Thursday, May 14, 2015

In Defense of AP English

AP English is worthless.

This was how I felt five years ago when I heard that I would be teaching AP English for the first time the following year.  This attitude did not come out of nowhere.  I profoundly disliked AP English when I took it as a high school senior: the class I took was designed as year-long preparation for the AP literature exam, but when I took both the AP Literature exam and the AP Language exam that May, I scored higher on AP Language, even though that was the exam I had not prepared for.  I felt as though I had wasted a year of my life.

As I took education classes in college, I came to view the entire AP system as the enemy to good teaching: high school courses focused on coverage rather than un-coverage, teaching toward a test, heavy on memorization, mistaking amount of work for quality of work--all qualities I detested.

While I cannot speak for other APs, it turns out that these assumptions could not have been further from the truth for AP English.  AP English: Language and Composition is all about critical thinking, integrity, and clear communication, inherently valuable skills that extend beyond a test score and possible college credit.

Critical thinking has become a buzzword in contemporary education, functioning almost as the antithesis of the content-heavy, passive learning model that has characterized much of American education over the past two centuries.  Despite the tremendous good that the idea represents, "critical thinking" is thrown about in a manner that betrays a distinct lack of critical thought:

In an effort to be progressive, school textbooks label trivial, shallow tasks as "Critical Thinking Exercises".  Prescriptive standardized tests purport to measure critical thinking.  Teachers argue fruitlessly about exactly what it means to teach and assess critical thinking.  

Yet, the AP Language curriculum suggests a very plausible definition, embedded in the tasks that make up the test itself: critical thinking is the ability to read objectively, analyzing information for bias, manipulation and fallacies.

In order to succeed on the AP English exam, students must learn not simply to read carefully, but to read critically and then to think critically about what they have read.  While this does mean some memorization of rhetorical appeals, modes, fallacies and basic strategies, the emphasis is not on memorization, and indeed there's a sharp line drawn between memorizing the terms and applying them.

My students become aware of the ways in which a speaker is attempting to reach his audience, whether that be an appeal to their minds, an appeal to their hearts, or an appeal to their trust.  From this foundation, to have substantive discussions about propaganda is not such a stretch--it soon becomes clear that even music, literature and film use these basic appeals, too.  

Moreover, the students begin to recognize when a speaker is not dealing honestly with his audience, when logic is being abused, when emotions are being toyed with and when trust is being twisted.

They also recognize these tendencies within themselves: that time they got an extension on an assignment by turning a minor obstacle into a sob story; that time they told a half-truth in response to their parents' inquiry about school-work; that time they used a non-sequitur to end a heated discussion with a friend.  We laugh about the fallacies, and the students can be heard even months later calling out fallacies in conversations with friends, but they do ultimately learn to monitor themselves, too.

Finally, the students learn to communicate in a clear and concise manner, and for a variety of purposes.  Organization is essential, and students who started the school-year incapable of writing a thesis statement learn to write a good thesis and outline in a matter of minutes.  

While the strict time limit on the essays feels somewhat inauthentic to real life (unless a student plans to go into high-pressure journalism), there is tremendous value in being able to organize one's ideas quickly and efficiently.  Even students who struggle with grammar and punctuation learn to organize and support their ideas, and occasionally they do so effectively enough to score a '4' or a '5'.  

Students leave AP English feeling, on the whole, much more confident in their abilities as readers, writers and thinkers.  I was grateful to hear my students report back to me today that they felt well-prepared for their exam yesterday, but what matters more to me is that they are leaving my class prepared to be better communicators and thinkers in their senior year and beyond.

I am proud to teach AP English and if a student asks whether or not I would recommend it, my response has shifted from one of hesitation to an unequivocal 'yes': if they are interested in the challenge, they will learn a lot, even if English is not their favorite subject; even if the final test score doesn't reflect what they learned. 

Now, as I wrap up my 5th year of teaching AP English, I recognize that my original perception of AP English was off by five incredibly important letters:
AP English is not worthless.
AP English is priceless.

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