host, calling out kids by name as they arrive, urging them to chase down missing classmates.

“Oh, we got somebody else! Who do we got here now? Jason! Hello, Jason!” he said. “Well, at the minimum it will be the two of you, getting some serious, good teaching. I don’t know — where is everybody else? Week three, week three is where it gets boring. People are like, ‘This isn’t fun anymore.’ ”

Waiting for more, he plays the Korean pop music video “Power Up,” replicating the music he plays in the classroom and showing off the musical acumen he’s gained as K-pop club adviser. There are a couple of dozen students online by the time the video ends, still lots missing.

Nielsen is running into one major challenge of online school: Many students simply can’t or don’t show up. Other, smaller issues vex him, too. He wants students’ cameras on, but sometimes they allow classmates to see overstuffed homes or adults arguing in the background. In one class, a student’s college-age sister walks past wearing only underwear. The chat room lights up: “Oh, my God, your sister is so hot.”

In the middle of another class, his WiFi fails. It’s 15 minutes before he’s back online, finally tapping into his neighbor’s network. He figures the students will be long gone.

“How many stayed with me?” he asks.

“Everybody,” a student says.

“Wow,” Nielsen says. “That’s incredible.”

 

April 24: 27 days until the exam

Work is piling up now, so Lilian is doing what she does when she feels stressed. She gets quiet, even more quiet than normal, and makes lists of things to do in her planner.

She’s dreamed of attending the University of California at Berkeley since doing a summer program there on artificial intelligence. She wandered into the huge Doe Memorial Library, with its classic Beaux-Arts design and long tables and little nooks for studying, and imagined herself as an engineering student.

But right now, it’s hard to find anywhere to study. She lives in a three-bedroom apartment with three siblings and her parents. She shares a bedroom with one of her sisters and that sister’s 1-year-old baby. It’s crowded, as is the WiFi, with almost all of them taking classes online.

She was born in Nigeria, but four years ago, she, her mom and her siblings moved to San Francisco to join their father. Lilian was 11 and barely knew her dad. She’s grown close to him since then, and she worries. He works in a hospital, transporting patients. Everyone she knows is hunkered down, trying to avoid the virus. He’s in the middle of it. When she tells him she is scared, he tells her not to worry.

Lilian loves AP history, and she knows it might help get her into college. But she spends much of her day watching her niece while her sister attends classes. She also types homework for her mom, who is studying child development, her first time in college.

She turns to her own work late at night, sometimes up until 3 a.m., alone in the living room. But perhaps she’s not alone. Today, an unexpected email pops into her inbox. It’s a survey checking on her well-being.

Nielsen is also up in the middle of the night. His 8-month-old baby, Elliot, is teething, so Nielsen’s up at all hours, trying to rock and sing him back to sleep. Elliot also makes an occasional appearance during a Zoom class, perched on his dad’s lap.

He also has a 3-year-old daughter. His wife, Laura, also a teacher, is still on maternity leave, but she’s taking an online class of her own and is exhausted from caring for both kids all day long by herself. “It feels like what was already a crowded space is overflowing,” she said one day. “Sometimes, I look at the house and wonder, ‘Where is the space for me?’ ”

Nielsen’s work keeps coming. The first week, he received 150 student emails. One day, he holds 35 back-to-back, one-on-one Zoom meetings with students. He grades essays all day long and late into the night.

He’s also under pressure from his union, which has signed a memorandum of understanding with the district that says teachers shouldn’t be online more than four hours per day. Between teaching, office hours and meetings, Nielsen blows past that every day, frustrating some colleagues. He supports the union but sees this moment, for teachers, as uniquely demanding: “This is our World War II.”

And he’s worried about cheating his kids out of history. The College Board has informed teachers that the exam question will be drawn from the years 1200 to 1900, so Nielsen could just spend the remaining weeks drilling students on material they’ve already covered. But that would mean skipping World War II, the Holocaust, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, globalization, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more.

Whatever he covers in class, he has to do it fast. Earlier this month, the school’s leadership team had voted for a schedule in which each class meets just once per week, for one hour.

Across the country, schools are struggling with these questions and often foundering. In some places, students appear to be getting no instruction at all. Maybe he’s giving too much? Burton’s principal thinks so: She just ordered her teachers to give less work.

Nielsen wonders whether she’s right and sends a survey for students to fill out anonymously. The results are sobering. Nearly 4 in 10 students say they feel totally overwhelmed. An additional 27% say they feel “at or near my limit of what I can currently complete.”

Only a few students lack Internet access, but about 4 in 10 are responsible for younger siblings. One in 5 says there is more arguing and fighting than usual at home. Nearly 4 in 10 say they do not have enough space.

After that, he reluctantly dials back the work.

 

April 30: 21 days until the exam

With three weeks to go, Nielsen plans the first of three practice exams. Students will be given a batch of documents, an essay prompt and about an hour to finish and submit, just like the real deal. Ryan studies until 10 or 11 that night, cramming material he thinks he might need.

Pressure comes from school, but also from home. His family, who he describes as typically Chinese, makes clear he is expected to earn top grades so he can get into a good college and get a good job. At family events, they want to know what he plans to major in, and the right answer is something like finance or computers. He wants a career in music. “I did coding classes before, and that is so boring,” he said.

He loves running and band, volleyball and hanging with his friends, none of which is available. He’s stuck inside a virtually silent house, his drums and running shoes locked inside the school. Ryan spends nine hours each day in his room alone, fighting the distractions — computer, phone, tablet, TV.

Video games are his only fun. He’s up late, night after night, rescuing hostages and carefully defusing bombs in Rainbow Six Siege, and chatting with friends on Discord, an app popular with gamers. “I haven’t seen a face outside my family for so long,” he said.

One afternoon, his mother, a preschool teacher who’s working from home, surprises him. She’s taking a break to get their backyard garden in order. Does Ryan want to help?

Pulling weeds and laying bricks, he and his mom make jokes, and she tells him about growing up poor in China — how having a bicycle was a big deal, how walking to school could take an hour. She tells the story about frog hunting with her brother, when she fell into a pond and almost drowned.

He loves this time with his mom. But once the garden is done, they each return to their work.

 

April 30: 21 days until the exam

Am’Brianna does most of her schoolwork on the couch outside her great-grandma’s room. She sleeps there, too, in case she is needed in the middle of the night.

Sleep rarely comes easily. She often lies awake, her mind racing, exhausted but unable to sleep. She’ll try watching a show or listening to calming music. Sometimes she’ll call a friend. It only sometimes helps. “All my energy is bottled up,” she said, “and I have nothing to do with it.”

The night before the first practice test, she studies late and then is up until 4 a.m. By now she has a computer, courtesy of the small nonprofit where she works, and three months of free WiFi from the local provider, although it’s spotty. She’s worried it will fail during one of the practice runs or, worse, during the exam, itself.

It holds up during the first practice test, but the test is harder than she expected. She talks with a friend by phone during part of it, at a loss for how to answer the question about how the Portuguese transformed maritime trade in the Indian Ocean in the 16th century.

When it’s finally over, she has a piece of her 16th-birthday cake. She is flooded with texts and calls for her birthday, and one day, her supervisor shocks her by stopping by with a $100 gift certificate to restaurants in the area. But there isn’t a lot to celebrate. She sees almost no one outside her immediate family. Her assignments are often late, and sometimes she misses them altogether.

“I used to enjoy school,” she said. “Now it’s like, ‘Dang, I’m just here.’ ”

 

May 15: 6 days until the exam

Lilian wakes up early and shares morning prayers with her family, devout Catholics. Now, with her sister out buying groceries and their mom working on her own schoolwork, Lilian is responsible for watching her niece.

Today is the third and final practice exam. Most of the class has been struggling with the practices, earning four or five of the 10 possible points. (For the real exam, the College Board translates these scores to a 1- to 5-point rubric, with a 3 considered passing.) Even top students aren’t finishing in the allotted time, and the College Board has said any test turned in late scores a zero.

Lilian squeezes in a couple of hours of cramming, reviewing her notes on nationalism and revolution in 1750 to 1900, and on the Industrial Revolution. “I am so nervous, oh, my God,” she said a few minutes before it begins. “It feels like my heart is about to drop in my stomach.” Her sister makes her lunch, but she’s too nervous to eat it.

Now, her sister is napping with her daughter in the room the three of them share. So Lilian picks up her laptop, notes, pen, pencil and eraser and moves to their mother’s room for the test. The question is about the rise of nationalism. Ideas come easily, and the writing feels natural. She finishes a few minutes early.

Some of her classmates struggle. Am’Brianna, who floundered through the first practice and missed the second when her WiFi failed, is befuddled by the question and flummoxed by a document that is a song from the French Revolution.

But Lilian is flying high. She thinks to herself, “I’m ready for the real thing.”

“This was the best practice essay that I’ve written so far. ’Cause guess what? It’s from something that I studied!” she said immediately after finishing. “Woo! I’m so excited. … I’ve never felt like this before.”

She heads to the kitchen to eat lunch finally. Then, she’s back to work, helping her mother type her homework.

 

May 20: 1 day until the exam

The night before the exam, as their houses fall quiet, Ryan, Jonathan and a few other friends log into Discord, the app that facilitates their gaming night after night. Tonight, though, they’re using it to study.

Jonathan feels good, despite months of illness and anxiety. At last, he’s caught up with schoolwork. His grandmother’s health is improving; a few weeks later, she’ll be home. And on the last of three official practice exams, he scored a 9 out of 10. Ryan is nervous but confident. He just hopes his exam question is about something he’s studied.

The group runs their own practice DBQ, using a sample question about Christianity and Western culture. They count down and fall silent as they write.

 

May 20: Exam day

The morning of the test, Nielsen has escaped to his in-laws’ house, in the woods north of the city, where his kids can run around. He flips open his laptop for one of the most stressful days of his career.

In the end, Nielsen did not make it through all of world history. He got through World Wars I and II and did one lecture on the Cold War. He decided he had to spend their limited time together making sure his students understood how to write a strong response to a document-based question.

He spent the last 24 hours responding to 100 emails. Some students worried about the technical problems that overwhelmed the College Board a week earlier, with students unable to submit their essays. Some had long, substantive questions that he just couldn’t answer.

Now, an hour before the test, he gathers the Zoom boxes one last time, for a remote pep rally. By the time he logs on, there are 51 students waiting for him.

“This is lovely,” he said. “I was worried nobody was going to show up.”

He urges students to go look for missing friends.

“Find the people who should be here,” he said. “Wake them up. … I’m not seeing Jonathan, somebody text Jonathan. Who else, who else are we missing? Ninety-six — we’re up to 96 people. I’m not seeing Ryan. Somebody text Ryan. … Somebody text David.”

Then he moves into cheerleader mode.

“You’re about to take a test that is very hard in the most ridiculous and impossible of circumstances, so give yourselves a break, no matter how it turns,” he said. “It is going to be okay. The fact that you take the test, that’s the big deal.”

He makes a confession: When he took the test as a high school sophomore, he said, he didn’t pass. “That test was too hard for me, but I learned a lot from that class. So this test does not define who you are or the work you have done.”

Am’Brianna settles in at her dining room table with her Chromebook, a notebook filled with research, and paper to take notes as she reads.

She’s tired. She was awake until 4 a.m. and up by 7 for a last-minute review. But she forces herself to focus. She sets her timers: 15 minutes to read the documents and 25 minutes to write the essay. That leaves five minutes to revise.

The exam begins, and her WiFi works perfectly. There are several different questions, randomly assigned to students. Hers seems scary at first; it’s about religious tolerance between 1450 and 1750. But the documents put her at ease, and she sticks to her schedule.

Ryan’s question is about how the environment affected imperial expansion. He hasn’t studied this topic at all. He reads the documents. Feels lost. Starts to panic. Brainstorms. Nothing. He starts to write, but runs out of time to add a final piece of outside evidence to support his thesis. He’s thinking: I really could have done better.

Afterward, he finds his mother.

It was stressful, he said. He’s still hoping for a 3.

She asked when he will get the results.

In mid-July.

“OK,” she said. “Hopefully, you passed.”

Jonathan does some last-minute cramming that morning and makes it to the pep talk. When the exam begins, everything clicks. He finishes 10 minutes early — hoping not “overconfident kind of early” — and has time to go over everything a second time.

Lilian was up until midnight watching a review video covering 1750 to 1900, and she fell asleep feeling confident. She wakes up before 7 a.m., and during morning prayers, her mom asks that Lilian be able to turn in her essay on time.

But after the Zoom pep rally, she finds her father and tells him how scared she is. “You should be strong,” he said. “You’ve studied for it. You can do it.”

She ducks into her mom’s bedroom and opens her exam. The first word she sees is “Mongols.” A wave of anger hits her. It’s a question about 1200 to 1450, not remotely related to anything she had reviewed last night.

She throws her notes onto the floor and considers giving up. Then she thinks, “This is a chance to prove something to myself.” She starts reading. Ideas pop into her head. She sees a theme related to how people in the Mongolian empire adapt to new religions. She finds outside evidence in her textbook, types furiously and turns in her test with 2 minutes, 10 seconds to spare.

She exhales, texts her friends words of encouragement and walks into the kitchen, where her father wraps her in a hug. “See,” he said. “It wasn’t that hard.”

As the test begins, Nielsen calls up Twitter and a Facebook page for AP history teachers and starts gathering intelligence. A teacher somewhere sees a spike in Google searches on a particular fact and speculates that it means the question is about this or that.

After 15 minutes, it’s too much. He grabs a newspaper and sinks into a hammock in a grove of redwood trees, gently rocking until the test is over.

After that, the emails pile up. Some send screen shots of their answers and ask if he will assess them on the spot. (Answer: no.) Some are worried their technology failed, but in the end those fears are mostly unfounded: 109 of his 112 students successfully submit tests. He’s also dealing with his class of 37 seniors, who have endured a killer AP economics test the same day.

For Nielsen, the past 69 days have felt like a disaster. He’s frustrated that he had to leave so much material out. He’s angry that fewer of his students will do well on the test this year, and that fewer will get the jolt of confidence that comes with a good score.

And yet, he’s so proud of then — how hard they worked and how many made it to the finish line.

“The kids are a success,” he said later. “Everything else is a failure.”

He cannot even think about what he’ll do if school is remote in the fall. But fall is coming. The next morning, he presses “send” on an email to students who will be taking AP World History next year.

“I know that many of you might be wondering if you are smart enough or a good enough student to handle this class,” he writes. “I promise you all are.”

Am'Brianna Daniels takes her Spanish class online at her home during the pandemic in San Francisco.
MELINA MARA/THE WASHINGTON POST

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