On Your Mark: A Guide for New Teachers

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The idea of starting the year as the new AP English Language and Composition teacher can be daunting. While having an AP Exam to take into consideration can bring new focus and a stronger sense of community to your classes, keep in mind that the goal of the course is to teach students to write well rather than to test well. In this article, we suggest some simple steps to help new AP English Language teachers prepare.

Step One: Do Some Groundwork

As a new AP English Language teacher, you need to familiarize yourself with the goals of the course. Remember, you’ll want to construct a class that models a first-year college writing course. Keeping that in mind, gather as many materials as possible before the year begins.

You’ll need to download the English Language Course Description from AP Central and maybe a sample syllabus or two. Old exams, including samples of student writing, are also available on AP Central and through workshops and institutes. You should also read reviews of teaching materials on the Teachers’ Resources section of AP Central and join the online AP English Teacher Community. Finally, there are some excellent summer programs out there as well, through both the College Board and local universities, which are worth exploring.

Step Two: Get Theory in Your Students’ Hands and Heads Early

An important goal of an AP English Language and Composition course is to help students become better critical readers, writers, and thinkers. Keep in mind that the course asks them to consider and evaluate the workings of language in ways probably unfamiliar to many of them. From the very beginning of the course, it is important to outfit students with a working “toolbox” of terms and strategies with which to approach rhetorical and style analysis.

At Maine East High School, we’ve developed what has come to be known as the “blue rhetorical analysis sheet.” Students receive this sheet, which we photocopy on blue cardstock, at the start of the year: they are expected to have it with them every day for reference. It’s essentially a structured list of key rhetorical concepts defined in student-friendly language. In designing the guide, we tried to distill key rhetorical concepts into three understandable categories while minimizing the use of overly technical language. We really wanted to make it both teacher- and student-friendly, based on the assumption that the field of rhetoric is likely new for both. Our idea was to simplify the ideas and structure them hierarchically. We wanted to be able to look at a text and ask questions about the text using the “blue sheet” as a starting point. Importantly, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t get so caught up in terminology that we lost the concept.

At the top of the sheet, we list and define the overarching questions of rhetoric:

  • Exigence: What has compelled this author to write?
  • Audience: To whom is this author writing or speaking?
  • Purpose: What effect does the author hope to have on his audience?

We follow that with clear definitions and brief examples of the three major rhetorical appeals: ethical, pathetic, and logical. At the bottom we name the most common rhetorical devices, techniques that occur at the level of specific language. There is quite a bit of crossover here with the literary techniques—metaphorical and figurative language, parallel structure, formal versus informal diction, etc.—we English teachers already talk about with our students. The next step is to design lessons with these concepts in mind, which you can do over the course of the year.

Programs with an AP Vertical Team® in place might agree to use such a guide with students one or two years before they get to your class. In this ideal scenario, you can easily design lesson plans with the understanding that students are already familiar with these terms as soon as they reach your class.

Step Three: Spotlight Nonfiction

Because this course is based on nonfiction texts, it makes sense to incorporate longer works of nonfiction and a selection of shorter nonfiction texts into your curriculum. In our AP Language program, we read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, an incisive look at the role of the media in contemporary culture. What’s great about this book (excerpted on the 1997 exam) is that Postman bases his argument on a comparison of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, two classics that may already be in your department’s curriculum or on its summer reading list. Postman uses plenty of rhetorical techniques to get his ideas across, and they are compelling enough to make for some excellent class discussions. Another text that works well as a year-opener is S. I. Hayakawi’s Language in Thought and Action. Students need to develop an appreciation for the finer points of language, and Hayakawi’s book offers plenty of insight into the ways we use and interpret language. Either of these books can be assigned as summer reading.

We also suggest incorporating shorter nonfiction texts into your curriculum over the course of the year: shorter essays, letters, and memoirs all work well. In studying American romanticism, for example, Emerson’s “Nature” provides an excellent starting point. Likewise, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is a classic introduction to satire; John Muir’s “Shadow Lake” incorporates beautiful imagery and metaphors as part of a subtle argument for the preservation of nature; Joan Didion’s “Marrying Absurd” critiques modern American culture through specific, often ironic descriptions of Las Vegas. These texts—all of which can be found in a text we currently use called Plato’s Heirs—work on two levels. First, they reveal key concepts and themes, many of which you are probably already working with in your class; second, the authors use a variety of rhetorical and literary strategies to increase the effectiveness of their writing. There are hundreds of texts to choose from. To make things easier, it might make sense to limit yourself to a single anthology such as the Norton Anthology or even one of the older nonfiction anthologies out there like Points of Departure.

Step Four: Seek Synchronicity

As noted earlier, the AP English Language course develops students’ ability to think critically and write intelligently about a range of nonfiction passages. While the analysis of nonfiction should be at the core of your course, much of the fiction in your current curriculum can be studied rhetorically. Such an analysis may in fact lead your students to a deeper understanding of these works.

For example, teaching the concept of rhetorical distance is easy using works of fiction written in the first person. Rhetorical distance is essentially a measure of how close—emotionally or intellectually—a reader feels to a speaker based on the kind of language that speaker is using. Take the opening few paragraphs of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. On their first read-through, students will get an intuitive feel for Holden—what kind of a guy he is, where he’s coming from, what’s on his mind. They may feel drawn in completely by his casual style, or they may be repulsed by the crassness of his expressions. Either way, Holden’s informal language is having an effect on them. The next logical move is to examine how Holden’s specific words and their arrangement (i.e., diction and syntax) draw in or push away his student audience.

Step Five: Schedule AP Exam Experiences

Your students need to feel prepared for the exam, so plan accordingly. It is a good idea to set up a test-prep schedule so that your classes are regularly doing some kind of activity that simulates the AP Exam experience. Plan to alternate between in-class writing and multiple-choice practice. On writing days, students can write the first day and evaluate their essays against sample essays (available on AP Central or of your own choosing from among your student essays) the next. On multiple-choice days, students can work through sample passages and questions on the first day, followed by class discussion and teacher instruction the next.

Once you are familiar with the types of skills and question format that the AP English Language course uses, you can tailor your selections from old AP Exams to augment what you are currently doing in class. AP readings in both the multiple-choice and essay sections span a wide variety of time periods, styles, and topics. The first question in the 1992 essay section asks students to analyze a speech made by Queen Elizabeth I to rally her troops against an invading force from Spain. This speech dovetails well with any number of Shakespeare’s plays: it is full of great imagery, replete with rhetorical techniques, and similar in many ways to the speeches found in many of Shakespeare’s works.

Once you get a feel for the exam, you can continue the unit/discussion with a multiple-choice set, rhetorical analysis prompt, or a style analysis prompt of your own design on a passage from the essay, memoir, or novel you are currently studying. Have students perform an analysis of an author’s style or compare and contrast two authors’ attitudes toward their audience. We often design nine-point AP-style grading rubrics for such essays so that students become familiar with the AP expectations for good writing.

Step Six: Think Long Term and Start a Vertical Team

In an ideal world, students would come into a junior- or senior-level AP English Language course well-equipped to handle the unique demands of nonfiction. Often freshman and sophomore courses are heavy in novels, plays, and short story units and light in nonfiction discourse. If students can come to you with a basic understanding of rhetorical and literary techniques, you can more quickly get down to the business of rhetorical and stylistic analysis. In order to ensure this level of preparedness, and to comply with departmental demands, an important long-term strategy is to create an AP Vertical Team. By letting those teachers who precede you know what your students are working toward, they may be more willing to build in a nonfiction unit and undertake a certain level of rhetorical analysis in their classes as well. We’ve found that our Vertical Teaming sessions have become springboards for a variety of interesting discussions about the practice of teaching.

Good luck as you embark on your first year of AP. It’s a lot of work to get your class up and running, but the benefits are great!

Authored by

  • Greg Lundberg
    Maine East High School
    Park Ridge, Illinois
  • Robert Brown
    Maine Township East High School
    Park Ridge, Illinois