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Ap Language And Composition Synthesis Essay Strategies In Teaching

Students will come in having read two sections in their The Language of Composition textbook (pgs. 148-154, 160-166) that explain the synthesis essay and also provide a model.  Up to this point I have often mentioned that this was where they were going, and much of the teaching has been in part to practice this skill of connecting ideas from multiple texts in order to form their own educated ideas on issues (writing standard 7!).  The synthesis essay, to me, is the most important of the essays required in AP Language and Composition, because synthesizing information—creating a unique argument through evaluation of a number of ideas—is a skill students will use throughout their academic careers in writing, and one they will use in their own lives all the time (making purchasing decisions, for example).    Given this, we are going to spend a couple days on the pre-writing activities (we’ve actually been doing a lot of that work during the thematic unit leading up to this point via discussions, such as during the two days with Emerson) to give students a simple process they can use for this type of writing.

Today will be largely teacher led rather than in groups because it is a matter of explaining what the synthesis essay is and how it is constructed.  I will, however, have them talk with a peer next to them for about five minutes to explain to each other what they understood the synthesis essay to be, and to identify one sentence from the textbook that best defines it.  This lets everyone review what they read for homework, and also acts as an assessment for me to see who read (lots of reading rather than talking will be a good indicator that it wasn’t read the first time!).  After they’ve had a chance to share ideas, I will ask for a couple responses for the sentence that best explains what it is.  This activity also acts as practice for identifying main ideas in textbooks, which have a rather standard organization (in this case, the text is rather obvious:  the text writes “and that’s what synthesis is all about:  entering the conversation that society is having about a topic” on the first page of the section). 

Once we’ve established the basic idea of the synthesis essay (which shouldn’t take long, because I’ve been talking about it for weeks), I will further define some characteristics by looking at a couple pages of the textbook that talk about the types of evidence that is most appropriate for the genre of writing, and also establishing the role of appeals (academic ethos, heavy on logic and subtle on emotion).     These ideas will be introduced, but will be emphasized more specifically as we look at the main part of today’s lesson, the model synthesis essay provided in the textbook on pg. 165 and 166 regarding schools having a requirement of community service.  This one is annotated for students, showing the role different passages have (thesis statement, quotation of a source, counterargument, etc.).    We will read each paragraph out loud and specifically discuss the organization of ideas, the integration of evidence, and also the times where the writer uses diction that provides voice.  This paragraph by paragraph look should give students a strong sense of how these essays should look as they think about their own papers and the topics they will write about.

If it’s your first time teaching AP English Language, consider yourself lucky. What a great assignment! Though most first time experiences are as frightening as they are exciting, you knowing what to do before you get to the classroom helps take the edge off.

You know you have a tough job ahead. You must prepare your students well for the AP English Language test and college. Thus, you’re expected to develop a rigorous curriculum that emphasizes the reading, writing, and researching skills they’ll need to succeed in college but especially ensure they succeed on the exam. If you’ve never taught the course, how do you know you’ll prepare your students well enough?

Fortunately, there’s help. Resources, advice, and materials abound on the internet and surround you in real time. With sufficient lead time, you can prepare sufficiently to march confidently into the classroom that first day. Here are a few tips:

Getting Ready

Unlike other classes, AP courses demand that you teach to the test. That’s because nearly all students who take an AP course plan to take the exam to earn college credit. However, preparing students for the exam also prepares them for college. After all, you’re teaching skills–writing, reading, and researching–more than content. Like all AP courses do, you’re challenging students to think critically and analyze texts, two necessary skills for college success. More concretely, you’re teaching students how to synthesize information for writing arguments.

Which Texts Should You Choose?

In selecting your course materials, think about the exam. The AP English Language FRQs require students to write three essays, analyzing nonfiction materials to identify rhetorical strategies and devices and to support arguments. Ultimately, you’re honing students’ reading and writing skills. Choose texts that test their analytical skills in various nonfiction media from different time periods. You may want to supplement an anthology with current articles, scholarly journals, websites, ads, and newspapers to expose students to a wide range of media.

Practically speaking, you should check out previous AP exams to feel more comfortable with your choice (Review the CollegeBoard’s book list at the end of this article). If you want a narrower list of works with reasons for selecting them, check out this article. Don’t forget to include your favorites from the lists, so you can confidently demonstrate your analyses, experiences, and enthusiasm. Though, you’ll miss the shared excitement of learning along with your students with a new text.

Variety, as in old and new texts, helps students explore more rhetorical styles and historical contexts. You might choose a rhetoric reader, a style manual, and a pocket handbook for grammar and citations, or one text that combines all. Some publishers offer a teacher’s edition argument anthology or reader. There you’ll find some suggestions how to organize a lesson or structure your course.

Keep in mind these are high school students. They’re college bound but not college students. Their experience and sophistication should influence your choices. There’s a happy medium between impossible and superficial. You want to challenge them without defeating them.

Of course, check out your predecessor’s text list for potential book choices. You can also ask other teachers who taught the class or the school Principal.

Helpful Resources

Other resources to help you prepare include these:

AP list servs, like the CollegeBoard’s AP English Teacher Community, assemble teachers with advice, experience, questions, and concerns. You can pick up tips here. Read around before you ask a question; you might find your question answered already.

The AP CollegeBoard summer (or fall) conferences offer face to face connection with other teachers and presenters sharing invaluable tips, experiences, and lessons. You’ll learn about some of the policies and problems tackled historically and currently to understand the philosophy of the AP board and the reasons for the exam content. The materials like practice exams and grading rubrics you take away are adaptable for the classroom.

AP English Language workshops or seminars offered by the CollegeBoard provide hands-on, practical experience and tips. You can attend them live or online.

Purdue’s OWL for writing tips, grammar, and essay structure is easy to navigate and understand a one-stop shop for writing students. There’s even a section on writing timed essay strategies. Teach the steps to write about composition and rhetoric right from the site.

Your school administrators, principals, and colleagues are a wealth of resources. Don’t be afraid to ask them for advice. Also, educate yourself about the classes your students take before yours to focus your own. For example, feeder classes to the AP courses show you what students should know. Ask those teachers what they taught.

Your notebook (electronic or paper) that gathers all of the tips, materials, samples, advice, and lists you’ve found or heard and puts them in one place for reference and review.

AP English Language and Composition Review books are available in stores and online.

Other helpful website resources include:

Design Your Course

The first step to organizing your course is to prepare a syllabus.

Course outlines come in all shapes and forms. The object of this document is to keep students informed of course content and classroom conduct. While the style and content differ from teacher to teacher, the core syllabus includes:

  • Name and description of the course
  • Required textbook and other materials
  • Instructor name and contact information, including your website and availability
  • Overview of the course content and learning objectives
  • Class rules, grading, and expectations
  • Helpful links: The CollegeBoard, Purdue’s OWL, your website, or other websites about writing, composition, argument, research, rhetoric, or test-taking strategies

As to assignments and the classroom, some instructors map out the week by week work, homework, and activities, while others structure the syllabus more broadly with units covered by month or semester.

Examples exist all over the internet. Review the CollegeBoard’s teaching syllabus, other AP teachers’ course outlines on the web (some listed in resources above), your school administrator’s store of past curriculum materials (if applicable), or your colleagues’ syllabi, provided they agree to share.

Your syllabus should show that the course is intensively reading, writing, researching, and practicing. The practical emphasis on sharpening analytical and critical thinking skills for the test through reading and writing should be clear. You might schedule weekly timed essays on the syllabus to let students know how they’ll spend class time so that they can come prepared and well-rested.

Course Content and Conduct

1. Essay Writing

Since the three essays on the FRQs section of the exam comprise 52% to 55% of the score, you want your students to enter the exam confident that they can write a competent essay: organized, focused, coherent, and grammatical. Provide sample argument essays defending a claim to deconstruct. By showing what works and doesn’t in an essay, you teach the writing, reading, and thinking strategies required of them on the exam.

As an option, you might walk students through the first argument analysis essay with some preparation, cueing students on what to focus on in the nonfiction materials and pointing to specific passages to examine for tone, diction, point of view, writing style, and logic. Help them think about what they will write before they come to class. Allow them to revise their first essay to make it AP passable. They won’t get these luxuries of foreknowledge and revision on the exam, but it helps them kinetically learn to write on the test.

2. Timed Writings

Students should practice writing an essay in class within the allotted two hours (40 minutes per essay) that they’ll have when they take the AP exam. The more of these timed writing practices, the better. Teach strategies about how to manage time: reading, annotating, outlining, and drafting. Every unit in your syllabus should have a timed writing to cap or start it off.

Most importantly, enforce the same methodology for each timed practice. Teach students by repetition, emphasizing how to develop thesis statements, write topic sentences, cite research, paraphrase, and quote in all of the course readings so that they can execute the process quickly under exam conditions.

Use old AP test prompts for practices, and take one or two prior exams offered on the CollegeBoard website yourself to experience firsthand how to take the exam and experience the difficulty of mastering one. Your class should approach May with full test practices to simulate the test-taking conditions if you have the time. Complete exams are available in review books, like Barron’s and Princeton Review, among others.

When analyzing prior responses, let your students identify analyses that are too in-depth or too superficial in essay writing under time limits. The former threatens to lower their score for incompleteness and the latter for failure to demonstrate analytical and essay writing ability. A shallow argument with insufficient support and discussion won’t earn a passing score.

Emulate the types of questions and conditions under which students will write the AP FRQs as closely as possible to benefit your students the most. Encourage students to use scratch outlines to help them remember which points they must cover. Remind them (drill it!) to read the prompt carefully and accurately address what’s asked.

AP readers can’t expect perfection, but they can require evidence of the writer’s ability to coherently develop a thesis with support and discussion.

3. Grading Rubrics

Look at the CollegeBoard’s grading rubrics to their previous exams for reviewing your timed writing practices. Analyze the CollegeBoard’s released prior years’ exams to evaluate the model, average, and subpar FRQ responses in the context of the board’s rubrics. Ask experienced teachers for practice exams to supplement the Board’s.

Grading rubric analyses and discussions might also prove useful for peer review group activities before submitting essays you’ll grade. Consider targeting each short writing assignment or essay for specific skills. For example, correct for introductions, transitions, and conclusions in some essays but others, evaluate different components, such as how well students use sources, recognize rhetorical strategies and devices, and incorporate quotations.

4. Composition, Research, and Rhetoric Terms

Compile a list of rhetorical devices and compositional components with which to analyze materials, including purpose, audience, genre, voice, design, linguistic tools (repetition, figurative language, etc.), style, patterns, appeals, humor, and structure.

Composition components to teach are thesis statements or claims in argument, topic sentences, transitional words and phrases, diction, tone, punctuation, imagery, and dialogue. You’ll want to familiarize students with the conventions of essay purposes, such as comparison and contrast, cause and effect, narration and description, and especially persuasion.

Argument strategies and components, like appeals (logos, pathos, and ethos), avoiding logical fallacies, enthymeme testing and syllogisms, major and minor premises, and warrants may be incorporated with research units or separately. Citation style, formatting, and documenting sources on take-home essays help students practice synthesizing and summarizing sources.

5. Eliciting Student Questions

Consider your students as emerging college students. In college, they’ll have to think, work, and question to learn on their own. Don’t robotically ask questions with preconceived answers about the various works studied in class or researched at home. Ask open-ended questions that get students to think and ask more questions. You’re teaching a process of engaging (and arguing) with other minds, not merely content.

Try and reach back to a time before you knew how to examine and reason critically. Think about how you acquired the skills to think and analyze what you read. Lee Watanabe Crockett of the Global Digital Citizen Foundation, in his article entitled, “The Importance of Teaching Critical Thinking,” suggests that teachers act as facilitators of discussion and providers of tools, allowing students to examine their thinking and writing patterns as well as those of other writers.

6. Multiple Choice Questions

Practice timed writings once or twice a week, but be sure to practice multiple choice questions daily. Students need consistent exposure to the form and subject of questions they’ll encounter on the AP exam.

7. Teach Students Purpose

AP English Language students are typically juniors in high school. They’re stepping into adulthood and college shortly. They’re capable of understanding the big picture, where they fit in and the responsibilities they have as citizens of a nation and the world. After all, the study of language and rhetoric is the study of what it is to be human–rational minds seeking answers.

Teach them to see the correlation between reading and analyzing texts and writing essays, that they too are composers of writings of constructed, finished works. Enlighten them to the larger purpose of reading and writing arguments: that they are part of an ongoing conversation that precedes them and will continue long after they leave the class and exam behind. They’re readers and writers.

Ultimately, as a first year AP English Language teacher, you’ll impress your students most not by your fantastic syllabus but by the passion and curiosity you encourage. Exposing students to the ideas and showing them the relevance of the skills you teach, fosters their desire to probe the messages all around them, inside and outside of your classroom.

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