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AP® Language: Simplify the Start

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

When I first began teaching AP® Language, I fretted for weeks about where and how to start off. After my summer institute I was flooded with resources--there was so much information and so many directions in which I could proceed. As an experienced teacher, I know it’s not what but how I teach that matters, but the big question remained where to begin. I knew this needed to be a rhetoric class, but also knew that I didn’t want to lose the flavor of a literature class.

I believe that in AP® Language class we empower students to think and analyze for themselves in ways that they have never done before. There is a new emphasis on collaborating, and thinking about and discussing texts together. It works well largely because the students have chosen to be in the class, and are more willing to read the assignment and talk about what they have read.

I try to plan every class so that we are collaborating in some way. On the first day I like to jump right into a group discussion and analysis, which helps set this tone of collaboration and steer these highly competitive and grade-conscious students away from discussion of grading details. (Instead, I post a syllabus on my Web site and have them print it for the next class, when I will answer any questions about how the class will run.) I usually select a poem such as “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” “The History Teacher,” or “Gubbinal,” which can be argued over and therefore enables us to address subject, speaker, audience, speaker’s position, and what aspects of the poem help to make the argument convincing. This allows for follow-up lessons on the rhetorical triangle, classical argument structure, and the nature of convincing supporting details.

Beginning with an introduction to the rhetorical triangle during those first days gives us a common language we will use to discuss argument. I often review for myself Hepzibah Roskelly’s article, "What Do Students Need to Know about Rhetoric," available on the College Board AP® Web site. I like the way Roskelly emphasizes the “ordinariness of rhetoric,” for during this year students will talk about texts and the world of words, visuals, and information that surrounds us. They will learn to apply their critical and rhetorical analysis skills to everything from advertisements and videos to Glenn Beck and President Obama.

Also in the first several days, I include a class on visual rhetoric, for using visuals helps me to explain the rhetorical exchange more easily. I’ve collected provocative covers from the New Yorker magazine that are great for discussing the power of rhetoric, the interplay between speaker and audience, and context. Barry Blitt’s cartoons are especially useful. (The “covers” archive on the New Yorker Web site features covers for every year.) I will usually discuss a couple of covers with the entire class, lead them through examining the rhetorical effectiveness of the piece, and then divide students into small groups to examine a specific cover in the same manner; the groups follow up with a presentation of their findings to the whole class.

Teaching rhetoric requires us to reinforce and review the basics throughout the course. Each selection we read and interpret brings us to a deeper understanding of how rhetoric operates. Following these early days in class, a teacher can branch out in any direction. Some may choose readings that are thematically related. Some may approach the different types of writing tasks in a certain order; whether we should teach students to write a rhetorical analysis before or after an argument is a matter of preference, I believe. If you are just starting out, you will be developing your syllabus and then tinkering with it from year to year. It seems that each year I devise a modified plan of attack. Changing things a bit each year makes the whole enterprise more interesting!

®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.