View from my ballroom

One of the things I love about teaching is the creativity: creating new assignments, finding more effective ways to engage students, and designing materials that are more inviting.  Thinking like a teacher doesn’t end with the school day, and I find myself planning lessons everywhere I am, whether it’s in the kitchen when I’m cooking dinner or in the car when I’m driving to work.  Teachers live and breathe in the world of ideas.

IMG_2360So when I heard that the AP conference was going to be held in Philadelphia this summer, I jumped at the opportunity to attend and to pick the brains of some of the leading AP teachers from around the country.  And so over the course of two days in July, I attended several workshops facilitated by some wonderful presenters. Workshop topics included:

  1. Developing Schema for Successful Rhetorical Analysis
  2. Entering the Conversation of Synthesis with Students
  3. Pictures that Bridge Gaps: The Photo Essay and the Synthesis Essay
  4. Learning to Decode—and Enjoy—Pre-2oth-Century Texts
  5. Making Connections: In-Depth Analysis of Full-Length Texts Using Learning Stations
  6. Novels as News, Poetry as Proof: Using Literary Sources as Evidence

Even though the conference was only two days, I walked away with so many great ideas for not just teaching AP Lang but any English class.  Some key takeaways:

  • Try to use more engaging and interesting “real world” mentor texts that students can rely on as they develop their own voice. I can’t expect students to know how to write without first seeing what the possibilities for writing are.
  • Create more explicit writing scaffolds for students as a way to improve their rhetorical analysis skills.  Writing is thinking, so helping students write more clearly through the use of scaffolds can also help them think more clearly about the text they’re analyzing.
  • Show the similarities between visual arguments and written arguments, using visual arguments to improve students’ ability to understand written texts. This would be especially helpful in teaching the rhetorical triangle.
  • Use strong characters in fiction to teach students about tone.  Even though the AP Lang course is focused primarily in non-fiction, it can be difficult for students to hear the tone in non-fiction texts, especially if most of the non-fiction they are accustomed to reading has been primarily expository or informational texts.  In the pre-20th-Century workshop I attended, the facilitator demonstrated a lesson on tone using Pride and Prejudice and Gatsby. It was wonderful! After all, who can’t hear the snobbery dripping from Tom Buchanan’s voice or the ironic and haughty lines in many of Austen’s characters? Revisiting excerpts from books students have read in earlier English classes would be a great starting point since they are already familiar with those texts.


  • Find ways to integrate more literary texts into persuasive writing. The workshop facilitated by Renee Shea and Robin Aufses, two of the authors of our textbook, focused on how to use literature to advance arguments in persuasive essays. During the workshop, we read an editorial published in the NY Times as well as an essay in The Atlantic, both of which used literary texts as evidence in making an argument. Not only does this help students further their own arguments, integrating literary texts in this way also reminds students that great literature does the same thing that great non-fiction does: raise questions and make arguments about some our most pressing societal concerns.  Issues of social class raised in Austen and Fitzgerald are the same issues debated between pundits in the NY Times and Wall Street Journal.
  • Examine more pre-20th-century texts to give students additional practice reading these sometimes difficult texts.  The average score on rhetorical analysis prompt on this year’s AP Lang exam—a letter from Abigail Adams to her son—was only 3.64 out of 9, the lowest in the history of the exam (the previous low was 3.96).  One way to help students is more direct instruction in learning how to read the nuances in the grammatical structures in these texts.

While some of the ideas weren’t necessarily new, it was nice to see so many other teachers affirming some of the best practices I’ve used in my own teaching over the years. I also enjoyed seeing the ways in which tried-and-true strategies—like learning stations—could be reinvented for the AP course.

Because the school year is typically a busy—and yes, sometimes frantic—time, it can be hard to find the time to implement new ideas or revise lessons. But opportunities like attending this year’s AP conference, or going to NCTE conference a few years ago, are what rejuvenate my teaching spirit and hopefully will help keep me—and my students—engaged in the upcoming year.