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A View from the Reading

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

What do Carlos Mencia, Jonathan Swift, and SpongeBob SquarePants have in common? Before I read eight days worth of student responses to question three of the 2010 free response AP® English Language exam, I would have said "nothing." But I have been enlightened.

The argument question this year required students to support, argue with, or qualify Alain de Botton’s position that humorists serve a “vital function” in society. In his book, Status Anxiety, de Botton suggests that humorists aim to “convey with impunity messages that might be dangerous or impossible to state directly.” As the prompt included in a parenthetical “cartoonists, stand-up comics, satirical writers, hosts of television programs, etc.,” some students predictably went through the list and tried to include one of each in their support. This approach tended to result in a disjointed essay.

The more papers I read, the more I discovered that a unified approach produced a better essay. For example, discussing the power of satire, and clearly supporting the essay with examples of satirical writing coupled with fully developed explanations of how the satire performed a “vital role” in society tended to earn an upper level score if the essay was structured and explained well. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal” were frequently cited, and the better essays discussed the unpopular messages that the respective examples delivered to their particular audiences. Thomas Nast’s cartoons criticizing Boss Tweed provided powerful support for excellent essayists. How the evidence supported the student’s position on the vital role in society that the humorist plays – this was a key quality in the higher scoring essays. Again, and as usual, too many students were unclear about details. You have to know something to write a good essay, as we so often hear ourselves telling our students! The better essayists were those who knew specific details about Nast and Swift.

Disjointed support often weakened an essay. Grouping SpongeBob with Mark Twain with Jeff Dunham proved to be an unwieldy approach resulting in a poorly developed response. Students who could unify their essays by examining a controlling idea in their introduction, reinforcing that idea through development of their examples with specific details in support of their claim, refuting opposing viewpoints, and concluding through the same lens – these essays rose to the top of the scoring guide. SpongeBob is not equivalent to Jonathan Swift, and the correlation of examples is something that students should take into consideration while crafting a position.

The reading always provides a list of notes to self for fall. What I will bring back to my classroom this year will include the following teaching points when I discuss writing an argument:

  • WHAT you put in your essay matters. Employ memoria. Remember what you learn in your other classes and on your own outside of class – history, science, news – think about how to use what you know to argue your position.
  • Seek unity and cohesiveness of thoughts and ideas in making your argument.
  • Be careful that what you claim is fact is truly fact. If in doubt, leave it out.
  • Development of your support and connecting this support to your claim is essential. Just providing a list of examples does not an upper-half paper make.
  • Remember your audience. Many teachers are not regular viewers of Dave Chapelle, George Lopez, Dane Cook, or Jeff Dunham. We may not have not seen Chelsea Handler lately. Make sure if you are using something from popular culture for support that you provide enough context from which to frame your argument, and make sure that the evidence you provide clearly supports your position on the question asked – what is the vital role that this humorist plays in society?

®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.