Tackling IB Literature Papers I & II: Test Prep Without Test Rep

IB exams begin in early May, and I’m a teacher who loves to settle into a discussion when the ideas are good and they just keep coming, so if you asked my students to identify an external conflict in the drama of senior year of IB Literature, they would say “Ms. Jochman vs. the calendar.” How many times have I shook my fist at the clock just the class was close to an analytical breakthrough? Too many to count.

Since my seniors have to take all of those great talking points and eventually share them in two written exams, one of my biggest challenges when teaching IB is figuring out how to balance literature study with writing study. In a course that’s one month shorter than anything else I teach.

In the past, I’ve fallen back on assignments or on-demand writings that mimic the two exams my students will take: a commentary on an unseen piece of prose or poetry and a comparative analysis of two works in the same genre. All of that mimicry and repetitive testing can get tedious, however, and it doesn’t offer students the opportunity to stretch their creative muscles or develop their own writing voices. How, then, can I help my students develop the critical thinking and writing skills they will need without all of those drills? Below are some of the options I’ve tried and a few I’m challenging myself to try this year.

Option 1: Creative Writing with Annotation and Analysis

A few years ago, I was really struggling to get students to appreciate the craft of George Orwell’s political essays. They could make connections between the essays and their cultural or historical context, and they could identify Orwell’s arguments, but they, like many readers, were so taken in by the striking concision of his prose that they couldn’t take it apart to explain how it worked. 

I realized that students might need to make their own persuasive choices and consider their own rhetoric before they could analyze Orwell’s. Thus, the “Write Like Orwell” assignment was born, and not long after I tried that activity, I read Rebekah’s brilliant post about a Seamus Heaney imitation poem assignment that her students completed. I loved how Rebekah asked her students to note their craft moves and then analyze their work and the experience of studying Heaney in brief commentaries. Since reading Rebekah’s post, I’ve asked my students to do the same anytime we write a pastiche.

Like an IB Paper I commentary, a pastiche with annotations asks students to identify literary devices and analyze their effect on texts and readers, demonstrate knowledge and understanding of a piece of prose or poetry, organize ideas in a cohesive manner, select words carefully, and employ conventions effectively and consistently.

But unlike a commentary exam drill, no two responses will be the same, and no voice will be crushed by an outline or format students think they need to follow.

Looking for another option? If you’re studying drama or the novel as your genre, ask students to write an additional scene, a sequel, or an epilogue. I tried this as a final assessment (and posted about it!) two years ago, and the results were pretty incredible. (Another fun assignment for drama? The promptbook

Writing in the genre rather than about the genre is a way for students to learn by doing. Every IB rubric accounts for students’ “appreciation” of writers’ choices. Why not foster that appreciation by inviting students to join their poets’ or playwrights’ communities?

Option 2: Invert the Process and Create a Prompt

After the exam period is over, test questions are released to teachers for review and feedback. When that time arrives, I always make sure to add the genre prompts for the year to my running list of Past Paper II Prompts. In the past, I have distributed a list of prompts to students and told them that any on-demand writing we do will utilize the prompts from the list. I expect students to look over the list, start noticing trends, and use their observations to plan and study for the exam, but I’ve never actually instructed them to do that. Instead, I suspect they bury the list in a pile of other handouts and rarely return to it. That’s going to change this year.

Instead of asking students to respond to a past exam prompt in an on-demand writing, why not have students treat the prompts as mentor texts and write new prompts? Studying past prompts will help students to recognize trends and anticipate the questions that could appear on their tests, and taking on the role of test-maker will challenge them to consider the shared conventions of a genre and the particular features that connect the texts they studied. In short, they’ll do all the thinking they need to do to prepare for a Paper II essay! Perhaps students could even exchange their list of prompts with a partner and then “test” the prompts by writing an on-demand “flash draft” response to a classmate’s prompt.

Option 3: Low Stakes Writing & Peer Tutoring

Hattie’s and Rebekah’s posts from last week are, as the kids say, “giving me life.” I need that extra push to be kind to myself and think differently about assessment and what happens with on-demand writing in my classroom.

This year, I’m following Hattie’s and Rebekah’s examples and making more time for flash drafts and journal reflections. Students will write a few drafts of a Paper II-style essay before I read it. They will have chances to review their work, identify strengths and weaknesses on their own, select their best draft, and revise it. The IB rubric prioritizes students’ original and personal response to literature, so making time for reflection (in a reading journal or a writer’s notebook) is important, too.

I also started the semester differently this year. With flash-drafting and revising in mind, I spent two days teaching all of my seniors how to be peer tutors using training materials I had gathered for the writing center I started at my previous school. While I definitely plan to review drafts and offer feedback, I also know that many of my students aren’t thinking about their drafts enough; they need some guidance on how to attentively review and revise.

I kept it simple:

  • Day 1: Read Jeff Brooks’s “Minimalist Tutoring” and watch a Writing Center’s YouTube training videos. (Here is one of my favorites.)
  • Day 2: Students partner up and practice tutoring with an old paper and four simple steps:
    1. Sit side by side
    2. Set an agenda for the conference
    3. The writer reads the paper aloud, pencil in hand
    4. The tutor asks questions to help the writer make changes

After the partner work on Day 2, students shared what they noticed about their writing and what they learned from working on their paper with a peer tutor. Their noticings will inform my mini-lessons for the semester.

Option 4: Mentor Text Study

Whether writers are debating if The Crown is the next Game of Thrones (thanks, Tricia Ebarvia!) comparing the trailers for The Incredibles and its upcoming sequel or close reading a popular episode of Black Mirror, your favorite source for arts and culture articles is chock full of Paper I and Paper II mentor texts. This year, I’m going to be more intentional about studying mentor analyses with my students, and I may even ask them to annotate polished versions of their flash drafts to identify how and where they’ve used the “moves” they acquired from their mentors.

When a big external exam looms at the end of a course, it’s easy to develop tunnel vision and plan only for the test. But the exam isn’t the end of the road for our students. They have a lifetime of writing ahead of them, so while we fulfill our responsibility to prepare them for a test like the IB exam, why not employ strategies that prepare them for writing every day after that?
What are your surefire strategies for IB exam prep in real-world writing scenarios? What has been your breakthrough approach to an IB test prep problem? I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments below or on Twitter @msjochman.

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