Students experience political process through AP Lang project

Eli Saletan

By Abby Snyder

Inspiring speeches. Catchy sound bytes. Hardworking campaign teams. For some students, this didn’t end with the presidential election; they spent much of second quarter working tirelessly on a mock-election project for their AP Language class.

English teacher Ryan Derenberger said he developed the project hoping to make the AP Language curriculum more relevant to current events and to help immerse students in Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,” a book assigned for summer reading. The book, recognized as one of the best depictions of American politics, focuses on a fictional politician, Willie Stark, and follows his rise to power and eventual fall from grace.  

“It’s been an ongoing push from the College Board to further incorporate politics into AP Language,” Derenberger said. “As much as we can, we want to introduce authenticity: something real, something true. So this project was a way to hit a lot of birds with one stone.”

English teacher Omari James, seeing how well the project was working for Derenberger’s classes, assigned it to his classes as well, and the mock-election was under way. Each teacher picked presidential candidates, who then chose their campaign teams. Each class period also had an independent news network with a team of reporters and editors who worked to cover the election.

Candidates were required to write speeches, determine policy plans and initiatives and appeal to voters, all while trying to downplay the invented scandals that Derenberger and James concocted, like leaked information that one of the candidates was involved in the mob and had threatened a doctor.

“It’s very different from all the other English projects I’ve done,” candidate Theo Akpinar said. “It kind of reshaped the way I’m thinking about English class. It’s a very different type of project, because you’re immersed in actually doing something.”

While candidates were constantly promoting themselves, their campaign managers worked behind the scenes to make sure the campaigns ran smoothly, helping to orchestrate all aspects of the campaign from press releases to social media posts.

“I help to write speeches, and I help form the platform for my candidate, Kathryn O’Halloran,” campaign manager Tess Ravick said. “I help our press secretary do press releases; I help to run the social media accounts. Overall, I’m just trying to keep everything running smoothly throughout the election.”

On a typical day during the campaign, classrooms were filled with dedicated teams working on speeches, policy platforms, and social media outreaches. They also worked toward a town hall forum, where candidates were asked questions written by AP NSL students. The candidates responded with well-researched, realistic policy initiatives very much reminiscent of real-life legislative proposals.

Although the project required intensive work over an extended period of time, several students said that they didn’t mind it since it was so interesting and so different from a typical assignment.

“I really like this project,” junior Alice Aubert, a political analyst for the project, said. “It’s a new way to experience and to be taught a book.”

However, not all AP Language classes held elections as part of the unit on “All the King’s Men.” English teachers Todd Michaels and Matthew Bruneel assigned their classes group discussion presentations instead.

Michaels assigned the discussion project because the election project was so new, and because he was worried it wouldn’t focus enough on the text, he said. Instead, he opted to wait and see how the project played out this year before committing to the idea.

“It seemed really cool, but I always like to have a little more time when it comes to planning, especially when it’s someone else’s idea so I can make it my own and so I fully understand it,” Michaels said. “I also wanted to see how it goes, so that if it went well, then I can think about doing it for next year.”

Looking back on the project, Rory Nevins, one of the winning candidates, enjoyed putting the rhetorical devices he learned in Lang to good use in his campaign and getting involved in some friendly competition with his peers.

“I’d heard tales of how hard Lang is and how intense the teachers were, but the election was just an interesting change of pace and a good attempt of showing how the writing skills we’re supposed to be learning are used,” Nevins said. “It was really cool to see everyone try hard to present their ideas.”

Overall, students and teachers agreed, the project was a success.

“No question; I’ll do it again next year,” James said. “This is one of the most creative projects or units that I’ve ever gotten to teach.”