What’s one piece of advice English teacher Peter Durnan gives to students in his AP English Language and Composition class before they take their exam in May?
Pity the adult who has to grade your test.
“The audience is: stodgy old person - and a stodgy old person who has read 300 of the exact same essay that day,” says Peter. “The need to be fresh and vivid is really important, given that rhetorical context.”
He should know. For each of the last 25 years, Peter has spent one week in July grading countless AP exams alongside thousands of other educators in convention centers across the country.
Last summer, just as he has every year since 1998, Peter took up residence in a vast, air-conditioned convention center – in this case the Tampa Convention Center – where he spent eight hours a day grading essays alongside hundreds of other high school English teachers and college professors. Back in 2021, the group’s task was especially daunting: more than half a million students took the AP English Language and Composition exam, the most of any AP exam. With three free-response questions per exam, Peter and his colleagues had less than a week to grade 1.8 million essays.
Grading so many essays in such a short period of time requires an almost militaristic command structure and organization. When readers arrived at the convention center, they were divided into three groups, with 600 readers assigned to each free-response question. After receiving their assignments, readers would decamp to one of three question rooms, where they sat at tables of eight, each led by a table leader. The table leader was responsible for monitoring the work of the readers at the table, and reporting their progress - and any problems - to the question leader, the person responsible for overseeing all 600 readers. For most of the last decade, Peter has been that person.
As question leader, Peter’s main job is to help all 600 of his readers agree upon the grading rubric and score each essay according to the same standard. Getting the attention of that many people in a vast convention hall requires some unorthodox techniques - especially in the pre-pandemic days before some of the graders moved online. “I would literally hit a bicycle bell and 600 people would put on headphones. And I’m like ‘Hey it’s Peter Durnan from New Hampshire. Here’s the question we have. Let’s look at how we’re going to score it. Let’s look at the rubric,’” Peter says. “You know teachers. We’re a tough bunch. Everyone thinks they’re right about everything. To get 600 people to agree, that’s the biggest job.”
Getting 600 teachers to agree on a single grading rubric may be a big job, but it’s one Peter is uniquely qualified to make. Over the last three decades, he has become one of the country’s leading authorities on the AP English Language and Composition exam. In addition to teaching English at Holderness and serving as the school’s academic dean, he has developed a career as a leading educational consultant, teaching AP workshops to English educators who want to improve their own pedagogical skills. A charismatic teacher, Peter is so effective that the College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers both the Advanced Placement Program and the SAT, has twice sent him to China to teach AP workshops. And in 2021, Peter was named to the AP English Language and Composition Test Development Committee, an elite group of high school teachers and college professors who propose questions for the exam. “In the world’s smallest pond, it’s the biggest honor a high school teacher can get,” Peter says, in his characteristically wry, self-deprecating way.
So, when Peter tells his students to keep their essays interesting, he knows what he’s talking about. Ultimately, Peter says, keeping things interesting is the key to all good writing. “We are bored in Tampa, in a convention center, looking at a computer screen, 8 to 5,” Peter says. “A kid who can somehow open your eyes just a little bit, that can really make the difference. And I think that makes for good writing anyway. You want to avoid the tired, cliched language, and you want to think of evidence that is apt, and perhaps fresh and inviting.”
The ultimate goal in teaching AP English Language and Composition isn’t just to help his students succeed on the AP exam, Peter says. It’s to teach writing skills that will help students in college and beyond.
“The goal of my teaching of these kids is that when they get to college, they’re equipped with the methods to write successfully, which for most of us - for all of us - involves a good reader who will look at your stuff and give you feedback and suggestions and criticism,” Peter says. By becoming better writers, Peter hopes his students will also become more discerning consumers of the nonstop barrage of information they get daily from Instagram, TikTok, and countless other sources.
“We talk about where students get their information, and a lot of them say ‘TikTok. My source of news is TikTok.’ I have no idea what that even means,” Peter says. “But it’s a question we should be attending to with our kids: how are you assembling the things you believe in?”