Addendum #6: Advanced Placement English Thinking Is Highly Relevant to Emergency Teaching, Real Life, and the Pursuit of Long-term Flourishing

“What are the most important values to consider for guiding one through crisis times and toward long-term flourishing?” I brainstormed that synthesis prompt this week as I was considering what we’re not testing in the Advanced Placement English Language and Composition exam this year due to the COVID-19 crisis. As a teacher, I’m working on this prompt each week whether I articulate it explicitly or not.

In a sense, we’re all being tested with synthesis value prompts–similar to the one I imagined–in this time of crisis. I’m increasingly struck by how relevant Advanced Placement English curriculum, instruction, and assessment can be to good literacy education, to personal development, and to the pursuit of long-term flourishing. 

Here’s one of my favorite value synthesis argument prompts: Read the following sources (including the introductory information) carefully. Then, in an essay that synthesizes at least three of the sources for support, evaluate the most important factors that a school should consider before using particular technologies in curriculum and instruction. (2010 exam)

When students first do pre-writing for the prompt they often mistake it for an either-or topic. With some prompting they realize that they’re supposed to think through this with more nuance and complexity. It’s a good exercise to get them out of lazy dichotomous thinking. [Elsewhere, there is also a similar style prompt that asks students to explore and argue which issues are most important to consider regarding space exploration.]

As an understandable compromise this year, the AP organization has decided to still have students take a shorter exam at home via computer, but it will be focused only on rhetorical analysis. The AP English Language and Composition exam will focus solely on having students independently read a complex text and then write a thoughtful rhetorical analysis essay about it within a fifty-five minute time frame.

In the spring exams for “normal” times in previous years, AP English Language and Composition students typically get a challenging, intellectual, Chopped!-like cluster of assessments for three hours and fifteen minutes. 

Students first spend almost an hour on complex multiple-choice questions that dig into textual, rhetorical, and contextual meanings. Then, students spend two hours and fifteen minutes writing essays. First, the synthesis essay is based on some sort of argument prompt which students are to write about using three or more short source samples from about seven selections. Next, students write a rhetorical analysis essay and an argument essay in the allotted time. Lastly, students write about a more open argument topic that requires them to bring any thoughtful evidence and commentary that they can gather to bear on the task.

All of these assessment segments have great utility for training students to develop skills that can aid them in the pursuit of personal flourishing and the public good. A healthy democratic republic is well-served by citizens and leaders who can understand and analyze the rhetoric (in both the good and the pejorative senses of that term) of advertisers, politicians, citizens, and leaders.

A good society is also served well by having citizens who can craft thoughtful arguments about what we should and should not do as individuals, communities, and governments. And the synthesis essays challenge students to think through multiple sources and use them well in the service of such arguments. Students are challenged to quickly do the best thinking they can about the credibility, applicability, and complexity of synthesis sources. So many issues in life come with suddenness, and we often need to learn to think as deeply and critically as we can within limited time frames. Granted, we often get more than two hours and fifteen minutes to do so, but my friends who coach would agree that there are many benefits to training harder than you’re going to play. 

The rhetorical, argumentation, and synthesis activities don’t necessarily train students in deeper habits of ethics and truth seeking, but they’re helpful as one cluster of training for developing more thoughtful people. Granted, the pacing of the AP English materials are too intense for some students. However, the quality and direction of the AP approach can still be adapted and differentiated to help all students get better at reading, thinking, and writing. AP provides a framework of curriculum, assessment, and instruction that could help more educators add coherence and effectiveness literacy learning throughout the middle and high school levels. 

As a closing note, I have found for many years that working on AP English with juniors tends to promote surprisingly helpful connections with the students’ history class. Often they ask me whether the social studies teacher and I are planning our lessons together, but more often my colleague and I are brought into effective overlap due to the richness of the AP English and History framework of curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

We’ve got a lot to discuss about better curriculum, instruction, and assessment in secondary levels, and I believe AP perspectives have much to offer for making those discussions thoughtful, helpful, and effective.

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