Yes, of course my AP Lang students write essays… as well as their own prompts and commentary.

One of the requirements in the AP Language and Composition class is that students complete a long-term research paper. Because I’m a firm believer in the power of student voice and student choice (and let’s be real: I don’t want to read twenty-five papers on the same topic), I allow my students to choose their topics.

Because they choose their topics, I ask them to write their own prompts as well. They’ve been researching and collecting sources since late November/early December, but until last week I hadn’t asked them to make any major decisions about the direction of their essays. They just had to have topics and to be reading up on their topics as much as possible.

While my students have been doing this bit of outside-of-class research, during class we’ve been going through the different types of AP Lang essays they will encounter on the exam in May. We’ve recently finished up with the argument essay, and have started in on the synthesis essay.

In order for students to better understand both the direction of their research essays and the format and nuances of the synthesis essay, I’ve asked students to write the prompts for their research essay in the same style as the AP Lang synthesis essay:

Locavore Essay
The synthesis prompt from the 2011 AP Lang exam

Students did a good job of coming up with their prompts:

These are still rough drafts, but they do demonstrate some careful thought and planning on the part of the students.

Their next step will be to finalize at least eight sources and to come up with a working thesis statement.

research assignment timeline
This is part of the assignment I gave to my students a couple of weeks ago. It gives them the important due dates that are coming up soon.

The feedback I got from my students regarding writing their own prompts is that it is incredibly helpful. It helped them develop their direction and to understand their next steps more than if I had given them a generic prompt. It also helps them to understand the synthesis prompt on the actual exam.

Before attacking the synthesis essay in class, we examined, learned about, and wrote argument essays. I think it was an essential step toward the synthesis essay, as they have to take some sort of stand in the synthesis essay.

So each time my students wrote an in-class argument essay, they reflected, evaluated and then wrote their own commentary.

argument commentary CB
This is College Board provided commentary for a student sample.

After writing about something that is “overrated” my students wrote their own commentary:

student commentary overrated
This is a sample of commentary written by a student about their own essay.

I have found a few benefits from students writing their own commentary.

  1. They understand the rubric more carefully. In order to write commentary, students must study the rubrics provided by College Board.
  2. Students are reflective about their own writing. Instead of writing something, turning it in, and passively waiting for a grade, students reflect and take ownership in what they are proud of and what they can work on.
  3. Students rarely contest their grades on their essays because they understand the rubric and their own writing so deeply.

By asking students to choose their own topics, write their own prompts, and reflect on their writing, students are more invested in their essays and show more enthusiasm about the writing process.

I’m happy with this practice, and I see that my students are, too.

How do you elicit more engagement and ownership with your students and their writing process?

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Author: adventuresinhighschoolworkshop

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and is currently in her second year teaching in Managua, Nicaragua.

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