This fall, I’ve received many messages from new AP Language and Composition teachers who are trying to find their feet. After some reflection, I decided to offer a few of the ideas and processes that drive my teaching. This is a two-part series, and I will cover five “commandments” in each part. Look for the next post in a few days.
- It’s about the skill, not the test. Yes, that test hangs over us all year. It’s a huge reason many schools push alternatives like dual enrollment. The test is important, but it’s ONE snapshot of ONE morning. The test manufactures performance under duress. It gives advantage to students who are fast processors. Consider the “noble two”: a score of 2 indicates the college-readiness of a student, which is a success in and of itself. Students should be better prepared for college success simply by taking the class. Help students keep a healthy perspective about the May exam. Pro tip: limit the amount you talk about the test, at least in the first semester. Keeping your language about the learning, the skills, the potential college benefits, will help students recognize that you expect them to learn because the skills are valuable, not because the skills are on the test.
- Everything is an argument, even your class. Pay attention to what you prioritize with your units, lesson plans, and resources. This course, perhaps more than other English language arts courses, allows you to draw connections across virtually any content, time period, and culture. Create opportunities for students to synthesize course work with their personal knowledge. Also, consider your personal biases and how they may be communicated. Pro tip: take an implicit bias test (Project Implicit-Harvard) and reflect on how the results may be present in your teaching. Plan with awareness of how your students may perceive your biases (and thus, your agenda).
- Model, practice, norm, and reflect. Repeat. Students need to see examples of successful writing, regardless of genre or purpose. They need opportunities to imitate that writing, to find their own way toward similar strategies or thinking. Modeling allows you to provide different entry points for all levels of learners. As they practice, they should have those models in front of them. Students also need opportunities to norm their expectations for successful writing. When they can accurately evaluate writing for its strengths and weaknesses, they gain insight that can lead to their own growth. They also become much more effective at giving and using peer feedback. They can reflect on what they see in the models and in their own writing and set appropriate goals for themselves. Pro tip: the first few times you have students score exemplars, have them work in groups and jot down their observations. Create a grid on the board and have each group report how they would score each exemplar. It’s a quick way to identify students’ perceptions about good writing, and it focuses class discussion. I like to call this “calibration,” and I have a freebie in my TPT store that you’re welcome to use!
- Students should generate original writing every day. You’d think this would be self-explanatory, but I can’t tell you the number of experienced AP English teachers who act like this is a ground-breaking teaching tip. Pro tip: I like to bookend the class with discussion and writing. I use one for a warm-up and the other for end-of-class reflection. It doesn’t matter which is which; it just depends on the day’s lesson. I’m not perfect, but I try to dedicate about 5-10 minutes to each.
- Be judicious with what you collect and grade. You do not have to grade every little thing. I probably collect a third of the class work to grade, a third to read and use to plan instruction but not grade, and a third I simply ask students to keep. The key here is not to give busy work. Ever. If students know that everything has a purpose, they’ll do it, regardless of the grade book. Seriously. I’m very honest and open about this, and it helps me build credibility with my students. They appreciate a teacher who is aware of their work load and intentional about every assignment. Pro tip: When you write out your lesson plans, explicitly state what you are collecting and what you’ll do with it. My AP Language and Composition lesson plan template actually has a spot at the bottom for you to do this.
Teaching AP Language and Composition is incredibly rewarding, but it is hard work. I am happy to provide additional tips and resources for any of the commandments here. Just ask! I’d also love to hear if you have suggestions related to any of these concepts.