Reflections & Insights From the 2018 AP Lit Reading

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Last week I spent seven days in Kansas City grading 1325 essays in a giant room that was too cold and filled with over a thousand tired educators. And it was an amazingly wonderful experience.

This is my fifth time scoring AP Lit essays, but I’ve had to miss a few years in the past due to pregnancies and international student trips. While it wasn’t my first year scoring, it was my first year on the prose passage, notoriously known among my students as my least favorite question. Even though I moaned (and groaned and whined) when I saw the big “QUESTION 2” next to my name, the experience was worth it, as I have now scored all three AP Lit questions and feel much more well-rounded in my instruction of AP Lit (going on year 13 now!).

In the interest of being concise, here are some takeaways from this past year’s scoring, plus some that I’ve learned over the years at the scoring table.

  1. This is a big one. CollegeBoard officially announced that they are doing away with the Poetry Compare/Contrast question. In context, the poetry question (Question 1) occasionally takes the form of a compare/contrast question rather than an analysis of a single poem. They haven’t used that format in several years, leading teachers to ask each year if they were ever going to go back to the Compare/Contrast format. This year they officially announced that they are discontinuing that type of essay prompt. I will continue to teach this strategy in my class as I find it valuable, but I’m relieved that I can tell my students with certainty which kind of question they can anticipate for the often-dreaded poetry essay.
  2. CollegeBoard has also hinted that previous questions from the past could be used again in a particular form. While the wording may change, higher-ups reminded teachers this year that many valuable themes were touched on in previous years (even back to the 80’s and 90’s), and some of those themes could be re-visited in future questions. My takeaway for you is that if you aren’t studying previous years open-ended questions in your AP classes, you absolutely need to do so next year. These questions make excellent writing prompts for on-demand essays or larger writing assignments, and they are invaluable for preparing students for question 3.
  3. Students need more help understanding diction and syntax. In my years at the poetry table, I learned quickly that the average AP Lit student does not know how to analyze diction. The sentence, “This poem utilizes diction” is essentially saying, “This poem uses words” (groundbreaking!). But this year in the prose question, I learned that the same is true of syntax. To say that a passage uses syntax is saying that it uses words…that are arranged in a certain way (scandalous!). When teaching these words in your classes, make sure you provide strong examples of how to write about diction and syntax properly, and teach students when it is worth analyzing these terms in the first place.
  4. Too many students feel crippled by the suggested titles in Question 3. Even though the prompt tells students that they can write about any title “of literary merit,” too many students feel obligated to use a title from the list. I even saw essays where students wrote, “I didn’t read any of these books. Sorry!” as their entire response. Please remind students that they do not need to feel obligated to choose from the list. This year’s suggested list of titles included Frankenstein, which Question 3 readers told me was the overwhelmingly popular choice. One ventured to say that she believed 20% of the essays for question 3 were about Frankenstein. This means that a well-written essay that is not about Frankenstein is automatically a welcome sight in the eyes of the reader, who is undoubtedly getting tired of that text (sorry, Mary Shelley). Sometimes thinking outside the box is a good strategy.
  5. Students don’t have to write about a “classic,” but they probably should. There is an ongoing debate on what kinds of books students should write about for Question 3’s open-ended question. Some say that any book (or essay, short story, or even movie) should be given a fair chance, but other readers are more old-school and are undoubtedly biased towards literary classics or newer texts that have won awards (such as the Pulitzer). When it comes to making this decision, I tell students that it is dealer’s choice. More and more readers are being brought in every year and being trained to look at the question in an unbiased way, but it is still a gamble in the end.
  6. Urge students away from writing about books in a series. Similar to choosing an oddball book, there is also an argument about analyzing books in a series, such as The Lord of the Rings series. In my year at Question 3 we had a prompt about a deceptive character and I read an excellent essay analyzing Snape from the Harry Potter series. While the essay was quite good (I believe it earned a 7), it could not possibly get to a 9, because who could properly analyze the entirety of Snape’s deceptiveness in 2 hours, let alone 2 days? The problem with analyzing a series is that there is almost always too much material to sift through, unless you analyze a fringe character.
  7. Poetry needs to be studied in an ongoing way, not as a unit. In my first years as an AP teacher, I taught two poetry units, one called “Intro to Poetry” and the second called “Advanced Poetry.” In each unit we studied poems and wrote about them, both in shortened and long paper formats. And despite my hard work, year after year my students reported feeling least confident about the poetry essay. Furthermore, my end-of-year surveys told me that they needed more work in poetry. Finally I buckled down over a summer and re-read Perinne’s Sound and Sense, as well as several AP Lit blogs, and picked a poem for every week of the year. And every week we studied that poem in class. This was done in addition to our two stand-alone poetry units. Since I’ve made that change my students have felt much more confident for Question 1, and I’ve seen an overall improvement in how they analyze poetry in writing.
  8. Lastly, please know that you AP and English teachers are appreciated. About 50% of the AP readers are college professors, and I worried in my first year at the reading that all I would hear was how we high school teachers didn’t do enough to prepare students for college-level writing. Instead, quite the opposite was true. Everyone was incredibly kind to me, and each year they ask high school teachers to stand and be recognized for our work and sacrifices in high school classrooms. More importantly, each day the readers are reminded that the essays we encounter “belong to some teacher’s student, and some parent’s child.” The leaders remind us that essays scored on day 6 deserve just as much fresh attention as those scored on day 1. Frequent breaks are allowed and plenty of free coffee and snacks are given out to keep us focused. We do everything we can to honor your hard work and give each student’s essay a fair shot.

This year’s reading was incredibly fun, as it was my first year scoring since our subject moved to Kansas City. Here are a few pictures from the trip (taken from outside the scoring room, as there are strict regulations on taking photos around official essays or scoring materials).

This is a rare plea for readership, but please pass this information on to any AP Lit teacher you know, as this information is very valuable for year-long planning. Many AP teachers have no idea how the essays they teach are even scored, which I believe is incredibly unfair. I love to share the information that I am permitted to pass on!

Final news: I’ve created a professional Instagram at aplitandmore, so please follow me for updates on TpT products, my professional life, and the inside track on future TpT sales and discounts!

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