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Keys to designing an AP-preparation high school English Program
Maya Inspektor, 3/12/2010

Maya Inspektor has taught online AP English Literature and AP English Language for three years through PA Homeschoolers AP Online. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pittsburgh in 2004, majoring in English nonfiction writing and Psychology. She obtained a Masters of Education in Secondary English from Carlow University, studying homeschooling English programs for her masters thesis. She has also taught at a private school in Pittsburgh, led creative writing classes at the School of Advanced Jewish Studies, and served as an SAT tutor for a major test preparation company. She currently lives in Israel with her husband and two cats.

mayas drawing www.JPG

*a drawing done in high school at home by Maya Richman Inspektor, of her mom, Susan Richman (editor PA Homeschoolers) reading aloud during meal times* 

Each year, I get a few applications to my AP English courses from students who seem young and unprepared. Often, I get the feeling that parents know their child isn't quite ready for an AP English course, but they're stumped about how to plan a high school English program without the structure of an outside program.

Surprise! The best preparation for an AP English course is usually an extension of what you've already been doing. In my three years of experience teaching AP English Language and Literature as well as research for my master's thesis on high school homeschool English programs, I've found that several qualities seem to be keys to designing a high school English program that will prepare homeschooled students for AP English courses and college.

  1. Focus on reading for pleasure in ninth- and tenth-grade high school English study. I don't mean that your child should read a Twilight novel each day to prepare for AP English. Rather, don't feel that you need to prepare 20 essay questions per chapter when your child reads Jane Eyre in ninth grade. Your child doesn't need to critically analyze each book he reads-- this is likely to make reading seem like drudgery. At worst, you might risk convincing your child that literature is a process of finding answers rather than responding to stories. I can easily teach the format of an AP essay in my class; I can't teach students how to read with active, sensitive minds.
  2. Encourage your child to read high-quality literature from all time periods and genres. Try out Greek tragedies and Shakespearean comedies. Get a taste of Russian, Indian, or African literature. Explore dystopian fiction, such as 1984, and fiction that offers social commentary, such as Uncle Tom's Cabin. Read poems, plays, and novels. On the AP exam, the best-prepared students are used to the way that sentence structure and world view shifts in different kinds of literature; a student who has only read contemporary fantasy novels struggles more when confronted with writing by Mary Shelley or Frederick Douglass. The strongest AP English students read far more than three classics each year.
  3. Read aloud to your children to stretch their reading levels. When I conducted research for my master's thesis, I was surprised by just how many parents continued to read aloud to their children throughout high school. (Two parents still read aloud to each other even though their kids have all graduated!) Reading aloud can act as a kind of “scaffolding.” It helps students connect to literature that might still be above their ability (or patience) level, and it also allows families to hold natural, informal book discussions. When I was in high school, I especially enjoyed listening to my mother read aloud Charles Dickens novels during meals. If reading aloud doesn't fit into your schedule, consider audiobooks-- most of the “classics” are available for free, legal download at www.librivox.org. You may prepare your eight-year-old child for AP English this way as well. :)

  4. Help your child develop areas of expertise. I loved Jane Austen, so I read every Jane Austen novel at least once before I took AP English Literature in high school. I ended up writing about Pride and Prejudice on the AP exam. One of my current students loves Shakespeare, and she recently turned in a remarkable essay about Macbeth in which she quoted lines from memory. Non-literary interests can help prepare a student for the exam as well: in AP English Language, my students have put their interests in current events or history to excellent use in exam essays. Your children will retain knowledge best when it stems from personal fascination, so give them the space and encouragement to become true experts in a few areas.

  5. Foster creative writing. Most of the writing that students do for AP English classes is analytical or argumentative, but not necessarily creative. They won't need to write fiction on the AP English Literature exam or a lyrical personal essay on the AP English Language exam. Nonetheless, students who love some form of creative writing tend to excel on these exams. Several of my AP English Literature students have written novels, for example, and the awareness this gives them of characterization and plotting makes them much more receptive to class content. Students who love to write humor are already aware of the power of kairos, the “opportune moment,” which is a rhetorical concept they study in AP Lang. Most of all, students who care about creative writing enough to love words are able to infuse this power into their most formal papers. Ironically, students who specifically prepare for formal essay writing—say, by writing many formulaic five-paragraph essays—often struggle more with the demands of course writing, because they must un-learn bad habits.

  6. Use writing clubs or competition to provide strict deadlines and real audiences. Let's face it: kids know that mom's deadlines are negotiable. They also know that an audience of just one person isn't quite “real.” AP courses provide real audiences and firm due dates, but you can use writing clubs and writing competitions to prepare your children for the pressure that comes with writing to deadline and the motivation that comes from writing to an audience. I actually ask my AP English Language students to enter the Peace Essay Competition, and in past years several of my students have won $1000 college scholarships as a result-- not a bad return on a $500 course.

  7. Help your child learn to write grammatically. You don't necessarily need to teach your child “grammar”-- she doesn't need to be able to diagram a sentence or identify that subjunctive tense. However, you should engage in grammar study specific to writing. Students should understand the difference between “its” and “it's” and the nature of a comma splice. They should be able to identify the problem with a dangling participle, even if they don't know that specific term. I find that guides geared towards the writing section of the SAT are also effective in helping students learn to edit their own writing. I particularly recommend Grammar Smart, which is available in the PA Homeschoolers catalog.

  8. Expose your child to poetry. You don't need to study iambic pentameter, but you should make poetry appreciation a natural part of your homeschooling program. Encourage your child to look through a poetry anthology and choose a few poems to memorize. Hold poetry readings in the spirit of The Dead Poet's Society-- as a family, traipse into the woods with a flashlight (or sit in the living room with a plate of cookies) and read aloud poems you enjoy.

  9. Encourage your child to develop a good vocabulary. Let your kids quiz each other on SAT vocabulary words at the dinner table. Pause to define tricky words when you read aloud. Listen to NPR in long car rides. You don't need a formal vocabulary curriculum to help your child use a wide-ranging vocabulary with precision. (Studies of foreign languages such as Spanish or Latin help too!)

  10. Foster an ongoing conversation about the nature of good writing and the elements of powerful literature. As you read your child's writing, give specific feedback about what you enjoyed, and why. Talk to your child about why she particularly enjoyed a novel-- did she find its ideas powerful? What made its characters seem “real”? What about an ending seemed unresolved?

Does anything on this list remind you of your own English program? What ideas would you add?


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