My Advanced Placement classes were very focused on certain ideas, events, dialectics, and trends in the American historical and contemporary experience. Students had little control of the curriculum which moved quickly and deeply, although they were always encouraged to develop their own unique responses to larger historical debates. But at the end of first and second semesters I allowed students to take control of a project and open a window into the emotional reality of what had been their junior year of high school. I challenged students to capture the artistical reality of their time as did Walt Whitman to the America of his time, hence the name and thrust of the project: “Canvas Ventura, California; 21st Century Panorama.” The focus was less on the “curriculum” and more on the “self.”
Students appreciated the open-ended nature of these commonplace books which allowed them to do whatever they wanted however they wanted and often spent hours and hours on them. Over the years I have scanned in thousands of examples of insightful and powerful student work from commonplace books, and these artifacts are testament to years of stressed out students laboring through adolescence in AP classes. I modeled their final work on the commonplace books of the Renaissance time, one of which I myself kept through college.