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:

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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.

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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.

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This is College Board provided commentary for a student sample.

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

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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

Building Reflection through One-Pagers in AP Lang (and letting kids be kids)

The end of the semester is stressful for teachers and students alike. Students have essays, projects, presentations, and other summative assessments due, and teachers have to assign and grade them.

This semester in AP Lang, I decided to assign an assessment that wasn’t overly-stressful. These are eleventh graders, after all. This is the toughest year of school they’ve had: their semester was full of PSAT, SAT tests, more AP classes than they’ve taken before, and generally harder classes than they’ve seen before. Plus, the stress of growing up is looming. Their senior friends are applying and hopefully getting into college. They can’t deny it anymore. They will be adults so soon.

Meanwhile, they are still kids. They are kids who are taking AP Lang and learning about structure and rhetorical devices; it’s no longer about what they think the message of the text is, like when they were in the lower grades. It’s somehow different. Their brains are full and sometimes fried.

That’s not to say that we don’t have fun in our class. We laugh, we discuss issues, and we learn. We also independently read together.

Our focus on independent reading gives them some autonomy that they don’t necessarily get in other classes. It also means they have a responsibility to pick books, drop books, and read books. A lot of them.

Which brings me back to the last assessment of the first semester. I assigned a one-pager which included reflection, facts, rhetorical analysis, and art. Eleventh grade students don’t usually create art in an AP level assessment (unless it’s an art class, yes), and they loved it. LOVED IT.

I know some AP teachers are all about teaching their students about the “real world” and I get it. Yes, the world is big and tough and sometimes mean. When they are adults, deadlines will matter a lot and sometimes no one will care about an individual’s opinion, and certainly crayons and colored pencils likely won’t be part of their college career or actual career.

But you know what? My students are still in high school. They aren’t adults. They still like to color and draw. (And don’t many adults in the real world like to do this, too?)

I sometimes allow my students soft deadlines – because let’s be “real” – the adult world has soft deadlines, too. For example, this post was supposed to be ready back in December! But real life happened, and the wonderful women who are in charge of this blog gave me a pass, which was necessary and for which I am grateful. I’m okay with teaching my students that the “real world” is like that, too.

Back to the summative assessment: My students brought their semester reading to class: actual copies of books, readers/writers notebooks with lists of what they had read, dropped, and loved. They brought their markers and colored pencils. And they brought their positive energy. It was one of the most fun days of a summative assessment I’ve ever experienced.

We posted our one-pagers in the hall so all of our secondary students can browse them when it’s convenient.

The final one-pagers were fun to make, fun to read, fun to grade, and now that they are publicly posted, they are a great way for students to talk about who reads what and how much. It helps with the development of our reading community, not just with our eleventh grade students, but with all of our secondary students.

I’ve posted about this topic before, but I think it’s worth mentioning again. It’s a nice wrap-up to the semester and it encourages students to celebrate their reading successes, which leads right into deliberate and informed semester two reading goal-setting, which we are working on now. (Stay tuned!)

Please don’t misunderstand. My students write essays and take tests and do research. But I don’t believe that all of those types of assessments are necessary at the end of a semester or school year (there are other times for that). This individualized reflection coupled with the group “going public” by posting in the hallway is powerful. Students see their growth and can celebrate it, but they can also see where others are and maybe set their sights even higher than if they’d stayed private with their goals.

How have you wrapped up your first semester, AP or otherwise? I’d love to learn some new strategies and ideas.

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

This post was originally published on Three Teachers Talk

Organizing Classroom Libraries — One Teacher’s Answers

My job as an English teacher is to empower my students to discover, identify, locate, rediscover, find, and fall in love with the books that speak to their souls and their hearts.

In order to make that happen, I have to have a dynamic classroom library. A year and a half ago, I didn’t have anything on my shelves in my classroom, but because my school, my family, and my colleagues are on board with the vision of robust classroom libraries, my library looks a whole lot better than it did then.

We’ve raided the school book room, collected our main library’s discards, purchased books off of facebook and other “garage” sale type of venues, and we bring back hundreds of pounds of second hand books in our suitcases at every opportunity. (I live in Nicaragua, which complicates the book buying at times.) We spent our entire English department budget on classroom libraries last year, so this fall we felt like kids in a candy store when we were setting up our new classroom libraries.

Each time we are blessed a new influx of books, we have to think about storage, and more importantly, organization. It’s essential that we store and organize our books so that students will be drawn to the shelves and compelled to read new books.

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I haven’t had any experience that tells me that labeling and micro-leveling books is what makes my students want to read. Quite the opposite. What I read also tells me that labels aren’t for public display on the spines of books or on the front of organizational book baskets. They are tools for teachers to use, which may help them with a cursory understanding of texts before they can get to know them better.

My job as an English teacher is to empower my students to discover, identify, locate, rediscover, find, and fall in love with the books that speak to their souls and their hearts.

My experience and observations tell me that organizing my books by general level and genre is what works best for my classroom library. That rotating book displays pique student interest in titles they might not have noticed or cared about in the past. That topic, passion, and enthusiasm can sell a book to a student a whole lot more convincingly than a level or a label can.

My classroom library is split into four basic sections:

  1. middle school fiction
  2. young adult fiction
  3. contemporary fiction
  4. nonfiction

I do this out of necessity: I teach three sections of seventh grade English and two sections of AP Language and Composition. It’s important to have some distinct sections for these students so they at least have a starting place when they browse for books. They do tend to meet each other in the young adult fiction shelves, and there isn’t much that stops them from “shopping” on all of the shelves.

Within those four sections I have subsections, however.

I have grouped some middle school fiction into some general categories: magic/fantasy, mystery/scary, realistic fiction, historical fiction, books in a series, sports, and shorter/easy reads.

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In the young adult fiction section I caved to a student who really wanted a romance section (why not? I thought). I’ve also grouped some of these books into a “books in a series” section, a mystery/horror section, dystopian, and a sci-fi/fantasy section. The section on World War Two shelf was created because I have a number of students who are gravitating towards that topic right now. It’s not comprehensive, and it mixes middle level, young adult, contemporary fiction, and nonfiction, but it is what’s working for my students right now, so it will stay for at least a while.

That’s the whole point. Our classroom library organization is based on what works for my students. It wasn’t prescribed by any “experts” or mandated by anyone outside of my classroom. It’s authentic, preserves student emotions and privacy, and the shelves are open to whomever would like to browse them.

There is a tiny bit of leveling – three levels plus nonfiction, but this leveling is more about maturity and content than text leveling.  It’s certainly not the microlevels of Lexiles, A-Z, or AR that some libraries employ. It’s helpful rather than restrictive.

Because the books are organized into these smaller topic or genre sections, students have a helpful place to start looking that isn’t rigid. I feel like it’s the best of both worlds because it gives students a direction and a guide, but not rules or rails they have to live between.

Simply because of the space and shelves that I have in my room, I’ve added a subgroup of poetry, plays, and picture books section in the nonfiction corner.

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This is a corner that needs some work. As I add titles to my classroom library, I will deliberately look for poetry and drama, as well as relevant picture books to add to these shelves.

While I have these semi-permanent organizational ideas, I also have some rotating book displays.

Right now, my AP Lang class is starting a research project. One of their sources needs to be a book with either endnotes or footnotes, so I’ve collected many of my classroom library books that meet that requirement and put them on display.

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This display changes about every week or so, sometime with deliberate purpose like this one, and other times it’s just whatever comes to mind. Some recent displays have been around the topics of time travel, aviation, The Great Depression, and sports. Anything goes when it comes to displaying a collection of books.

Another way of displaying and organizing books is by what is popular with students, what the teacher is currently reading, and what’s been book talked in the last day or so.

These are all examples of rotating book displays, and they rotate between every other day, and every couple of weeks. It’s a matter of doing what makes sense for the type of display it is, and what the current needs of the classes are.

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So once the books are organized and on display, students actually start to look at them! It’s a miracle, and a wonderful feeling when they get interested and excited when they haven’t been in the past.

At that point, a check out and return system becomes key.

Mine is old-fashioned and easy to navigate. It’s a spiral bound notebook and a pen. Pretty simple.

Just because it’s low-tech doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Quite the opposite. Students know to check out books and put them in the return basket when they are done. Sometimes they cross out the original entry of their  returned book, but mostly all they have to do is put the book in the return basket and I’ll find their name and cross it off and then re-shelve the book.

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The return basket is right next to the check out notebook and this sign which reminds students that the honor system is what makes this whole thing work.

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The classroom libraries in our hall are open to all of our students, so often students from other classes wander in to my classroom looking for books. The system is the same for them as it is for the students I currently have in my classes. All of the students at our school are our students; all of the students have access to all of our classroom libraries.

If some students have books out for a long time, and we don’t see those students on the regular because they aren’t in our own classes, we rely on each other to ask those students about those titles, which means we often get books returned promptly with that simple system. Our department has a shared google doc and we list the students’ names and titles that are checked out, so we all have that information at our fingertips.

Our organizational and check-out systems are thoughtful and simple, and can be adopted by almost anyone. There may be other better, different, or more complicated ideas and systems out there that work for people, but I wanted to share ours because of its simplicity and effectiveness.

How do you organize your classroom library, and what philosophical beliefs to you hold that are behind these practices? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.

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

AP Lang: Writing a Rhetorical Analysis Thesis Statement After Discovering the Tone in “Unique” Texts

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After our last round of practice rhetorical analysis essays, I realized that my students need more instruction and practice with writing robust, specific, defensible thesis statements.

My students see the value in well-written and thoughtful thesis statements; they realize that when the thesis statement is solid, the essay can almost write itself. The problem is in writing the thesis statement itself.

They were also having trouble identifying tone and what builds it, even though I thought I had taught these things. We had practiced with texts released by the College Board, and while those are robust and important, they don’t always have the “fun factor.” After several formative essays and a summative essay, we all agreed that we needed some sort of break, but we still needed to be learning.

So, I tried to get creative about how to teach my students more about tone and thesis statements.

I gathered several unique texts, mostly available in my classroom library. These texts will likely never be on the AP Lang exam, but they have unique tone and purpose, and are accessible and important to my students. The skills my students learn through reading and analyzing these texts are transferable, and that’s important.

 

In one of my classes we started by discussing two texts: Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers and Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents. Because this is a particularly small class, we were able to have a discussion that didn’t require too many formal directions. I asked the students to read the texts one at a time, and then try to write a thesis statement based on tone. I was there to prompt and direct their conversation, but they did most of the thinking, which mean they did most of the learning. They came up with the beginning of a thesis statement for each text, and I liked what they did.

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The next day, with my larger class, I took the discussion we had had the previous day and organized it with step-by-step directions.

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The texts they had available, in addition to the two listed above, were as follows:

First they read the text with a partner. Then, using a half-sheet of chart paper, they recorded their thinking. When finished with the first six steps, they followed a formula for a thesis statement.

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I know that formulaic writing isn’t the goal, but I want to scaffold them to a place where they feel confident to get creative. They need to internalize the important elements that build a robust thesis statement so they can deviate from it later.

 

The results were encouraging, but I thought they needed more practice. After they wrote their first thesis statements, I rotated the texts from one partnership to the next, and they tried again. By this time, we were on our second day of this activity.

This time, the results were spectacular. While we aren’t “perfect,” we have made a ton of progress, and the thinking process, including multiple draft readings, is evident on their papers. It was messy, but that’s where the magic, the learning, happens.

As I rotated around the room, I overheard and participated in some deep conversations about rhetorical devices, how tone is built, and what makes a defensible thesis statement. By the end of the second class, we were high-fiving for a job well done as they exited the class. It felt good.

(If you don’t want to decipher the handwriting, you can find the students’ thesis statements are typed in the photo captions.)

 

Next, we will try writing thesis statements with more robust texts, but for now, I think they “get it” and can see that a defensible thesis statement includes audience, purpose, and rhetorical decisions made by the author. A defensible thesis statement is specific and can help to structure the rest of the essay.

They’ve got confidence now, and I can’t wait to see how they transfer this new learning to more robust texts. We have another rhetorical analysis essay practice next week, and I fully expect that all of my students’ scores will go up from the last one based on this activity.

How do you instruct your students when they are writing robust and defensible thesis statements? What would you add or change to this activity? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for 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

One Pagers as End of Year Reading Reflections

Ending the year should be a ton of fun. Once the standardized testing season is over, it’s not time to let the days drag. It’s time to continue the learning, the fun, and the reflecting. As Angela wrote, it’s important to end the year strong, and on a positive note!

I think one-pagers are a great answer to some of the end-of-year-dilemmas we teachers face.

The possibilities for one-pagers seems to be endless. They are fun, they are hands-on, reflective, and what student doesn’t want to use markers and crayons in the classroom?

I’ve shared some of my experiences with one-pagers before, and I thought I’d share another idea or two here now.

At the end of the first semester, I asked my AP Lang students to reflect on their reading habits and experiences. This was our last assignment of the semester, and it was so fun and positive to grade. What a way to wrap up!

The requirements for the reading reflection one-pager were as follows:

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I modified this assignment from one a colleague shared with me. It originally focused on one book that a student would read for independent reading, so when I modified it into a semester reading reflection for AP Lang, I was unsure, yet hopeful, about how it would turn out.

One of the big differences between doing a one-pager for a book vs a semester reading reflection is the idea of What’s Your Number? I told students they could use any unit of measurement they wanted: pages, hours, books, chapters, inches, pounds, it didn’t matter. It just needed to represent their reading for the semester, as it acknowledges the accomplishments!

I was so happy with the results.

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I plan to ask my AP Lang students to do this again in a couple of weeks, but to focus on either second semester or the entire year, whichever they like.

It’s a positive way to end the year. It’s a celebration of learning and reading and growing, and it puts a smile on all of our faces.

How else have you used one-pagers in your classroom? I’d love to read all about it!

 

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, and are loving their new adventure.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

What to do after the exam?

We all know that AP classes (all of our classes, for that matter) are about the learning, and not the standardized test. We get it. We know it.

But we also know that we’ve crammed and studied and reviewed and stressed and motivated and encouraged… and it’s been about the test.

But school isn’t about tests, it’s about learning and growing. It’s about developing good habits and becoming good humans. So the learning can’t stop because the text has already happened.

But what are we to do?

I have about three weeks with my students after the AP Lang exam. We operate on a 90 minute block schedule, so I see them two to three times per week. That’s not a lot of meeting time between now and the last day of school.

I decided that I want my students to keep learning, growing, and developing as readers, writers, and thinkers, but I also want to honor all of the hard work and stress they’ve been under during these first couple of weeks of May.

The first idea I had was that we could read one last book together. But I didn’t want to choose the title for them, and I didn’t want to take class time to choose because we have so little left.

So then I thought, “Ah ha! Book clubs!” and started looking through my classroom library along with the list of what we have in our department book room, and I started getting excited. I ended up with a dozen titles I wanted to share with my students, and I realized that I have a dozen students in my AP Lang class (small class size is one of the many benefits of teaching outside of the US).

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I ended up choosing titles written by women of color. It just felt right. And I went with it.

As I was trying to figure out how to roll out this last unit of the school year without overloading and stressing out my students before the exam on Wednesday, I realized I wanted to make it fun. Exciting. Like an adventure, or one last gift of AP Lang reading before summer starts.

I wrapped the books in recycled anchor chart paper in order to make them a surprise, in order to build anticipation.

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I glued and taped descriptions of the books onto the wrapped books, but I removed any identifying details such as author, title, or other obvious clues about what the book really is. Instead of choosing based on author, title, cover, etc, they are going to choose based on a basic description copied from Amazon or Goodreads.

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On Tuesday, the day before the exam, we will meet as a class. I’ll bring in some fruit and muffins as a breakfast treat, they will pass the “mystery books” around to each other and collaboratively decide who gets which book. We’ll go over any last review questions and details they need, and we then be ready to come to class on Thursday, the day after the big exam, and quietly read, talk, and learn together. It won’t be a stressful, cramming, reviewing, worrying kind of class. It will be one where we recognize the importance of the AP exam, but also recognize that there is life and learning after the exam, and we should be looking ahead to it.

The summative assessment for this unit will likely be a graded video discussion. I’ll ask them to get into book clubs for these last few weeks and to talk about their individual books, trying to find themes and other things they can link between texts. If the students propose another idea for a summative assessment, I’m all ears. I respect their need for choice, and they deserve that someone listens to their voice. 

I’ll write again about how this all plays out, but so far, the students who have had the chance to preview the descriptions and who have an idea about what is coming their way after the exam have responded with enthusiasm. I think it’s safe to say we are all looking forward to this time together, without the focus on the exam, but instead, returning the focus to our reading and our reading lives.

What will your students study and learn after the exam? I’d love to hear how other classes move forward in the last few weeks of the school year.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Using One-Pagers as Review for AP Lang

AP testing season is just around the corner, so we’ve been reviewing for the last few weeks. We’ve had a full after-school mock exam in the classroom, a Saturday afternoon review session on my patio, and we’ve done several shorter review activities in class.

One of the more fun, (yet focused) in-class review activities was a review of rhetorical analysis. We hadn’t specifically focused in on rhetorical analysis since first semester, so it was time to do a little review.

We revisited our tone words, our strong verbs, and our rhetorical devices and a formulaic thesis statement.

We read JFK’s We Choose to go to the Moon speech and answered about ten multiple choice practice questions in order to ensure our understanding and create a basis for some small-group discussions. Then we watched the speech together while creating our one-pagers based on the speech.



My students’ feedback was positive. They valued going back to the rhetorical analysis from first semester, and revisiting the tone words, strong verbs, and rhetorical devices.

They appreciated a little multiple choice practice. It didn’t feel as intimidating as a released multiple choice exam that takes an entire hour to complete, and they liked reading a new text that they could then tuck away into their repertoire of background knowledge for any future needs.

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I’ve written about the many purposes of one-pagers before, and I’ll keep sharing. These were created in a class period. They aren’t perfect, they aren’t “final drafts” by any means, but they do demonstrate student learning about a new text as well as reviewing perhaps dormant skills and strategies.

How do you review for any “big exams” that might be coming up? How else have you used one-pagers in your classroom?

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie