This past week-end, a murder of AP teachers descended upon the Marriott Wardman Park and Omni Shoreham Hotels in Washington, D.C. to pick over each other’s brains. These teachers were gleaning all they could from the 2010 AP Annual Conference. I attended, representing my school as an AP English Language teacher. By virtue of my focus, many of my observations will be couched in terms of that course’s sessions; however, there were many other events going on, too. I will do my best to give a fair reporting of what went on. Perhaps others who attended could reply to this posting and put forth their views on the conference.
My conference experience began on Thursday. I attended the Pre-conference session for AP English Language: Experienced. The presenter was very informative and helped everyone really dig into what a synthesis essay does and how to better prepare students for it. I’d never really considered using novels as a jumping-off point for a synthesis essay. The process was very easy.
First, you have to read the novel (I’m sure this is not surprising). Then, do the whole literary-theme talk with your students. Consider The Great Gatsby. One of its most prominent themes is the decay of the American Dream (love those cheery modernists). What you would do is select a passage from the novel, find some other short pieces that embody that theme, and develop a prompt on the theme.
“Many Americans work their entire lives to make their dreams into reality. Using the passage on page such-and-such to page what-not, develop an essay in which you assess to what extent American society still promotes the successful pursuit of dreams. Use the supplementary documents to support your argument.”
Perhaps you include Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech. The man lauds aspiration and hard work in a very humble and refreshing way; however, he is being cruelly robbed of his dream by the very mechanism that helped him attain it. The comparisons draw themselves.
The actual conference started on Friday. On the first day, I attended three sessions (which were hard to select based on the incredible selection): a session on the results of the AP Language Exam, a phenomenal session on teaching satire, and a session on teaching irony in a vertical team (Pre-AP through AP Literature and Composition).
The session on the test was helpful in recognizing the places where students are still struggling. In particular, the presenters mentioned that students need help on:
1. Archaic Prose
3. Writing Exam Answers vs. Writing Exam Essays
The archaic prose piece is about comprehension and analysis; specifically, if students cannot comprehend the text, they probably cannot analyze it. There was a suggestion made about using the 2006 Free Response Question from William Hazlitt’s “On the Want of Money” to help students understand what they might come up against. One of the presenters stated that a three-column chart (Headings of “Rhetorical Moves,” “Effect,” and “Exigence” (or how the move and effect tie into the overall purpose), helps his students develop a method for approaching archaic text.
In the realm of argument, the presenters suggested a focus on anticipating the “naysayer” and integrating deep examples. One presenter even said that he frequently tells his students that one deep example is more effective than three shallow ones. When anticipating the “naysayer,” writers are simply thinking about what someone else could say to the argument they are writing. The idea is that thinking this way will help students to determine if they have fully and deeply explained their ideas.
When answering the synthesis and the argument question, students need to write an essay; in other words, they must construct a strong, fully-formed composition that fully illustrates a point. The presenters mentioned that many students try to do this for the rhetorical analysis, too, but that it is not necessary. Now, that doesn’t mean throw essay writing conventions to the wind, but it does mean that students need to focus more on explaining the rhetorical moves a writer makes, the effects they have, and the overall purpose of the way the piece is written (that chart again). The emphasis for the rhetorical analysis is heavily weighted on analysis and less so on written style of the essay.
That was the pre-conference workshop and the review of the exam results. I am going to distill my notes from the other sessions and post those separately. In the meantime, feel free to post your reactions to this information or ways that you tackle writing and rhetoric in your classrooms.
And a final question I have been wrestling with from before the conference: Should rhetoric and writing be the focus in the classroom of regular grade-level courses? We don’t have these ideas in the Virginia standards, but I don’t see the point in withholding information students will be asked about in freshman composition. What do you think?