Friday, May 11, 2018

Figuring out AP English

Figuring out how to best teach AP English has been one of the greatest puzzles of my teaching career.  Some of this has been logistical: due to scheduling quirks, including the fact that I teach 11th grade English as a Humanities blend along with U.S. History, I've never taught a distinct AP English class.  Rather, in a Humanities section of 20+ students, there have always been a handful of students taking AP English as a supplement to our regular Humanities curriculum, sitting in class alongside non-AP classmates.

For the first two years, I attempted to use Humanities class-time once or twice a week to work with the AP students by setting the non-AP students on a different task while I met with the AP students.  This proved to be too cumbersome, and in 2012, I opted to start weekly AP sessions outside of our regular class-time, before or after school, or during lunch.  This ended up being burdensome, too, as I was having three or four AP meetings a week at different times.  Two years ago, I decided to offer sessions on Thursday lunch and Friday lunch, allowing students to choose between one or the other.  This has worked quite well, and students who are unable to attend on a given week have been diligent about letting me know ahead of time and figuring out what they will need to catch up on.

The challenge with weekly meetings, then, became how to sufficiently teach the AP curriculum in 40 minute meetings once a week.  The short answer is that it's impossible.

This has forced me to be more intentional in how I structure the skill-building in my regular Humanities course so that I am truly laying a foundation that the AP English students can build on through their outside assignments and our weekly lunch meetings.  My Humanities course is by no means an AP-level course--every year, I have students who have only been learning English for a few years, and I simply cannot hit them with the intensity of College Board's expectations, particularly the high level of critical reading and the strict time limits on both the reading test and the essays.

Instead, I have sought to help all of my students develop the foundations of critical reading: being able to identify the relationship between speaker, occasion, audience and purpose; being able to pick up on the tone; being able to analyze how the speaker uses rhetorical strategies to accomplish their purpose.  This year, I developed lessons on logic to help students better recognize the structure of an argument.  This helped our later study of rhetorical fallacies to have more of an impact, as the students had a stronger grounding in basic logic than any previous group ever had.  Through our unit essays, we practice synthesis skills, and through our debates, we practice research and argumentation skills.  Each year, I learn how to teach, assess, and provide feedback on these skills more effectively.

This frees me up to assign essays to the AP students as extra assignments during the week, and to use the weekly lunch sessions as opportunities to workshop writing skills, discuss together, and provide direct feedback.  During the first semester, we focus on how to write the three different essay prompts on the AP exam--synthesis, rhetorical analysis and argumentative--one at a time, with the opportunity to revise and submit a second draft for each.

During the second semester, we practice writing each essay by hand within a time limit.  In the past, I struggled to know how to keep up with the grading: I learned very quickly that it would be impossible for me grade a full set of AP essays every week, in addition to my regular Humanities grading.  My instinctive alternative, asking the students to peer-edit each essay for each other, was equally impossible to manage and assess.  Finally, this year, I devised a rotating schedule that worked almost perfectly for me: the students would submit three full sets of timed essays throughout the Spring: one set in January, one set in March, and one set in April.  I would spend time grading these sets and providing feedback.  On the "off-weeks", students would write individual timed essays (rhetorical analysis in January; synthesis in February; argumentative in March) to be discussed and workshopped during our weekly sessions, and which I would check for a completion grade.  The week after each timed essay set was due, I gave a full multiple choice test after school in lieu of a lunch meeting to ensure that students had ongoing opportunities to apply critical reading skills and practice pacing under test conditions.

On Monday, April 30, I gave a full practice exam after school, both multiple choice and essay sections, which I made a point of grading and returning to the students within the week.

I've offered a full practice exam since 2012, and for years, that was the only piece of useful data that I had in predicting how the students might perform on the actual exam.  This year, I was able to collect valuable data points--at least four multiple choice test scores and four sets of timed essay scores--to track the students' performance, growth, strengths and struggles.  I created a profile for each student to share this data, as well as ongoing feedback.  After grading the full practice exam last week, I presented the numbers in a few different ways to help the students see how they might do on test day.

These are screenshots of a sample profile I made up to show the type of data I collected.

Collecting and working with this data took time on top of grading and giving feedback, but it was worth it.  As I told the students when I shared the data with them, the data tells them--and me--a more complete story than a single score from exam day ever could.  While a lower score than they hope for on the actual exam might sting in the moment, it cannot cancel out the growth and capability they have demonstrated throughout the entire year.

I feel like I can predict with reasonable certainty how my students will do on the exam next week.  There will be some surprises of course, both good and bad, but I know where each student is at now.  More importantly, I know where they have come from.  Not every student will pass the AP exam, but regardless, I am proud of the hard work they have invested, and their growth through struggle.

For the first time, I feel like I have a system that works as an AP English teacher who teaches AP as a supplement to a non-AP curriculum.  In fact, I can safely say that I wouldn't do this any other way--I'm looking forward to refining this in the future!