Slaying the AP Argumentative Essay Beast (Structures & Strategies for supporting student success and teacher sanity)

In the AP Spanish Language & Culture course, one of the free response questions is for students to write an essay arguing a position on a topic while integrating three provided resources in their essay. This is a tall challenge for students at this age, and even more so when doing this in another language

After struggling through this process for years without much success–but with much stress and occasional tears–I reached out to some ELA colleagues and resources for recommendations on how to improve this process for students AND for me. At the time, I had approximately 90 students in AP, so teaching the process plus grading 90 essays was daunting at best just to get through them. However, I wanted to do more than just get through them AND my students needed feedback and coaching in order to do this task well. The overwhelming feeling was soul-crushing.

Until I read this post about writing group essays. By having students work collaboratively in groups, the instruction piece is similar, students support each other, and most importantly, the grading/feedback demands are reduced to a manageable level for me. Instead of trying to coach 90 students through writing a good thesis statement + intro paragraph, I only work through about 30. Same thing for the rest of the essay–we go chunk by chunk, but in a much more manageable quantity. This means that students can actually get feedback in a reasonable amount of time when they actually remember what they wrote!

Here’s the handout I use with students and an outline of the process I used when working on the essay in Spanish for the first time:

  1. Introduce the concept of the FRQ.
  2. Students read/interact with source documents individually. I like to use Formative activities to support & verify comprehension. As they read/listen, they take notes on ideas that are for and against the topic question.
  3. Students do an activity in Formative where they sort information from the sources into pro/con/neutral categories and then write a first draft of a thesis statement. You can see an example here. This can also be done collaboratively.
  4. Based on student responses, I place them in groups of 3 with similar points of view. These will be their essay writing groups.
  5. We review thesis statements, providing feedback. Formative is very helpful for this, as I can project their responses from step 3 above without their names. We talk about the features of a strong thesis statement and work together to improve others.
  6. Groups take their 3 individual thesis statements and read them and mash them up to make an even better thesis statement for the whole group.
  7. Groups draft 1 intro paragraph for their group and then hand in for feedback.
  8. I provide feedback and explain the CER structure for body paragraphs: Claim, Evidence to support the claim, and Reasoning. The group divides and conquers, with each student tackling ONE of the three body paragraphs.
  9. Group members peer check each other with a checklist (in handout) of critical pieces like identifying sources, transitions, etc.
  10. Groups submit their 3 paragraphs for feedback.
  11. I hold feedback conferences with each group.
  12. Groups edit their work based on feedback + write a collaborative conclusion paragraph.
  13. Groups submit final draft for grading.

In addition to streamlining the grading/feedback process for me, I have noticed improved student performance and confidence as a result of the process. Using tools like Formative to allow interactive real time feedback in the early stages has improved students’ vision of the task as we begin. Being able to collaborate with peers helps students get help that they need as they work and I am able to go from group to group to intervene and support as needed. I do believe that the most powerful aspect of this process is the personalized, timely feedback which is possible by this process.

Eventually students do need to write this type of essay individually. We will do a few group essays with significant scaffolding support before asking students to tackle it individually. The first time takes us several days, but each successive time it takes us less and less. The collaborative process is powerful and liberating, and I am thankful to Building Book Love for sharing this idea in her blog!