Today’s Guest Blogger is Emily Richardson, who currently teaches Advanced Placement English Language and Composition, American Literature, and Western Humanities in a suburban Chicago high school. She also blogs and presents about contemporary pedagogical practices in the English classroom.
Teaching AP is my form of cardio. More precisely, it feels like a race. I always feel like I could have done more, taught more, provided more, assigned more. Instead of living in regret, however, I’ve learned to plan smarter. The key to teaching this course without wasting away into a frail version of yourself is to create assignments that incorporate as many key skills as possible.
In my class, there are several goals I continually instill in my students:
1.) Write with voice, passion, style, and purpose
2.) Know your audience and how to persuade them effectively
3.) Develop arguments that are well-reasoned and striking
4.) Be able to utilize multiple sources to defend an argument you are constructing
To hone these skills simultaneously, I have developed a project that begins with my students doing an in-depth study of “The Gettysburg Address.” We study the rhetoric of the piece and examine the persona that Lincoln was conveying through the construction of his brief speech. This usually takes two full class periods. Then, on the third day, I provide students with 5-7 statues of Abraham Lincoln from various stages of his life and career. Their responsibility is to defend which statue they feel best represents the persona of “The Gettysburg Address.” Of course there is no exact answer, but I want to encourage students to think about how written words are translated visually and to practice defending a complex argument.
This carries the class into a discussion about the purpose of a monument and what it is intended to commemorate. We begin brainstorming a list of things that need to be considered in constructing a monument. The list ranges from political concerns (like “what message would this monument send to other nations” and “is the monument tied to the current administration”) to aesthetic concerns (such as “does the monument fit in with its surroundings” and “what text should be written on the monument”) to financial concerns (like “how would money be raised to pay for the monument” and “does this subject warrant the effort to procure donations”) to even environmental concerns (like “what materials would best survive shifting weather”). To help contextualize these issues, the students research the controversy surrounding the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. This monument serves as a segue into their actual group project.
In deciding whether to construct this monument, the National Park Service had to determine whether Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy symbolized American culture and history enough to be commemorated on the National Mall. This concern prompts the following task for the groups: Determine what you think the next monument constructed on the National Mall should be and what it should look like. Then, construct a thoughtful and stylized speech advocating your choice that would persuade the National Park Service to select your proposal.
I don’t have much I need to tell the groups with regards to guidelines. Their study of “The Gettysburg Address,” statues of Lincoln, and the major considerations behind the construction of monuments has effectively prepared them; frequently, they do more than what I would have requested. Some groups end up researching who/what is currently included and lacking from the National Mall. Many others go through a digital tour of the area to pick a location that best reflects their vision. I only require them to cite at least five sources in their speeches and to provide an artistic rendering of their monuments.
Once all of the students’ monuments have been created, I up the ante by inviting our principal into the class. Each group selects their strongest orator to deliver an impassioned speech (typically in 4-5 minutes) and answer pointed questions from the principal. The principal then selects the group that he feels had the strongest argument and most persuasive pitch. Including days in the lab and time to work in class, the project takes a full 8 class periods. However, I can easily justify the time spent because it is an organic way to prepare my students for any of the following prompts that they might see on the exam:
1.) “Then synthesize information from at least three sources and incorporate it into a coherent, well-developed essay that argues a clear position on ______….”
2.) “Then write an essay in which you analyze the rhetorical strategies….”
3.) “Then synthesize information from at least three of the sources and incorporate it into a coherent, well-developed essay that identifies the key issues associated with….”
4.) “Then write an essay that examines the extent to which _____ holds true today.”
5.) “Defend, challenge, or qualify the position that….”
This project provides students with test prep that doesn’t feel particularly cumbersome or test-driven. Instead, it achieves the fundamental goals of the AP exam: challenging students to think critically and thoroughly.