In my past years of teaching AP* English Lit, timed essays were usually given out right from the start. But now that I’m following the new CED closely, I postponed full essays and we focused on paragraphs for the first three months. Yesterday, at the culmination of our Frankenstein unit, my students wrote their first full, timed essay for my class. They didn’t try to hide their nervousness, even though we had spent the whole week studying the rubric and discussing writing strategies in preparation.
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Today they came running into class with that same age-old question, “Have you graded them yet?” And I responded like any English teacher, saying, “Of course not!” They didn’t know this, but it was never my intention to have them graded by today, because I wanted to watch them go through their essays before I do.
And my goodness, was the experience eye-opening for all of us.
*Disclaimer: In this year of pandemic teaching, please note that I am teaching 19 students in person and 2 online at the moment. I will try to include strategies for teachers with fully virtual classes.
To prepare for this lesson’s in-person learners, I needed a few supplies:
- Printed or photocopied essays – Most of my students typed their essays on Schoology, so I copied and pasted their responses into Word documents, then printed them. I made sure to print them single-sided. For those who hand-wrote their essay, I made photocopies. I did this so that I can still grade a clean essay; I did not want them marking their originals.
- Highlighters or markers – Each student will need 3 different colors.
- Tape (optional) – We taped multiple pages of our essay into one continuous document. I thought it helped them visualize the line of reasoning better.
In preparing for a virtual version of this lesson:
- Typed versions of their essays – If they typed directly into AP® Classroom or any LMS, there’s a danger of them editing their essays before you can grade them. A clean, typed version of their essay is best so they can look at it with fresh eyes.
- The ability to highlight or annotate online. Google Docs, Kami, Nearpod, or Hypothesis all work for this, plus there are plenty more out there too.
Once my students had their materials, I passed their essays back to them. They created a key on their papers (explaining what color represents each section) and began highlighting.
Watching my students read their own papers was so entertaining. One student said, “I hate reading my own writing. It’s so terrible!” When I reminded him that I still had to read it, he quickly changed his tune. I heard students bemoaning flawed sentences, ridiculous typos, abandoned thesis statements, and more. And they found it all without me pointing it out.
When the papers were highlighted, we paused to talk about the importance of balance. My students have been working on following an APE model for analysis, which stands for assert, prove, explain. This is pretty formulaic and they’re welcome to move beyond this as they master it. That being said, some are still learning to move beyond summary. An APE approach helps them understand the balance and pattern that is required in a solid analysis. A paper that is pure claims will be unfounded. Pure evidence is plot summary. And pure analysis is just confusing. Students need to balance all three to create a strong analytical essay.
After highlighting our claims, evidence, and analysis, I asked students to identify their line of reasoning. This should be their central claim. This line of reasoning should be established in the thesis and mentioned in each paragraph of the essay. Several students learned that they started a line of reasoning in the thesis, but forgot about it midway through the essay.
Self-Scoring & Modified Rubrics
One other thing I tried that was new this year was scaffolding the rubric. Our rubric is still modeled after the AP® Lit 6-point rubric, but I modified its point values to reflect what we’ve been working on so far (and the point value I need in the gradebook). We just spent two days working thesis statements and strong claims, so I made a thesis a requirement for an A. But a bold claim, much more difficult to achieve, was worth just one more point. I also don’t believe in failing students who attempt a full essay, since timed efforts are stressful enough as it is. Therefore, those who finish but still score poorly receive a 24/30 in Evidence and Commentary. These points will change as we practice more essays, but I don’t like students feeling destroyed after writing a weak, but complete, essay.
Another modification I made to the rubric was to add a reflection section on the bottom. I required students to reflect on something they did well, as well as something they need to work on. Many were proud of their thesis and their textual support. A common element that needed improvement was a complete line of reasoning, stronger vocabulary, and incorporating literary elements in their analysis.
The next step for me is to actually grade these essays. While I grade them, I will look at their self-reflection. I plan on using these to make sure my students have realistic expectations and assessments of their own writing. For example, a student who gives themselves a 100% on their own rubric but scores a 1-1-0 would require more writing conferences. But after today, I get the impression that most of my students know what they’re good at, and what they need to improve.
One more thing, I did collect their highlighted essays as well. I am keeping these in our year-long data folders, along with their self-assessments from PPCs and other timed writings. We use this data to set goals throughout the year and prepare for the exam in May.