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

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


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.


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.


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.


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