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What did I learn this year in AP English Language? Answering such a question is no small feat. For years the question has been contained inside a box of facts, of cold information. It is an average of a set of numbers said to be representative of what your mind absorbed from the streams of sewage that flow through the semesters. Busy work. Mindless homework assignments. Half-assed note-taking. All culminating in a single number that defines your future.
But we get used to this banal practice and trudge through the hours, our eyes flickering as our minds drift off to a better place, leaving our hopeless bodies behind. When faced with a new blueprint of learning, our minds reject it like a harmful parasite, doubts swarming like white blood cells to kill the foreign invader. AP English Language was one such intruder.
The class took everything you knew about learning and threw it out the door, abandoning traditional exams and schedules for in-class discussion, writing assignments, and a complete lack of structure. If I had to sum up the class in a single word, I’d have to use ‘impromptu.’ Sometimes the teacher would come in and simply ask what we wanted to do (sadly, my idea of nap time never got enough votes).
I can’t sit here and write this blog post in the traditional sense in good conscience. The class isn’t normal and cannot get a normal answer to the question. So what did I learn from the teacher? In all honesty, I learned very little from a traditional standpoint. I knew how to read. I knew how to write. I learned it through previous practice and saw what the basics of what to do by reading other’s writing. However, when we read other’s work, we feel the effects of their strategies, but we never take the time to see what is causing the result and why the author chose to do what they did. We acknowledge the result and move on. Over time, we inevitably gain a full understanding of what makes ‘good’ writing, but it takes close analysis to comprehend ‘great’ writing. AP English Language served as a lens that focused my attention on the what and why of the matter, greatly accelerating the process. The class has given me a greater understanding of how rhetorical strategies affect literature.
One assignment that represents this process is a recent one focused on poetry. My group was tasked with examining a poem called ‘The Bookstall.’ We had to devise a theme and find the ways that imagery, diction, comparisons, and organization helped to develop that theme. I realized that calling books ‘a curious ballast weighing me here to the earth’ meant that books are necessary to bring stability to the author’s life and are the thing that prevents the author from leaving this Earth by giving her life meaning. As I worked together with my group, I saw some of their good ideas as well. My friend Jagger noted that the author compared the books to bread, which has the significance of being food, and therefore vital to life.
I didn’t learn that much else. I didn’t learn new types of essays to write or new ways to structure my essays. Hell, I didn’t even learn how to describe things better. When I wrote essays, I wasn’t some uninformed dunce, stumbling through and relying on others to hold my hand and guide me through learning. When I go back and read the first major essay I wrote, The Lonely Forest, I see no difference between it and one of the last ones I wrote, The Garden of Eden. In my first essay, I had lines that vividly depicted the situation such as, “The trees, a confusing blur of green and brown streaks. The sizzling sun savagely beating down, relentlessly boiling my sweat and blood. And my tears. Transparent tears streaming down my face, dotting the earth with droplets of sorrow.” My descriptive essay had a similar style, such as when I wrote, ” Bright orange orioles and sanguine sparrows danced throughout the beams of sunshine that permeated through the trees, singing beautiful hymns and melodies.”
If anything, I was far more restricted by the second essay than the first. I had to follow an unnecessarily stupid format provided by the story “Rice.” I had to follow strict guidelines, putting certain information in each paragraph all while wrapping it up in a common descriptor. Everything from introductions to development had to be finely tuned to fit this format. From this assignment I had to learn how to find inspiration in the pointless guidelines forced on us by those that try to dictate the way we live our lives. I took this uninspired, rigid setup and actually made someone cry.
When I received advice on my writing, it often wasn’t very helpful. A few things would be circled here and there for not being absolutely perfect, but that could generally be boiled down to personal preference. I would also get critiqued on not providing some information, like how in The Lonely Forest he wanted me to explain what my sister had done to make me angry. All she had done was try to walk faster than me. That’s it. My teacher wanted advanced development that simply never happened. For a nonfiction essay, that mindset doesn’t make sense to me.
I also learned, or rather, was reminded of the fact that we are all human, including teachers. We all have to our pros and cons, and it is important to identify them. As children, we look up to teachers as beacons of knowledge and the unquestionable key to the future. And many teachers would love to make you believe that. While they are important, their position as educators doesn’t mean that you should mindlessly follow them. Around the time of Trump’s election and inauguration, we were inundated with anti-Trump propaganda. In a past blog post, The Political Agenda in Our Schools, I noted that ,”My A.P. English Language teacher, …sees it as his duty to provide as many sources as he can that take a swing at President Trump. In a recent article we had to read, “Spelling’s not for Everyone, Mr. Precedent,” it discussed the ways that our President lacks the ability to accurately spell in his tweets. While the main focus is on the importance of spelling, a topic clearly related to both English and language, it contains lines such as “If you can’t figure out the proper arrangement of 26 little letters, what does that say about your larger enterprise?” The author is making the claim that an inability to spell correctly in tweets is connected the one’s ability to lead a country.” My teacher isn’t being a terrible person here; he is merely a victim of his own morality. He can’t help but try to indoctrinate his students, many of whom already despise our current President. As students, we need to look into these things and view them from an unbiased perspective. We cannot be wrapped up in the petty, but humorous jab at the President and instead must consider for ourselves: is proper grammar and spelling in tweets really that important?
While humanity comes with its downsides, it has upsides as well. I can tell that my teacher really does care. He is willing to fix his mistakes, like changing our grades on certain reading check quizzes that were far too difficult and irrelevant or giving us more time on assignments. He took the time to organize a party where he made us pancakes. We watched the Crucible to learn a new story and the Great Gatsby to compare it to the book. He spent an entire week talking with students about our writing for UCs and our grades. And most importantly, he let us speak our minds. He may have applied a few rules I don’t agree with regarding the structure of our writing, but he never tried to censor us. I’ve jabbed him consistently throughout the year, but he respects my opinion nonetheless.
I too have pros and cons. I can be known to rip into people and will often speak my mind, almost completely uncensored, in an English class. Perhaps it is because I don’t feel that I am learning anything valuable at the time. Perhaps it is because I disagree with the teacher’s views. Most likely, it is a combination of factors. But, to my credit, I can be confident in my work, stand up for my views, and work far harder than I was asked. AP English Language wasn’t a conventional class: it was an experience that taught me about myself and taught me to notice the good and bad in others, with a little bit of rhetorical analysis on the side.
We both have our pros and cons and can learn from them, but some people are not blessed with that ability. Some cannot effectively communicate, cannot read others, cannot see the good in the world. Author J.D. Salinger explores these people in his book The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield, a 17 year-old student recently kicked out of a boarding school, is unable to use words to communicate well with those around him. In fact, words hinder Caulfield and plunge him deeper and deeper into a sea of conflict, with no one to extend his arm out to for help. When he tries to get close to an old friend, Sally Hayes, he can’t have a simple talk without screwing up. What starts off as a normal conversation spirals into him trying to run off with Sally. “Here’s my idea. How would you like to get the hell out of here?…We’ll stay in these cabin camps and stuff like that till the dough runs out.” (Steinbeck 146) The more he talks, the worse the situation gets. “‘C’mon, let’s get out of here…You give me a royal pain in the ass, if you want to know the truth.’ Boy, did she hit the ceiling when I said that.” Holden couldn’t just hang out with a friend without scaring her away.
AP English Language was no normal class. I could sum up what I learned in APUSH through my performance on the AP test. I could sum up what I learned in pre-calculus with my test scores and the numbers strewn across the pages of my blue, college ruled notebook. What I learned in AP English Language was not how to write, but how to identify our qualities and look past the ugly ones to see the hidden good within people.