AP English Language Students: The World Is Their Subject
AP English Language and Composition students need to learn much more than we can possibly teach in a classroom. Although there is indeed a body of knowledge we expect students in AP English Language to master, much of their success is going to depend on skillful performance, which is as much influenced by maturity and experience as it is by information learned in classes. In fact, I have found that students actually get better at critical reading and analytical writing as they get older and have more experiences, take more classes, acquire new friends, travel more, see more movies, read more, have more conversations, make more decisions, suffer more setbacks, and revel in more triumphs. These experiences are cumulative and contribute to the kind of common wisdom that makes critical reading and analytical writing possible. In this sense, for the AP English Language and Composition student the whole world is the subject.
Yet one of the defining values of the AP Program is the opportunity for students to take a college-level course in high school. So how does an AP teacher face the challenge of equating the high school course to the college course when the students in college enjoy the natural advantages not only of being slightly older and more mature, but also of working in a less regimented environment?
Some teachers try to propel the students' growth through tougher grading, more direct instruction, and piling on more readings, homework, and papers. Ironically, these techniques actually make the AP course more like high school and less like college—and students know this. If you ask them what the main difference is between high school and college, they'll tell you what they have picked up from the local folklore: in college you're more on your own. I would like to suggest that a better way to equate the AP course to its college counterpart is to help students think and work independently and thereby make best use of the storehouse of common wisdom they are rapidly accumulating.
High school instructors have many more contact hours with their students than their college counterparts do, and that's part of the problem: college students have little choice but to be more independent in their work and study. The AP course is necessarily structured by its high school setting, but within that setting teachers can create an experience that's a little closer to the university model. I have four suggestions, though it goes without saying that many AP teachers have long ago adopted these practices:
- Aim for depth of reading more than breadth.
- Avoid formulaic solutions and approaches.
- Encourage complex argument.
- Promote self-assessment.
Depth Versus Breadth
Students should acquire some experience reading across a wide range of discourse types, but ultimately the depth of their reading will be what matters. So piling on a lot of extra reading is often less effective than approaching a good selection of readings in depth. Within the contexts of stylistic and rhetorical analysis students should become adept at the same kind of close reading they are already familiar with in literature classes but applied in language and composition to generally nonliterary texts. Any paragraph of "Letter from Birmingham Jail," for example, can be studied with the same attention to lexical, syntactical, and rhetorical effects as any poem. Students should also become accustomed to making connections between readings and their own experiences and observations as well as across disciplines.
Avoid Formulaic Solutions
In AP workshops the subject of the five-paragraph essay invariably leads to lively discussion. The problem with this kind of formula is that it privileges teaching over learning. It makes the teacher’s work seem easier, but it short-circuits the kind of learning and independent thinking that students need to succeed in AP English Language and Composition. As a former director of a university writing program and current university administrator, I can say that universities are reluctant to accept for credit coursework that was guided by formulaic approaches because this is outside the mainstream of teaching in college composition classrooms.
The use of checklists, steps, modeling, and imitation all have value as aids to invention, development, and formulation, but prepackaged structures subvert the writing process. As soon as a model structure is imposed, the process stops dead. Many people who write as professionals do indeed follow prescribed models such as those that govern lab reports, newspaper articles, or recipes. In those precincts imposed models are necessary and valuable. But, I would argue, not in school.
Encourage Complex Argument
Being able to make and critique arguments is an important part of the AP English Language and Composition curriculum. The study and practice of argumentation and persuasion in college composition classes usually includes quite a bit of attention to an array of classical forms of argument as well as to its grounding in human psychology. In addition, in college we attend to the argumentative impact of language choices. These are difficult topics, but working with them can lead to lively classes. As a long-time reader of AP Exams, I feel that argument is sometimes treated simply as a matter of citing examples to support a thesis. This approach looks more like exposition than argument, which requires more development and perception.
The scoring rubrics for the AP Exams are excellent tools to help students become comfortable with assessment and self-assessment. Being able to do so is a giant step on the road to independence. In college, people often talk about "first year" writing as if it were the beginning of something. In fact, it is not the beginning but the end for many students, who will probably not be taking another writing course. Much writing they do after that will be without teachers. If your students do well on the AP English Language and Composition Exam and get exempted from college composition on that basis, will they be ready to self-assess whatever writing they may subsequently be required to do?
In most subjects, "advanced placement" means students have done well enough in the AP course to undertake more advanced courses in that subject. AP English and Composition is different. Since composition and critical reading are considered basic essentials at the outset of a college career, we are not positioning our students to enroll in advanced courses in composition. Instead, we are helping them face a lifelong curriculum of communicating effectively, engaging in public discourse, and thinking independently.