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Making Workshop Work in my AP English Class

Our Compass Shifts 2-1It wasn’t as bad as I thought.

For those of you who read my post on Thursday where I bemoaned the weak essays my students produced on their most recent mock exam, you know what IT is. My students’ lack of application–the skills I’ve taught merged with their own deep thinking.

All in all, scores, compared to those in the fall, showed improvement, especially in multiple choice. I must celebrate that.

I know that year after year it’s the students who are readers who score well on the exam. The best readers are also the best writers. That’s not surprising.

What is surprising is the arrogance of many of my students, or maybe it’s not as much arrogance as naïveté. They think they know more than they do. They think their skills are sharper than they are.

I know this because they told me.

Friday morning, I began class with the opportunity for students to reflect on their performance on the mock exam. I put a large sheet of paper on each table and asked students to have a silent conversation with their table mates.

“Write what you feel you did well? And then respond to the writing of your peers.” I gave them about two minutes and then moved the papers among the tables and had students read and think and respond again.

Then I had them turn the papers over and write again. This time: “Write what you think you need to improve on. Remember to think about all the different parts of the exam.”

This is where I learned the most about my students. They wrote things like:

  • I need to manage my time better.
  • I need help with the synthesis question (or rhetorical analysis or persuasive).
  • I need help understanding the multiple choice questions.
  • I need help organizing my essays.

And on and on and on. They all know they need help with something. This is good.

But when I asked:  “Did any of you write ‘I need to become a better reader?'”

Silence. In both class periods. Not one of my 49 AP students thought to write “I need to be a better critical reader.”

Therein lies the problem.

Students misread the prompts, and on the synthesis, the sources, as often as they lacked organization in their essays. A lot.

The AP Language and Composition exam is as much a reading test as it is a writing one. I imagine the other AP exams are as much about reading as their contents, too. Students must be critical readers to do well.

So, how does this matter when it comes to my instruction?

Simple. If I want my students to keep improving,  I need to not only continue to get them to read MORE, I must keep teaching them how to read BETTER.

We’ll study short passages, looking for connotative meanings and nuances. We’ll discuss the function of this and the organization of that. We’ll slow down and discuss more.

I heard Kylene Beers say once, “The smartest person in the room is The Room.” I know I need to allow more time for class discussions where students can learn from one another.

I know I need to more effectively model how to think as we read. I learned from Cris Tovani to teach kids to keep the little man in their heads focused on the reading at hand. Too often students do not know that they have to train the little man before he will stay focused.

Tomorrow, we get out the training net.

Tomorrow, I change the balance up a bit. I revise my instruction yet again.

The constant reflection, the feedback, the changes — all parts that make readers/writers workshop in an AP class, or any other, work.

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