Tag Archives: AP Language

5 Things I Need to Remember When Teaching my Writers

I know we’ve been posting mini-lessons on Mondays on this blog for awhile now, but today marks the first day of my spring break, and since my students and I just finished a fairly complex writing task, this is a good time for reflection.

don-graves-quoteMy AP Language students wrote arguments as spoken-word poems, and then performed them in class. (Or if they produced their poems digitally, which was an option for publishing, they projected them.)

Our process included reading and studying several poems. We watched YouTube videos of spoken word poems by Shane Koyczan, Harry Baker, Marshal Davis Jones and more. We analyzed structure, craft, and theme. We pulled out lines we felt held the weight of the poem and wrote responses to them, hoping to find inspiration for our own writing. We reviewed the elements of argument. We discussed the claims the poets make and how they use evidence (or do not) to support these claims. We spent workshop time thinking, writing, and revising our poems. And my student teacher Zach and I spent hours talking to writers about their writing.

I’ll share some of the amazing poems my students produced in another post. For now, here are some things my students reminded me I need to do better so they can do better in our next round of writing:

  • Topics matter. If I want my students to produce well-written texts, they must select well-chosen topics. Too often my writers choose topics they might have a passion for, but they know little about. This leads to vague superficial writing.

I need to take more time on the front end of the writing process to make sure all of my writers choose a topic that they not only care about, but that is specific enough to the task at hand. One resource that will help as we choose topics for other writing tasks is this tutorial from University of Arizona Libraries. I need to remember to slow down on the front end and help students select narrow topics.

  • Clear feedback matters. For this writing project, I only left feedback once on student drafts. It was not enough. Or it might have been — if students had read it. (Please tell me I am not the only teacher with this issue:  Students ignoring feedback.)

The best feedback is not when I leave comments on Google docs like I did for this project, but when I talk to them face-to-face and answer their questions. Students need to see my response to the work they have done. They need to see if I like it. They often misread, or don’t read, my tone in written feedback. I must remember to give them a balance of both — and a lot of it all along the way.

  • Sometimes more explicit instruction matters. In more than one conference, when I asked students why I didn’t see application of the mini-lesson in their writing, they said: “Oh, I thought that was just a suggestion.” Well, yes. But what’s the point of a mini-lesson — designed to help students write better — if they refuse to at least try it?

I know that we must teach the writer and not the writing, but sometimes without a little push to make specific changes, my writers just do not improve. I need to remember that with some students I must be more explicit in my instruction.

  • Accountability throughout the process matters. I was out of the classroom several days when students had writing workshop time to work on their poems. (Someday I’ll tell you about the standards revision work I’ve done with the TEKS Review Committee in Austin this year.) Although my student teacher was there, and my substitute — a former teacher and a sub my students know well — too many of my students clearly wasted the time given them in class to write. They are teenagers after all:  give them an inch and they take a mile. And they are major procrastinators. I think they are finally understanding that good writing takes time, but many are still not taking the time to produce good writing.

I need to do a better job at holding them accountable for working during workshop time. More exit slips. More sharing a favorite line or passage they’ve written that day. More purposeful formative assessment and personal evaluation of their writing processes.

  • Conferring (more) matters. The two days students shared their poems were exciting. So many were fantastic. So many clearly showed their understanding of how to write an effective argument — and how to be clever and creative with poetic elements as they did so. But quite a few did not.

As Zach and I discussed each performance and each poem, matching the writing to our rubric and assigning a grade, we became clearly aware of which students we conferred with the most and which students we did not. One of us would say: “She did exactly what we discussed in our conference,” or “That was something he and I talked about in his conference.”

The students we conferred with the most not only fulfilled the requirements for the assignment the best, they produced the most creative and convincing argumentative and poetic writing. And they knew it. Their confidence as they performed their poems was evident, and they rocked the house with their beautiful and inspiring poetry.

Taking the time to confer with every student — whether they want to talk about their writing or not — must be a regular part of the writing workshop. Too often conferring becomes optional when I get too busy or spread myself too thin. I must remember to schedule conference time into the lesson plans and hold myself responsible for making them happen — not once but several times for each student.

How do you know when your writing workshop is working?  Please share your ideas in the comments.

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Doing More with Essential Questions: Where and How Do I Belong?

As I read through Cyndi Faircloth’s post a few weeks back on Applying Essential Questions in Workshop, it got me thinking about the role of essential questions in my own classroom. As Cyndi said, I needed to do more. Using the essential question to choose mentor texts, guide quick writes, and frame discussion, we had done. I also encourage students to see the essential question as something answered by each and every text we encounter.

But this was about doing more. This was about students answering the question for
themselves; students lending their unique voices as “texts.” I was going to need to look at this from another angle.

My AP Language and Composition students recently finished a unit on community. Theyimageworked in and around the essential question, “What is the relationship of the individual to the community?” Through the study of a variety of essays, including everything from Henry David Thoreau’s “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” to Scott Brown’s “Facebook Friendonomics,”  to student selected current event articles, I watched my scholars analyze text to connect author’s purpose with rhetorical strategies. However, beyond that, I was blessed to be able to witness a conceptual development in these classes too. 

Students seemed genuinely surprised when they considered just how many communities they are a part of: geographical, family, faith, school, sports, friend, experiential. But when they started to consider their roles within those communities and words like responsibility, conformity, and balance began to dominate class discussion, I knew they were really on to something.

Students spoke of the dangers of conformity alongside the necessity for it. They explored the freedom found in chosen communities and the often unwelcome responsibilities to those communities we fall into by default. I saw them wrestle with the concept that communities rise and fall based on the actions and inactions of their members, and then saw evidence in more than one journal entry of the very real concern students have for their own part in that equation.

image_2As these kids get ready to head off to a world beyond the insulated suburban existence most of them have known all their lives, they know many of their foundational communities will be changing. For some, this change can’t come soon enough. For others, I think it will be a rude awakening. And still others, a chance to move toward the authentic selves that they so desperately need to discover.

To bring this unit to a close, I wanted to harness all the unique inquiry that we had experienced. To do so, I borrowed from my American Literature class. Throughout this year, my sophomores have started each unit by doing a bit of research on literary movements in American Literature (somewhat of a snoozefest to many). I wanted them to have some contextual understanding of the mentor pieces we would study, and so they gathered information on historical events responsible for the movement, major themes of works at the time, elements of style popular during the period, connections to music and art, and famous authors working within that movement.

Students gathered and compared their research findings in small groups and then were charged with symbolically representing their research on poster sized paper. For the imaginative qualities of Romanticism, we saw Sponge Bob. The Transcendentalist faces of Emerson and Thoreau became flowers in a pot, watered by Walt Whitman. Mark Twain held up a mirror to a map of the American South. In image_1short, students captured the movements and we hung up the evidence to remind us of the context of what we were exploring.

And so, for my AP Language students, I chose to end their unit on community by bringing
them together in small groups as well, to choose a specific community and illustrate an answer to the unit essential question. I figured if they answered the question without a specific community in mind, we’d get a lot of generic posters with people holding hands around the world – thank you, Google.

Instead, they had to choose specific communities to show their understanding of the complexity of the essential question and then supply textual evidence from the mentor texts we explored in order to support those symbolic meanings.

imageStudents shared some phenomenal work and I was impressed not only with the depth of their thinking, but the synthesis of texts this activity produced. And, because my own artistic development was apparently arrested in the second grade, it was such fun to see some of my visually gifted kids shine through the use of a new medium.

Zoey and Alyssa, who created the Statue of Liberty visual said the exercise allowed them to express their “artistic qualities – which is many times put on the back burner in AP courses.”

Creative expression of understanding put on the back burner? Shame on us.

And I know for a fact that AP classes aren’t the only place to suffer a similar fate. If we are going to do more with essential questions, we need to not only have students to be directly involved in answering them, but also give our kids more voice in the demonstration of their learning.

Ultimately, it was an assessment that combined creativity, common core standards, direct connection to the unit essential question, analysis, entertainment, synthesis, and genuine student enthusiasm. Not bad for mid-February in the frozen North.

How do you use essential questions to effectively deepen critical thinking? Please share your comments.

TTT welcomes Lisa Dennis, inspiring teacher and innovative leader at Franklin H.S. in Franklin, WI, as a visiting contributor on this blog.

Mini-lesson Monday: Taking on the Thesis Statement

Right now, my students and I are writing spoken-word poems. I’ve wanted to play with language this way for a long time now, but finally mustered the courage — and figured out a way to make this kind of poetry fit into my AP Language goals and the needs of my students as they prepare for the AP Lang exam.

While watching and listening to many spoken-word poems, I realized that most of them are an argument, filled with not only beautifully crafted language — devices galore — but they also show craft in the use of the appeals. With the help of my student teacher, Mr. Zachery Welch, we designed a unit that centers around the rhetoric in spoken-word poems. And we are all writing our own. (This is a challenge for me, but I absolutely believe the the importance of a teacher writing beside her students. Thanks, Penny Kittle, for teaching me that!)

The performance task for this unit reads:  Craft a spoken word poem that addresses a personal conflict and/or a social issue, include rhetorical techniques and literary and rhetorical devices to convince your audience of the need for positive change. Perform your poem for the class live, or create an automated slide show with visuals, or a video recording as a way to digitally perform your poem.

This lesson stems from our work  — and the need for students to include stronger thesis statements in all of their argumentative essays.

Objective:   Using the language of the depth of knowledge levels, students will identify powerful lines in a spoken-word poem that serve as position statements. They will discuss and then categorize these statements in order of importance as it pertains to the poet’s overall theme. Students will then formulate three powerful thesis statements of their own and revise their drafts to include these powerful thesis-like lines.

Lesson:  Watch and listen to “Paper People” by Harry Baker. Ask students to pay particular attention to the lines of the poem that hold the weight of the poet’s position. They must listen carefully because Baker’s poem is primarily crafted with the alliterative “p”. Give students a copy of the lyrics, and on the second listening, having them mark specific lines they think represent Baker’s position. Then, ask students to discuss the lines they marked with their small groups. As a class, determine the line that best serves as Baker’s thesis.

Next, instruct students to write three thesis statements for their own poems. They should discuss their thesis statements within their groups and help one another develop powerful statements that hold the weight of the meaning in their poems. Then, instruct students to revise their poems, including all three of their new strong lines.

Follow up:  Students continue to revise and strengthen the arguments within their spoken-word poems. They should also remember to write three powerful thesis statements in their argumentative essays and challenge themselves to use all three in their writing.

#3TTWorkshop — Making Workshop Work in AP English

#3TTWorkshop Meme

 

 

How do you balance teaching the workshop model with also teaching to a test?

Amy:  First of all, teaching to a test is not good practice. We know that. I know we want to prepare students to take and pass the AP exam, but if we structure our classes around test prep, we are doing a disservice to our students. We provide the only 11th or 12th grade English classes our students will take — we have a responsibility to help them understand how language (and literature) works, how it moves the world, how it relates to our lives. And we have a responsibility to help every student advance as readers and writers — no matter where they are in their abilities when they come to us. If we do these things we are doing our jobs, if not, we are not. Test prep does not help with either of these responsibilities. As a matter of fact, it can inhibit it.

Jackie: I am a first year AP Literature teacher, so I still have the underlying anxiety that comes with teaching my first class of AP students.  I love these students–they are kind, passionate, mature, and motivated.  They work tirelessly to succeed and they have a passion for literature and thirst for knowledge unmatched by any of the students I’ve taught in the past.  In turn, I want to do everything in my power to provide them with the steps to succeed, but I have found, as the year goes on, that I cannot simply focus on the test.  In the beginning, I felt like every assignment I designed began with the thought, how will this help them on the exam?! Once I shoved aside my anxieties and found my stride, I focused less on their testing success and more on what I truly wanted them to walk away with at the end of the year.  I am blessed with the gift of teaching students the individual pleasure of reading paired with the social process of dissecting intricate texts.  

Created by Jackie's student. Doesn't it embody the essence of AP Lit?

Created by Jackie’s student. Doesn’t it embody the essence of AP Lit?

How do you balance whole class novels with independent reading in AP classes?

Amy:  My students and I do not read any whole class novels. It’s not that I am against them. It is that I have not found a book that I think will work to move all of my students. Wait, that’s not quite true. When I read David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, I thought “Here is a book that would make for a whole class read.” The book is an argument, and within each chapter is an argument that supports the overall one. That would be a good book for all AP Language students. Have I used it as a whole class read yet? No, but if I can find the funds to buy enough copies, someday I will.

Jackie: Unlike Amy, I do teach whole class novels.  Last year I experimented with teaching no whole class novels in my junior-level Advanced Composition course.  The experience had its pros and cons, but I found that I missed the common experience of reading a sustained text together.  It wasn’t something I wanted to do everyday in my classes, but one of the reasons I loved studying English in graduate school was to gain the communal opportunity of cracking apart texts and sharing perspectives.  In AP Literature I reinforce the concept that literary analysis isn’t a competition; it is instead a social experience that requires us to open up to our peers in pursuit of greater knowledge and understanding.

While I teach whole class novels, I do not believe AP Literature classrooms must revolve around them. Instead, AP Lit classes should have a smattering of diverse novels and plays with a large focus on poetry, short stories, and even excerpts.

My AP students just finished Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, a 580 page episodic novel that is the most used novel on the test.  It is brilliant in so many ways, relevant and valuable.  It discusses issues of race and police brutality that eerily parallel issues we face today.  For many, it is also the first whole class novel on race my students read that was actually written by a black man (they read To Kill A Mockingbird their freshman year and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn their sophomore year).  I choose the novel because it is invaluable, but I also acknowledge that it is LONG.  If I taught lengthy canonical texts constantly, my students would hate me.  I would hate me.

20160105_090107 (1)

Fabian reading to his table mates. He’s so involved in the story of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close he could not wait for our book club discussions.

Amy: We read a ton of short text together; discuss them, analyze them, write about them. We enjoy many rich reading experiences together — all centered around short texts. I’ve heard a lot of noise lately around the argument for a literary canon so students enjoy shared experiences versus independent reading and the lack thereof, and I think the dichotomy is wrong. Can we only have shared experiences around whole class reading? No. It’s not that those of us who advocate for choice reading do not facilitate rich reading experiences and discussions with our students as whole classes, it’s that we choose to do so with shorter texts rather than full-length novels — or we choose to do so with themes instead of one book.

My experiences with too many students not reading longer texts I pulled from the canon — and the length of time it took to complete a unit — made me choose to let the novel go. Too many students faked their way through the classic literature I forced them to read my first few years teaching. (They brag about it later on Facebook.) And by offering choice, whether it be self-selected reading or book clubs, I have better chances of advancing all of my readers, not just the few who commit to doing all the reading.

We have a lot to say, so join us tomorrow for part two of this discussion. And as always, please join the conversation in the comments.

A Writing Workshop Lesson: Inspirational Speech

Last week I posted a mini-lesson about using student sentences as models for writing. Katie Bills-Tenney left this Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 6.12.39 PMcomment. And I asked if she would write a post about her lesson.

She did even better:  she wrote on her own blog, complete with a lesson outline and student writing.

I love what she does here — and what her students do here, too.

Thank you for letting us see inside your classroom Katie.

Follow Katie at @Katieswrite

Poetry in AP Lang

Do you subscribe to Poetry 180 through The Library of Congress? It’s probably the single most valuable thing I’ve done as a way to remind myself to use poetry in my AP English Language and Composition class. We read and write many an argument. I often forget about the poetry.

But I read a poem every day. You can, too. Sign up for a poem in your inbox here.

Some days it’s a natural fit to incorporate the poem into my lesson. Some days it’s a little more complicated. Some days I don’t even try to make the poem fit — we just enjoy the language.

Like this one today:

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 6.26.56 PM

 

We are in Process, and that is Beautiful

A follow up to a comment on the post Not the Same ‘Ole AP Writing Teacher

Wow. Thanks for following my blog. I’m grateful. I appreciate your inquiry into our Snowfall writing project. It’s made me do some thinking, and you’ve inspired me to turn my response into a follow up post. Thanks for that.

Here’s my best shot at answering your questions:

1. Do you have any completed student assignment that you would be willing to share? and 2. What vehicle/medium did you use for to students to publish their work?

No student samples yet — this is the first year I’ve had students complete something quite so extensive. In regard to publishing their work, we aim high, so students will do a bit of research to see if they can submit their articles somewhere for publication. When they were first selecting topics, we discussed audience, and students had to justify what kind of magazines would run a piece about their topics. For sure, students will publish their finished articles on their blogs. They each have their own blog in which they write weekly.

3. What were your specific requirements for the assignment?

Since I am pushing toward authenticity, I intentionally did not start with a rubric. I’m sure John Branch didn’t have a rubric when he started writing “Snowfall: Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” either. I want students to take ownership of this work, so I want them to think through the parts and pieces that will make their work turn out the best.

Students and I read five pages of Branch’s piece together, and I encouraged students to read the rest of the article online in their own time. All I really told them was that we were each going to write a full-length feature article, and this Pulitzer Prize winner was our model. I am trying to break habits of skating through writing assignments with weak ideas and weaker research. Many of my student are used to getting A’s without having to actually learn anything. This bothers me. That is partly why, although they got to choose their topics, I had to approve them and be sure there was some depth to what students were thinking in terms of what they could discover in their research.

While it may sound strange, I do not have specific requirements other than–

1. show me that you have learned several different modes of writing, including how to embed and cite research,

2. include several different images, including photos, video clips, info graphics, charts, etc that make your article multi-media and convincing,

3. prove that you take pride in your work by revising, evaluating, improving, and learning as you move toward publishing your best work.

I do keep tick marks in my records of students who submit their work to me for review on time and who use their time wisely in class, but those benchmarks become daily grades and will not influence a student’s final grade on the piece he finally publishes. Most likely I will allow students to give themselves a grade when all is said and done. Without question they always grade themselves harder than I ever do, and I have to score them up a bit.

4. Any other information that you could share with us would be greatly appreciated.

Every week we work on some aspect of this writing. Last week we read some descriptive writing, and students finished up their narrative intros. I read aloud the prologue of The Emperor of All Maladies–a Biography of Cancer (also a Pulitzer), a non-fiction text that begins with a narrative intro, similar to the narrative at the beginning of Snowfall, although different at the same time. We connected our thinking back to Snowfall, and students moved their “remember it” paragraph to the top of their page and revised to make emotional stories that would draw their readers into their articles. They read and evaluated the writing of their peers– aiming for the WOW factor (our way to gut-read a text), and they revised to make better.

Later we talked about definition as a mode, and students began writing a paragraph that defines their topics and includes a position statement. (We are including a persuasive slant more than Snowfall because of the argumentative focus of AP Lang.)

I showed students how to use google forms to conduct surveys, so they could gather their own data instead of relying on whatever they found on the internet, and they took a survey I created that I will use in my own feature article I am writing beside them. Every step I ask students to take, I take as well. They can see my piece develop and change and grow as theirs does. Soon I will introduce info-graphics with the hope some students will include those in their full-length article. I think info-graphics are so cool.

So, that’s about where we’re at with this huge and engaging writing project. I wish we could stop everything else and only work on this piece– we had a district checkpoint, and we have an AP mock exam looming, so we have to move back and forth into the genre of test taking. But … maybe, this slow process is for the best: I am able to show how the skills needed to write on demand are the same as developing a long process piece–only s.l.o.w.e.r.

We are in process, and that is exactly what I want. Kids are learning and growing as writers, and that is so much more important than rushing into a finished product.

I hope this helps. Please ask if you have other questions. I am happy to share and share and share. I am thrilled that others are doing this same kind of exciting and engaging work with students. We are teaching the writer and not the writing, and that is beautiful.

Warmest regards,

Amy

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