The Student Voice of North Allegheny Senior High School

The Uproar

The Student Voice of North Allegheny Senior High School

The Uproar

The Student Voice of North Allegheny Senior High School

The Uproar

Killer Courses

The Keys to Success in NASH’s Most Rigorous Classes
Ruby Morris
NAI Sophomore Saniya Divekar (Front) and Freshman Sophie Yan (Back) meticulously prepare for the AP Calculus BC exam.

As the 2023-2024 school year comes to an end, the rising juniors and seniors await an entirely new set of courses for the upcoming year. However, for those who sought the most rigorous courses, they can anticipate an extremely challenging, yet extremely rewarding set of academic experiences. 

For each of the core four subjects at NA–Science, Social Studies, English, and Mathematics–a few courses have stood out for their daunting reputations. AP Physics C, AP United States History (APUSH), AP English 3: Language and Composition (AP Lang), and AP Calculus BC, are widely regarded as some of the most difficult courses at NASH.

However, the difficulty of each course can be pinpointed to different factors. Mr. Venezia, NASH’s APUSH teacher, addresses the challenges in his course.

“I think it’s the sheer breadth of the material that [students] have to know,” NASH APUSH teacher Mark Venezia said. “It covers all of U.S. history, from pre-Columbus all the way up to Obama, which is a tremendous amount of information.”

Additionally, with APUSH being tied to the College Board, and therefore an AP exam, the style in which test questions are presented are out of Venezia’s control, creating a much greater challenge for students.

“I don’t think it’s my teaching style that’s the most challenging,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the workload that is the most challenging. I think it’s very doable. It’s just that the types of questions on the tests are quite difficult. [These questions are] taken from, or imitate the style of, the College Board.” 

There is not a ton you can do over the summer. It’s much more of a culmination of your education up to this point.

— Mr. Venezia, APUSH teacher

The external pressure from the College Board extends to AP Lang, taught by NASH English teacher Lance Rhinehart.

“We can start with expectations of the College Board and the end goal of ‘here’s this AP test,’ so to that end, it’s not, ‘here’s a finite set of information that you need to know for the test,’ but a fairly wide array of skill sets involving reading and writing that you might have to face during that test,” Rhinehart explained. “When you widen the spectrum like that, that’s a lot of readiness that a student has to bring to the test.” 

Rhinehart points to the argumentation essay, one of the three major Free Response Questions on the AP Lang exam, as an example.

“The prompts are not all the same,” he said. “They suggest different things very subtly, like where to draw from one’s examples. One lends itself to history, while another might lend itself to a more personalized experience, but at the same time, there is an expectation of drawing from multiple sources like literature, current events, and so forth. Not being able to predict that can be pretty overwhelming for students, so I try to reflect that in my class.”

AP Physics C, taught by NASH science teacher Paul DiBucci, also challenges students with a large quantity of content. 

“[This course] is actually two courses as well as two separate AP exams, so [students will be] taking AP Physics C: Mechanics and AP Physics C: Magnetism,” DiBucci said.

However, DiBucci also comments on the importance of prerequisite knowledge. 

“There is Physics and Calculus with this course–that’s what makes it rigorous because [students] had to have either had Calculus or be taking Calculus as [they’re] taking this class,” DiBucci said.

The idea of retaining information from previous years of education may seem trivial, but a student’s familiarity, or even mastery, of a subject is crucial when it comes to the top-level courses. Sharon Volpe, NASH’s AP Calculus BC teacher, addressed this point in no uncertain terms.

“I don’t necessarily recommend studying calculus in the summer months before coming into class, but [students should] definitely brush up on [their] algebra and precalculus skills. Not knowing the trig identities, the unit circle, synthetic division or even long division can be a huge disadvantage,” Volpe explained.

Venezia also noted the importance of knowledge retention in his course.

“There are a lot of reading comprehension skills that are necessary in this class,” he said. “There is not a ton you can do over the summer. It’s much more of a culmination of your education up to this point.” 

The significance of students’ mastery of past skill sets is made especially clear in AP Lang. However, when asked about the most difficult aspect of his course, Rhinehart revealed that such an answer can not be so easily pinpointed.

“It’s hard to give a quick answer to that, but it depends on the student. Every student comes into the course with different skill sets…. Every student learns differently, [and] every student learns at a different pace,” Rhinehart explained.

Nevertheless, a part of what makes AP Lang challenging is ultimately rooted in an individual’s mastery of their past years of education.

“The challenging part of AP Lang is some students simply not being ready to write at a college-level expectation,” Rhinehart added. “Perhaps they have learned bad habits, and no one has called them out for it up to this point, or perhaps it ‘got through the filter,’ and so my filter tightens up to a small screen. That often is an eye-opening experience for students.”

Additionally, Volpe emphasizes the importance of students’ ability to adjust to stricter guidelines.

“Colleges report that Calc 2 has a very low pass rate,” she said. “Calculus in general is often considered the first of the ‘real’ math classes. Students are required to use everything that they learned in previous math classes on a much higher level than has ever been expected of them. Students who have always thought of themselves as gifted at math will find that they can no longer rely on simply having a good memory to do well on a test. Practice is required more than what was ever expected of them in earlier classes.”

Volpe highlighted a portion of the course that presents students with a particularly steep challenge–the Infinite Series.

Practice is required more than what was ever expected of them in earlier classes.

— Mrs. Volpe, AP Calc BC teacher

“Mathematicians have fought about the idea of infinity for hundreds of years, but in BC, you have about three weeks to completely wrap your mind around infinitely long polynomials–and when they will and won’t work on the problem you need to solve–and practice,” Volpe explained.

Furthermore, success in these courses requires students to manage an especially fast pace.

“Definitely keep up with any of the outside class work that is assigned. If you fall behind in terms of that, you can get lost very quickly,” Venezia stated. 

However, despite the abundance of difficulties within all four courses, students who are most capable of taking on these challenges have very attainable pathways to success.

“To be honest, a lot of students find AP Physics C to be more accessible than taking AP Physics 1 and 2 together because overall, there is less content,” DiBucci said. “We just go into a lot more depth than the Algebra-based physics classes, so even though we go through a lot more depth, there is less content covered. Timewise, as far as the year progresses, we have a lot of time to prepare for the AP exams at the end of the year.” 

Moreover, because a prior physics course is required in order to enter AP Physics C, many students will already come well-equipped with the conceptual knowledge necessary to succeed. As a result, DiBucci recommends students to just come in with a strong work ethic.

“I’ve never had a student not be successful in this class if they come in with a willingness to work on a daily basis. That’s the best way,” he said. 

Venezia emphasizes the importance of getting engaged within the APUSH class itself, valuing class participation as one of the major keys to success for students.

“This is a very discussion-based class, and you should come with a good attitude, a good work ethic, and the willingness to open your mouth in class,” he said.

Rhinehart recommends keeping up with the knowledge students obtain from their history and civics courses, as the skill sets between those courses and AP Lang often overlap.

“Pay attention as much as possible to history class and civics courses because the argumentation prompts draw from the humanities, and the more details one can bring into those explanations, the better,” Rhinehart recommended. “The same would be true with keeping up with current events. Read, in some fashion, the news and what’s happening in the world today…. Quite often, College Board will draw from those aspects in their prompts and their questions.”

Rhinehart also points to a phenomenon that often serves as an obstacle for students to overcome.

“Something that happens over the years is something that I call ‘the glass ceiling’ in the course, especially with writing, where students will seem to hit a plateau of scoring,” he said.

However, Rhinehart attributes the most successful students’ triumph in breaking through such a ceiling to two important traits: industry and grit.

“The students that succeed are the ones who have that staying power all throughout the year and continue right up to the end to practice and improve,” he explained. “Many students will break through that [glass ceiling] near the end of the course, and then suddenly go beyond it, and that has to do with industry and staying power.”

Despite the daunting reputation of Calculus BC, Volpe presents a new standard for students to meet, which, while intimidating at first, allows students to quickly adjust to the sudden spike in difficulty from previous mathematics courses–adopting more productive studying habits.

“Understand the difference between studying and cramming. There is no such thing as ‘I studied for eight hours yesterday for this test.’ The day before the test should be one last look at all of those examples that you have already re-done ten or more times,” she said. “It should not be looking at your notes and trying to re-teach yourself everything that we did in the last hours before the exam. Studying is looking over your notes every day.” 

AP Physics C, AP United States History, AP English 3: Language & Composition, and AP Calculus BC, as terrifying as they might seem, all reward students with a challenging experience that helps them develop a deeper understanding of the subjects and presents them with the opportunity to strengthen their work ethic, all before their college lives have even begun. 

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About the Contributor
Sunny Li
Sunny Li, Co-Editor-in-Chief
Sunny is a Senior at NASH who is writing for the Uproar for the second and final year. As one of three Editors-in-Chief, Sunny hopes to inspire the rest of the Uproar's staff to go outside the box with wacky, yet well-constructed works. Outside of writing for the Uproar, Sunny enjoys aiding, guiding, and competing for the Speech and Debate team as one of two event leaders for Interpretation.

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    Andrew McLaughlinApr 16, 2024 at 6:18 pm

    Man, this article gives me PTSD. Nice job though!