Syllabus: AP Language and Composition

Syllabus: AP Language and Composition
Kara McDuffee and Suzanne Morrissey 

If you stepped into Mrs. Katy Varga-Wells’ AP Language and Composition class on Monday, things might have looked a bit out of the ordinary. Students were gathered in a huddle in the center of the room, some were even sitting and lying down on the floor. Far from lounging, these students were focused on a pile of index cards on the ground.

The index cards served as a vital step in a class-long lesson on synthesizing sources (pulling evidence from texts and relating it to your argument). After watching a video of Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech,” each student wrote down key phrases and moments that stood out to them. Then the class combined their ideas and laid out all of the cards to determine what was most powerful––as well as what could be used as a piece of evidence for a student-created thesis.

AP Language and Composition is a yearlong skills-based English course that revolves around mastering three primary types of essays: analysis (describing an author’s choices and what they mean), argument (crafting an original thesis based on a prompt), and synthesis (combining pieces of evidence from multiple sources to support a claim). In May, they’ll take the AP Exam, but Mrs. Katy Varga-Wells knows the takeaway goes far beyond that.

“I love being able to engage in civil discourse and being able to talk a bit about the really important skills the kids need to practice,” she shared. “They learn to understand that sometimes you read things you don’t agree with, sometimes you leave the class and not everyone feels they are all in agreement—that’s a necessary life skill. My hope is that if they can get a little better here, they will use that in their sports teams, in their jobs, in their lives. That’s the ultimate take away from the course.”

Because there’s no set reading list, students can engage with a variety of texts and themes throughout the year. “Learning about the power of rhetoric and writing for an audience is really important. And our students are studying from the best,” Mrs. Varga-Wells says, noting that a speech by the late Secretary of State Madeline Albright was recently part of the students’ texts. “Learning the craft of speechwriting and connecting with people in storytelling are skills our students are gaining here.” Earlier this school year, the class engaged with Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz, followed by discussions mid-fall about civic engagement and what it means to be a responsible citizen. “We have a winter module on class, materialism, and wealth,” Mrs. Varga-Wells says, “and later this term we dive into justice and looking honestly at how language can be used to convince people in a court case. That is our look at the other side of language.”

This spring, the class gears up for the AP exam in May but also looks at nature and technology, reading Once More On The Lake by Annie Dillard, as well as works by Henry David Thoreau, Michael Pollan, and Greta Thunberg. “We get into counter views, too,” she says. “We don’t look at just one perspective on nature as we consider our relationship with and responsibility to it.”

“When taking an AP class, you have to be excited about reading the tough stuff…the hard stuff. There's a lot of fun in doing hard stuff: It can be deeply rewarding to get through a challenging text. And we have pretty awesome kids who are excited to be pushed in ways that are not familiar to them,” their teacher concludes. 

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