Last semester, we focused our writing on descriptive and reflective writing techniques, and began looking at the structure and creation of synthesis prompts and essays. Synthesis essay prompts are extremely complex, and by researching and creating them, students gained insight into the purpose and function of the essay itself.
A synthesis essay is an essay prompt that poses a question and provides the student with a variety of sources she must read and evaluate and then use as evidence in an extended argument. They generally consist of 6-7 sources, 4 of which are writing that exhibits different styles and points of view. A student on the Advanced Placement English Language Exam has about one hour to complete a synthesis essay–15 minutes to read and analyze, 45 minutes to compose and edit. It’s quite a challenge, but one which very closely resembles the kind of work students will find themselves doing in college.
In this case, we had been reading Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, and we used the study of Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti as an entry point for the study of medical activists working with both local and global health issues. Because of Farmer’s health organization Partners In Health and its role in the response to the Ebola crisis in Africa, there was a wealth of current material available for study and research. Students found themselves asking profound questions about the ethics of global medical resource distribution, the economics of the medical industry, and the organization of medical resources in the United States. By the end of their research, teams of students were asked to identify a compelling topic, and put together a series of readings, images, and informational graphics that others could use as a prompt for writing. “Taking” another group’s synthesis essay was the final exam.
As a process, this provided students with a “behind the curtain” view of the structure of a difficult prompt on the AP exam. And while preparing for that exam may, or may not, be of any value–this experience proved to be profound. Writing samples generated by the students showed growth in ALL domains of writing for ALL students. I have never seen this kind of growth. Yes, this assignment–in all of its parts and activities–took nearly 4 weeks. They were 4 profoundly well-spent weeks which paid off in the best set of finals I have ever scored. I was stunned by the depth of thinking, the organizational control, and the rhetorical strategies exhibited in these essays.
Using this model of instruction with the students was profound. They saw a direct relationship between the text they were reading, the research they were doing, and the world value of this topic immediately. The connection between their academy project–to engage in Civic Action themselves–provided a link between themselves, their actions, and the people and organizations they were reading about and researching. The fact that they were creating testing materials for their peers, and had multiple opportunities to evaluate the work of others and revise their own work, created an atmosphere of competitive value and an authentic need (and opportunity) to perform at a high level. And all this is just in reference to the creation of a prompt. The impact creating the prompts had on the ability to then write well to another prompt was exceptional.
The following prompts will give you an idea of the scope and value of student work.