The passage the students read for this year’s AP question in the prose section is a short piece where Joe (Johnny) from Dalton Trumbo’s Jonhhy Got his Gun is camping with his father and chooses for the first time in eight years to take off and go fishing with a friend rather than with his dad. His father, while clearly disappointed, gives Joe his treasured fishing rod to use, so Joe can give his own rod to his friend, who has none. The prompt asked them to consider what literary devices Dalton used to characterize the relationship between the Joe and his father, and gave as examples the use of details, point of view, and syntax. The responses were hilarious at times.
- Joe from Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun is “like a black widow spider, going from mate to mate.”
- “It would have been better if there’d been a gun in it.”
- The excerpt is written from the “third person limited omnipotent” perspective.
- Or the “impotent” perspective.
- Or from the second person to the third person to the first person and back again. (Which it is not. Trumbo eliminates quotation marks on dialogue, which I suppose leads inexperiences student writers to assume he’s flipping into first person.)
- “There are lots of details. Good details. The details are overwhelming. That’s what makes them good.”
- “In 1939 fishing was used for bondage a lot.”
- “Trumbo’s syntax is reprehensible.”
There’s something else, something a bit disheartening. A run of essays, all with either ones (lowest score for someone at least making an attempt to address the prompt), or with dashes (page left blank). All from the same school. At lunch one of my colleagues told me that some states require all students to take AP English, and to take the exam. Some states use taxpayer money to pay the ($85?) reading fee for students who couldn’t otherwise afford it. “It makes Bush look good,” my colleague said. “He can cite the increasing numbers of students who are taking AP English. No child left behind, right?” I don’t know if he’s right, and I hope he’s not. If so, I think of those students, all from the same school, who will get dishearteningly low scores, who are being presented as success stories when they are in fact sinking, all for ideology.
In contrast, I got a run of essays from the same area (different schools, same area or district, I think). All high-scoring essays, ranging from 6-8. Is it just the quality of the teaching that makes the difference, or students coming from privilege where all aspects of their lives are shaped towards success?