On the first day of school, I handed out my syllabus and explained to my student the philosophy for my Advanced Placement English Language and Composition course. I was pretty proud of this paragraph that I wrote:
This class is not a reading class. It is not a writing class. It is a thinking class. Speaking and writing are merely the tools we use to communicate our thinking; reading is a way to improve it. I do not believe in isolating “English” as a class; learning rhetoric is as much about psychology, philosophy, sociology, history, economics, science, politics, and technology as it is about a particular language. Will your grammar and spelling matter? Of course; someone whom you want to persuade of your view will not listen if you cannot utilize your primary tool for communication – your language.
If a student chooses to take the AP test at the end of the year and scores high enough, some college will allow him or her to get credit for freshman English and not have to take the course. As a result, this course is really supposed to be able to replace a college course. Therefore, I am going to channel the frustration and joys of my college freshman course as a model for this year’s curriculum.
The course I took to fulfill my freshman expository writing component was both the most memorable and the most frustrating of my Ivy League career. It was titled “Destinations Unknown” and we analyzed Heart of Darkness, On the Road, and did a compare and contrast paper on The Terminal, Thelma and Louise, and Sideways. It was unique. I came into it as one of the top writers in my high school. I figured it would be a breeze; I chose the varied reading list because I felt it would be my only challenge, tackling works I had never read before. Taking the Jane Austen class would’ve been too easy.
I spent more office hours with my professor and shed more tears for this class than the rest of my four years put together.
My professor always pushed us to dig deeper into the meaning of a text. I would get essays back with all the “fluff” crossed out, and with lots of lines underlined with comments next to it such as, “So what?” and “And…?” It wasn’t enough to observe that Kurtz’s use of severed heads as decoration is the result of a loss in sanity; my professor informed me kindly but bluntly that that was obvious – why is this important? Why did I choose to write about it? Why did Joseph Conrad include it? My professor kept pushing and pushing us to think more deeply and critically, to analyze the purpose behind every line. I ended up with a B, and it was the hardest B I ever earned.
Since this was my experience with college English, and really my only experience (my other English class was titled “From Jane Austen to Chick Lit: the Evolution of the Romance Novel”), I am basing my junior AP class on it. I think I scared the crap out of many of my students: no bathroom breaks, no cell phones, lengthy readings, lots of online communication, and lots of lots of questions asking “So what? Who cares? Why bother?” I told them that they need to try their absolute hardest never to miss my class – not for dentist appointments, blood drives, or vacations. I had a kid ask me earlier this week if he could attend his sister’s college sports tournament: “But I don’t have to go, Mrs. H. My parents could go and I could stay home if it meant I wouldn’t miss your class.” I told him to go, but it’s gratifying to feel like I was actually taken seriously. Now I have to hold to my end of the bargain and make sure my class is worth their 53 minutes every day.
I’m trying to do everything as I experienced in college: my professors posted all their lecture slides and readings online. All my lesson plans and lecture notes are on my school website, links to every scrap of paper that we have in class, and links to recommended reading if students are interested in a topic. In addition to the novels, I plan to assign lengthy, advanced readings; at least at the beginning of the year, many should feel too hard for my students. While they will be difficult, I will make sure they are available online, students know about them several days in advance, and that their goal may not be to finish and understand everything, but to get a gist of the author’s argument.
We talked about some of the “tricks” to college reading after I discovered only about a fifth of the class actually did this week’s essay reading (a chapter of Kathleen Parkinson’s Gatsby commentary). They complained that it was “too hard” and they “didn’t get what she was trying to say, so I gave up.” I could never have read everything my professors assigned in college in a given week, but I knew that if my option was read a little of 6 articles, or all of one and skip the other five, the former was always better. The goals is to know enough about the author’s argument to participate in a class discussion, not to be able to write a full essay in class each week over every detail. My students seemed surprised that I would admit to not doing all my work; I challenged them to read Rebecca, The Marx-Engels Reader, and Other People’s Children in one week and still attend rehearsal, church, both jobs, and get enough sleep. Oh yes, and write papers on all three books and participate on the online message boards. College taught me to juggle; I’m hoping my kiddos arrive at college slightly less overwhelmed than I was.