Once we have chosen an AP Literary Argument prompt for the final essay and created a corresponding Authentic Assessment, it is time to craft our Essential Questions, which provide a philosophical focus for the unit. Essential Questions are meant to be thought-provoking and, by their very nature, difficult to answer. After students formulate their initial responses, they should find that their answers are likely to change over the course of the unit, which is a sign that they are thinking deeply about the issues involved. In fact, we encourage our students to look at Essential Questions as ones they should ponder and re-consider throughout their lives.
When choosing an AP Literary Argument prompt and creating an Authentic Assessment, we should consider the questions that naturally arise from contemplating the larger implications of each assignment. For instance, in reading Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel Persepolis, we focus on Marji's maturation and use the 2013 AP Literary Argument prompt for the final essay:
A bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, recounts the psychological or moral development of its protagonist from youth to maturity, when this character recognizes his or her place in the world. Select a single pivotal moment in the psychological or moral development of the protagonist of a bildungsroman. Then write a well-organized essay that analyzes how that single moment shapes the meaning of the work as a whole.
Even though Persepolis is not one of the recommended texts for this particular AP prompt, we believe that Satrapi's graphic novel, which is taught in most IB schools, is certainly of "comparable literary merit" to other titles on the AP list. As students read the graphic novel, they look for those moments in Marji's life that show her "psychological or moral development." For the Authentic Assessment, we have students choose a "single pivotal moment" from their own lives when they realized that they were no longer children and instead had become young adults. Then, students create a series of panels to illustrate that transformative moment.
While there are many moments from Satrapi's graphic novel that could serve as a model to illustrate Marji's maturation, we have chosen as an example the scene when Marji disavows God after discovering that her beloved Uncle Anoosh has been murdered by the Iranian government on the eve of the Iraqi War:
When Uncle Anoosh is executed, Marji is not just personally devastated, but also recognizes the sacrifice Uncle Anoosh has made for their country. While Marji used to pretend to be a "revolutionary hero" like Ché Guevara in her childhood games, she now understands the very real consequence of putting one's life on the line for a cause. Even though she feels temporarily "lost" without Uncle Anoosh, Marji soon embodies his commitment to his ideals by continuing to resist the authoritarian rule of the Iranian regime and fight for the principles of freedom and justice.
For Satrapi, the definition of maturity seems to be a realization that there are causes worth fighting and potentially dying for, and that we all have a responsibility to help others, especially those less fortunate than ourselves. Persepolis is a story filled with pain and suffering, but it is also a story of strength and resilience. Marji has become a strong, independent young woman by the time she leaves for Europe, and she learns that she cannot passively wait for God or anyone else to solve her or her country's problems. Satrapi suggests that maturity requires a commitment to act for oneself as well as for others.
When students create their own panels for the Authentic Assessment, they will establish the context of that "single pivotal moment" during their presentation and then explain how their panels represent their "psychological or moral development . . . from youth to maturity." While the illustrated panels should imply how the person has matured, students will have an opportunity to expand on why that moment was so transformative when they present their panels to the rest of the class. Here is a sample student panel project for this assignment:
During this student's presentation, the author/illustrator explained how she had to solve the problem of being bullied by her classmates by herself. She did not want to burden her mother with this problem because she knew that her mother could not help her. She was on her own, which was scary and difficult, but also empowering. This student explained that she defined maturity as recognizing that she was responsible for herself and had to learn to solve her own problems in life.
When students compare and contrast their own journey "from youth to maturity" with Marji's, they are forced to confront profound existential questions about the nature of adulthood and issues associated with it. These are the unit's Essential Questions. In general, it is preferable to keep questions as short and open-ended as possible to give students freedom to interpret and answer them in a variety of ways. For the Persepolis unit, here are the three questions that we chose:
The goal of Essential Questions is to get students thinking at a deeper, more philosophical level. For instance, just because people are considered adults, does that necessarily mean they are mature? Are there times when children show more maturity than adults? What responsibilities do we have to confront injustice in the world? When is it appropriate, and not appropriate, to challenge authority? If we consider ourselves mature, how does that change our relationship to others and to the society in which we live? These are questions that we should ponder our entire lives, and the answers we come up with should always be regarded as provisional and subject to change.
The answers that students generate for the Essential Questions should not only help them understand their own lives better, but they should also help them understand the overall theme of the literary work. When students write their final essay, they need to consider "the meaning of the work as a whole" in their synthesis paragraph. If the Essential Questions are effective, they should guide students towards that overall theme and it significance in helping them better understand themselves, their values, and the people they would like to be.