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Highlighter Magic

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Wouldn’t it be great if you could see inside your student’s minds as they were writing an essay for your AP® course?  How many times have you thought to yourself, “what was she thinking?” or “does he think that is extended analysis?”  as you read a student response to an AP® essay prompt? Wouldn’t it be great if you could have them in front of you as you grade every essay to find out exactly where they are confused about the rubric or the prompt? Well, there just happens to be some magic wands that make all of these scenarios possible … HIGHLIGHTERS. 

In the previous blog post in this series, I emphasized the importance of teaching students the recipe for writing effective essays in AP® history courses.  Teaching students the recipe for writing an effective AP® essay in history can provide students with the tools necessary to be successful on the AP® exam. The recipe is the first key to student success on AP® writing.  Today, I would like to expand this idea by focusing on how the use of highlighters can give your the magic power of seeing what your students are thinking as they try to implement the recipe and effectively write an essay in your AP® class. 


Using highlighters can be effective in working with any essay, but I have found it to be most helpful in teaching students to understand the DBQ rubric and recipe.  The key to the use of highlighters as magic wands is matching the highlighters to the DBQ rubric.  In my classes, I use highlighters that come in a pack of 6.  Each color in the pack corresponds to one point on the rubric.  You can see that I took the cardboard insert with the brand of the highlighters, inverted it, and added the code for the DBQ rubric for each color highlighter.  I have a class set of the highlighters so that each student has a set of highlighters to use after completing every essay in my AP® courses.  File_007.jpeg

So here is how this process works in my AP® history courses.  After students complete a DBQ, they are required to use the highlighters to show their thinking process on the essay.  I teach students to follow this order for highlighting:

  1. Highlight the THESIS STATEMENT first.  Then, use the highlighter color to highlight where they refer back to their thesis statement in the body of the essay.  If students are following the recipe, the last 1-2 sentences of the introduction, the first sentence of each body paragraph, and the first 1-2 sentences of the conclusion should be highlighted.  This is the student’s first self-assessment of how well their essay followed the recipe!
  2. Use the assigned color to highlight CONTEXTUALIZATION.  If students are following the recipe, contextualization should come in the introduction before the thesis statement.  I tell students to highlight only what provides Specific Factual Information (SFI) that is from the SAME TIME PERIOD as the prompt and helps explain OTHER topics, events, developments that are related to the topic of the question. 
  3. Use the assigned colors to highlight DOCUMENT ANALYSIS and EXTENDED ANALYSIS.  I always remind students to be careful here to differentiate these two skills.  Document Analysis will be the use of information available in the document to support their thesis.  While Extended Analysis looks at the historical context of the document, influence of the intended audience or purpose of the document, or the impact of the point of view of the author on the document’s use as evidence.   Extended Analysis must include SFI (Specific Factual Information) that is NOT in the document itself or the source information provided with the document.  I ask students to label which type of Extended Analysis the were going for in the margin - historical context (HC), Intended Audience (IA), Purpose (Pr) or Point of View (POV) (Note: Next week’s blog will focus on exactly how to get kids to include Extended Analysis EVERY TIME)
  4. Use the assigned color to highlight SYNTHESIS.  If students have followed the recipe, synthesis should come in their conclusion AFTER they have restated their thesis statement.  (Restating the thesis is not required by the DBQ rubric (or the LEQ rubric), however, I find that very often students have a stronger, clearer thesis at the end of the essay.)  It helps the students to restate the thesis before attempting Synthesis because their synthesis argument must be tied to their thesis.  I teach my kids to think of Synthesis as synTHESIS… it is a thesis based argument.  In other words, this skill is not simply a comparison of the topic of the prompt to a similar topic in history.  Instead, they can only highlight SynTHESIS if it is an extension of a part of their thesis statement.  Like all parts of the essay, SynTHESIS must include SFI to be highlighted. 
  5. FINALLY… and this must come LAST… students use the final color to highlight OUTSIDE EVIDENCE.  This step must come last because “double dipping” is not allowed on the DBQ Rubric.  I remind students that if information is highlight in ANY OTHER COLOR, it can not count towards the point for OUTSIDE INFORMATION.  In my class, the blue highlighter is for OUTSIDE INFORMATION, so my student know that the blue highlighter is used last and can only be used on essay content that is not already another color.


You can see in this image that the student has highlighted, I have provided feedback (in the margin, in pink) and the student has corrected the error … all by the magic of the highlighters!

While the explanation for this process is quite wordy, it is actually very simple for students to do in class.  And, the results are phenomenal….

When you sit down to grade the highlighted essays, you can literally see what the students thought they were doing in each sentence of their essay.  Based on the highlighting, you can tell when students thought they were contextualizing, providing extended analysis, and using document analysis to support their thesis.  Based on the highlighting, both you and the student can easily see if they followed the recipe for an effective essay.  This particular point has given rise to the acronym “DNFR” in my class (DNFR = Did Not Follow Recipe)  Because you know what the student THOUGHT they were doing, you can now provide very clear and directive feedback based on what the students thought they were writing.  If you choose to allow students to rewrite problem areas in their essays (which I highly recommend), they now have clear feedback that responds to their thinking on the DBQ essay.  If you do not choose to allow students to rewrite, they can use the feedback on one DBQ to inform their writing of the next essay.  I have even had students take out their last DBQ to reference when writing a new one in class.  This feedback allows students to effectively correct errors in their thinking or understanding of the rubric requirements. 

I teach this process early in the year and we use it on every essay.  My students become so accustomed to following this process that if I happen to forget and try to take up unhighlighted essays, they quickly remind me!   However, teaching this process now and allowing students to use it on DBQ practice between now and AP® Exam day (May 5) can have a tremendous impact on their writing skills because FEEDBACK is crucial to improving writing skills.