Integrating AP English and the Collins Writing Program

By Brenda Mirsky, Teacher, Yeshivat Darche Eres, Brooklyn, NY

As a teacher of Regents English, Honors English, and Advanced Placement English Language and Composition, I’ve often been plagued by how to help students develop their writing skills. To be honest, I’ve often wondered how some of my students have gotten as far as they have with the poor writing skills they’ve developed.

I recently began teaching in a private boy’s high school whose goal is to provide an academically excellent education with the expectation that all graduates will attend at least a four-year college program. However, many students’ writing skills were not where they should have been by junior and senior years of high school. This lack of skill included those students who had elected to take Advanced Placement Language and Composition in 11th grade.

I was trained in the Collins Writing Program at a school where I previously worked, and I had quickly become an advocate of the program for two reasons: it allows the teacher to assess different components of a writing assignment separately and students are easily able to understand where they excel and where they need improvement. When I used the program with students in Regents classes, writing skills improved dramatically over the course of the school year. When I had to find a way to deal with the problem of inadequate writing skills among my students, my thoughts immediately turned to the Collins Writing Program. However, I had never used it with an AP class before. How would I integrate the AP Language Curriculum, Common Core Standards, and the Collins Writing Program? This seemed like a tall order, but I’m always up for a challenge.

Leading My Students to Deeper Analysis and Improved Critical Thinking

The first thing I had to figure out was how to implement the Five Types of Writing. I realized that Type One assignments could easily replace Do Now assignments, often a reiteration of the previous day’s lesson. A Type One assignment, on the other hand, allows students to delve more deeply. For example, a Do Now might ask students to discuss three things they know about Hamlet in the third act of Shakespeare’s play. A Type One assignment, however, could require students to read an excerpt from one of Hamlet’s soliloquies (one they have previously discussed in class or one they will be discussing in that day’s lesson) and assess for themselves, in 5 to 10 lines, what the excerpt suggests about Hamlet’s character.

Type One assignments are never graded by the teacher, so students feel less inhibited about correct or incorrect answers. For this type of writing, I usually allow 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the length of the excerpt. After a brief class discussion, I tell students to give themselves a check if they think they did the assignment well and a minus if they think they didn’t. Surprisingly, students are usually honest when they assess themselves. On occasion, after the class discussion, I’ll tell students to take a few more minutes and write two to three lines about how they think they could have better completed this assignment.

Because of all this, Type One assignments are an excellent tool for student reflection and self-assessment. They lead to deeper analysis, more developed critical thinking skills, and more sophisticated writing skills, all of which are paramount to doing well in school and in the business world.

Teaching My Students to Develop Evidence-Based Opinions

Type Three and Type Four assignments were not a problem since my AP students write an essay once every week or two, and I could easily rotate Type Three and Type Four assignments. An example of Type Three writing is the students’ response to the prompt of any essay question on the AP exam. Type Four is the same except that students peer edit each other’s writing. No problem there.

My only issue was Type Two. What could I do for a Type Two assignment? Then it hit me! I could easily make the multiple choice section of the AP exam work as a Type Two. There are two ways I approach this. One way is to distribute a passage from the AP exam’s multiple choice section, along with the passage’s questions and choices. Students are divided into groups of two or three and must come to a consensus about the correct answer to each question. When a consensus is reached in all groups, a class discussion follows. Each group must be able to cite evidence from the passage to support the correct answer chosen. This evidence must be written in complete, grammatically correct sentences that are collected and assessed. Students whose evidence is persuasive and compelling receive two points for each correct answer. At this stage, I’m not concerned about whether the student’s choice matches that of the College Board; my goal with this assignment is to help students learn how to support their opinions.

A second way I handle Type Two writing is to distribute a passage from the multiple choice section, but only include the questions with it. Students are again broken up into groups of two or three, but this time, without the choices in front of them, they must figure out what the correct answer is and write it down. This second approach is a little more challenging for students, and I usually don’t do it at the beginning of the year. When a consensus is reached in each group, I distribute the questions again, this time with the choices included. Each group must then find the choice that most closely matches the answer they came up with and, in complete, grammatically correct sentences, cite evidence to support their choice. If nothing matches, they must go back and figure out where their thinking went wrong and write that down. For each correct answer, students receive two points.

This type of exercise helps students develop much needed critical thinking skills, necessary not only for mastering the AP exam but also for functioning as intelligent human beings. I remember a discussion my husband and I had with his cousin. When my husband challenged his cousin’s opinion, the cousin responded, “Well, that’s what I think.” My goal is to never have a student respond that way. Type Two writing helps students develop their own opinions and the ability to cite evidence as to why they hold those opinions. This also helps them write more proficiently on the essay portion of the AP exam, the Common Core English Language exam, and SAT/ACT exams.

Grading the Synthesis Essay for Independent Thinking

Now that I had all that figured out, I had to start working with Focus Correction Areas (FCAs). To do that, I had to figure out all the components of each type of essay on the AP exam and decide how best to assign each one a point value.

There are three writing tasks on the AP language exam: a synthesis essay, a rhetorical devices essay, and an argument essay. The synthesis essay requires a persuasive argument in much the same way the Common Core does. Students are asked to present their opinion in response to a given question using the facts and ideas presented in the provided sources. Students must develop their own argument, use their own reasons and thinking, and use evidence from the provided sources to support their argument. This essay asks students to think for themselves. To do this well, students must:

  • identify and clarify the issue at hand;
  • present a clear, direct thesis statement or claim statement;
  • provide reasons to support the thesis with necessary explanations;
  • present specific supporting evidence from the sources provided;
  • document all sources according to the format provided in the exam;
  • explain the significance of the specific supporting evidence;
  • draw further significance from the reasons and evidence presented; and
  • bring the essay to a thoughtful ending.

In this essay, the first two components develop the foundation. Just as a building is only as strong as its foundation, an essay is only as effective as the introductory paragraph. Depending on my students’ writing skills, I select some or all of the components of an effective introductory paragraph as FCAs. I might begin the year using only the first three as FCAs and assess the remainder of the components holistically. As time goes on and my students master different components, I might interchange FCAs with holistic assessment. To begin, the FCAs might look like this:

  • Identify and clarify the issue at hand (10 points for identifying; 10 points for clarifying).
  • Use appropriate examples from the text (15 points).
  • Explain the significance of the examples (15 points).

Correctly documenting all sources, bringing the essay to a thoughtful ending, and following the conventions of Standard English are assessed holistically using the remaining 50 points. When assessing holistically, teachers must provide feedback to students. Unlike FCAs, which are self-explanatory, holistic assessment isn’t. For students to develop their writing skills, we teachers must provide written comments for all holistic assessments. As students begin to develop their writings skills, FCAs and holistically assessed components are rotated. FCAs can also be adjusted on a student-by-student basis, allowing for differentiation when necessary.

Using FCAs to Grade the Rhetorical Process

The rhetorical analysis essay is a written explanation about how a writer or speaker attempts to change the mind of their audience. This is similar to the essay on the newly revamped SAT exam. For the AP rhetorical analysis essay, students are presented with a complete argument from a published author. That author has a purpose or objective, has targeted an audience, and has chosen the strategies that they believe are most effective. Essentially, students write a paper that demonstrates their understanding of a rhetorical process being used.

An effective rhetorical analysis essay demonstrates a full understanding of the interplay of the rhetorical triangle. To do this well, students must

  • identify the author’s purpose, recognize the target audience, and discern the primary rhetorical strategies;
  • identify the strategic intent of the piece (the writer has chosen every word and detail for a reason. Why? How do the writer’s choices shape the audience’s thoughts and/or feelings?
  • include quotes that explain or clarify the author’s intent and discuss how those specific words or phrases shape the audience’s thoughts and feelings;
  • logically follow the order of the argument (points must be presented in the same order the author presents them); and
  • develop a conclusion that ties together all loose ends and explains the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the author’s rhetorical strategies.

Since this essay asks students to take a stand on a subject, the components that build the foundation are identifying the author’s purpose, recognizing the target audience, and discerning the rhetorical strategies of the piece. These are supported by the student’s ability to identify the strategic intent of the excerpt. For this essay, the FCAs are:

  • Identify the author’s purpose (10 points), pinpoint the target audience (10 points), and determine the rhetorical strategies (10 points).
  • Identify the intent of the piece (20 points).

As in the synthesis essay, the final 50 points are holistically assessed with components rotated as students master each one. Again, written comments for the holistically assessed components are paramount if students are to develop a more sophisticated writing style and insightful opinions.

Encouraging Grade Raises in the Argument Essay

The argument essay requires students to be direct rather than reflective and to be convincing. In this essay, students should only include subject matter that builds support for their position in order to bring the reader closer to their own opinion. This task asks students to defend (agree with the author), refute (disagree with the author), or qualify (choose one side but acknowledge the complexity of the decision). However, in choosing to qualify their position, students must never appear to take both or neither side. There can be no doubt where the student stands on the issue. The argument essay is similar to the synthesis essay but does not provide sources for students to use to develop their position. To do this assignment well, students must

  • develop a clear, direct thesis or claim that takes a stand on the subject;
  • use appropriate evidence to support their position;
  • explain the significance of the supporting evidence; and
  • bring the essay to a thoughtful conclusion.

The four components for this essay are crucial to fulfilling the requirements of the prompt. In this case, I assign FCAs to each of the components and only assess holistically when students have mastered all components. The FCAs for this essay are as follows:

  • Develop a clear, direct thesis or claim that takes a stand on the subject (30 points).
  • Cite appropriate evidence to support the thesis (30 points).
  • Discuss the significance of the supporting evidence (30 points).
  • Provide a thoughtful conclusion (10 points).

As students become proficient in each component, I sometimes change the point values, placing fewer points on those areas that have been mastered and more on the areas that need work. This method is usually successful, since I’ve found that students view their grades in much the same way I view my salary and will work hard to achieve a raise.

Using the Collins Writing Program to Benefit Students and Teachers

Using the Collins method to assess my AP students’ work has been beneficial in many ways. Type One encourages students to feel freer to develop their own interpretations of readings. Type Two provides much needed practice in critical thinking and develops clearer and more insightful thinking and writing. Type Three and Type Four allow students to practice essay writing with a clear understanding of how each component of an essay contributes to the effectiveness of the essay as a whole. Type Three encourages students to hear how the essay sounds since reading in a one-foot voice is a valuable learning tool. Type Four creates an environment in which student A reads student B’s paper aloud to student B. This allows student B to hear how someone else reads their writing, helping them become aware of any unclear sentences, confusing ideas, or illogical thought patterns and, as a result, providing an opportunity for revision.

This program is not only beneficial for students but for teachers as well. I have often been asked by math or science teachers how I can possibly handle reading and assessing the numerous essays I am responsible for. And how can I do it, they want to know, in a timely manner? The answer is simple: Collins Writing Program, with its FCAs, makes assessing essays less cumbersome and time consuming. With FCAs, I am able to focus (there’s the F) on specific aspects of an essay, correct (there’s the C) only those specific areas (there’s the A) I want my students to master, and holistically assess the rest.

Change is difficult for many people, and students are no exception. Because the Collins Writing Program can seem to be a departure from the accustomed type of assessment, students might balk when they are first exposed to this method. However, when they see how quickly their skills develop, they grow to enjoy and appreciate it. As one of my former students said, “I didn’t think I’d ever learn to write well, but this way of grading really helped me see what I needed to improve.” Another student, one who prided himself on his writing, told me, “Wow! I thought I could write before, but FCAs have really helped me hone my skills.”