(Not) Teaching to the AP Test: A Persuasive Writing Unit in Spanish Heritage Classes

Hello friends! I hope you are hanging in there. I’m hopeful that soon spring will be here to stay, and with it, long days of sunshine and the downhill slope to the end of May 🙂 

I’m super excited to share with you one of my favorite units to date! As I shared in my last post, this is my first year teaching the 11th grade heritage class at my school, which I inherited from Mary Beth this year. It has really been my distinct joy this year to work with these amazing students. I’m learning so much from them, and I feel like I’ve really gotten to know them after having them for two years. 

We started the year off with writing realistic fiction during first quarter; then, during second quarter we did the reading workshop I blogged about last. The two units I had left for the year were an information unit (where the students write companion books, or guide books, about their favorite FVR book), and an argument writing unit. (For an overview of all my units for the year, see the bottom of this post.)

Many of my students are planning on taking the AP Spanish Language test in the fall. It’s kind of a back up plan for most (in case they go out of state and the community college credit they get for our class is not transferable), or a chance to earn possibly 3 additional credits if they get a perfect score. I’ve always believed that heritage students don’t need to be in an AP class to do well on the test (whether that be a mixed class or a heritage class designed for the AP class). By 11th grade, nearly all of my students’ writing, reading, listening, speaking, and critical thinking skills are pretty solid. They definitely need the information so they are familiar with the format, with some practice tests, so they can be ready. But a whole class designed around it? Not necessary, in my opinion. 

That said, I knew that a big section on the AP test is the persuasive essay, and for that reason, I wanted to make sure I got to our argument unit and gave it the time it needed. It went super well, friends, and I’d like to share some of the takeaways with you.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, one of the hallmarks of the curriculum units from Teachers College is the multiple learning laps. First, students move through the cycle a little slower, with lots of scaffolding, and taking a wide view of the topic. They usually produce a piece of writing at the end of the first learning lap. Then, the learning lap is repeated, usually much quicker, with more nuanced skills, and a more honed-in view of the topic, and another writing piece.

In this unit, called Art of Argument, students research a controversial topic for the first learning lap. The book suggested using competitive sports for high school (or middle school) students. At first, I wasn’t sure my students would relate very well to that topic, but since it was the first time I’d ever done it, I decided to go with it. And…they were actually really engaged! I have student athletes, IB students, students who work to support their families, students that struggle with their weight, students that want to earn college scholarships through sports….sooo many students that were able to kind of “get in where they fit in” with this topic. They all found entry points, and that was important to me.

Over the first few days, students read as many sources as they could from the initial text set that covered a variety of aspects and both sides of the competitive sports debate. During daily mini lessons, we reviewed strategies for good note-taking skills and efficient systems for keeping sources and positions organized. We also talked about looking for bias and/or identifying what the author has to gain in our sources. We also studied how different articles used the counterargument and how that made their argument stronger. 

Then, students spent time thinking through their positions and their 2-3 reasons for why they felt that way, and tested out their argument in a mini debate with one other partner from the opposing side. This was a really powerful part of the unit because it allowed them to see what parts of their argument “worked,” and what parts were weak or underdeveloped. They also got to hear the strongest points from the other side, which helped them prepare for including the counterargument in their first essays. After the mini debate, the next step was to write their persuasive essay on competitive sports, using their research to bolster their claim.

Having taught argument units before, one of my favorite things about this unit is how much I didn’t have to teach.

First off, I didn’t teach them a specific structure, we just agreed that there had to be a logical structure. I didn’t tell them where their counterargument had to go or where/how to refute it, I just let them use the mentor text articles and make their own decisions about where to put it, and they used the strategy they liked best to refute it (the strategies they learned were to counter a fact with an opposing fact, criticize the statistic, and agree with the point but show how it supports their own argument.) 

I also LOVED that the students were really exhibiting a lot of ownership over how they organized their pieces. For example, one student wanted to talk about her own experiences with competitive sports to explain why she was in favor of them, so the first part was about her past with sports, the next part was about her involvement now, and she finished talking about where she hopes they will take her in the future. 

Likewise, I didn’t require a certain regimented way of giving credit to sources, but we agreed they had to give credit for ideas that weren’t their own. But they had ownership over how they did that. Some asked for which format to use, but for the most part, they knew they needed to somehow give credit for their ideas, and most did it successfully, but there were so many options (many just did a Bibliography, some just did parenthetical documentation, some did footnotes, some did links, etc.). 

I think these are important because I’ve really been working on teaching them to be independent writers who have voice over what they write and agency about how they write it. I am teaching for transfer. I want them to be better writers in every other context and circumstance because of what they learn in my class. 

I am teaching them to be independent writers. I am teaching for transfer.

The biggest growth I saw in my students in this unit was them starting to take ownership over their ideas and their words. In one lesson, we talked about how when scholars write a piece, most of that piece is their own synthesized ideas based on the information they’ve taken in. Most of that piece is their “professional opinion.” They will, of course, cite some of that information to bolster their ideas. But most of it is their own ideas. We reflected on our first draft of our essays, wondering what percentage was regurgitated research and what part was analysis or our own synthesis of ideas. We settled on a goal of at least 50% of our papers should be our own ideas; there should be at least as much analysis as there is evidence/research, and ideally more. I felt like that day was a turning point for them. That day was the day they started to realize that they could have a voice, an opinion, and that they didn’t have to just repeat all the information they’d read. I really wanted their opinion. Their “professional opinion.”

Y’all. Those first essays were SO FUN to read. Seriously, so fun. And they did beautifully!! I was super impressed. You can read some of their great work here and here

Before we jumped into the second learning lap, we took a break to make a tool. I’ve blogged about this before, in the literary unit, but it is one of the most powerful things I’ve learned so I’ll mention it again. At the end of a learning lap, we’ve come up with a whole anchor chart of “Things good argument writers do.” I could just make copies for them to glue into their notebooks (and sometimes I do). But you and I both know that they’ll never look at them again. In fact, I know this all too well – see my comment at the end of the next paragraph.

Instead, I took a day of class to revisit with them our process. I used to think they could do that on their own, but turns out…they can’t. Together (mostly me leading the conversation and inviting them to try and remember), we make a new list of the steps we went through to write the argument piece on the board (even though I literally have an anchor chart with all of the SAME STEPS right next to the board…not one student has said anything yet). Then, I tell them the assignment: they need to make a visual representation of these steps, a tool, in their notebooks, so they can use it as we go through the second bend. Finally, I show them lots of ideas for inspiration, and spread out lots of fun supplies (fun pens, a zillion post its in lots of shapes, sizes, colors, washy tape, etc.), and let them work. At the end of class, we do a quick gallery walk to see the awesome creative work of others. I was so impressed with their creativity! See some of their work below. Then, as we do the next unit, they can come back to their tool, and they can also use it on their unit exam. (And…true story, as one of my classes was leaving, I pointed to the anchor chart for something, and started reading aloud…and the students were like, “Oh my gosh! That’s the SAME THING we did today!!” And I was like….”Yep. It’s been there the whoooooole time, and none of y’all even noticed it.”)

In the second learning lap, we repeat the process, but we hone in on one particular aspect of competitive sports. This aspect will act as sort of a lens through which they’ll look to make a stronger argument for or against competitive sports in high school (or middle school). As I did before, I will offer a curated text set for them to use. I think the use of these curated text sets are really important because I hate to just turn them loose on the internet; so much time gets wasted looking for sources, especially in Spanish. In this case, I offered the students the options of further researching injuries, mental health, or physical health, because those are the subtopics I could find multiple decent source articles about. You can find my curated text set for this learning lap here. (Also, it was during this unit that I realized that if you having trouble finding sources on a specific topic in Spanish, you can use that annoying “Translate this page?” option on Chrome to quickly translate must-have or just-perfect sources; I hope that might save you some time in the future.)

During this unit, we repeat the note-taking skills and systems that we reviewed in the first lap, as well as looking for bias and identifying counterarguments and rebuttals. I also did a few lessons on more sophisticated strategies like a balanced introduction, options for a powerful conclusion, and using a formal tone. Again, they did a mini-debate to test out their ideas; for this round, their points had to relate to their subtopic (so if they did mental health, both/all of their supporting points had to relate to mental health).

Finally, they came up with a more nuanced position (or thesis) about how they felt about competitive sports with regard to the lens they researched. For example, a student who researched mental health might decide to write with this position: Competitive sports are a positive activity for high school students because they learn to handle stress, manage their time, and that they are not always the best. They planned out the parts of their essay and the evidence they wanted to use (again, they didn’t need a ton of evidence, because the bulk of the essay would be their analysis), and wrote their second piece.You can see a great example of this more nuanced essay here. 

At the end of this unit, besides just the second written piece I just mentioned, we did a live debate. I wanted students to feel like there was a real audience who really cared about this topic, their work on it, and what they had to say. I invited several Spanish-speaking teachers, administrators, and counselors to observe our live debate (many who are coaches at our school). The exciting part was that I didn’t give them much time to prepare because I didn’t want them to stress or overprepare, and they seriously ROCKED IT. We had periods of 90 minutes that day, and I scheduled the debate for the last 30 minutes of the period. After we read for 10 minutes, I explained the debate and the format, split them into two teams, and gave them time to prepare…and they were ready! I split them into two even teams, one in favor of competitive sports and one against them, and that meant there were experts in all the subtopics on each team. As a group, they made a plan for what three main points they would make, what evidence they had that was the strongest for each point, and who would make them. They also made plans for what they anticipated the counterclaims would be and how they’d react and with what evidence, and who was responsible.

You GUYS. I wished I’d videotaped the whole darn thing. They were amazing! Seriously, so good. The teacher-judges I invited were super impressed! And I had brought cookies and spicy chips and punch to celebrate with at the end, which didn’t hurt. They left class that day on such a high!

A few days later, we took our exam. They usually have 4 summative grades per quarter, each worth 100 points: their piece from learning lap 1, their piece from learning lap 2, their exam, and their professionalism grade. The idea behind the exam is to see if they’ve really acquired the transferable writing skills I was hoping for, and if they can use them in a new context and in a tighter time crunch. Hmm…can they write an argument essay based on research in a short period of time? Let me think for a second…isn’t that exactly what they have to do for the AP test??? 🙂 For their exam, I pulled an AP test practice persuasive essay from the Vistas AP practice book we have. They had to use three sources (one article, one table, and one audio source) to write an argumentative essay. I did have to remind them a few times to make sure to use all three sources, but I have to tell you…they really did well!! In fact, here is one super solid example that I used when I was going over the test with them if you’re interested. I was so proud of them. I felt kind of bad grading it with my rubric because it was a little more stringent than the AP rubric, so I tried to be nice. But it was such a good confidence booster for them! 

We only have a week or two before Spring Break, and I didn’t want to start another unit, so I decided just to do some focused practice for the AP exam for a few days. Let me tell you, I have THOUGHTS on that. But that’s for another post, lol. I’m excited for them to work on their companion books to finish out the quarter, then they have their community college final and AP test and then…hopefully onto AP Spanish Literature for most of them! 

Just so we’re clear: it’s not all sunshine and rainbows over here 🙂 Lots of learning and unlearning and hard days and mistakes. But this unit in particular was a highlight for me. I’d love to hear your thoughts, amigues! How do you teach persuasive writing? Have you ever tried to prepare your students for the AP exam without…teaching to the exam? How successful do you feel at teaching for transfer??

Love y’all. Happy teaching, friends.

Adrienne

10th grade heritage11th grade heritage
1st quarterNarrative writing: Personal Narrative (check out this blog post)Narrative writing: Realistic Fiction 
2nd quarterReading: Deep Study of Character (for this year only, I did this in both classes – check out this blog post)Reading: Deep Study of Character (for this year only, I did this in both classes – check out this blog post)
3rd quarterArgument writing: Literary Essays (check out this blog post)Argument writing: Persuasive essays (“Art of Argument”) (This post!)
4th quarterInformational writing: Research Based Info Writing (Information Books) (blog post coming soon!)Information writing: Companion Books

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