Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I Love the Smell of Whiteboard Cleaner in the Morning









"I love the smell of white board cleaner in the morning..."

No, I don’t; it actually stinks; it’s probably completely toxic and likely kills brain cells and will give us all cancer 20 years from now after we’ve been breathing it in (even though we try not to breathe for a good fifteen minutes after the boards are cleaned). But the point is that this line cracked my students up when I delivered it before class, standing by the door.

It was not only meant to be funny, however, but also to educate. I didn't actually plan to say it; it just worked out well, as things sometimes do.

“Do you understand what that means?” I ask as the kids file into the classroom.

“It means the white board cleaner smells?” someone asks.


A literal interpretation was to be expected.

Perhaps, I think, I didn’t ask the question in precisely the right way. I was referring to the cultural allusion I made, but my class isn’t there yet. Let’s see where this has to begin.

I smile, then cough and wrinkle my nose. “Well, it does smell horrible. I’m being sarcastic when I say that I love it.”

“My grandma says sarcasm is the lowest form of humor,” another student pipes up. “She hates it and she will freak at anyone who uses sarcasm around her.”

We nod, we chuckle, and we discuss for a minute how sarcasm is usually--grandma's opinion aside--very clever and incorporates other ideas, such as understatement. I have to imagine that this girl’s grandma would probably not get me. Sarcasm can be fun, and I always appreciate fun, but sure, it can also be mean. I personally don’t use mean sarcasm—not at school, not at home, not ever. There is nothing mean about commenting, truthfully, however, that the board cleaner smells awful. Because it does.

This reminds me of something. “Did you know,’ I ask, “that some people just don’t understand sarcasm? They are, in a way, missing the sarcasm chip in their brains.”

“Like some people don’t understand satire?” a student asks.

“Yes, just like that. Some people never realize the difference between truth and twisted truth, as seen in sarcasm or satire. But, be careful; I don’t want you to confuse sarcasm and satire. Satire can be sort of sarcastic—I mean, sarcasm can be funny, but it doesn’t really have to be. So, too, satire can be funny, but sometimes it’s just sick and weird.”

There is, I know—and this is a scientific fact—a certain portion of the population that doesn’t understand satire, doesn’t recognize it as what it is—an exaggeration meant to point out how stupid something is. Is this inability to recognize satire genetic? Is it a matter of conditioning? 

I know that students WILL be tested on whether or not they can recognize satire (at least, this will happen on the AP English exams). Recognizing satire is a life skill (like swimming!) that I want them to have. If they don’t have it naturally—some people are born with it, as I believe I was. I love satire; in fact, the more absurd something is, the funnier I’ll find it—then I hope to at least increase the chances that they will eventually notice satire.

I get back to what I really want to say: “Okay, so I told you that I love the smell of white board cleaner in the morning. But I really don’t. What I said was actually, though, an allusion to a famous film. Anyone know which film I was referring to?

Silence.

That movie is probably much before their time, but I want to them to know it and see it, at some point.

“What I said was a riff on,  ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning,’ actor Robert Duvall’s famous line in Apocalypse Now. That’s a really famous 1970s film about the Vietnam War, based on Joseph Conrad’s classic novel, “Heart of Darkness.” Which you should read. Write that down; put it on your Amazon wish list. In the meantime,"--I turn on the SmartBoard--"watch this clip."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TbLv_GtQYLE
(I just had to sub in a new, much longer clip. The dialogue to which I referred begins approx. 9:10, but trust me: the entire clip is worth watching. Horrifying and absurd.)

Some of my students, most of them, dutifully write down the name of the book. I love to recommend books.

“Guess what we’re doing? We’re going to see Apocalypse Now. You need to see that film,” I say. 

Sudden lesson plan change! The clip won't be enough. My students need to really understand all of this—satire, allusion, Vietnam War, Joseph Conrad, appreciation for fine acting.

Movie, movie,” my American Lit class starts chanting.

I wave my hands in the air, stopping the chanting. “Tomorrow, I'll bring in the movie. Today, we're talking about literary terms. What do we have so far?

“Satire!”

“The difference between sarcasm and satire! And, the similarities!”

“Allusion!”


"Understatement or, uh, overstatement (hyperbole)."

Yes! I write the terms on the just-cleaned white board. I’ll have to clean it again, before the next class comes in. That will work out perfectly.

Monday, September 27, 2010

You Say You Know What That Word Means? Define It.

Life, literature, school, all the major standardized exams...everything comes down to words—the words we know, the words we choose to use, the words we read, the words we remember.

I love words. I always have. I remember as a second-grader telling an older, annoying girl who was bugging me and my friends in the elementary school cafeteria that she was “ignorant.”

I can’t claim I actually knew what that word meant, precisely, but even at the age of seven, I knew it was a diss. It worked, too. The older girl was stunned silent and she never really bothered me again.

Teaching English class twenty-five-plus years later meant I got to teach vocabulary. This is fun—at least, it is for me. I believe in teaching vocab in context, not from a vocabulary workbook. That means, if the words are coming up in a particular story or novel, we study them beforehand (because honestly, no student—hardly any student, rather—will stop and look them up while reading. She or he might circle the foreign word, but as for pausing to look it up and scribble a definition down, and think about the word right then and there? Fat chance). 

Workbooks are fine and good, but I find that students more easily forget those workbook words; they need to see the words in action, and link them in their memories with a storyline for the words to truly stick.

One thing I always do when teaching vocabulary is to discuss the one apt synonym students can remember as a definition. This, I find, works wonders. After all, who can remember a paragraph-long definition in five parts, as is often seen on one of the online dictionary websites? Very few people remember those definitions; they’re neither study-friendly nor student-friendly.

Now, I understand that words can have more than one use and one meaning, but in general, there is one synonym that pretty much describes any given word.

Here’s an example: Plaintive. This word means mournful, I explained in class one day, as in “a plaintive wail.” My students looked sort of blank-faced as I defined the word and gave a quick example of how it is used. 

I felt like sighing; I had a big list of words used in Ethan Frome that I needed to get through before this class ended, and I didn't think they had quite gotten "plaintive."
            
Plaintive doesn’t sound like what it means,” I said quickly. “When I was your age, I had a hard time remembering this word…I think we need a word trick here, a way to associate this word with its definition.”

We sat quietly for a moment as I tried to think of the perfect mnemonic device (something I do sometimes) for remembering plaintive, until one of my students almost leapt from her seat. “I’ve got it!” she shouted, waving her hand wildly. “You know when you go to a bagel store and every kind of bagel you want, they don’t have, they’re all out? So you have to get a plain bagel?”


We all nodded knowingly; plain bagels are so lame.

“And then, you ask really nicely for the bagel to be toasted, but the bagel shop person gets all snotty with you and says, 'we don’t toast'—and what is that? Seriously? How can a bagel store not toast the bagels? And so you’re not only stuck with a plain bagel, but it’s also a cold, smushy bagel, and it just makes you want to go, ‘Waahh!’ That’s a plaintive wail!"
            
“That is a plaintive wail,” I agreed. “That is a perfect word trick for plaintive.”

I applauded my student. We all did. I never forgot her trick for remembering plaintive; I am sure none of us will ever forget it.
            
Any time we can associate a little story with a word, we have a far better chance of remembering it, I think. Case in point: the word nebulous. I did not recall ever seeing this word before it appeared on my PSAT exam, and when my father picked me up after the test, he asked me, predictably, “How did it go?”

“Fine,” I said. “Except for this one word I didn’t know. Nebulous. I couldn’t answer that question.”
            
“Aw, come on, Elizabeth!” my father said, smacking his steering wheel. I wondered why he was getting all worked up. “That’s easy. Nebulous. Nebulous. Just sound it out. It means…nebulous.”
            
My father didn’t know what nebulous meant, I realized. Or, maybe he thought he knew what it meant, but he couldn’t actually define it, and if you can’t define a word, even with just one other word (the apt synonym), then you don’t—as I explained years later, to my students—truly know it.

I went home after the PSAT and I looked up "nebulous." It means cloudy, hazy, unclear (pick a synonym). 
(image: the Crab Nebula...a related form of 'nebulous')

Nebulous was no longer nebulous. And because of that little story, that anecdote, I never forgot the word. 

Neither, I am pleased to report, did my students, because I always told that story to them when I first started teaching vocab, and I always told it on Back-to-School night. It was a crowd pleaser. So thanks, Dad, for not actually knowing what nebulous means. Having my parent not know something was actually very helpful!

Friday, September 24, 2010

What Was the First Thing You Wrote That Got Noticed?

I was in my attic office this morning (this office, which I can't work in as the top floor of our house is being renovated, is a fantastic mess of books and writing, a crazy professor's lair), and I happened to find the first piece I wrote that made a teacher say, "You're going to be a writer."

To be honest, before I was told this--in an ominous tone by a woman who frankly scared the hell out of me--I hadn't consciously considered becoming a writer. 

I had always been creative, sure, but I was such a lost kid that I never really thought about the future. I still don't really think of it. I just keep trying to create things, day by day. But I liked to read, and I was decent at writing; I just never really put 2+2 together. Until then.

When I was a sophomore in high school (I went to an excellent girls' high school before switching to public because I thought the scenery change would do me good), I wrote this weird little piece, later published in the 1987 edition of "Windward," the Kent Place School's literary magazine. 

My demanding, exacting, humorless English teacher, whose name I forget, but whose words and face still live in my mind, submitted it for me. To my tremendous surprise, they published it:

MAINE HUNTING SHOES

Looking down at her feet, she thought, "God, my L.L. Bean seven-inch Maine Hunting Shoes are so cool." Clunky and tough, with brown rubber bottoms and tan leather uppers, they seemed to smile at her. Or maybe that was the strip of light rubber connecting the shoe to the sole. It didn't matter. "I love my boots." She said it aloud. True, they made her feet sweat profusely, and she walked strangely when she wore them, but they had chain tread soles. She was in awe. They were a masterpiece. Although she barely ever hunted in Maine, she felt they were the perfect shoe. Wear with everything, bulletproof, won't slide on ice. They gave her clothes that "just back from the fox-hunt" look--classic, timeless. When they'd first arrived from Freeport, she had torn open the box, tossed the boots into the oven, and then lovingly applied the entire packet of Sno-Seal.  She wore them to bed.  She wore them to church. Their huge toes made it difficult to walk out of the pews, but didn't suffering make you a better person?  She loved those boots. They were so roomy she could fit four pairs of Ragg socks on with them.  How convenient!  Bending down, she planted soft kisses on each foot's upturned brown toe.  
"Goodnight," she whispered.

--Elizabeth Collins

I don't really know why I wrote this strange, satirical little ditty. I must have given it to my English teacher as part of some homework that I had pretended to do.  Or maybe I did do my homework for once (I would later do my homework like a good girl, but middle school, freshman and sophomore years were spotty homework times). because it was a fun sort of homework. 

I handed this piece in--inspired, no doubt, by Puritan New England (we had just read Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel, The Scarlet Letter, which I rather hated back then; I later realized I don't hate the book; it's a very good book, beautifully written and imagined by Hawthorne, but I do sincerely hate the Puritans. They gave me the creeps back then, and they still do. In fact, I am horrified by anything that reminds me of the cruel and hyper-judgmental Calvinists)--and then I forgot about it.

Soon afterward, teachers I didn't even know started stopping me in the hallway. "I loved your writing," they said to me--and honestly, I wasn't quite sure what they were talking about. "Brilliant satire! So funny! Read it three times already!" they said.  

And then, my own teacher, my English teacher, who often asked complicated questions that required sophisticated critical thinking and articulation of the finer points of literature, and, almost daily, it seemed, stared down her long nose at me and intoned, "I. Think. Not," said, "Do you know what you are, Elizabeth? I will tell you. You are a writer. You are going to be a writer. And this piece," she handed it back to me, "is how I know that is true."

My scary English teacher smiled, which I am quite sure I had never seen her do before. I took my weird, non-story and left the room (having been called in for a private conference, which was semi-terrifying), sort of shaking my head, both confused that she suddenly liked my schoolwork and grateful that she believed in me.

What I know now is that it doesn't take much, sometimes, to see the potential in students. I can see even in e-mail notes that someone has a gift for words. One thing I always do is try to encourage that gift when I see it. 

After all, we often do not even know what we can become until someone else tells us.


Monday, September 20, 2010

What the Hell Else You Got To Do? A Recent Question

I was in the gym, as I often am (although lately, for some reason, whenever I get to the gym, I just want to get out…it might be the new rust colored paint on the walls…it might be the FOX news blaring from the plasma screens; it could be the crowds of annoying people who are just parking their butts on the Nautilus equipment or talking too loudly around me, which makes it hard to concentrate on my reading).

But anyway. Sometimes people (it's always men) come up to me in the gym. For example, the same guy asks me, once a week, “Is your name Judy?”

I always smile and tell him no, my name isn’t Judy. He probably wants to know what my name is, but I think that fishing expedition is sort of ridiculous. Besides, he hasn’t asked the right question.

Some other man suddenly started talking to me this past summer. “Damn, this never gets easier,” he said as he grunted out some reps on the assisted pull up machine.

I nodded. I was using the hip machine. I like that one as my hips have been achy and tight ever since I had children.

“But you gotta do it, you know?” he blurted a few minutes later, suddenly reappearing in the aisle next to me. “How often you come here?”

I told him most mornings.

“Me, too.” he said. “You gotta do it. You gotta keep from falling apart.”

“True,” I said.

My new noisy friend pointed to an elderly man nearby who was slowly doing some tricep dips. “Ya especially gotta do it before you can’t do it no more. Like after you retire. Me, I’m not retired or anything. But you, man,” he said, pointing to the older guy, “what the hell else you got to do? You ain't working, you got no family you need to take care of. You got nothing going on. But you got your body, so your job becomes keeping that body in shape.”

He snapped his towel over his shoulder and sauntered away.

I was left thinking about that—and feeling sort of bad for the most-likely-unintentional diss on the old guy. Was it also a diss on me, even though this man certainly didn’t know my status?

What the hell else you got to do?

Some obnoxious troll wrote something similar to me back in June. This troll clearly wanted to engage me (as hundreds of people did) in some sort of political debate.

I responded that I do not have time for that.

“Oh, really?” he wrote, “It seems to me you have nothing BUT time.”

Charming! I ignored it. Yes, I have time, but that time is not going to be spent arguing politics with people whose minds will never be swayed. I have better things to do.

I can work on my own projects. I can read. And yes, going to the gym is important. In general, my focus is on doing good, lasting work. I believe that everyone needs to have outside interests, a meaningful hobby or, better yet, an avocation. We should all, in our own ways, work a little bit everyday to make a difference in the world.

I don’t think lives are well spent buying stuff or cleaning out closets. How does that make the world a better place?

That reminds me of someone who told me she spent her day off squirting dozens of take-out soy sauce packets into a half-full bottle of soy sauce. "You just never have time for all that stuff you should do," she explained. "Besides, I'm the child of Depression-era parents. I simply can't waste things."

I was incredulous. I said, as nicely as I could, "Your life is too important to spend even an hour doing that. Really, it is." I know that doesn't sound nice, but I meant it kindly. Perhaps I shouldn't have said anything, but it makes me crazy to think that anyone would engage in such meaningless activity, though I suppose it's certainly no worse than watching TV.

"The soy sauce in packets is probably of inferior quality," someone else piped up. "You probably don't want to mix it."

Sigh...

Like most people, I have annoying to-do lists of things I have to do, or mean to do. I have lots of stuff on those lists that bores me to tears. The bad stuff (calling to cancel Club Penguin memberships, for example), I tend to do one or two pieces at a time. I don’t want to waste my whole day on chores.

No, I want to do something meaningful, create something lasting. So I write.

I study new subjects (currently, microbiology and anatomy) and, every day, I try to learn something I didn't know before.

I work on art projects--though I don't actually love doing this while I'm doing it (it's hard work!), but I am always happy, later, that I created the art.

I help my children with school, and try to encourage and inspire them more.

I also work as a tutor, and my schedule is even filling up more than I’d like, in that regard.

Right now, I am--more than ever--protective of my time. I want time for me, time I feel good about spending.

If I use that time for the gym, then fine. 

Lately, I’m feeling as though I want to be freer. I want to be outside, in the sunshine. I don’t want to be trapped in a box.

What the hell else you got to do?

I can, at any given moment, think of plenty.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Rahm Emanuel, Africa for Journalists and a Potential Teaching Book, Not Necessarily in That Order

Much going on as of late, though nothing that seems big enough in and of itself to report.

School has begun for my kids (though now they are off for a very long weekend, which leads all parents to wonder what's the point?, and, in my case, why are we being tortured like this?). I love my children, but three and a half days without the little tornados tearing up the house and insulting each other (newest dig I heard: Guess what? What? Shut up!) and demanding entertainment and expensive gifts? That sort of spoiled me. I am slowly, painfully, re-adjusting.

School hasn't quite begun for the high schoolers I used to teach, and that has been very weird for me. It is certainly something I've been thinking about. 

Mostly, I have been wracked with terrible, painful memories of how I was attacked (for basically nothing), and the hell that I and my family endured. I don't want to think about that anymore, and somewhere--though I have to dig sometimes to find it underneath the mess that was piled on top--I still had wonderful experiences teaching, and I tend to think only positive things about my former students.

This morning, I was finally sorting through my teaching files, and while there are hundreds of papers I tossed, I also realized, as a thought to myself (which I never have): you were, in fact, the rockstar teacher. You have everything any English teacher could ever need or want. 

From how to run a Socratic seminar to epitaph exercises for Hamlet to creative writing games and contests to an amazing collection of notes for discussion about countless famous short stories...wow, I had been busy. Here was the tangible proof that I had barely come up for air in half a decade, that I was ready for anything, that I was always trying to learn. 

It made me tired just looking at it.

I still considered burning everything, but I decided to just park it in a closet for now. Maybe the mildew will get to it. Maybe I'll put it in a book.  Not the upcoming memoir, but something else, some sort of teacher guide...

Meanwhile, yesterday, a Democratic activist I admire was getting hot and bothered about Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff. Calls were being made for his firing (I am, and have always been, fundamentally opposed to anyone calling for anyone's firing...though there are a couple of people  I wouldn't mind seeing booted out of their respective offices, but that's not for me to say, and I'd still feel somewhat bad about it. It's because I'm too nice--which has long been my problem).


So Rahm's getting trashed on Twitter, but I've seen Rahm getting trashed before. He has, apparently, a caustic side. We went to the same college, Sarah Lawrence. I did not know him there, but I recall one of my peers interviewing him when he worked for the Clintons. The story goes that he did something to irritate someone and got demoted to working inside, quite literally, a closet, with what he described as "a Playskool phone."

That cracked me up. I liked his no b.s. manner then, and I still like it. Rahm worked his way back up, and he is well respected as a strategist and leader.

When the Bluedog Democrats were opposing healthcare reform and Rahm declared that action and their thinking as "f-ing retarded," I didn't take offense. I thought those words were apt, the newly-verboten R word notwithstanding, and I applauded him for speaking the truth.

Still, Rahm has, according to legend, sent certain people (or one person?) dead fish wrapped in newspaper. I'll admit that's sort of freaky and weird. But hey: it sends a message.

New legend has it that he stuck his knife into the table in a restaurant and shouted the word (about somebody?) "Dead!" but I don't know if that's true. It wouldn't surprise me, and again, it's freaky, if it happened, and oddly reminiscent of or indicative of mob movie mania, but that's nothing too terribly new. 

I'm not saying it's right; I don't think it's right (and I certainly did not like hearing words like that applied to me back in March), and I sincerely hope that it wasn't actually directed to someone who was there.  

The points are these, however: I don't call for anyone to get fired. Never have, never will. And I always appreciate honesty and lack of artifice. 

I also heard from my former newspaper editor, a man who had a dramatic style, too, but for whom I'll always have admiration, because he is smart, good at what he does, and sometimes incredibly funny, and humor makes everyone golden, in my book.

Example: my editor was once writing a recommendation for my colleague (whom I'll discuss later) and he was, in a slightly odd fashion, reciting the words aloud as he scrawled them in red pen on a piece of scratch paper.

We worked in a bullpen, and it was always noisy, chaotic, and rather hard for me to concentrate. This was sort of making it harder, so I just sat back and listened. "C--- is a commendable rookie reporter," my editor wrote (or something like that). "He works as long and hard as he needs to in order to get the story. He strives every week to make his articles stronger...he is one of the most impressive young reporters I've had the pleasure to hire and edit....even if he is a towelhead."

The bullpen exploded into laughter, with no one laughing harder (he was, in fact, slow clapping and tears were dripping from his eyes as he nearly fell out of his rolling chair) than the rookie reporter in question. I think he was part Indian, slightly exotic looking, though not really.

That is one of my best memories of being a reporter, actually. Imagine that sort of thing happening now, or happening in a school? It's rather unthinkable, isn't it? But why? Why can't we learn to laugh at ourselves? Why can't people take good risks with humor?

What makes something funny is, oftentimes, the element of surprise. Irreverence can work, as well.  I appreciate anyone who can take a risk like this and, in that way, bring joy to others.

Now my former editor and I are both on LinkedIn, which is how we reconnected, though neither of us ever really checks it, and he mentioned to me last night, with sentimentality and concern, that a former journalist with the paper was killed in Afghanistan last year.

I did not know this man but I read about him online, and it made me think about the sort of classic journalistic adventurer's story. I recently read a novel, "Not Untrue & Not Unkind," by Ed O'Laughlin, about journalists working in Africa in the 1990s. That's about the same time I was a reporter. 

There were some glimmers of greatness in this novel (which I had to return to the library as it was overdue), though one line I specifically remember is an account of mountain gorillas in Rwanda. O'Laughlin describes them as charging in with "a symphony of farts."


There was also quite a bit of minutiae that wouldn't appeal to someone who hasn't reported and/or edited for a newspaper. But I liked the novel because it reminded me of doing this work, and of hanging out, after the very long hours spent finalizing stories by deadline, and hearing the stories of some former reporters who were visiting, back from their new lives as intrepid stringers working in places such as Bosnia and Africa.

One reporter's story sticks out in my mind--being chased by rebels and the reporter shot-putting his sat phone across the border before it could be confiscated, and then running for his life, running for his career.

He made it; he lived to tell the tale. And as we listened to this story (I do not recall any more precise details), my colleague's eyes were filled with dreams and admiration.

"I'm going to do that," he said, "I want do that. Go to Africa."

Africa was the place to be, for sure. A patchwork of heartbreaking tragedy, political stories that certainly had historical (past and future) implications for the rest of the world.

Reporters should, I felt (and still feel), go to Africa, because the rest of the world needs to read stories about what is happening there. If people from other nations can't be bothered to help Africans, at least they should be put on notice by its myriad, horrifying examples of what could happen in their own lands: hunger, dystopia, displacement, massacres, political corruption.

I told my reporter friend, "If you go to Africa, and I think you should, do not have sex with anyone there. Anyone. Seriously. One in four people in Africa has HIV." I felt like I was giving my little brother a sex ed talk.

But my friend wasn't embarrassed (he was younger than I was, so I had that protective feeling toward him). He just looked at me wide-eyed, listening. Then I felt bad about preaching. "Ok, fine, if you have to have sex with someone there, just be careful. Promise me that. But try to stay celibate while you're in Africa. I just think it's wise."

He promised me. 

I do not know if he ever went to Africa. I lost touch with him, can't find him, though I think he went back home to Canada. Neither can my former editor, and we both think of him sometimes.

Journalists don't forget the stories they covered, and they seem, also, not to forget each other.








Wednesday, September 1, 2010

AP English Language Teachers: My Audit-Passing Syllabus

I don't think I will be teaching AP English Language again although I am working, freelance, on AP Eng Lang test prep guides right now.

Designing curricula and writing questions, or researching answers, is one of the things I do really well, so I know I can also help others with this.

Several new AP English Language teachers have contacted me recently, asking me questions, asking for advice, and asking to see my syllabus (since all new AP teachers must submit one in order to "pass" the CollegeBoard's AP audit).

I have done this a few times now--submitted a syllabus, I mean--and I have always passed the audit with no problems. 

It's not that hard, really: just make sure that your syllabus meets all the criteria (easily laid out in boxes on the right hand margin of the samples published by CollegeBoard).

Here's my syllabus, too, in case it helps further.  Remember, you don't have to use the books I did (although I am a huge, huge fan of the People's Education series for teaching AP). You don't have to follow this plan. But, if you get any good ideas from my syllabus, do use them, and have a great, rewarding, challenging, inspiring year!

Good luck!

AP English Language and Composition--11th grade English

Course Overview
Teacher: Elizabeth Collins
  
Students in this introductory, college-level course will read and learn how to carefully analyze a broad range of challenging nonfiction prose, deepening their awareness of the purpose and effectiveness of rhetoric.

Close reading and frequent writing will help students develop their ability to work with both text and language, while also strengthening their own composition skills.

Course readings will feature expository, analytical, personal and argumentative texts from a variety of authors, over a range of centuries.  Students will read, examine, and analyze a variety of prose styles such as essays, letters, speeches, journalism and diary entries. Graphics, such as political cartoons, illustrations and charts, as well as photographic images, will be studied in conjunction with the written word, and students will learn how each enhances the other, and how both forms of communication affect opinion.

*Classic American literature will studied in supplemental work, some of which was assigned over the summer, and some other works which must be read by students over vacations. American Literature will always be discussed in class, and complementary assessments have been designed to ascertain comprehension.

Featured authors in this AP English Language & Composition course include:
Annie Dillard, E.B. White, Michel de Montaigne, Truman Capote, Susan Sontag, Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, Mary Karr, Joan Didion, and Vladimir Nabokov, among others.

The ultimate purpose of this course is to prepare students for the Advanced Placement English Language and Composition exam in the spring.  Good scores on this exam may grant students advanced placement in college, credit, or both.

Central course textbooks include:  The Short Prose Reader (Muller & Wiener, eds.); Analysis, Argument and Synthesis (Brassil, Coker & Glover, eds.); and Advanced Composition Skills by Steven Fox.  Many essays and other anthologized materials will be added to the curriculum readings, and as already mentioned, students will also be assigned classic American literature in order to meet the standard requirements of junior-year English at The School and to help students better understand how various writing effects, such as linguistic and rhetorical choices, affect both meaning and comprehension.

(Note: Students are urged to visit the The School Writing Center, and they will also receive extra in-class writing critiques.  Summer reading and writing in response to summer reading is required at the start of the school year.)

The synthesis of information—based on sources provided for timed writing assignments, and in research required for longer, take-home papers—is an essential part of this course.

Students will also learn how to cite information according to MLA style, and they will furthermore study vocabulary, literary terminology, rhetorical structures, common rhetorical modes and organization (exposition, argumentation, description and narration), and the tenets of Aristotle’s Three Rhetorical Appeals (Logos, Ethos, and Pathos), along with the Toulmin model of Argumentation.

This course is constructed in accordance with the guidelines described in the AP English Language Course Description.

Final note: This is a very challenging, intensive class with a significant reading and writing load. The AP English Language & Composition exam is notoriously tough. But all students who complete all the required readings and written work and who try their best are welcome in this class and will undoubtedly end the year—no matter their ultimate score on the exam, which is essentially out of the teacher’s control—as far stronger students, leading them to increased success in their senior year of high school and in college.

AP English Language & Composition Course Planner
By Elizabeth Collins

Specific monthly syllabi will be distributed at the start of each month; this is a general overview of what we will accomplish during each quarter and over the course of this important year.

First Quarter

  • Course Orientation / Intro to the AP English Language & Composition Exam
  • Discussion of Summer Reading (along with written assignment—informal writing  / reading response and online journals)
  • Introduction to Close Reading requirements—annotation, comprehension, paraphrase
  • Aristotle’s Three Rhetorical Appeals
  • Toulmin’s Model of Argumentation
  • Studying the Argumentative essay (AP practice packet and writing own essays)

Readings:

  • The Short Prose Reader; Chapters 1 & 2; Chapter 11: Argumentation and Persuasion, pp. 407-514;

Reading examples:
Anna Quindlen, “The Good Enough Mother”
John McCain, “Torture’s Terrible Toll”
Molly Ivins, “Get a Knife, Get a Dog, But Get Rid of Guns”
Nicholas Handler, “The Posteverything Generation”
Jonathan Kozol, “Are the Homeless Crazy?”
Linda Hirshman, “Off to Work She Should Go”
Ronald Takaki, “The Harmful Myth of Asian Superiority”

  • Lessons 1-4: Advanced Composition Skills: preliminary analysis, plus three sections on argument.
  • Various handouts and online readings (projected on SmartBoard)
Analysis, Argument and Synthesis: chapters 1, 2,3, 4.

Assessments
    • Summer reading journal responses (online journals);
    • Vocabulary units;
    • Quizzes on rhetorical strategies;
    • Three argument essays, varying format (narrative and expository), first written in class, then final revisions done at home.

Collins / AP English Language & Composition Course Planner

Second Quarter

  • Common Rhetorical Modes
  • Rhetorical Analysis strategies and reading comprehension
  • Studying the Rhetorical Analysis essay (AP practice packet and writing own essays)
  • Focus on Satire
  • Multiple-choice AP Eng Lang exam practice
  • Focus on Politics, Essay, History, Nature
  • Graphic and visual images as they relate to written texts and serve as alternative forms of text themselves.
  • Making writing more sophisticated—polishing diction, syntax, organizational techniques such as repetition, use of transitions, ways to emphasize ideas.
  • Citation and research skills (evaluating, using and citing primary and secondary sources in an argumentative research paper that asks students to present an argument of their own that includes the analysis and synthesis of ideas from an array of sources). MLA formatting emphasized; use of style manuals.
Readings:  Chapters 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7, The Short Prose Reader: Description, Narration, Process Analysis and Illustration; Comparison and Contrast

Lessons 5-10: Advanced Composition Skills (more refined analysis skills)

Analysis, Argument and Synthesis: chapters  5, 6, 10

End of second quarter is marked by the course Midterm Exam (practice AP English Lang & Composition exam)

Other
--SAT prep
--American Literature re-reading assigned for Winter break: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (novels originally assigned for reading over summer…review for in-depth discussion in class.) 
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgeralad

Assessments:
  • Three Rhetorical Analysis essays (multi-stage writing/editing with both peer and teacher review before final work is submitted;
  • Longer research-style paper;
  • Vocabulary unit quizzes;
  • Literary terminology quiz;
  • Midterm (double-weighted)

Collins / AP English Language & Composition Course Planner

Third Quarter

  • Visual Images
  • Journalistic writing (handouts)
  • Synthesis of information
  • Studying the Synthesis essay (AP practice packet and own assignments)

Readings:

The Short Prose Reader, chapters  8, 9, 10: Cause-and Effect Analysis; Classification; Definition

Lessons 11-16: Advanced Composition Skills—attitude, details, purpose, diction, rhetorical strategies, synthesis

Analysis, Argument and Synthesis: chapters 7, 8, 9.

Writing the Synthesis Essay (handouts)

Viewing: “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

American Literature (spring break readings—acquire on own): A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams; In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Other Assessments: 
  • Class blog writing;
  • Vocabulary quizzes;
  • Two synthesis papers (multi-stage writing and grading);
  • Visual image comprehension assessment—test.
  • American Lit quizzes/essays.

Collins / AP English Language & Composition Course Planner

Fourth Quarter

  • AP English Language Examination--intensive, strategic prep and review
  • Official Exam
  • After exam--The Personal Essay and the College Application Essay
  • American Literature  (specifically, Poetry and Short Stories)
Readings:

Advanced Composition Skills, Lessons 17-20
Personal and College Essay handouts
Poetry text
Short Stories text

Assessments
    • Practice exam sections;
    • Vocabulary-- final test
    • Personal / college essays (two—written in multi-stage drafts);
    • Poetry Test;
    • Essay on short stories studied

AP English Language and Composition Grading system

Essays
Three-part scoring, worth 40% of quarterly grades.
Teacher grade given after final essay is handed in, along with all drafts.

Most essays are first written as in-class essays and counted first as rough drafts.  Rough drafts are self-edited, and then peer-edited (peer editing is graded) before students type the final copies (after teacher input via conferencing). 

Students must submit all drafts with final copies.  Graded final copies are kept in a portfolio that counts as part of the final grade for the semester. Any work that is missing from the portfolio will be counted as a zero; any work that is substantially late will not be counted, either.

Tests
When tests are given, each worth 10% of quarterly grade

The only tests in this course are very occasional practice multiple-choice tests based on AP English Language test preparation materials, and focused on rhetorical devices and their particular function in given passages of writing; at the very end of the year, after the AP exam, there will be a poetry test.

Quizzes
In total, quizzes are worth 30% of quarterly grade; one quiz per week, generally. Quiz grades will be averaged together.

Quizzes include reading checks, vocab application quizzes, grammar, terms and rules that must be memorizes, etc.

Daily Assignments
Worth 20% of quarterly grade--includes annotation checks, peer critique work, Homework preparedness.