by Maddy Hutchins ‘14 –
In a year when the AP exam looms ominously over students’ shoulders, it would be easy to become imprisoned in drudgery in an AP English Language and Composition class; however, John Corrigan’s class of eleven brave juniors is boldly blazing forth into a brilliant world, bursting with Harkness discussion, creative responses to literature, and investigative journalism. By steering away from incessant drilling on rhetorical strategy and instead presenting opportunities to use those devices, this course shifts from being a class preparing for an exam to a group of engaged students trying to use and improve their skills.
The course focuses on learning how to analyze writing and to write using rhetorical strategy—which primarily hinges upon the use of ethos (credibility), pathos (emotion), and logos (logic)-in preparation for the AP exam in the spring. But it does so without reducing the class to an endless sea of rote. Through analyzing passages of the literature read in the class—Hamlet, In Cold Blood, The Great Gatsby, and Beloved to date—as well as writing weekly timed essays taken from previous AP exams which cover topics ranging from the importance of museum artifacts to whether or not DNA research should be allowed to continue (because of the social issues it raises), students learn what works in writing and what doesn’t when it comes to conveying and arguing an opinion.
Another key component of the class is the Harkness discussion, a group conversation led by the students. By placing the conversation in their hands it allows students to talk about what they see as important points concerning the subject of the day, whether it be the latest chapter of a book, an assigned-reading newspaper article, or the recent production of “The Meeting.” During these discussions, students bring up their individual interpretation of material, which not only allows for the expression of views that may not have come up otherwise, but also opens the door for peer-challenge to a particular interpretation, demanding that students be able to support their perspectives with evidence and rhetorical reasoning, once again providing an opportunity to hone their rhetorical skills.
Up to this point in the year, there have been a number of thought-provoking discussions and challenging essays, but perhaps the most enjoyable—and most unexpected—part of the class has been the projects. The term paper topic for the fall (“Consider one of the following subjects, develop a question, and then write your response in the form of a well-conceived and well-supported term paper: Technology, the media, or civil liberties”) gave rise to eleven individual essays based around self-determined questions, ranging from the effect of the media on the body image of prep-school girls to the modernization of golf to welfare reform. A challenging assignment, it forced students to use the rhetorical skills they had been working on since the beginning of the term.
Another project came early in the winter term. After finishing In Cold Blood and watching Capote, the film that follows Truman Capote’s life while writing the novel, Mr. Corrigan instructed us to create a response to the book and the movie; simple, right? What came out of this open-ended assignment was anything but. Limited only by their imaginations, students came into class and presented their projects: a rap based on the life and literature of Capote, another song to the tune of “American Pie,” visual representations of characters, props symbolizing characters, and even a dartboard with a photo of Capote taped to it.
The most recent project, which is still being exhaustively researched by the class, is a foray into investigative journalism. Students were told that there was a man who was a student and teacher named Benjamin Morgan, an apparent legend of Pomfret School, and that they were to write a profile of him using interviews with those who knew him as the basis of their research. As extra incentive, Mr. Corrigan added that it is possible that the one or two of the best essays may be published in the Norwich Bulletin. Since this assignment commenced, a spirit of (friendly) competition has permeated the class, with each student wanting to discover more than their classmates about this monumental man. This assignment once again requires the use of all of the rhetorical skills gained up to this point: not only to write the essay, but to compose the questions asked of the interviewees, so as to optimize the amount of material gained in the interviews. No one is letting on much of what they have learned or sharing their strategies, but it is safe to say that this atypical undertaking is stretching the minds of the class far more than simply preparing for the AP exam. And that is the strength of this class, the constant requirement of more than basics.