An AP Summer

In a stack of papers called Instruction.

  • Jun
  • 21
  • 2005

Right now, I am taking a week-long course called “Establishing the AP Course, English Language Grades 9-12” through SJAWP. It’s only been one day, but several things have jumped out at me as good ideas for improving education in general and my classroom specifically, mostly dealing with what, how, and why we teach.

Jeff House, the instructor of this course, has been very clear about the message of taking students where they are and addressing their interests. Several times, he’s made mention of teaching skills through a Trojan Horse: give them things they are interested in reading and responding to so that you can teach other skills than the response.

Content Selection

He’s made mention of articles about sports, music, pop culture, science, history, anything to get students interested and talking. Often, colonial American literature does not lend itself to such interest.

I give my kids The Scarlet Letter and I have to teach them to read the text, decode the language, cultural references, literal and figurative meaning, plot devices, etc. I give my kids a selection from Sports Illustrated or Rolling Stone and I don’t have to teach those things as much as I need to teach whatever literacy strategy I’m focusing on, whether that’s a reading or writing strategy. Working that way, when we get to more difficult, abstract texts, the groundwork is laid for the way to read and respond to texts.

And so, content selection becomes key to this area of literacy. Maybe the time has come to throw out the textbook. Maybe it’s really not important that my students have exposure to Bradford and Bradbury. Maybe it’s more important that my students enjoy what they are reading and have something to say about it.

Submerging the “I”

First person pronouns are traditionally a bad thing in academic writing. I tell my students that I don’t need to know that this is “my opinion”; your name is on the paper, I already know it’s your opinion.

Jeff suggests that writing with first person pronouns is another way to reach students where they are. To get them writing in their own voice and about their own experiences is the way to, again, use a Trojan Horse and get them thinking about their writing and reflecting on their lives. Then they are better able to think about other authors’ writing and other people’s lives.

Mr. House suggested a move from diary to personal essays: that a diary is a list of observations and is often unconnected while a personal essay pulls observations together around a focal point and provides significance to the events. We are looking to create more essay writers than diary writers, but students first need to compose the diary entries. Those diary entries often are composed with the use of first person pronouns and the personal essay does not need to be devoid of those pronouns. I think of any number of memoirs that make extensive use of such pronouns and I’d be ecstatic to have any of my students write as well as David Sedaris or Dave Berry (or Annie Frank or Annie Dillard).

Induction Reversed

A clever way to move those diary entries to personal essays is by induction. Now that you have a list of events, you can start making conclusions; now that you have a diary entry, you can begin to shape the essay. However, that initial list or entry is crucial. Only then can a conclusion be reached. Then something dawned on me: I’ve been having my students work backwards all this time! I’ve been having my students identify a thesis before gathering evidence.

So now I’m thinking that this is where blogs could come in, as a forum for that early thinking about texts, a place to throw out ideas with less risk than sitting in the classroom (and perhaps with more anonymity depending on how the blog is established).

Blogs could be a place for students to do some initial thinking about the texts we read, a place to throw out specific observations with the hopes of moving toward a more general significance of the events. This would be the point where theses are developed and a decision is made to pursue a particular interpretation of the events. What do you see happening in the book? What are the facts and events? What’s the diary entry of this novel? Now, what do all those facts and events tell you? What conclusions to they lead you to? Is it sound reasoning?

I’ve been asked repeatedly, “Can you help me find evidence for this thesis?” It makes sense that that question is meaningless. Would a police officer ask, “Can you help me find evidence for Tom having committed the burglary?” That’s a terrible way to conduct an investigation.


1. Laurie says:

[6/30/2005 - 5:33 pm]

I think that Tricia is missing the point of blogs–they provide the opportunity for an immediate response to learning. They can be accessed day or night, at home or at school. And, if you have ever checked any out, it is clear to see that they are the perfect forum for conversation. Our students are using blogs to talk about any number of things, why not for The Scarlet Letter.

2. Tricia Bolster says:

[6/22/2005 - 1:47 am]

Oh dear…I think you may be on to something here…I too, have my kids start with the thesis, and then construct the essay. I like your blog idea…however as someone who was born right smack in the middle of the 20th century, I need some gentle leading by the hand vis a vis: how do I use this as a teaching tool? It seems a great way for the kids to both respond to the literature and ideas, and do their pre-writing, idea gathering, harboring, tossing around etc. I usually have the kids do dialectical journals…which I call Reading Response Logs, where they pull out quotes from the literature and respond to them…but I can’t always get their homework packets back to them in a timely manner…especially in the last 2 years, with the increased number of bodies in the classroom…also, from what I’ve seen of the blogs, they appear more specific. I have had problems with the kids ‘sampling’, or just re-telling what the quote is saying…which (as I say over and over) is not analysis…I’ve taught English 3 for around 9 years or so, and have done Scarlet Letter every year. I know what you mean about the difficulty of the material. It is a very hard book for the kids to ‘get’. I have pretty much decided that this coming schoolyear, given the increase in number of students we will have in our classes, I will teach “The Crucible” instead. (Some years I have done both…but again, that was before the days of stuffing the kids into class like sardines packed in oil.) I believe that “The Crucible” will have enough of what I want to teach them to enable me to keep the basic elements of my course curricular goals. (Was that too much ‘teacher-speak’?) I have them read outside novels as well…and I can see that I am going to have to expand my list to include more things of interest to the adolescent mind-set…meaning that I will have to read “Saturday Night Lights” among others, in order to amend my supplemental reading list…I thuink it is important to include stuff the kids want to read…it never occurred to me to include the sports section. I’ve used essays by Dave Barry and Nathan McCall…I guess I am finally going to have to wrestle the sprots section away from my (own personal) kids so I can make sense of it. The things we do for our students…..