Sunday, May 9, 2010

May 12: Day of Reckoning (AP English Language)

Ready for your AP English Language & Composition exam?

  • This exam is mostly about writing, so kids need to be deft writers by this point, and drilling on writing won't help right now at this late date. (They need to have been doing this all year.)  What students CAN think about in these last few days is quick strategical plans for writing in response to excerpts of literature (nonfiction--speeches, essays, etc.), and writing synthesis essays, after reading a variety of excerpts and other short pieces (viewing photos, cartoons, bar graphs, etc.)

  • Of paramount importance--never forget this!--is ANSWERING THE PROMPT.  If, for example, the prompt mentions satire, the student MUST address satire--otherwise, essay grade is a fail, no matter how well written it might be. The prompt gives the student clues as to what the essay readers will be grading, so be sure that your answer/essay reflects EXACTLY what you were asked to do. Read the prompt carefully. Read it again. Plan a response and be sure it addresses the prompt.

  • Students need to remember that INVESTING TIME IN PLANNING ESSAYS is time that is always well spent. Given the timed writing on this exam, students have a tendency to want to dive right in and get writing, but to do things this way can lead to essays that begin weakly and only become strong arguments by the end. Students are rewarded for essays that come together in the second half, but seriously: why not try to write an essay that's good the whole way through? The essay readers will like you more and you will never get a top score for an essay that begins weakly.

  • FIRST LINES and CONCLUSIONS are key. I cannot repeat this enough. Essays are read VERY quickly; essay readers have to read hundreds of essays a day, and thousands in a week. They have very specific rubrics and they are just looking for a few key areas, so if students can make their words jump off the page by writing creatively in the openings and closing (with some impressive vocab, literary terms and interesting phrasing sprinkled throughout), this can go a long way towards earning a better score

  •  Review LITERARY TERMS. Knowing what litotes and chiasmus are may not come up much for use on essays (or, it might--and if in the excerpt writers used these writerly tools, students will be rewarded for noticing), but it could very well come up on the multiple-choice section!

  • As with any standardized test, students should answer what they can on M/C sections and not waste too much time on any one question. Better to skip a few than to run out of time and miss completing an entire section.  BE CAREFUL when skipping (I always tell my students to draw a line through the skipped question answer-bubble-row on the answer sheet; this way, they won't mess up the entire form. Go back and erase the line later, obviously).

  • Make sure students are comfortable with both pre-20th century writing and contemporary work. There will undoubtedly be some of each on this exam.

  • Remind students not to confuse AP Eng Lang with APUSH (history). Essays on this exam are not DBQs and require a different style of writing and thinking. AP Eng Lang is more about the creative craft of word spinning. Yes, students need to know how to articulately argue a point; they need, however, to be sure to stick to the excerpt they are given and not run off on related-knowledge tangents.

  • Wide reading only helps students on this exam--but AMERICAN LITERATURE NOVEL READING is not what I am talking about. Yes, students need to read the great books, but this exam is about SHORT pieces of writing of the type seen in news magazines. That's why I assign news magazines. That's why we have been  using anthologies of short prose. If a student responds to an essay prompt by writing about HUCK FINN--guess what? Fail. Never confuse AP Eng LANGUAGE with AP Eng LITERATURE.

  • Reading student essays from past exams (oh, the abysmal handwriting--it's hard to take, but that in itself is a good lesson for students) can really help. Reading, peer grading and discussing actual earned scores helps students to understand how the exam actually works. People like me, people who've trained to teach AP in specialized workshops, own large packets of these essays, and we've been drilled in grading by specialized rubrics. Sharing these essays is precisely what I would have been doing in the past month or so. It takes MUCHO XEROXING, but it's worth the paper and toner! I hope my replacement thought to do this, though I doubt it. Also, I am the only one who knows where the old exam essays are. Ah, well--peer grading and studying rubrics helps, too. Good writing is good writing, though--and if students can write well in the first place, they should be set.

Let's recap: Answer the Prompt and review your writing to be sure that you have done so. Have strategies for writing each style of essay. Invest time in outlining before writing. Equip yourself with an arsenal of literary terms and impressive vocabulary. Remember this exam is not a history exam; it is an exam that is testing you on your rhetorical skills and whether or not you can recognize and write about the rhetorical skills of famous (nonfiction) writers. Thinking like an AP essay grader can help students anticipate how they should write for the optimum grade (review the rubrics I handed out at the start of the year. Commit them to memory! You will be expected to satisfy these different rubrics).

Last minute reading should be Newsweek essays, I think. Students learn by osmosis, and they will absorb good writing skills by reading good writing. I like the Newsweek section essays because they do everything I ask students to do on the AP Eng Lang exam essays--grab attention, form a coherent, strong argument, transition smoothly, use examples, impress with vocabulary and interesting phrasing and end with a thoughtful idea.

GET TO SLEEP EARLY the night before; eat a protein-filled breakfast (scrambled eggs?). Also, drink orange juice for your blood sugar and take a multivitamin (I am a total health nut, and I believe in vitamins) the morning of.

I don't care if you're not hungry--just eat two eggs, please. My own kids love the soy "sausage" patties. They are small and protein-packed...much more so than eggs. You might try one of those; they are actually very good.

NO GOING OUT WITH FRIENDS AT ALL on the evenings of May 10 or 11. Sorry. Your parents should lock you inside all week, if possible (especially if you have other APs looming). You can do it: the school year is practically over.


  1. Who's bringing snacks for my AP students?? How about you bring snacks, water, etc., for each other? I would have done this for you, but I will not be there. Good pens, scrap paper, a few pencils and comfy fave snack for AP students is the Fiber bar. I am totally serious. Sweet and filling; no grumbly tummies.

  2. MIrana LoengardMay 9, 2010 at 7:04 PM

    Fiber bars...who would've thunk it? Good tip (will they eat them?). I also suggest cranberry juice.

  3. Ms. Collins, we did need you, we do miss you, but we're prepared from the time you spent and the tireless energy and effort you put into teaching us! One question though, do you have an email address where we can reach you? We miss you, fill us in on what your plans are!

  4. Yes to the fiber bars (Fiber One or even Target's kind...they taste the same). Cranberry juice is a good idea...I usually just get water, though.

    Oh, anonymous student (why is everyone anonymous? Do you think you'll get into trouble for writing to me?)--thanks for your note.

    I have several e-mail addresses and you can find my e-mail here somewhere, but I'll list it for you (my preferred e-mail):

    My plans right now include finishing my book, Pretty Freaky. I also want to find a publisher for my first novel, The Sheep and Stars. (Are you noticing a connection between my blog title and my e-mail address?)

    I will probably tutor right now. I am thinking of doing my teaching certs this summer, but my husband wants me to go to law school, so I am not quite sure yet.

    Be well--and don't be afraid to e-mail me.


  5. What are good previous essays to practice to? Especially rhetorical analysis

    ^^i would like you to know I feel guilty for using the word "good" but I'm too lazy right now to change it

  6. For rhetorical analysis practice, I would pick one pre-20th century essay (the older the better--think Michel de Montaigne, Thomas Jefferson, etc...see CollegeBoard website if you do not have one of these essays in a book, though I expect the People's AP series to have these types of essays in the Advanced Composition Skills and brown books).

    Basically, you are going to be asked to pick out the rhetorical strategies used (see my original handouts), and discuss how the writer effectively played with language. Think about pathos, ethos, logos, anaphora, polysyndeton, etc. (you will want to pull out your literary terms for this essay!).

    Make sure to also study a contemporary speech or essay (preferably, both). See THE SHORT PROSE READER and note questions following pieces. These questions will guide you, but again, you are likely going to be asked how the writer used language to convince you, the reader, of something. What was effective, and why?

    Good luck!

  7. Hi Ms Collins!

    I seem to be the most optimistic about this AP (everyone else seems to be extremely nervous for some reason). You've been preparing us for this all year, if indirectly, so I'm pretty sure we'll all do fine.
    Your "replacement" has been drilling us ridiculously on writing. We've been doing timed writings almost EVERY SINGLE CLASS PERIOD. It's been slightly helpful, but personally, I find it a little annoying. She did find some old essay examples on the collegeboard website to look at, but we only looked at them once or twice to see how they were graded.
    Your tips here are really helpful though, so thanks for posting this! We do still need you, and I miss you a lot.
    I hope you can find somewhere that fully appreciates all the wonderful things you can do for them.

    Thanks for everything!
    Marianne Gorsky
    (I considered posting anonymously, but everyone already knows how I feel anyway.)

  8. Hey Marianne,

    I think you are all prepared, but the girls tend to be generally test-averse. At least you are in a grade that doesn't tend to slack at this time of year, so you'll all take it seriously, I am sure.

    It is a hard exam, but just do what they ask you to do--not more (counter-intuitive, I know, but very important). Do the best you can.

    The purpose of the class isn't just to prep for this exam, but rather, to help everyone become a better writer. No matter what, that has been accomplished, I think.

    Bring in the three different rubrics and try to talk about those in class tomorrow, if there is class tomorrow...and best of luck.

    Y'all are awesome--and you will do fine.

    Thanks for your note, and of course I miss you, too!