Tag Archives: AP English Language

Thanks for being our writing coach, Mr. Lightman

I’ve done a lot of thinking about structure lately. My students need to learn some. They’ve finally got some great ideas, but they are struggling with effectively sharing them in their writing.

I’ve become hyper aware.

I notice when an author introduces a topic. I notice when he builds a paragraph with reasoning and evidence. I notice when he concludes with a sentence that alludes back to the main idea. I notice balanced ideas in balanced sentences, and I get a thrill when the author captures meaning through structure and not just words and phrases.

Like this passage by Alan Lightman in his little novel Einstein’s Dreams (53-54):

There is a place where time stands still. Raindrops hang motionless in air. Pendulums of clocks float mid-swing. Dogs raise their muzzles in silent howls. Pedestrians are frozen on the dusty streets, their legs cocked as if held by strings. The aromas of dates, mangoes, coriander, cumin are suspended in space.

As a traveler approaches this place from any direction, he moves more and more slowly. His heartbeats grow farther apart, his breathing slackens, his temperature drops, his thoughts diminish, until he reaches dead center and stops. For this is the center of time. From this place, time travels outward in concentric circles–at rest at the center, slowly picking up speed at greater diameters.

Who would make pilgrimage to the center of time? Parents with children, and lovers.

And so, at the place where time stands still, one sees parents clutching their children, in a frozen embrace that will never let go. The beautiful young daughter with blue eyes and blond hair will never stop smiling the smile she smiles now, will never lose this soft pink glow on her cheeks, will never grow wrinkled or tired, will never get injured, will never unlearn what her parents have taught her, will never think thoughts that her parents don’t know, will never know evil, will never tell her parents that she does not love them, will never leave her room with the views of the ocean, will never stop touching her parents as she does now.

And at the place where time stands still, one sees lovers kissing in the shadows of buildings, in a frozen embrace that will never let go. The loved one will never take his arms from where they are now, will never give back the bracelet of memories, will never journey far from his lover, will never place himself in danger in self-sacrifice, will never fail to show his love, will never become jealous, will never fall in love with someone else, will never lose the passion of this instant in time.


I love it when an author becomes our writing coach.

Thank you, Mr. Lightman.


Not the Same Old AP Writing Teacher

ocsWriting takes time. I imagine most English teachers know this. However, I am not sure most English teachers allow students enough time to produce their best work.

I speak from experience. You might be able to relate.

Traditionally, I would give students a writing assignment. We’d pre-write a day, sometimes two. We’d draft a day, sometimes two. We’d revise (or I’d hope they’d revise) maybe a day–or none at all, depending on the student. We’d publish our work and turn it in for a grade.

Oh, how incredibly dull . . .and ineffective. No wonder so many students hated writing.

This year we do writing differently. We are writing a lot more like real writers.

We start with reading. We read an engaging and complex mentor text. The author becomes our writing coach for as long as we are working on the assignment. The piece my students are writing now is a feature article modeled after the work of John Branch in Snowfall:Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, which recently won a Pulitzer Prize. We read the first four pages or so together, stopping to talk about the many devices Branch uses to craft the introduction to this piece. We discussed the rhetorical appeals and how Branch uses them to build credibility and create emotion. Students were mesmerized by the narrative. It’s a lovely day in my teaching life when every sentence in a text has something worthy of taking note–I had to stop myself in Snowfall. Too much talk, and we lose the rhythm of the article.

After we read, my students and I looked at the embedded photos with the captions and watch a couple of the videos. We discussed why the author included these in the piece where and how he did. I then told students that they would be creating their own article, and John Branch just became their writing coach.

Students chose topics after a lot of class discussion and responses to my probing questions in their writing notebooks.

  • If you didn’t have to go to school, or work, or any other responsibility, what would you do with your time?
  • If you could have dinner with three famous people, past or present, who would you invite to dine?
  • If you could travel in time, what era would you want to return to?
  • Where to you see yourself in five years?
  • What do you want your life to be like in 10 years?
  • What is something you have always wondered about?

Students chose some interesting topics:  One young woman is writing about building schools in Mexico, another is writing about neurobiology, and another is writing about hiking across Europe. A young man is writing about what life was like during Jesus’ time, another is writing about game design, and another is writing about becoming a pastry chef.

Initially, I had students jot their topics on a sticky note, so I could see if what they had chosen was “doable.” (We all know those students who choose topics that are so broad, and perhaps the students’  skills are so immature, that there is no way they will ever be able to write anything interesting.) I wrote some quick feedback, pretty much either “Run with it,” or “Wait! narrow this down,” and most students were ready to write.

Then I had this idea that I’d been playing with in some consulting I’ve conducted with North Star of TX madewithOver-2Writing Project. It’s a working structure to get students thinking. And if I teach it right, students will learn four different modes of writing in one go:  definition, narrative, examples, and argument.

I wrote my own working piece, and my students and I read it together. Then I asked them for suggestions on where I could improve and where I could add research. You can see my working document here: Authenticity.

Students then began crafting their own four paragraphs. This ended up being the final summative assessment for fall semester due to the deaths in my family and my many absences. Turned out to be a pretty good resting place.

When we return to class next week, these are our next steps:

First, we will return to Snowfall and read and discuss the piece in more detail. You know, to get us back in the reading and writing groove after our two weeks break.

Then, we will project a few student work samples on the board and talk through them the same way that students did with mine, offering suggestions on improvement and where research may work to advance the meaning. Every student who wants whole class help will have the chance to ask for it. Others might choose to just get help from their small writing groups. Either is fine, as long as all students share their work and get feedback.

Eventually, we will work on revising our structure, moving around paragraphs, and making our writing follow Branch’s award-winning article. Of course, I will pull sentences to study and conduct other mini-lessons all throughout our writing process. And I will confer with students regularly. We will add photos and videos (hopefully originals), and we will polish and polish and polish before we publish.

For the first time ever, I am in no hurry. I will not allow our time to be regulated by grading periods– well, until the very last one at the end of the year.

We will write.

We will revise.

We will confer and share and grow as writers.

And eventually, we will publish.

And celebrate.

I’d love to know how or what you have changed as a writing teacher. Please share.

AP English: Improving Our Rhetorical Analysis One Quickwrite at a Time

I’ve mentioned that I am working on finding a way to be more efficient in my writing workshop. I want to expose students to beautifully written language that we can study together, and maybe learn a little grammar, but I also want to use these pieces of text for quick writes. I know that the content (or at least my questioning) has to be compelling enough that students will have something that makes their fingers itch to pick up their pens.

When I read I find myself dog-earing pages and book-marking passages that have been crafted with many rhetorical devices and/or literary elements. By helping students recognize how these strategies, used deliberately by the authors, create meaning, my students’ rhetorical analysis timed writings are scoring higher than they have at this point of the semester in years past.

I love it when my ideas work.

This is the passage we will read and respond to this week:

From An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski p4

And so, when Maurice spoke to me, I just kept going. Another thing to remember is that this was New York in the 1980s, a time when vagrants and panhandlers were as common a sight in the city as kids on bikes or moms with strollers. The nation was enjoying an economic boom, and on Wall Street new millionaires were minted every day. But the flip side was a widening gap between the rich and the poor, and nowhere was this more evident than on the streets of New York City. Whatever wealth was supposed to trickle down to the middle class did not come close to reaching the city’s poorest, most desperate people, and for many of them the only recourse was living on the streets. After a while you got used to the sight of them–hard, gaunt men and sad, haunted women, wearing rags, camped on corners, sleeping on grates, asking for change. It is tough to imagine anyone could see them and not feel deeply moved by their plight. Yet they were just so prevalent that most people made an almost subconscious decision to simply look the other way–to, basically, ignore them. The problem seemed so vast, so endemic, that stopping to help a single panhandler could feel all but pointless. And so we swept past them every day, great waves of us going on with our lives and accepting that there was nothing we could really do to help.

Write about a time when you encountered a homeless person or a beggar. How did you feel? What did you do?

I am still working on the questions. Sometimes I think it’s best to say, “Just respond.” Other times I think students need more direction.

What do you think?

Authenticity: Making it Real with Student Blogs

North Star of Texas Writing Project (NSTWP), in which I am a teacher consultant, asserts that authenticity is connecting student learning with significant audiences, tasks, and purposes.


Blogging with my students is one way in which I make that connection happen. Writing posts and commenting on the work of our peers has become an integral part of my readers/writers workshop classroom.

photo: Petras Kudaras

During the second week of school, once schedule changes calm down a bit, I introduced the idea of blogging to my students. This year I wrote a post on my class blog and imbedded an article that made them see that blogging can have value to their futures. You can see that here.

I’ve had students use Edublogs as their blog platform in the past, and I know some teachers have their students use Kidblogs. I decided to go with WordPress this year. I thought using the “real world” blog platform would be a good idea. You know, just in case some students loved the idea and kept writing long after they leave my classroom. Finally, eight weeks into the school year, I am glad I went this route, but the set-up, especially with my 9th graders took a lot longer than I’ve had to spend in the past. (Most of my students are not as tech savvy as many technology advocates would like to believe. For more on that read this post:  Digital Novices vs Digital Natives.)

These are some ways I’m transforming my teaching by using student blogs this year (See this SAMR model for ideas on instructional transformation):

Timed Writing. I need students to be able to think quickly about a topic, organize their thoughts, and write effectively in a short period of time. Years ago I had students complete timed writings on paper with a pen, and I’d take the stack of essays home and laboriously grade them. By having students post to blogs, my classroom is getting close to being green. We do very little writing on paper anymore. I can read student posts with the swipe on my finger on my iPad, and I try to leave comments that inspire improvement in their writing. Sometimes I put the score from a rubric. Most times I say something I like about what students have written. They like that kind of feedback best, and it usually prompts some kind of improvement in their next post–something that rarely happened with the marks of my red pen.

For our first timed writing, students wrote about their reading lives. We spend 10 minutes at the beginning of each class period reading our self-selected books. I conference with each student, brief one-on-one chats. I learned more while reading student posts about their reading habits than I did in the prior eight weeks of school. I posted a reflection of my own reading life on my class blog with the actual assignment, and then students wrote on theirs. The response to our wide reading warmed my teacher heart. Read a few of these students’ posts, and you will see why: Helen–A Path Led by Wise Words; Gina–Lay Down the Bridges; Mian–A Passion for Books; Emilio–Reading Life

Our second timed writing, students wrote an argument in response to our in-class study of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar.” Some student posts were thoughtful and wise; most were ineffective and needed major revisions. All students wrote and showed what they’d learned from their reading and our class discussions.

Persuasive Practice. The AP Lang exam and the 10th grade STAAR test both require students to be effective persuasive writers. I like this blogger’s post:  Blogging is the New Persuasive Essay. As I teach my students how to use persuasive techniques, I also want them learning about their world. They have to know “stuff” to build their credibility after all. So every Monday my students write a post that they base upon something they read in the news. They scan headlines until they find a topic that interests them. Then they pull an idea from the article, and then they write an argument based on that idea. So far, we haven’t delved too deeply in the art of persuasion; we’ve talked mostly about form and structure and a few rhetorical devices, but some of my students have taken ownership of this weekly recurring assignment. Here’s a few to give you an idea:  Kathryn–Words Hurt; Ashley–Recycled Look or Recycled Lives; Jason–Smoking is Safer? Impossible; Adrian–Chemical Mistakes

Published Polished Pieces. As we move through different genres of writing, I need my students to fully immerse themselves in the process of creating effective and moving texts. We started the year with a focus on narrative. I know, it’s not on the AP exam or the STAAR test anymore. But story is so important. It’s what connects us as humans, and it’s story that has helped create a classroom community where students are not afraid to take risks and throw their hearts out on the page. While a few student narratives are not as polished as I would have liked prior to publication (grades being due always seems to interfere with authenticity), if you read just these three, you’ll see why story is important. I can be a better teacher to these PreAP students because of what I know from these posts. Esmeralda–Memories; Mercedes–What Do You Think About Moving? Bryanna–Why Batman?

I remember learning from Kelly Gallagher that students should write more than I can ever grade. Well, of all things in my teaching life, I’ve finally figured that one out the best. I cannot read every post my students write, but I can read a lot, and I can give a lot of feedback in a way that is meaningful so that students respond. We just started reading and leaving feedback for one another. I can already tell that this will be more valuable than just me giving feedback. After we spent two class days reading one another’s narrative posts, I had students tell me on their own narrative evaluations:  “I knew I could do better after I read other people’s.” For an example of our student feedback, read the comments on this one: Amy–Forever a Bye. The instruction I gave students was 1) Be polite but honest, 2) Bless something you think the writer did well, 3) Press a moment that needs more detail or description, 3) Address an issue of concern in regard to style, grammar, etc. For our first time, I’m proud of these students for the feedback they gave their friend.

Engaging student writers is often more than half the battle. So many times they have the attitutde “What’s in it for me?” By allowing students to choose their topics, and allowing them to express their true and authentic voices, I get better participation, and I get better writing, and I get to know the hearts and minds of my students.

That is all I ever really want.

photo: Dee Bamford

#NCTE13  Writing Teachers (Re)Inventing Literacy Instruction by Following the North Star

My Workshop is Kind of Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears

ocsWhen I first got my teaching assignment for this year, I was a little overwhelmed, although I probably shouldn’t have been:  I chose to have three preps. Yes, I chose three preps. Crazy, right?

I’ve never had the exact same assignment two years in a row, which definitely has its pros and cons. (I was recently diagnosed with ADHD–at 48–I know, right?–so the changes have worked pretty well for me.) I don’t mind the planning. I don’t mind the difference in student maturity. I do mind not feeling like I’ve ever done anything really really well.

It’s not like you can get everything perfect in every lesson in every class throughout a whole year. So I keep notes of what worked and what didn’t, and I make plans to bend and stretch, tweak and toss things the following year. I am rarely satisfied and always looking for improvement  I’ve just never had the chance to practice my new and improved plans.

Until now.

But it’s not what you are thinking.

It’s a bit daring, and I appreciate my administrators for trusting that it will work, but I am teaching all three of my preps the same lessons in the same way–almost every day. My Pre-AP English I class gets the same instruction and the same assignments as my Pre-AP English 2 classes and my AP Language and Comp classes. See, I have my own built in vertical alignment, and I can teach the same skills–sometimes a little slower, and usually with a different expected outcome–to all of my students at all three levels.

“What about the differences in the standards?” you might say.

Well, look at them. They really aren’t that different. The real differences are in the depth and the complexity of how our students show us mastery of a skill. Reading and writing is still reading and writing at any level, advanced or otherwise.

Mine is a readers/writers workshop, and students lead with choice. They choose what they want to read, and they choose what they want to write about in their assignments. I facilitate discussions around mentor texts, and they model the professionals in their writing. I talk about books that beg to be read, and they open the pages and read them.

Take for example their first major writing assignment. We’ve been studying narrative. (Please do not say, “But there is no longer a literary essay on the STAAR test.” Yes, I know.) Think about the power of story. It’s the thread that wraps us all together, the binding that prevents our civility from turning to chaos. And, oh, the relationship builder our stories become as we share our souls in our learning community! We learn to relate and empathize with people who might be vastly different than we are. We grow as individuals and as peers. Not to mention the feelings of accomplishment students have when they produce a piece from the heart and are successful at it at the beginning of the year. Every literary device we want students to know, understand, and use can be modeled in narrative mentors. Every literary device we want students to be able to produce and analyze for AP English exams can be taught in a narrative unit. Why would we jump right into rhetorical or literary analysis, when we can get so much growth from passionate personal essays?

I know it’s early in the year, and I haven’t been trying this approach out for too long. I get that my high hopes might deflate and plop right on my desktop. But right now, my students are engaged. They are reaching to meet my expectations. They are thinking. And that’s what I really want.

If I can get my students to think–well, that is my personal definition of rigor. And isn’t that what an advanced class is supposed to be?

So about practicing and improving my plans? This year I get to do that every single day while the learning is happening instead of my reflection afterward. It’s kind of like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, except better. My students get to taste a rich and authentic approach to learning, and I get to differentiate depending on their individual needs: too hot or too cold until I get it just right.

Websofsubstance.com by Harry Webb

I spoke to a good friend this morning. She, too, has three preps, and she’s trying to streamline. She and I share the same perfectionist tendencies, and planning and planning and planning to come up with the “just right” instruction for all three levels is exhausting. There has to be a better way.

I’m pretty sure I’ve found it.

What do you think of using the readers/writers workshop model to teach all levels the same skills in the same way at pretty much the same pace?

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