Looking for the Manifesto in the Muck of AP Literature Essays

April 27, 2013 — 3 Comments

muckRight about now, the last week of April, my Advanced Placement English Literature students are noticing a frantic tone creeping into my voice.

“No, finish this multiple choice practice FIRST, then complete the essay prompts. Any questions? No? Let’s go, now. Hurry….hurry….HURRY!!”
“Geez, you are so crabby lately,” notes one.

I am crabby; I understand the pressure they will be under during the AP exam in May, and I want them prepared. In contrast, they just want to be fourth quarter seniors.

These weeks are the “boot camp” weeks before the exam, and I am trying to improve their ability to respond quickly and decisively to a prompt. They will be writing three separate essays; each read by an audience of one, a reader who will grade hundreds of essays a day. They need to make a clear argument.

For practice, I offered a choice of four prompts to students. We just finished reading Eugene O’Neil’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night, and each prompt touched on one aspect of the play: the text, the characters, the theme. Rather than have them write a full essay response to a specific prompt, I had them write two separate opening and concluding paragraphs for their two chosen prompts. I gave them forty minutes to do both. The whining began immediately:

“I have a hard time just writing a beginning and an opening.”
“I always start in one place and end in another.”
“I need to write the middle or I can’t write the end!”

“That’s because you write to find out what you think,” I respond, “and that should show up in the introduction or the conclusion.”

Since the AP exam is a timed test, 120 minutes for three prompt analysis and response questions, timed practices are helpful. These truncated practice essays are incomplete and rough, but they do help students practice how to reconcile an introduction with a conclusion in a short time. In these hastily written drafts of beginnings and endings, I can help them distinguish their good ideas from linguistic clutter so an AP reader will better appreciate their argument. I do not want my students to make a thesis so hidden that the AP Reader is hunting for the “manifesto in the muck”.

What “muck” you ask? Essays cluttered with empty words:  a lot, kind of, sort of, actually, stuff, thing, very, really, quite

Essays cluttered with the muck of empty phrases:

  • Because of the fact of
  • The reason…is because

Essays cluttered with the muck of statements of the obvious:

  • The author uses diction and syntax to communicate his meaning.
  • The theme is the message the author is trying to communicate.
  • Words have meaning.

In one block period, the students wrote the truncated essays of introductions and conclusions in response to O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical play,  A Long Day’s Journey into Night.  We reviewed each draft to find the one powerful statement that publicly declared that student’s view, a statement that could get an AP reader’s attention. The prompts are in bold; student’s statements below each prompt:

PROMPT #1: Select a line you find especially memorable; analyze the reasons for its effectiveness.

  • When I read about this family, it reminded me of the advice, “only the strong survive’; the Tyrone family lives like a pack of animals, not a family.
  • If the characters in the play had the ability to leave behind their past, forget the things that made them lesser, they would be better off.

PROMPT #2: Describe how the author manages to give internal awakenings, discoveries, changes in consciousness the sense of excitement, suspense, and climax usually associated with external action.

  • James is struck with the conflict of having someone say his greatest fear is being in a class he does not think he belongs. 
  • The choice presented to each character is which moral or ethical barrier to shatter in order to overcome the cycle of insanity.
  •  Literature is an extension of human understanding and comes from our musings, our curiosities, and our imaginations.

PROMPT #3: Discuss the contribution scenes of social occasions reveal about the values of the characters and the society in which they live.

  • Whether these experiences dealt with alcohol abuse, substance abuse, or general unhappiness in life, all topics were acted out to be ignored or forgotten about, yet these [experiences] remained the most memorable. O’Neill wanted the conflicts to be pushed aside, which then caused the audience to latch on and never forget.
  • We seek out the approval and forgiveness of others when our own soul’s condition is purely of our own pilot.

PROMPT #4: Explain how the tragic figure functions as an instrument of the suffering of others and that the suffering brought upon others by that figure contributes to the tragic vision of the work.

  • In this way, each individual’s poisoned action spreads like a virus and affects all those in its proximity devouring them to the point of self destruction.
  • Edmund’s sickness is not just  source of unwanted strains on the family; it is an object to represent the family relationship.

When I come upon one of the above statements, in the beginning or the end of the draft, I can almost hear the “clink” that went on in the student’s head (and hand) as he or she drafted the essay.  At a point in the writing conferences that followed, a student will agree, “Yeah, that was when I figured out what I was writing about.” My experience is that students write their way into a thesis, and it is important for the student to recognize that statement, so he or she can parse away the clutter, removing the muck so that the AP Reader can find that statement too.

During this last week of AP English Literature practice, students will work at drafting responses to prose and poetry prompts. They will be writing their responses quickly, and I will still be crabby. But because of the practice, there will be less muck that covers a student’s manifesto in an AP literature essay response. After that, they can go back to being 4th quarter seniors.

3 responses to Looking for the Manifesto in the Muck of AP Literature Essays


    Loved this strategy. Keep it up, Ms. Crabby. Your students will remember you years down the line and appreciate your efforts. I know, I just appreciated something my 10th grade English teacher taught mumble mumble years ago.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Why Not Teach to the Advanced Placement Test? « Used Books in Class - October 18, 2013

    […] as he or she “writes into” the prompt, something I have previously referred to as a “manifesto in the muck.” A good A.P. course provides a student with the chance to take that essay draft, and expand […]

  2. Why Not Teach to the Advanced Placement Test? | The Educator's RoomThe Educator's Room | Empowering Teachers as the Experts. - November 11, 2013

    […] as he or she “writes into” the prompt, something I have previously referred to as a ”manifesto in the muck.” A good A.P. course provides a student with the chance to take that essay draft, and expand […]

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