Like most teachers, I’ve had a estranged relationship with the AP exam—and any standardized test. Do we have an obligation to prepare students for the “test”? I think so. But that obligation can never supplant the greater responsibility we bear to build our students’ literacy lives in an increasingly challenging world.
Or put another way—do we want to students to do well on a three-hour exam on a single day in their lives, or do we want to prepare to think critically and responsibly for the rest of their lives?
So after years of relentless trial and error, the tweaking of steps forward and steps back, my approach is this: My goal is help students find their voice, to become better, lifelong writers and deep thinkers. If I center my teaching on practices towards that end, then the test will (mostly) take care of itself.
That said, I understand that test prep and lifelong skill building aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. In the last decade I’ve been teaching AP Lang, I’ve done lots of different types of test prep, from direct and explicit—timed writes and mock exams (so that students are familiar with the task and understand that that’s what it is: a task v. the way to write)—to embedded, everyday skills-building. This month, the Moving Writers team has shared authentic ways to prepare students with the skills they’ll need on any test; below, I share three things to prepare students for the three writing prompts on the AP Lang exam. While I’m confident these strategies prepare students for the exam, I know that they also, and more importantly, prepare them for the real-world texts they’ll navigate beyond any single test.
The rhetorical analysis prompt on the AP Lang exam is historically the lowest-scoring essay of the three student are required to write. I break down the prompt to two simple questions, which I reiterate to students throughout the year:
- What’s the writer’s purpose?
- What strategies does the writer use to achieve that purpose and why?
“Strategies” is something that often trips students up; they want to name devices and terms like ethos, pathos, logos, diction, syntax. So instead, I explain to students that “strategies” are just well-chosen words and details. That’s it. What words and details does the writer use to get the point across and why? I remind students that as they identify the important words and details in the text, they need to explain the effect—that’s the analysis part.
Of course, we look at many, many examples of analysis, including anchor essays released from the College Board but especially at many published essays that do the type of analysis students encounter in the real world (one of my more recent favorite columns is Vulture’s Close Reads).
IT’S THE SUPERBOWL!
One analogy that I’ve found to be the most helpful in getting students to understand the moves that go into analysis is in the sports world. I pull up a few clips from football games on YouTube and I ask students to focus on what they hear from the announcers. After some discussion, we see that the announcers’ commentary more or less falls into two categories: 1) the play-by-play and 2) the “extra” insight and analysis, known as the color commentary.
While the next obvious move might be to have to students practice their own play-by-play and color commentary with a game (cue the tape!), the truth is that not many of my students have the insight of a Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. So instead, I ask students to analyze something I know they have insight in—commercials.
One of my favorite commercials to analyze in class is the 2013 Jeep Super Bowl Commercial featuring Oprah Winfrey. We watch the commercial once, then I place students in pairs. One student is assigned the role of play-by-play analyst (Joe Buck), while the other is the color commentator (Troy Aikman). Together, they watch their commercial and create a second-by-second, minute-by-minute transcript of their analysis. Here’s what a sample analysis might look like:
Students then choose their own commercials and write a transcript of their analysis. We watch their commercials in class once, without any commentary, and then one more time, placing the commercial on mute in the background while the pair reads their commentary. The students sit in the front of the room, side by side, with some mock microphones, getting in to the character of their role play-by-play analyst and color commentator roles.
This year—in fact, in a few weeks—I’m planning to extend this assignment so that students do this with a written text, one that has a clear argument. I want students to be able to recognize the moves, the choices the writer is making, and then explain why those moves are important. Students could project the text up on the board and perform their “sports analysts” roles in the same way. While some opinion pieces would really work well for this, I’m playing with the idea of looking at some Twitter threads and comment threads of current events that might work, too.
This next strategy for the argument prompt is one that I found in the book Total Participation Techniques by Persida and William Himmele . This particular strategy is the Debate Carousel. It’s a “write-around” strategy that asks students to consider an issue from different points-of-view. Students are placed in groups of four. Each student starts with a different position statement at the top of the paper. The first student’s task to read the statement and then write their opinion on that statement—do they agree or disagree, and why?
After about five minutes of writing, the student then passes the paper clockwise to the next student, whose task is to read the original statement, read the previous student’s response, and then write in support of that student’s opinion, regardless of their own personal view. After another five minutes or so, the paper is passed again. Now, the third student reads everything written and must now refute the opinions stated and provided evidence for why (and again, regardless of their own personal view). The fourth student reads everything, considers all opinions presented, and then writes their own opinion after considering both sides. (Click on the picture at the side to view the handout.) In short, the argument looks like this:
- Opinion 1
- Support of opinion 1
- Refutation of opinion 1, presentation of opinion 2
- Opinion 3
- Back to original poster, revised opinion 1 as needed
After each position has made its way around the group, students then discuss and debrief. Which arguments were most compelling? Who changed their mind? Why? What did you not get a chance to say? What additional questions or thinking did this inspire? And so on.
The original assignment only includes four “steps” but I think in the future, I might change it so that that there is an additional opportunity for “another point of view” in between steps 3 and 4. Another adaptation would be to switch around the order of the boxes so that the refutation or concession happens in step 2 instead. And of course, students could always cut up the boxes and rearrange the order as needed to see the ways in which arguments can be organized in a variety of ways. Different groups with the same original position could also come together and pool their thinking together, putting their boxes together like a puzzle pieces, in dialogue with one another.
Bonus tip: This debate carousel works great as an introductory activity before students read a text. For example, I’ve had students write in response to the following position statements before reading King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” And then after reading King’s piece, we revisit and revise our initial thinking.
- Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. – King
- Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. – Paulo Freire
- Your silence is consent – Plato
- There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must neverbe a time when we fail to protest it. – Elie Wiesel
And finally, synthesis. The synthesis prompt is probably the essay that most of my students find the easiest. I explain to students that the synthesis prompt is essentially the argument prompt but with sources. The key for success on this essay is for students to lead with their ideas rather than the sources. The sources hold key ideas that the students should see in dialogue in each other, representing various points-of-view—not opposite points-of-view, but varied and multiple.
One strategy I’ve found helpful for students in thinking beyond the binaries of “for” and “against” are Pinwheel Discussions. I first learned about Pinwheel Discussions from Sarah Brown Wessling on Teaching Channel. Students are divided into 4-5 groups of about 3-4 students each. Each group is assigned a different text that provides a perspective on a particular issue. In their small groups, students discuss the text and the various claims and evidence presented. Then one person from each group enters the discussion circle, with the remaining 2-3 members of their group behind them, listening and taking notes. The discussion among the representatives from each group begins. A guiding question is tossed to the group and they discuss, but the key is that each group must respond from the point-of-view that was presented in their text. The groups might also represent different groups or stakeholders in an issue.
Take, for example, the issue of technology use in school and the question: should 1:1 device initiatives be adopted by schools? Possible stakeholder roles include: 1) district administration, 2) teacher, 3) parent, 4) student, 5) CEO of technology company, 6) psychologist or other medical professional, 7) librarian. Students in these groups would read a text (or several) that represent that viewpoint and speak from that stance in the group discussion.
As we get closer to the AP exam, I’ve taken some of the previous synthesis prompts and assigned each student a different source from the prompt. Students read their source, try to get into that perspective, and then the prompt is projected on the board for them to discuss. Students sitting outside the circle take notes and/or participate in a backchannel to discuss the prompt. In round 2, another synthesis prompt (and set of sources) is introduced and students on the outside switch places, and so on. Because most AP synthesis prompts have between 6-8 sources, 3 to 4 speed rounds can be done per class. Then, at the end, students can choose one of the synthesis questions to examine in more detail and write a response.
As you’ll see, the key to each of these strategies is getting kids to take a stance, whether that’s the stance of the writer in rhetorical analysis or the stance of different points-of-view or stakeholders in argument and synthesis. These are strategies that I’ve found to be engaging as well as prepare students for the exam and for thinking and learning beyond that May test date.
So there you have it. If you use any of these strategies or similar, let me know how it’s worked for you!