For a number of years now, our AP Lang PLC has waited to tackle timed writing until semester two. We believe fully in the power of process writing and conferring and, though it scared us at first, switching to all process writing for half of the year paid off big time. Our students committed to improving as writers and by the time we we were ready to tackle timed writing, they were confident and prepared.
And then ChatGPT hit the scene.
This is not a post about ChatGPT and what we can or can't do with the technology. This is just a post about our first response to the reality of teenagers using whatever tools are at their disposal to make their lives easier. We realized at the end of last year that we would need to do at least some timed writing in the first semester this year to make sure we had an accurate view of our students' writing. So...we went back to the drawing board.
Starting With Q3: Argument
We start the year with a process argument essay so it made sense for us to do a timed argument next. Our students had done lots of work with claims and evidence and some analysis of reasoning and organization, so we felt they were ready to tackle the open argument in a timed setting. To prep them, though, we had to work through some of the priorities for a solid timed essay:
Go-To Frames for the Thesis
When I teach process writing, I like to approach it much more organically and slowly. I love a good ideas conference where we wrestle with the student's position and think through the best way to tackle the writing. With prompted writing, though, students don't have time for that. The stress of the task means they need some supports in place to get their wheels turning. I'm very explicit with my students that these are different tasks and different types of writing.
I worry about sending kids out of my room thinking there are formulas for good writing. HOWEVER, another fear is that my students will freeze on the exam and have no idea how to start. For that reason, I post this as an anchor chart in my classroom:
Going from abstract to concrete
Once they have a thesis, they hit what is (for my students at least) the biggest struggle: generating evidence. Most of the prompts are big, abstract concepts and students need to show what those concepts look like in the concrete, real world. A huge benefit of doing timed writing in the fall is that students have to reckon with the fact early in the year that they need to spend more time engaging with the world around them in order to have evidence.
There are a thousand different really cool acronyms for helping students with generating evidence. I think two of the most popular are CHORES and REHUGO.
CHORES= Current Events, History, Outside Knowledge, Reading, Experiences, Science.
REHUGO=Reading, Entertainment, History, Universal Truths, Government, Observation
I have a hard time with acronyms, though, and find that many students spend more time remembering the acronym than just thinking about their evidence. We do a very simple visualization of all the ways to think beyond ourselves. We put ourselves at the center and then draw circles out from that center to represent the different pools of knowledge we have. This is a good time to help students think about their strengths and weaknesses. Some students will always go to history examples; others to politics, and others to pop culture. That's great and totally fine and a good reminder that there are many different ways to approach these essays successfully. I post this anchor chart on my wall as a help to them:
Organizing and Creating a Plan
Finally, as with the thesis, I think it's incredibly important that we verbalize to our students that organizing for a timed write might look very different than organizing for a piece that will go through multiple drafts. We talk a lot about the perils of "writing yourself into a corner" during a timed write and how that's likely to happen if you don't make a plan. If you're writing a multi-draft piece, it's fine if it goes sideways 4 paragraphs in--just use that to write another draft. In a timed setting, though, going sideways after 4 paragraphs means you'll probably run out of time.
To that end, we spend several class periods practicing JUST the planning process. We start in groups and students use a released prompt. I used the 2018 prompt about the value of the unknown because it feels very accessible for students. The first time we practice planning, students work with a small group to discuss the prompt, develop a thesis, and the write topic sentences for the body paragraphs. We discuss their plans and then look at the released samples. I pull just the thesis and body paragraph topic sentences out of the high scoring sample first to give them an idea of what a plan might look like for an effective essay. We look at the evidence generated to go with each topic sentence and go back to our anchor chart diagram--which pools of knowledge did this writer access?
The next day, students get a new prompt and do the planning independently in 15 minutes to begin experiencing the time crunch. They write a thesis, topic sentences, and then add bullets underneath of their evidence ideas. With those plans in place, I do some 1-on-1 conferring. I spend about 3 class periods meeting with each student individually about their plans. It's time consuming, but an excellent way to get a sense of who is ready to try a full timed write and who still needs more practice. I like to give students some really challenging texts to read and annotate independently while I'm doing these conferences; it's a great way to give them time to wrestle with meatier texts and carve out some time for conferences.
So how did it go??
I'm happy to report it has been much more smooth than we anticipated! We did two different timed essays a week apart and students are choosing ONE for us to score. The two chances really lowered their anxiety and most of them reported feeling pretty successful when they were done. . I'm not through grading them yet, but I'm happy with what I'm seeing thus far. I think the big takeaway for me is that it doesn't really matter when you start timed writing. The important part is putting supports in place so students can tackle it with confidence!
One of the things I've grown to like about the changes to the AP Lang curriculum design (aka The CED) is the ability to approach things in a See it/Do it fashion. I think this simplifies our purpose for students and makes the why of what we are doing so clear. First we tackle the reading skills and examine the work of professional writers--what are they doing on purpose? Why is it effective? What choices are they making? How are they organizing their writing? Then we attempt to do it ourselves as writers. For my students, that framing is an important step in helping them see themselves as writers vs. students completing writing assignments.
The SEE IT texts
Weeks two and three were dedicated to the See It part of the Rhetorical Situation for my students. We focused on two speeches: Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural and Nehru's Tryst with Destiny. Both worked well for introducing students to the What/How/Why analysis. For the most part, students were able to identify the rhetorical situation with Lincoln (end of the Civil War is pretty accessible for most students!!), but Nehru was a little trickier. This was a great opportunity to talk about the need for a deep contextual pool that shows an understanding of the basics of world history. With a little discussing, a little googling, and a little teamwork, they were eventually able to piece together enough background information (Who was Nehru? What was happening in India when this speech was given?) to work with the text. Of course, this immediately created concerns: We can't google on the test in May!! Do we need to know everything??!!
The answer, unfortunately, is "kinda?" They don't need to know everything, but they need to have a clear idea of big events and major happenings and how that knowledge informs their reading. The test is really trying to see how aware they are of the world around them and if they're able to use that knowledge to support their reading and analysis. There's always a little contextual information provided with the texts that will help them, but those with deeper contextual pools will often be more successful. They need to understand this now, in September, so they can commit to developing and deepening their contextual pools all year long. It can't happen over night in early May!
Let's Connect This to Multiple Choice
And so we constantly revisit that idea. Constantly. We've done a number of things in past years in our school (contextual pool notebooks, weekly discussions) all with varying levels of success. In recent years, though, we've just started shifting to trying to establish a culture of curiosity about their reading. Everything we read is a chance to deepen our contextual pools. One that I'm leaning on heavily this fall is multiple choice passages. Immediately after our students' realization about the importance of context with the Nehru speech, we did the multiple choice AP Classroom Progress Check 1.
The AP Classroom progress checks have always been tricky for me because it's hard to get buy-in with students. When they realize it's just formative (no points allowed!) and when they realize the answers are easily found online anyway, it's hard for a teenage brain to value the practice. In order to combat that, I spend the first progress check showing my students the concrete connections to our work with reading to understand the rhetorical triangle.
The text used for the Progress Check 1 Multiple Choice is a commencement speech given by Barbara Bush. It's short, and spending some time showing students how our work with the rhetorical triangle and what/how/why analysis applied to this text too was eye-opening for many of them! Most of them just put all of our work into silos. Today we are doing a reading activity. Tomorrow we are doing multiple choice. Next week we will write an essay. By approaching the multiple choice passage the same way we approach the texts we are analyzing in class, they start to see how the skills they are learning apply in concrete ways to the tasks they are doing.
As we discussed the text, it was crystal clear that many had abandoned our work when they approached these! They flipped straight into test-taking mode and didn't bother to consider who Barbara Bush was, who her husband was, why the audience might have been a little unhappy with her presence (one of my students was pretty sure the first President Bush was responsible for the Vietnam War...or maybe the Cold War...). The footnotes (which many had skipped!) provided enough context for most kids to get started and the more we discussed the rhetorical situation, the clearer the answers to the questions became.
I used these slides after they completed the AP Classroom Progress Check #1 (multiple choice only). The first 6 slides use screenshots to help them understand their reports and how to access the review resources. Starting at slide 7, though, I walked through the text with them and applied our what/how/why thinking to that text. You'll notice I did not go over the multiple choice questions one by one. That's very intentional!! I find that students get caught up in the wrong things when we do that--arguing about nuances of an answer, getting frustrated by choosing a 'next best' answer. All of the answers are available on there and they can (and should) examine the ones they got wrong. To improve their reading skills, though, and to ultimately improve their multiple choice scores, they need to link the skills on multiple choice to the skills we are practicing in class. Approaching it this way right from the beginning helps them start to see multiple choice as an extension of our analytical reading. When we start to actually write rhetorical analysis essays, they'll see that that task is calling on the same skills as well.
What are you doing to help students refine their analytical skills? Do you have great strategies for multiple choice? Let me know in the comments--I'm always up to try something new!
Years ago my teaching partner (now retired) started using the term "contextual pool" to describe the knowledge our students had about the world around them. Some of them had deep, rich contextual pools full of information about history, pop culture, and politics. Others had...kiddie pools. Those kiddie pools were problematic because when it came time to write an argument essay for the exam--when students are often asked to take an abstract question and answer it with concrete evidence--students without deep contextual pools struggled.
I've spent every year since then trying to help my students deepen and fill those pools, but the shift to the new analytic rubrics a few years ago really helped me articulate to the students why this is so important. Row B requires students to have specific evidence for all their claims and commentary that connects it all. If they don't know anything, that's nearly impossible.
This summer Fall Out Boy helped me out with what I hope will be the perfect introduction to the idea of contextual pool. They covered Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" and the updated list is fascinating. Things are on there that I wouldn't have considered; things are missing that I am certain should have been included (no Covid reference?!). When I look at the original version, there are things that I think any kid today would recognize (Belgians in the Congo--thank you, World History curriculum) but plenty they might not know (Studebaker? Mickey Mantle?).
For us, this is going to pair perfectly with the article our students read for their summer reading. The article went with this summer assignment we gave and (hopefully) set them up to begin thinking about all of the "stuff" that makes up our shared contextual pool. These slides will be guiding our work on the first day and setting us up to begin our year's work with paying attention to the world around us. Students will discuss the article they read, and then listen to both the original "We Didn't Start the Fire" and the cover. In small groups, they'll compare the lyrics and work as a team to decide what's missing. I'm hoping this will be the perfect, first-day blend of low stakes activity, a little social interaction, and some foundational work to set the tone for the year.
How are you starting off your year in AP Lang? Or if you already started, what did you do and how did it go?? What are you doing to help your students begin to deepen their contextual pools of knowledge? Let me know in the comments!
There is a link to my Moving Writers posts on the "Teaching Resources" page of this site, but here are direct links to some of my most AP Lang-y blog posts:
Yes/No/So: my favorite timed write argument strategy
Why This/Not That: my favorite strategy for rhetorical analysis
Using images to teach argument
Managing the paper load in AP Lang
Pacing in AP Lang
Working with satire
Conferring with resistant writers
Working on balance in an AP classroom
Helping students see themselves as writers
Helping students enter messy, controversial arguments
In all of my APSIs this summer, I went on and on about helping our students think of themselves as writers. We also talked about seeing ourselves as writers. and how that can change how we talk about writing with our students.
Years ago, a literacy consultant at my local ISD asked me to write for our county's literacy blog. I was horrified. I could NEVER! She was persistent, though, so I did. It was terrifying and stressful that first time because I was certain that as an English teacher I had to be producing "perfect' writing. Luckily, I got over that pretty quickly and instead realized that she had introduced me to my most powerful teaching tool--writing about my practice.
Since then I have written about my classroom for that blog and MovingWriters.com. This year I want to open up this space to all those teachers from my summer APSIs. I'm hoping you'll all have similar experiences to mine and realize the powerful thinking that happens when you articulate why you did what you did and why it worked (or didn't!). Selfishly, I'm hoping I'll be able to steal some of your great ideas, too!
So--What are you working on? What are you excited about trying with your students? What's something new you've tried?
Email if you've got an idea and I'll get you set up to post!
If you found your way here, you were likely in one of my APSIs for AP Language over the summer. This blog is intended as a place to continue our work together. Please email me if you're willing to write a post!