The “After Exam” Conundrum

Here’s the situation…

It is the day after the AP Lang exam and 22 grade 11 students walked into class. And all of their faces said the same thing: “We are done the exam. What are we going to do now?”

They sat down ready to read—they knew that at least that wouldn’t be changing any time soon. So for the next 15 minutes the classroom was silent—noses buried in books.

The silence in the room was something I usually relished. But this silence had an underlying anxiousness to it. I knew that this was a critical moment. What I said next needed to hook them for the next 3 weeks.

As reading time ended there is no time wasted in addressing the proverbial anxious elephant in the room: “Ms. Bond…what are we going to do now?”

I paused (dramatically of course) with a smile on my face (or maybe it was more of a smirk). I needed to get this right.

One of the cheeky ones at the front spoke up—more to address the class than me: “She doesn’t know. At this very moment she is trying to come up with something because she is done, too. However, she is stuck with us until the end of the year and she can’t do nothing. You can see it in her eyes. She. Has. No. Idea.” Laughter erupted.

Once it has quieted down, I responded to said cheeky one by playing into her game: “I mean, [she] isn’t entirely incorrect. I have a vague idea of what I would like us to do. But I want to hear what you would like to do, too.” Insert white lie here.

questionsSo, I asked a couple of questions—very leading questions. I didn’t want to tell them what to do…reverse psychology doesn’t really work with this bunch. I wanted them to come to the realization of what is important on their own (through my leading questions—haha).

The questions were along the lines of: What is stressing you out right now? What are some of your top priorities over the summer? What will you be focusing on from September to December when you get back to school? 

They brainstorm some ideas and slowly a pattern emerges: College/University prep.

And what aspect of this process can English class help them with? Their personal statements, of course.

So I ask the question all of the other questions were leading to: “How would you feel about getting a head start on your personal statements?” And there is a lot of nodding.

Step 1: Make them feel a part of the process—hook them in. Check.

What’s the plan?

I structured my 3 weeks (8 one-hour classes) in the following way:

Classes 1-3 — choose a topic (based on the common app prompts or a university they had researched), brainstorm ideas, draft initial content, and gather mentor texts.

Classes 4-5 — continue to draft initial content, mini-lessons on purpose/audience, syntax, structure…

Classes 6-8 — revise, revise, revise and provide opportunities for self, peer, and teacher feedback.

Step 2: Share the plan to ensure students can structure themselves for success. Check.

Starting point.

Processed with MOLDIV
Student examples of the drawing activity.

I start each class with a little brain boost activity. It could be anything from this simple 30 circle activity to this paper holding challenge to this drawing activity. Just something to get them thinking and moving and getting their voice in the room.

The first few classes is a lot of brainstorming. I provide some sentence stems or we read something and a quick write comes from it. Just things to get them thinking differently—get them out of their own head. The latest quick write was based on Tara Westover’s (author of Educated) commencement speech at Northeastern University where she discusses the idea of what she is coining the “un-instagramable” self. The parts that social media can’t portray.

Students had some very interesting ideas around this notion and it was a great jumping off point in getting them to think about (1) who will be reading their personal statements and (2) what they want their personal statements to show about who they are and what they value beyond their transcripts.

During this part of the process, I like to remind them of a few things:

  • First drafts are meant to be sh***y
  • Write all of your ideas—don’t discriminate
  • Don’t worry about grammar and coherency

Step 3: Make thoughts visible (writing or typing)—and quickly. Check.

Check-in and goal setting.

The end of every class is: (1) a 3 min. of reflection on what they accomplished in that class and (2) what they will do to move forward before the next class. They add their goal to a shared Google doc as I feel that making it visible for the whole class helps to hold them a bit more accountable.

My favourite part (after all the brainstorming)…

…is getting them to think about how to write their personal statement. How they can make choices in order to control meaning and style—to get their audience to think or feel a certain way.

I give some examples of unique personal statements that students in past years have written:

  1. One girl wanted to focus on a knee injury she had in grade 10 so she wrote a letter to her knee explaining the effect this experience had on her.
  2. Another girl created an extended metaphor for why she wanted to go to a specific university by connecting to ingredients in her favourite food: an açaí bowl.
  3. A boy crafted a spoken word poem depicting his struggle with living in a place where the disparity of the have’s and the have not’s is so in your face.

After they get an idea of the creativity they can add, we try and figure out what their angle is going to be. This is my ultimate favourite part.

And then there is a new kind of anxiousness floating around the room…it is no longer just mine. It is all of ours—and it is a healthy one. It is the kind that shows that these students care about the words they are writing and what it says about them. 

creativityStudents are creative and we need to give them opportunities (and some structure) to bring their cheeky, quirky, authentic voices to the surface.

And I am having so much fun guiding them through the process of finding it.

What have you done when students finish their exam before the year is over? What ideas do you have for helping students express what they value/who they are? Share some of your quick creativity activities! Find me on Twitter @readwritemore


  1. This was very smart and it will definitely help them along the way because it only takes one person to invest just a little more into them for them to soar.

  2. I like your point about a healthy anxiousness. Recently I had my students write argument letters. When I told them we were going to actually send them, one girl said, “I wish you didn’t tell me that; now I’m going to be anxious.” I responded that sometimes we need a little anxiety, especially at the end of the year when we want to be done.

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