This is the second half of a two-part series about teaching AP Language and Composition. You can check out the first part here.
- Good feedback is everything. I still struggle with this, as feedback simply takes time (who has that?!). Some of the best feedback ideas I’ve learned came from a Marzano workshop. The highlights: once a grade goes on a paper, the feedback is not internalized. The best feedback is separate from a grade, and the student is accountable for using it to improve his or her work. This has led me to rethink what gets comments. FRQs? I rarely write comments; instead, students reflect on their work and use FRQs for goal setting. Formal essays? Drafts get feedback, and I like to schedule time to meet with students for one-on-one conferencing. If students will have a revision opportunity on a formal essay, I like to give audio feedback. My colleague has perfected this process. Students turn in papers with line numbers down the side. For each paper, we create an audio recording with our comments. It’s usually between 5-8 minutes per essay. When the students get their essays back, they listen to the recording, mark the comments like a teacher would, revise, and reflect on how their writing improved. Students love the individual attention, and they get much higher quality feedback than I could give in class. Pro tip: try recorded feedback on a short piece of writing (a page or less). Then talk to your students about how helpful the process was compared to traditional feedback. You might just try it with one class and compare revision results. How much do your students improve?
- AP work should be engaging, relevant, and fun. Hopefully, this is an attitude that you have already adopted. AP is fantastic in that you have so much room to determine how to approach skills and concepts. You don’t have to tap-dance for your students, but chances are, if it’s boring or trite to you, it will be for them, too. A little creative planning goes a long way. My favorite example of this is a love letters activity that I came up with to teach argumentation structures. I wanted students to jigsaw and present information about Rogerian, Aristotelian, and Toulmin argumentation. I had a particularly competitive class, and I wanted to put it to good use. Plus, it was almost Valentine’s Day. While I don’t usually like holiday-themed activities, it all just clicked together. My students wrote break-up letters using the different argumentation structures, then competed to see whose letter was the most effective in achieving its purpose. Now, I use it every year. They get SO excited over this assignment! They oooh and aaah and laugh uproariously at each others’ scathing (but mostly intellectual) letters. They remember the concepts because they threw themselves into the work wholeheartedly. Pro tip: the harder it is for you to teach, the more important it is for you to plan for engaging entry points and practice. There are a few things that are perennial favorites with students: break-ups, fights between best friends, and stories of young people overcoming adversity to thrive. If you can connect teenagers’ real-world experiences to activities that get them moving, talking, presenting, acting, sharing their music, or creating over-the-top parodies, chances are that lesson will stick.
- The curriculum itself is not differentiation for your gifted learners. At an AP training last spring, one of the speakers spoke about the “walk-in fives” she had in her class every year. “Those are the students,” she told the room, “that you leave alone and hope you don’t pull backwards.” I wish I could say I was surprised, but this is an attitude I’ve heard many times from teachers who are missing either the skill or the will to work with gifted students the way students need them to. There’s also a widely-held misconception that AP classes inherently satisfy the needs of students who are gifted readers and writers. While quality programming is a step, we simply can’t fall in the trap of complacency. Your gifted learners need consistently differentiated instruction and assignments to thrive. This might mean that you offer choices for more challenging readings. It might mean alternative assignments. It might also mean that you have students who are essentially engaging in independent study with more advanced content, working at their own pace. Whatever it is, challenge them. Pro tip: Start small. Practice and master a few differentiation strategies that work for you and your style. My favorites are Tri-Mind activities, tiered assignments, and independent learning contracts using open courses from schools like Yale. I think I mention it every other post, but I seriously love this book from Carol Ann Tomlinson. It has so many ways to differentiate classroom instruction that you can put into practice right away.
- Pay attention to your students’ affective needs. A professor friend of mine, Dr. Jenny Ritchotte, speaks eloquently of Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration. In general, I think many AP students tend to get stuck in the self-critical vision of “who they ought to be.” The internal pressures they feel to live up to their expectations of themselves can be so intense. I spend time each year talking to my students about mental health and self-care. I share my story of losing a close friend who committed suicide when he became overwhelmed by the pressure he felt to be perfect, to live up to the high academic demands at our school. For many students, this is the first frank conversation they’ve had from a teacher in which their stress and fear is validated, in which they feel they have an ally who will help them through. It is also one of the things for which I get lengthy and heart-felt thank-yous from students, year after year. Your students need to know that you see them. Pro tip: Actually ask your students (perhaps have them write privately to you, if they feel comfortable doing so) who they feel they ought to be and if they feel they are living up to the standard they set for themselves. Have real conversations with students to follow up. Talk to them on a human level, not just as an academic, but as a mentor. Above all, remind them that they have worth, dignity, and potential.
- Assume nothing. We can get lost in the masses of theories and best practices and edu-babble about effective teaching, but it ultimately means nothing if we don’t understand our students. I believe that the most important question we can ask is, “Why?” Sometimes, the answer will be outside of our sphere of influence, and we must work around it. More often, the answer will come back to us. Some people get defensive about this kind of reflection, but I’ve found the more I challenge my methods, the more I’m able to address the gaps in my instruction and help my students learn. Pro tip: The next time you find yourself frustrated with the pace of your class, the questions students are asking, or the work that they’re producing, start by asking, “Why?”. Look at yourself first, others involved next, and mitigating circumstances last.