Preview, not Review.

You can feel the anxiety in the air. A buzzing current at present, but one that will steadily increase in intensity as the days close in on the AP Language and Composition exam (May 15th). So my focus right now is on my juniors—a group of 21 bright, young individuals who I have worked with over the year to build the necessary skill sets and strategies necessary to the AP exam…as well as helping them grow in those soft skills needed to navigate life in general.

And I know I have done my job in giving them opportunities to learn and grow and practice and revise. I know they have felt supported in developing the academic skills for each of the three free response questions on the exam. But all of this learning will be impeded if they let the anxiety and stress that can build up before exam time take over.

So, I did something I have never done before during review time—I stopped reviewing.

What am I doing?

Having conversations. I am speaking with all of my students outside of class time. We discuss the following topics:

  • Where are they feeling confident?
  • What do they think they should be focusing their individual review on?
  • What would they like some feedback on in the last week?
  • What is their ‘game plan’ for the exam?

It is important that students reflect on where they are at and what they are capable of. We need to help them take ownership over their learning—this is metacognition at work and it is skill that does not come naturally. It is a skill that needs to be taught and practiced. (Here are four practical strategies for increasing metacognition)

Generating ideas. As in true workshop style, we are currently reading and writing and talking and reflecting and writing some more.

Both the argument and synthesis free response questions require students to have their own claim at the center. Being able to think of original ideas quickly is critical—the workshop model definitely helps to create a context where this generating of ideas can be nurtured.

AP examiners also want to see that a student can think beyond their immediate context—that they have an awareness of the past, a good hold on the present, and a curiosity for the future. This means that being able to build an argument through a diversity of lenses is crucial. They cannot just rely on experiences they have had in high school or with their family.

Increasing exposure.

How? Reading about current issues, pop culture, historical events, politics, etc…by going online and going down all sorts of rabbit holes helps to diversify their knowledge. The Atlantic, Vox, The Financial Times, The New Yorker, Medium, and The Economist are a few of my favourites, but students definitely have their own corners of the web where they lurk. I am continually surprised what they access on a daily basis…they are informing themselves in ways that I never had access to when I was there age.

This makes me think about finding ways to better leverage this access—future post idea planted!

When? We have 15 min. of reading time at the beginning of class every day. Knowing that AP Lang is a course that focuses on non-fiction texts, I gave the option early on in the year to either read a fiction novel of their choice or an article from an online source. What started out as an option at the beginning of the year is now the reading they are choosing to do at the beginning of every class. They are becoming exposed to a variety of perspectives which will help to build their idea base heading into exam time.


Image via OWNWP

Making connections. By reading about a different topics from a different source every day—and by using the connect, extend, challenge visible thinking routine—my students are finding their own “something to say”. They are going beyond the obvious and challenging each other to unpack the issues.  By asking questions of each other and themselves, they are connecting to not only their own context, but also how their thinking fits into a larger societal context. They are finding their voice and what they value.

What it all means. 

I listen to this culturally diverse group of teens discuss their “summer existential crisis” at the tender age of 16 or how they feel society used to be about “contributing to the common good” and now it is an “us versus them” mentality. And as I listen I see that these daily class conversations are extremely varied, but they are also always very open and honest. At times they have me laughing and at times they can leave me speechless…but they always give me a sense of appreciation. An appreciation for all the connections they are making with the world outside of our school and this desert city, but also the ones they are making inside of this classroom.

I see students taking risks, sharing their opinions, and being vulnerable.

And it is a beautiful thing.

Image via The Achievement Center


Cultivating a mindset. I went back to an article from the Harvard Business review that changed my focus of feedback over the past few months…especially when I give the everyday anecdotal feedback. In a nutshell:

“Our brain responds to critical feedback as a threat and narrows its activity…and engages the “fight or flight” system, which mutes the other parts of the brain…and inhibits access to existing neural circuits and invokes cognitive, emotional, and perceptual impairment. 

Focusing people on their shortcomings or gaps doesn’t enable learning. It impairs it.

When we are focused on our dreams and how we might achieve them the “rest and digest” system kicks in…and stimulates growth of new neurons, a sense of well-being, better immune system functioning, and cognitive, emotional, and perceptual openness.”

And so, I decided to cultivate a space where students would be able to build their confidence and gain a sense of intrinsic motivation. I decided to try help them see all of the amazing ideas they have inside of them just waiting to burst to the surface. I decided to preview what they already know and can use to their advantage, instead of reviewing what they still don’t know.

giphy-1And the sparks are flying. That buzzing current of anxiety that was building up…is now visible flashes of ideas being born. There is a genuine engagement in their process of thinking.

It is this exact feeling that I want them to enter that exam with: Feeling positive, confident, and prepared to use the skills they have practiced all year to the best of their ability.

What are your go to review strategies? What have you tried to do differently? Find me on Twitter @readwritemore

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