Category Archives: AP English

Assigned Reading Works as well as Assigned Flossing

Every few months, I notice a meme recirculate with some variation of “Judging teachers on their students’ test scores makes as much sense as judging farmers on their crops without accounting for drought, freezes, or disease.” Still reflecting on my students’ lackluster AP scores as I sat down in the dentist’s chair this morning, I considered this meme. Then, like most teachers I know, I still wracked my brain trying to figure out what I could do differently to help my students score higher on that exam. As I mused, and chastised myself for taking their scores harder than I should, I endeavored to distract myself a bit by trying to remember the other meme out there that connected the professions of dentistry and teaching based on clients’ results. Ultimately, I looked it up when I got home, and it reads: “We don’t blame dentists when we don’t brush properly and we get a cavity. So why do we blame teachers when kids don’t pass because they don’t study?” Or read enough prior to twelfth grade, I thought.

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 1.57.38 PMMy cleaning ensued – painfully, I might add, as my technician was unnecessarily rough, and I wanted to ask her if she remembered that a person was attached to those teeth, but I found it too difficult to ask such questions with someone’s hands in my mouth. I waited for the post-cleaning check-up with the dentist, knowing the only question I had for him was about the dark staining I’ve been experiencing lately despite my careful brushing and (sometimes) flossing regimen.

During the 3 minutes he spent with me (I see why he earns the big bucks compared to me, I thought cynically) he responded to my question with one of his own.

“Do you drink a lot of tea?”

“Well, I guess so. I gave up soft drinks a couple of years ago, and tea became my go-to beverage.”

“Well then, that’s why your teeth are stained. You should expect that if you drink tea. It’s the worst thing you can do to stain your teeth. It’s worse than drinking coffee for stains.”

I didn’t hear the rest of what he said because it devolved into chastisement. I didn’t Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 1.55.01 PMexpect him to congratulate me on the steps I’d taken for my overall health in giving up on sodas, and I didn’t expect him to have sympathy for how hard that habit must have been to break, and I didn’t even expect him to think logically about how much less acid was wearing away at my enamel now that I don’t drink soft drinks, but I also didn’t expect to feel as though I had done something so very wrong.

That’s when my English teacher brain went back to thinking about what we do (or fail to do) for our students. I thought about how many students have been made to feel “less than” when they want to read a YA book instead of a classic text. Just as my dentist was so set on his vision of how I should live solely focused on the effects on my teeth that he forgot about the person attached to them, how many well-meaning English teachers are so hyper-focused on their well-chosen texts that they forget about their students’ needs? How many forget or do not understand what can be gained with YA or self-selected books?

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 1.58.46 PMMy teeth will continue to stain, I guess. I’ll brush with baking soda once a week to combat that. But I’ve gained better health and energy. I’ve lost the migraines I used to get when I drank colas all the time. And if we allow our students to read what they want and need to read, they might lose content knowledge of some of the classics that we read (or fake-read) in high school, but they will gain an authentic love of reading. They will find connections with characters in their books. They will connect with each other as they enthusiastically discuss their books. They will feel empowered and in control of their lives as readers. Their reading levels will improve. And yes, the test scores will follow.

Prescribing all the texts our students read, even when doing so comes from a place of good intentions, works as well as prescribing flossing. Everyone does that at least twice a day, right?

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

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Persisting in the Face of Criticism

I have a confession to make…my AP scores were not what I was hoping they would be–wait, let me rephrase that: my students’ AP scores were not what I was hoping they would be. That’s the temptation; to take on the blame when the test scores aren’t what you hoped. I notice that most of us don’t take credit when the students do well, though. Interesting…

At any rate, back to my confession. This was our 2nd year of AP Lang at my school. Last year, my students scored fairly well–pretty similar to the national average–and I was pleased. This year, they had more 4s than they had last year but there were also more 1s. The average score dropped by .1. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, does it? In this age of high stakes testing, though, it is. There is always pressure to do better and better, to demonstrate that you are effective and that you’re doing the “right” things. I’m largely removed from that pressure because I teach in a private school, but the pressure comes from other places in that situation. Instead of pressure coming from admin or a central board, there’s pressure (real or perceived) from parents. I can make all of the arguments–different set of kids, 2nd year of AP (supposedly it takes 5 to really know the AP material and get “good” at it), etc. The arguments don’t matter, though; I want to give my kids the best opportunities that they can get, so it’s reflection time.

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As I look forward to next year, I have to think about what worked and what didn’t, and already the pressure to drop my independent reading has begun, at least for my AP kids. Here are some of those questions and my responses to them:

  • How can you sacrifice 10 min of instructional time every day in an AP class?
    How can I not? My AP kids especially are so overloaded with classwork (plus athletics and extracurriculars–at my school, it tends to be the AP kids who do or join everything)–that they have precious little time at home to read. These kids see reading as a chore that has to be accomplished, something to mark off before they move on to the “real work” of AP Calc or AP Bio. They’re reading in a grind but not at all for pleasure. How can I not carve out a little time every day (from my 53 minute class periods) to help them reconnect with that love of reading just for the joy of reading?
  • What about more multiple choice practice? You could do that in the 10 minute reading time!
    I could, but I feel that building the reading lives of my students will pay off dividends, even on those multiple choice sections. After all, there’s a degree of that that’s based on reading comprehension, so I think reading is a pretty essential skill for them to work on. Sure, I probably do need to build in more m/c practice, but I’m not doing it at the expense of my independent reading time.
  • If you’re going to let them read, shouldn’t you make them read on-level AP-worthy books?
    First of all, what exactly is an AP-worthy book? On the AP Language exam, students are expected to make connections in their writing and to use evidence from their reading, among other things, to support their connections and observations. Nowhere in the instructions or scoring guidelines does it say that only “worthy” texts can be utilized. A student can make an insightful connection between a prompt on civil disobedience and Nic Stone’s Dear Martin or Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy (one a YA novel, one a contemporary non-fiction) just as easily as he might refer to Henry David Thoreau. One more argue that the connection to the newer pieces could be even more effective because they may not be used as frequently as Thoreau’s essay. In addition, there is much research to suggest that adding choice to a reading program (check out Donalyn Miller’s post “I’ve got research. Yes I do. How about you?” for more on this) does more to promote an increase in reading skill and reading volume than anything else. My kids are Juniors, which means they’ll be going off to college in 2 years. These kids who have largely fake read to survive their work load (yes, even the honors and AP kids fake read) will be expected to read 200-500 pages a week when they’re in college, and too many of them are NOT ready. One of our 2018 graduates is taking a couple of classes of summer school before the full academic year starts, and she was shocked that the material on her sociology test came from the textbook chapters that she was assigned and not from the class notes that she studied meticulously. Yep. Welcome to college.
  • Well, don’t you at least have to test them or monitor them? How do you KNOW they are reading?
    This one gets me because it’s such evidence of the educational climate right now. I KNOW that they are reading because I’m talking to them. I talk to them every day about what they’re reading and the connections they’re making and about what they’re going to read next. They stop me in the hall to tell me that they’re mad at this character or that I’ve got to read this new book they just discovered. I have them write about their reading, using whatever they’re reading as support for their points. And I see the growth in their reading–it’s a pretty powerful thing to watch a student who states that she’s never done more than skim or fake read a book since elementary school dive into a new series and then, when she’s done, ask me for a suggestion because she feels like she wants to challenge herself and read something with more bite.

So while I am thinking about what tweaks and changes I’ll make for next year, I know for certain that independent and choice reading will continue to be an important part of my classroom plan.

What about you? What challenges do you face in your reading program? How would you answer these questions? If you’re looking for more support for your reading choices, check out these posts by Amber Counts here and here. And these by Amy Rasmussen here and here.

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.

 

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.

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