“I just feel smarter when I read.”
Kathy smiled a bit nervously as she sat chatting with me after school the other day. We were days away from the AP Language and Composition test, and Kathy was nervous. Talk super fast, plead questions with your eyes, five questions without time for a response, nervous. She had little reason to be, and yet, here she sat, absentmindedly fiddling with the corner of her notebook, talking through strategy, looking for reassurance. How many essays again? How much time to write? How many multiple choice passages? “Will I pass?”
Ahhh. There’s the question.“Will I pass?”
“Do you feel ready?” I ask.
“You’re nervous, aren’t you?”
“Why is that?”
“This isn’t my best subject, Mrs. Dennis. It’s not how my brain works,” she says looking me square in the eye.
I smile and change the subject a bit.
“Remember when you read A Room of One’s Own?”
Kathy smiles back and confirms, “I loved it.”
I pause. Let her take the bait. “Why is that?” I ask carefully.
“Her personality reminds me of…me. She talks about women and changing their place in
society for the better. It’s powerful,” her smile grows.
“It’s pretty empowering, isn’t it? To see yourself in someone else. To connect like that.”
“It is,” she said leaning closer,”You know…I just feel smarter when I read.”
After a brief chuckle from both of us, I told her I was going to quote her. I scribbled down her heartfelt admission in my notebook and looked back to Kathy.
“You’re ready,” I said smiling. “More importantly…you’ve grown.”
Amy has written beautifully about AP test scores. About how the score isn’t everything and about how growth in an AP class is about more than testing data. Kathy’s sentiment solidified for me that come July, the scores will be what they are. Influenced by a million factors out of my control. But what is in my control is to advocate to my students that reading and writing are not only the best test prep, but in my humble opinion, the best way to grow as a human being. We become better communicators, problem solvers, compassionate adults, and the list goes on and on.
I found this youtube video recently and I plan to show it to my students at the beginning of next year. It speaks perfectly to the power of reading and how, in Kathy’s words, it can just make you feel smarter.
With that, I move confidently in the direction of my AP Language students’ final project for the year. It’s usually met with shocked surprise (Wait? We’re actually doing something after the AP test?), but ultimately, some of the best projects my students complete all year come out of the final few weeks of school.
My AP Language class uses mentor texts from The Language of Composition, an anthology of essays arranged thematically, throughout the year to explore a variety of topics. Students read several essays (some classic and some contemporary), bring in pieces they locate to synthesize with the unit, and write several long and short pieces in relation to the thematic unit’s essential question. We then use a unit to mirror one of the specific skills related to the AP Language exam.
For example, at the beginning of the year, we study a unit on Education. To answer the unit’s essential question of To what extent do our schools serve the goals of a true education?, we work with:
- Francine Prose’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read”
- Emerson’s “from Education“
- Additional choices from James Baldwin, Sherman Alexie, David Sedaris, and David Foster Wallace”
Students focus on argument in the unit (one of the three types of essays they will write for the exam, but I would argue, one of the most necessary skills for college and career readiness), so we look for how the authors craft their arguments and write about whether we would defend, challenge, or qualify the claims they make. We practice argument prompts during this unit, students find current event articles and give one-minute speeches in defence or challenge of the editorial perspectives, and ultimately have a panel discussion where students take on the persona of an author from the unit and must represent his/her views and synthesize those views with the other authors in the panel.
For their final projects, students team up to select a unit of interest from the text that we have not worked with together. Topics include a wide variety of interesting reads and students explore questions that keep them thinking, even after the AP test. For example:
- Language: How does the language we use reveal who we are?
- Popular Culture: To what extent does pop culture reflect our society’s values?
- Environment: What is our responsibility to the natural environment?
With over half a dozen chapters not utilized in our class study, there’s something there for just about everyone.
Students select a unit and are responsible for:
- Reading the central essay – from authors like Barbara Ehrenreich
- Reading the classic essay – from authors like Twain and Orwell
- Choosing three additional essays to add to their experience
Then, the synthesis begins. Students must create their own addition to the unit that answers the essential question from their own perspective. In the past, I’ve had students present TED talks, create satirical videos to “sell” the topic, and write essays to add their own voices to the thematic study. Somewhere, either in the introduction
to their product or as a part of it, students must include the voices of the authors they read from the previously published works as well.
Next year…poetry. I am baby-stepping toward multigenre and I can’t wait to see what poems my students can write and find.
In the end, I hope my AP students, some of whom I have had two years in a row now, realize that our time together was spent not to prepare them for a test (not solely, anyway) but to help them become more informed and understanding citizens.
In other words…smarter.
How are your post AP students fairing? What sorts of fun are you having to wrap up the year? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!