Category Archives: AP English

Thinking About Next Year – Already?

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Confession: I really struggled with where to take this blog post. I was worried that the onset of summer would bring fewer ideas or less will to write. Instead, I’m starting week three of my break, and my teacher brain hasn’t shut off once. I have too many zipping thoughts percolating upstairs to just focus on one. I’m constantly jotting down ideas for next year. I find my friends zoning out as I bring conversations (sometimes gracefully, oftentimes not) back to my new plans for next year. My TBR list is full of books about teaching (Teaching Argument, anyone?). I’ve jammed my summer schedule full of teaching activities: working with the College, Career and Community Writers Program; attending the AP English Language Reading, AP English Literature training, and summer AP PLC meetings (fondly called AP Allies). The list goes on and on. I might be obsessed with my job.

Confession: That obsession wasn’t always the case. The 2014-2015 school year almost did me in. Long hours, too many responsibilities, too few ‘wins,’ and an overwhelming certainty that I was both doing too much and not enough at the same time had me considering other kinds of employment. The kinds where you can go home at the end of the day and just be home. The kinds that don’t have you bringing home stacks and stacks of papers to grade, that don’t have you dumping hours of planning time into the job, the kinds that allow you to leave the problems of work at work. I’m not a quitter, and I came dangerously close to quitting the profession. I know that I’m not the only one who’s ever felt this way.

Enter the Middle Tennessee Writing Project. Recommended by a fellow teacher, this program rejuvenated my love for teaching, changed the way I approach the profession, reminded me of why I love the calling. We were required to choose from a list of best practices (I chose student agency) and work on improving that aspect of our craft for an entire year. Having just one overarching goal to focus on made the  upcoming year so much more approachable, made measuring any growth I achieved so much easier to ascertain. Focusing on student agency put the students front and center in my classroom again, right where they belong.

In the years since, I’ve continued to work on improving just one best practice every year. Instead of splitting my 100% between various small projects and doing a lot of tasks decently, I try really hard to do one task really well (I’m paraphrasing Ron Swanson here…). I’ve worked on incorporating more writing workshop in my AP classes and offering better feedback.

This year, inspired by the slowchat #DisruptTexts, my PLC is moving away from the whole class novel and implementing more independent reading choice. While brainstorming how this change would affect our writers notebooks and socratic seminar discussion schedule, we came to a few practical realizations:

  1. Modeled after AP argument questions, our essential questions are fairly broad, allowing students can take the questions in lots of different places. This broadness means that we need to spend some time teaching students how to break down each questions into all of its parts and permutations before they can begin to answer the question. This approach models what students are expected to do with each argument question (and to some extent synthesis questions as well).
  2. To address this broadness, we’re building in “intro days” where we spend a short 45 minute period breaking down the question into all of its parts: stakeholders, universal nouns/themes, “so whats,” other questions, connections to the real world, places along the argument spectrum. All essential pieces to consider before beginning to answer the question. We want to demonstrate in our teaching the value of listening, thinking, and planning before speaking, writing, answering.
  3. To highlight each beginning “intro day” for each unit, we plan on giving students colored paper to insert into their writers notebooks and ask them to do their notetaking/brainstorming for that question on that piece of paper. The colored paper will cause each beginning of the unit to stand out in their notebook, clearly separating each unit from other units.
  4. We plan on ending each unit with a socratic seminar and an in class writing – an assessment pairing that will pull together all the rabbit trails and threads we’ve chased throughout the unit. Honestly, we have no idea where these units will go yet. Hopefully, into deeper and deeper questioning and thinking, so we need some way to track the journey. We’ll ask students to collect their final noticings, observations, and remaining questions on another similar colored sheet of paper in their writers notebooks, giving the unit a clear, visual beginning and end.
  5. As we’re introducing choice into student reading and moving away from the whole class novel, we’re asking that students work with a classic American novel, a work of fiction, a podcast, a documentary, and a book of their choice at least once throughout the year. Helping students choose selections will undoubtedly present its own unique problems, but we’re expecting that students will work closely with our amazing librarians, book talk their books in small groups and with the whole group. After each unit, we will ask students to include their book on a class wide google document organized by question, with each selection tagged with universal nouns/themes and a short review. Hopefully this will help other students choose future selections while also crowdsourcing a “if you like this, you might like this” text.
  6. We’re supplementing those independent reading selections with lots of smaller mentor texts. Because we’ll have more room for smaller texts for in-class discussions and the small texts sometimes get lost in the shuffle of the year, we’re going to ask students to create and keep a bibliography for each small text in the beginning of their writers notebooks. They’ll provide the citation for each smaller work and answer two small questions for each entry:What is useful about this text for rhetorical skills/writing? What universal nouns/themes/real world events does this text connect to? Hopefully, this will give students more practical knowledge to pull from for the synthesis/argument questions of the AP test and a way to organize their mentor texts.
  7. Finally, we need to model and practice on a smaller scale what we expect students to do throughout the year with these essential questions and independent reading choices. We can’t just toss kids into the deep end of our new approach to English. So, at the beginning of each semester, we will pose a smaller question and have students go through each step with more in-class support. We will use these smaller questions to teach independent reading selection and question brainstorming while substituting novels, podcast series and documentaries with essays, short stories, and individual podcast episodes.

MTWP’s insistence on best practices and focusing on one improvement a year was a game changer for me. This post is a very small glimpse into what those changes will look like for my classroom. And, to be honest, I feel a little bit like Tantor stepping into the river, but I’m ready to take the plunge. I imagine that if you’re reading this blog on your summer break, you, too, find it hard to turn off your teacher brain even on breaks. As you continue to plan for next year, my wish for you is rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation. But… if you, like me, can’t turn your brain off and you want to share, the comments and Twitter are open. We can tiptoe into that water together.

 

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She has been binge watching The Wire and wishes she hadn’t waited this long to start the show.  She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. Happily posting from the AP Reading in Tampa, Fl.

 

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Vindication of Choice in the AP Classroom

Every May, my panic that I have not taught my students enough for the AP® Literature exam, pride and concern as I send my “little ducklings” to fly alone into the exam room, and eager anticipation of the memes flooding Twitter from the East coast testers (which I never, ever re-tweet), is quickly followed by the nervous energy of my students as they visit my classroom after the test.

Of course, human nature dictates that they want to relive every moment and consult with their peers about how they answered different questions, but my duty to the College Board prompts me to remind them not to discuss specifics about the exam itself. Instead, I urge them to talk through their feelings and reflect on what they might feel good about, such as writing 3 complete essays. Each year offers its unique triumphs and hair-pulling challenges. “The Juggler” poem a couple years back stumped even my most adept analyzers, but they did have fun crafting juggling metaphors for the remainder of their senior year. Thus, I have come to anticipate the perplexed reactions to one or more of the essay prompts on the exam. A safe question I often ask to avoid specific test-discussion is: what book did you choose to write about for the Q3 essay?

While I’ve learned that it is difficult to gauge how students actually performed on the exam based on their immediate self-assessment, I know that over-confidence – “it was easy” – is almost as bad as total pessimism – “I only wrote 2 of the 3 essays and the multiple choice was killer.” But that one question about book choice tells me a lot. It tells me about their overall confidence level, sense of preparedness, and even what level of enjoyment they experienced during the test. Yes, enjoyment. As my course moved away from a model in which I assign specific texts (so we can experience them together) and toward choice (so students can shape their own experiences, with support), my students have increasingly come back talking excitedly about which book they wrote about on the exam.

This year, because my students brought friends from different, more traditional, AP® classes with them to eat lunch in my room after the exam, I could hear the difference in the way they spoke about the books they referenced on that Q3 essay. My students said things like: “I thought I was going to write about Wuthering Heights because it fits so many prompts, but when I read the prompt, it screamed The Handmaid’s Tale to me. I’m so psyched that I got to write about that!” Another student enthusiastically described how he wrote the “best essay [he’s] ever written, and it was about Frankenstein.” Students went on to discuss the variety of books they wrote about, from The Art of Racing in the Rain to Les Miserables. Students from the other class sullenly and universally explained how they wrote about Beowulf because it was the text they had “been taught” the most thoroughly and therefore “knew the best.”

And there it was. A vindication of choice in the AP classroom. Scores will not be made available for a couple of months, so maybe all those passionless (and I’m going to guess, formulaic) essays about Beowulf will be strongly written and score higher, but what about the passion for reading? My students chose to read those rich texts, and when push came to shove during the exam, they chose to write about them because they saw the value in the book – not because someone told them of the book’s value.

Choice continues to be a source of contention in many English departments, but I cannot understand why. Choice does not mean that students cannot read from the canon. In fact, my students always choose both canonical and contemporary works “with merit” through the course. Teachers can set parameters for choice by offering text sets that connect by literary era, theme, heroic journeys, archetypes, and so on. Choice can be applied to shorter text selections instead of novels. So much has been written on why choice works by bigger fish in the English sea than me, so I will just leave you with this: my students were joyous when they spoke about writing the 3rd essay on a mentally exhausting, hand-cramping exam, and it is because they chose what to read and experienced the autonomy of deciding which of their books they felt they could write their best essay on. Since my goal is to create readers and writers, I could not ask for better evidence that choice helps them toward this goal.

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Where Do We Go From Here?: Rethinking Next Year

Today is my last day with my AP English Language students. They test tomorrow and then a variety of pre-senior activities keep them from my class for the rest of the week. For them, summer is right around the corner. One more day of class, a test, a few orientations and then freedom.

So, tomorrow, we will make the most of our time: reviewing any last minute questions, calming any overly stressed nerves, reminding them they’re prepared and ready, saying our goodbyes. In short, wrapping up this year. All in all, it’s been a good year, and I’m sad to see them go.

However, I’m almost a little happy to see them go as well. It would be weird if I wasn’t. Wednesday morning when they step into the gym to test, I’m going to step into my room and give myself three hours to just think about next year. Guys. I’m so excited to let loose all of my pent-up “this is how to make next year better than ever before” brainstorming energy.

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I’ve been feeding that desire bit by bit with my PLC (like a valve letting off steam to keep from exploding writers notebook ideas everywhere). We’ve been slowly working our way through Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s 180 Days, and it has already started to influence some ground-level changes in our curriculums for next year – namely, a big step away from whole-class novels and more fully embracing student choice not just in their writing but in their reading as well.

Honestly, I think even without the push from 180 Days, we would have landed in this direction eventually. We’re all a little burnt out on the whole class novel. Too often the works are shared only from one perspective, the students aren’t really invested in the readings beyond receiving a grade, and the literature we teach doesn’t line up with the goals of our course. And, by my count, I’ve read Gatsby at least once a year for the last decade. This may be blasphemous, but that’s too much Gatsby.

We’ve been hesitant to move away from whole class novels entirely. After all, can a student make it in the “real world” without having read The Scarlet Letter? Those thoughts about how ‘we’ve always taught this book, so, we should just keep teaching it’ have dogged our conversations for years. However, we recognize that some of those novels aren’t that representative of our students or their interests.

So, we’re going to make a change, take the leap, see what happens.

First, we decided we wanted our units to revolve around books of choice; so, instead of trudging through a whole class novel, students would be asked to choose from a list of genres throughout the year. Right now, we know we want them to choose a modern work of fiction, something nonfiction, and a podcast. We’ll flesh out the rest of the requirements over the summer. We also decided that we don’t really care when the student reads their work of fiction or listens to their podcast. I think this part of their choice is important too. It recognizes and validates that sometimes students are ready for some texts at different times or that their schedules can accommodate different texts at different times. At every point throughout this process we want our actions and our assignments and our practices to validate our students’ voices and choices.

Then, we decided to let essential questions drive our units instead of the novel. In the past, we would just pencil in Gatsby and something vague about economy, gender, the American Dream (that ‘the’ has always been problematic to me, but that’s another conversation for a different day), and then move on. Now, we have a list of fourteen possible questions we could feasibly spend time answering throughout the year. Student choice in reading is nothing new. Our twist has been to ask our rising juniors what they want to talk about for next year.

We collated the fourteen questions into a Google form; then, we gave the form to the rising juniors and watched the results roll in. Here’s what we found:

Essential Question Average ranked score Ranking My random thoughts
Education: to what extent do our schools serve the goals of a true education? 3.36 5th I can’t WAIT to have this conversation with my magnet school nerd herd.
Community: what is the relationship of the individual to the community? 2.89 12th
Economy: what is the role of the economy in our everyday lives? 2.79 13th So surprised this wasn’t dead last.
Gender: what is the impact of the gender roles that society creates and enforces? 3.19 9th
Sports: How do the values of sports affect the way we see ourselves? 2.57 14th Thank goodness! I was NOT looking forward to discussing my intense dislike of LeBron 😉
Language: how does the language we use reveal who we are? 3.82 2nd Really surprised this was second – I have so many amazing essays in mind for this topic already.
Popular culture: to what extent does pop culture reflect our society’s values? 3.92 1st If we don’t use Childish Gambino’s “This is America” here, I will just be flabbergasted
Environment: what is our responsibility to the natural environment? 2.95 10th
Politics: what is the relationship between the citizen and the state? 2.92 11th
Work: how does our work shape or influence our lives? 3.31 6th
Science and Technology: how are advances in science and technology affecting the way we define our humanity? 3.5 3rd Yep, should have seen this ranking coming from a math and science magnet school
Government, Politics, and Social Justice: How do we decide what is fair? 3.6 4th Hmmm….are there any current YA novels or any current events that we could talk about with this question?? Gosh… YESSS!!!
Race and Culture: To what extent do these fulfill or limit us? 3.3 7th Surprised this one hit the middle of the pack
Arts and Literature: Are these still important? 3.2 8th This one too….

More and more, we want our class to reflect how much we value our students’ voices and choices. This is their space as much as it ours, maybe more so.Using this information, we can begin to plan our year, confident that students aren’t only reading books of high interest and value to them, but that those books are being read in service to answering questions that are important to them.

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She has been bingewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the title of this post comes from the musical episode “Once More With Feeling.” It’s a great episode ina great season (don’t @ me) and you can listen to the song here. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

 

Eulogy writing as a way to employ rhetorical strategies

I find myself like I am sure many AP teachers do, searching for ways, strategies, assignments, etc. where students can apply the writing styles and tools in new ways that expand beyond the timed essay.  My students are developing the shift in mindset that is required for rhetorical analysis, shifting away from evaluating what was said to how it was said.  

During our culminating discussion of Into the Wild, students had divergent views on Chris McCandless–some students sympathized with his quest and others believed him reckless and arrogant (this later made for an amazing debate!).  The seminar shifted to discussing all of those that Chris’ choice to go into the wilderness, and death, impacted his parents, beloved sister, and those he met along his journey.  It was a student’s question, How do you think his parents felt going back to the bus?  Which  led us to consider those Chris left behind and what they would want to say to him.  

As Louise Rosenblatt discovered decades ago, the merit of a text for adolescents often lies in the connection a student has with the book (read more about a modern take on Rosenblatt’s transactional theory here and here).  Students want to connect with texts in meaningful ways, through their own experiences, beliefs, and preferences.  We want readers to have emotional reactions no matter what they’re reading, be it poetry, fiction, or nonfiction.  My students identified with Chris, his loving sister, or his longing parents.  Some students understood his adolescent need for adventure and freedom while others argued he had a duty to his family.

Tasking students with writing a eulogy for such a polarizing person seemed an ideal way for students to employ their rhetorical techniques as writers while defending their view of Chris.

Prior to letting them loose to write, we examined and discussed eulogies from famous people to use as mentor texts.  Our readings ranged from Bill Clinton’s eulogy of Richard Nixon to Amy Winehouse and Steve Jobs.  Through these mentor texts, students discussed how tone is established and reveals the relationship to the deceased individual, even the eulogist’s feelings towards the person, as well as the features of a eulogy.  From reading a range of eulogies, students came to their understanding that quality, emotional eulogies often employ a variety of appeals, noting that rhetorical techniques are for everyday use–yes!  There IS a use for these skills outside of the Language and Composition classroom, beyond the exam!

After students felt comfortable with the format, I assigned the eulogy and students selected the character they would become during their eulogy.  Then the writing and revision process took hold!

A powerful last step was for students to annotate their draft to identify and discuss the purpose of the devices they employed, like a reflective rhetorical analysis of their choices as a writer.  This was key to moving students towards understanding why writers make the moves they do.  Then, we delivered them to develop speaking skills in a low stakes setting and have the opportunity to hear rhetorical strategies used.

 

Two student samples through various perspectives with their annotations:

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While this assignment was made for Into the Wild and specifically for Chris McCandless, the assignment could easily be modified for any text studied as a class or independently. Consider how the ending of The Great Gatsby would change if Nick delivered a eulogy. What would Daisy have said, with or without Tom in the audience?  What would Hannah’s classmates who received a cassette in 13 Reasons Why have said to memorialize her?   

This eulogy allowed me to assess students’ character understanding, a way for students to apply their rhetorical knowledge, as well as a low stakes way to practice speaking, all while synthesizing perspectives in the text.  Did I mention squeezing in a little rhetorical practice for the upcoming exam?  I also think students were able to sort out their views on Chris through the persona they took on, adding an invaluable transactive quality to their analysis. 

Maggie Lopez teaches juniors and seniors in Chicago, but is looking forward to a new adventure in Utah for the next school year.  Currently, she is working through her personal reading list of An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews.

Champions Finish Strong

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About this time, every year, I begin to feel that itch, that urge to chuck everything I’m working on right now and start planning for next year. Maybe it’s the feeling of spring in the air, but I always find myself frustrated with how I spent my time this year and wanting to start fresh and clean for next year. So, as I move into test review mode, I begin my wish list for this year and vow to do better in August. It goes something like this:

     I wish that I had conferenced more…next year I’ll conference and here’s how…

     I wish that I had done a better job with writer’s notebooks…next year those notebooks are going to be cute and organized and here’s how…

     I wish that I had frontloaded this idea more in August….next year I’m going to frontload so hard and here’s how…

     I wish that I had taught this title instead or offered more choice here…next year I’m going to revamp every lesson plan and here’s how…

I think it’s pretty easy to recognize the “I wish” road as a treacherous one to travel down. But, honestly, for me, that urge to start planning for next year in the middle of this year is the real danger.

See, all of the end of the year countdown clocks act as siren songs, pulling me into the excitement of planning for a new school year: new pens (because they help me plan better), PD books (I’m starting with 180 Days), Google Folders (because I’m nerd, this will never not make me happy). I’m getting antsy just thinking about it.

And so I find myself eased into bright, happy, shiny thoughts about how perfect next year will be. I look forward to the excitement of a brand new group of students, of a summer spent immersing myself in practice, of all of the hope a new year of school brings.

And I know these are dangerous waters. I also coach volleyball, and, in that context, I would immediately recognize this behavior as problematic. Whenever my team thinks about Tuesday night’s game before Monday night’s game, we have a rough night. We can’t think about the district tournament in October until we’ve handled August. I would put a clamp on that kind of thinking right away on the court. And so, I’m realizing I also have to lock down my mid-April urges to plan for next year.

Why?

Because, in a nutshell, champions finish the way they start.

I think we have to approach the end of the year the same way we started it – fired up, focused on the tasks at hand, bringing that same excitement and hope and enthusiasm to each LONG day of testing and test prep. Don’t our students sitting in our classrooms right now deserve that? Don’t they deserve to know that we’re happy to see them each day they enter our classrooms, not counting down the days until they leave? Don’t they deserve more than filler? Don’t we deserve to be present in the moment, enjoying where we are right now in our journeys together?

But what is there to be excited for during testing season?

Great question. I teach in TN – testing has been… rough… this week.

However,  I’m particularly excited about three activities between here and our AP Lang and Comp test. These are pretty common activities among AP Language teachers, so I’m not presenting anything new here or even my own ideas (good teaching is good stealing according to Harry Wong), but sharing some ideas that have worked for me. They are tried and true ways to keep students involved, interested and invested on this downhill dash to the test:

1. Rhetorical analysis – Role playing. We’re currently role playing as Abigail Adams writing a letter to her son John Quincy. Students pair up (one is Abby, the other is a dear friend there to offer advice) and craft a letter to her son, encouraging him to take advantages of all of his opportunities. Then we read and analyze her actual letter to him. This is a pretty common AP lesson, but it’s new to this class. The simple act of role playing really deepened our discussion of rhetorical analysis and provided lots of AHA moments along the lines of “You’re right! She DIDN’T sit down and think ‘I need four rhetorical questions and one use of asyndeton. She thought about her large and small goals and worked from there!’” Students left with a better understanding of what to notice in a RA and how to organize their essay around ideas instead of devices. Surprisingly, these letters also showcased an almost aggressive level of voice. It was productive and fun – the perfect way to spend a test prep day.

Here are some examples culled from today’s writings.

 

  1. Synthesis – Pinwheel discussion. Again, more role playing. Students jigsaw a few short texts related to a topic and then come to a center table to discuss a single question in front of the whole class. They are encouraged to identify the attitude of the author and then converse with that attitude as that author. Unsurprisingly, they really get into it. The activity has them intentionally synthesizing  multiple perspectives on the fly and on their own in front of an authentic audience, reinforcing the idea of synthesis as conversation and elaboration.

3. Argument  – Speed dating. Five to six thought-provoking prompts are posted on the board one at a time. Students have four or five minutes to brainstorm claims, evidence, organizational structures and a theses. We whip around the room, sharing insights and approaches, curating a list of universal nouns or excellent pieces of evidence, creating ideas that students can tuck away in their back pockets before the test. I love this activity. There’s such great community in the sharing of ideas while also mimicking the time crunch of the written portion of the test.

Hopefully, none of the ideas feel like test prep. Hopefully, it’s just more learning. Hopefully, we find ourselves excited to be in English, fully present in the moment, enjoying our productive time together. The thoughts and ideas for next year can percolate until the end of May.

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She plans on watching two episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for Friday’s Film as Lit lesson. She realizes how very lucky she is that this falls under the category of  “Something She Gets To Do At Her Job For Money!!!!” She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

Growing Writers: Making Use of Student Mentors

My mentee Sarah, a new-to-the-district teacher in the midst of an intense co-teaching experience (where on an average day seven adults supported thirty students with an expanding continuum of needs), was filling me in on the narrative her students would be drafting. Support for students while drafting is critical. Sarah’s students would need questions answered, ideas suggested, and gentle encouragement: just-in-time support. Which is why I blurted out, “We should see if the AP Lit. kids will help!”.

Why AP Lit. kids? Why not?! By the time they reach AP Literature in our building, these students have completed two advanced English courses and a college level composition course (AP Language). Skilled, these students know what good writing looks like and how to produce it. But more than that, the AP Lit. kids could be–as Shana coined and Amy embellished on–living mentor texts.  

As living mentor texts, the AP Lit. kids’ stories differ from the current story of this particular classroom and the many stories of the students in it; the AP Lit. students are further along the learning journey. No one would be comparing the writing generated by Sarah’s students to these mentors, and there’s comfort–safety–in that. 

I did worry a little, though. While our AP Lit. students successfully provide feedback for writers in the advanced sophomore course, routinely mentoring them, I didn’t know how this would translate to a co-taught classroom. Would our living mentor texts help the sophomores optimize their skills and ultimately their stories as writers? 

Steps of the Experience

Before escorting the seniors to Sarah’s room, I briefed them on the parameters of the narrative writing assignment. After coaching the seniors to listen, paraphrase, question, ask to look at the writing, offer suggestions, and celebrate strengths, we headed to Sarah’s classroom. Following introductions, the seniors began moving about the room, neatly engaging the sophomores in conversation about their writing, inviting them to story-tell. Of course, my worry was needless. 

 

Reflections on the Outcome

Sarah certainly saw the power of their interactions:

“I saw my students open up so much more. Students who were nervous or uncertain about asking me questions or getting feedback were so much more willing to talk to peers. The students seemed to look up to these upperclassmen. Even if the seniors said the same thing I did as a teacher, the students took the senior’s perspective so seriously and really engaged with the process fully. Even if it was only a few minute conversations, the students really appreciated having someone who could check in with them right away. A lot of the base level questions could be answered more efficiently since there were more “experts” to share. Especially in a large class of 30 like mine was, it is hard for the teacher to get to spend quality time each student. This allowed for more contact time with each student.”

When Sarah later collected her students’ reflections on what type of feedback they found most helpful for their narrative essay, so many noted their living mentor texts.

“The AP people helped a lot. They just were there when I needed help or was stuck.”

“The peer mentors helped me see where I could transition or use better words.”

“Having an upperclassman helped me see how other people might do the essay which helped me think of new ways to write.”

“The AP students were new eyes and that helped me get over my writer’s block.”

“I liked that other students from another class saw my paper. It wasn’t pressure like a teacher grading but I still got feedback.”

Wanting to know what impact being a living mentor text had on the senior volunteers, I asked them to reflect on the experience.

Emily felt both “inspired to stop taking her English skills so lightly” and “inspired to use [her skills] to their full potential.”

Claire noted that “[the students] seemed really appreciative of [her] help, and seemed like they really wanted to talk about their writing. In helping and talking to them, [she] realized that [she does] have the ability to be a writer.”

Kyler reflected that “[t]he goal is getting students to revise and revise until they feel they’ve created something great. The smiles that came across some students’ faces when [he] told them [he] loved a part of a sentence or a comparison were fulfilling…The world of writing is something [he] really enjoy[s], and to share that joy by helping others consider the impact they can have is always a joyful experience.”

Screen Shot 2018-04-14 at 10.21.43 PMWhile Sarah and I loved the story of her classroom those two days, we experienced less success the next attempt. But we’ll try again. We’ll schedule the AP Lit. students more specifically, we’ll partner students according to need, we’ll invite the AP Lit. mentors to support the sophomores throughout the writing process. We’ll even explore digital mentoring through Google Docs. Sarah’s optimistic that increased access to our living mentor texts would increase confidence in her writers, helping them to grow. And, I am too.

Next Steps

 

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Ap Lit. students work with Honors II sophomores. Also pictured my teaching partner Amanda who teaches AP Lit. and one of my mentors Ann who first began the practice of AP Lang. and AP Lit. students mentoring honors students. 

My fellow AP and advanced teachers plan to expand the current mentoring as well. AP Lit. students and AP Lang. students will continue to guide our advanced sophomores; yet starting next fall we hope our advanced sophomores will mentor our advanced ninth graders (who are in different buildings). What a way to use writing to  foster connection!

 

I know there are exceptional peer writing tutor programs out there. But in these times of budget cuts and burgeoning class sizes, tapping into resources like Emily, Claire, Kyler, and the others who serve without expectation of reward is powerful. Many of the students–mentors and mentees–recognized the value in the stories of others and in their own. Their perspectives on writing, on others, and on themselves shifted, ever just so slightly.

It’s a small way to change the world. Or at least grow writers.

Kristin Jeschke teaches AP Language and Composition and College Prep seniors at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She loves when her former students eagerly volunteer their services for the underclassmen yet upstream, and she loves serving as mentor to her two favorite mentees, Abbie and Sarah. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

Carpe Disputationem

Before introducing metaphysical poetry to my AP Literature students, I often take a page out of the fictional Professor Keating’s book. My students and I take a little “field trip” to the front of the school, where photographs of students dating back to the first graduating class of 1901 line the foyer. I ask my students to write down their observations. When we return to class, I ask them to share. They often cite racial homogeny right off the bat. Our student population is incredibly diverse, and they cannot imagine an exclusively white school. A discussion about desegregation of schools inevitably follows, as does a conversation about the surprising number of females in the early graduating classes. We also talk about the devastation the World Wars had on the young men in those faded photographs. How many of them survived? They wonder: how did our graduating class grow from 6 to approximately 1100?

After what never fails to be a rich conversation, and the students’ realization that they have walked past those photos everyday without ever looking at them (a life lesson in itself), we watch the film clip from Dead Poets Society in which Keating, played by Robin Williams, engages his students in a similar activity. He explores the concept of “carpe diem” and mortality. Following this clip, I invite my students to write their response to carpe diem. They might write about what it means to them, whether they embrace this philosophy, or any other thoughts or feelings that the saying evokes.

CarpeDiemAfter a few minutes of writing, I ask for volunteers to share their thoughts. In a recent discussion, some students found the idea of carpe diem “frivolous” and thought that people should always stay focused on future goals. To them, “living for today” was short-sighted and irresponsible. This makes sense for teens who are driven to go to the right college and earn the right degree to live a “good” life. Other students said that since none of us are guaranteed a future and we’re “all going to die,” we should do something today: something of value, something productive. Such responses received a great deal of agreement, though students realized that “value” and “productive” are relative, subjective terms. One student wisely noted that we should remember that while we’re trying to live our best lives, others are as well. They discussed the complexities of when the lives of people with different goals intersect. Ultimately, my students saw how their seemingly disparate ideas actually overlapped a great deal, and they separated carpe diem from the trite YOLO idea that many of them initially equated as the same concept.

After a 20-30 minute discussion of carpe diem, my students not only understood the concept, but they also understood their relationship to the aphorism as well as its universal appeal. Onward to metaphysical poetry analysis!

I shared this teaching anecdote to underscore the importance of setting up and maintaining a safe workshop environment in which students expect to read, write, think, share, and work together to construct meaning. My students fearlessly followed me, willing to discuss observations even when issues such as race were broached. I could have presented them with the definition of “carpe diem” or asked them to draw on prior knowledge as a quick basis for launching into the unit of study, but by giving them the space and opportunity to explore the concept, they built a stronger foundation of understanding that will ultimately translate into better reading, writing, and thinking. We make choices everyday about when to lecture and when to facilitate; when possible, we must “seize” the opportunity to trust our students to delve deep beneath surface-level understandings and reach true depths of meaning.

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