When April rolls around my AP®* Lit students begin preparing for the exam, a process which looks different for each teacher. Many students get the most anxiety when it comes to the free response question, an open-ended prompt asking students to analyze any novel or play. I’ve found success in having each student prepare a study guide for five different texts.
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First of all, students should reflect back on all of the books they have read in preparation for the AP® Lit exam, both in class and outside of it. This includes both novels and plays, as well as some memoirs, short stories, essays, epics, and other kinds of texts. Each student needs to create a list of five titles to know, inside and out. Here are some of the rules I implement for choosing titles:
- They must include at least one Shakespearean play.
- They must include at least one play (which may be by Shakespeare)
- They must include at least one gothic novel.
- They must attempt to include at least two diverse authors, meaning women and minorities.
- No author should be repeated more than twice.
- Use titles on the range of accessibility, aiming for more obscure books if possible.
The range of accessibility is a continuum that I designed showing how some works are considered “too accessible” by some readers, meaning that they may be too short, too simple, or frankly too popular. Wonderful but accessible books include To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and Animal Farm. Students should avoid having titles that all rank low on the continuum and try to put at least one more obscure title on their list. This doesn’t mean a student can’t write about To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a wonderful novel and contains strong symbols and themes. They should just avoid having multiple titles that are low on the continuum. The same goes likewise for having too many titles from a similar time period or genre.
While it is impossible to hit all of these categories, encourage students to choose title combinations that are:
- Written by both male and female authors
- Representing world literature, or works from outside of America or Great Britain
- Including works by minority authors, including writers of color and Native American authors
- representing plays, especially those not taught in 9th or 10th grade
- A mixture of short and longer texts
- A balance of old and newer books, including classics and those published in just the past 10 years.
Once students have chosen their titles, I give them a week or two to prepare their study guides. These study guides need to include the following for each title:
- The title, author, and year published
- The setting (both time and place)*
- A list of characters*
- A short plot summary*
- An overview of themes and symbols, each explained in several sentences
*If time is a factor, or students are being crushed under a weight of other work right before AP® exams, I sometimes allow these items to be taken from an online study website such as SparkNotes or Shmoop. I’d prefer their themes and symbols be written in their own words, but the rest of the information is really for short review right before the exam. If it speeds up the preparation process this is an accommodation that can be made.
In my classes, the study guides are due the Monday of our AP® Exam week. I look them over and score them quickly, returning them to the students so they can review them. I also make sure that the week of the exam they have no homework from me. I only ask that they read over their five study guides for 5-10 minutes each day, especially right before they go to bed. They usually bring them to school on the day of the AP® Exam as well, cramming from them right before the doors open.
This study guide assignment has several benefits:
- It clears up a common problem, when students have to write about a book they’ve read before, but they have forgotten character names or important plot events. By engraining these five stories into their heads, they are readily able to write about them at the drop of a hat.
- In the five years of doing this assignment, only once has a student had to write about a book that was not on their study guide. Therefore, it takes away much of the panic that students can feel going into Question 3 when they are unsure of what to write.
- It adds a formative grade into my gradebook during exam time, showing assessment for a practical and meaningful assignment that is not busywork.