I have been teaching AP Lit for almost 15 years, and the test prep has always been a difficult process. For years my students felt stressed about the open question, so I created the Independent Novel Project. Then, they felt overwhelmed and underprepared for the poetry question, so I created weekly poem lessons and two intensive poetry units. This leaves just the prose question. I didn’t know why, but my students felt unprepared and baffled by the prose question, always forgetting the meaning of syntax and the purpose of diction. I drilled them by adding more novels and plays, but nothing seemed to help.
Then, last year I had the “fortunate misfortune” of scoring the prose question for the 2018 AP Lit exam, which explored Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance. Although I had to read more about Zenobia than one human being ever should, I did learn that writing for the prose prompt takes more than just regular analysis skills. Literary elements used in prose are powerful but often overlooked, and it takes a keen eye to pick out just the right details for written analysis.
With this in mind, I created a weeklong prose unit that explored the most common literary terms mentioned on past AP Lit prose questions. To make it interesting, I connected the skills in my notes to popular characters from literature and films. This resource is for sale on Teachers Pay Teachers, but I will share a few of my favorite lessons from this resource here.
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One subset of diction is dialogue, and you can learn a lot about a character from dialogue. In this lesson, I take quotes from famous movie characters (well, they’re famous from my time, so I also like to look at it as introducing classic characters to these young bucks) and we analyze what their spoken lines say about them. Take Sally.
Sally Albright is one of my favorite characters, and she comes from my favorite romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally. In my notes, I record Sally’s lunch order:
But I’d like the pie heated, and I don’t want the ice cream on top, I want it on the side. And I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it. If not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it’s real. If it’s out of a can, then nothing.Sally Albright, When Harry Met Sally
I ask the students, what do Sally’s lines tell us about her character? First, it reinforces Harry’s assertion that she is “high maintenance.” Her defense is that ”she knows what she wants.” Sally is picky, but only because she hates being let down. By being assertive with what she wants, she hopes to spare anyone disappointment later. We continue this discussion with several other characters, and eventually students learn that every line of dialogue serves a purpose, and it is usually to further the plot or, in this case, to build character.
Syntax is one of the most difficult literary elements to teach, since it really just means how words are arranged. My students argue that you can make a case out of any syntactical arrangement, so how do we know if that is what the author intended? I remind them that author intent is not really the point. The AP exam rubric asks for a persuasive answer, so if they can support their assertion with textual evidence, it doesn’t matter if the author approves of it.
In this lesson, I took famous quotes from different novels and explored different syntactical arrangements, including a midsentence break, beginning and ending with significant words, choppy sentence structure, and parallelism. To demonstrate parallelism, I included lines from one of America’s most beloved novels, To Kill a Mockingbird. In it, Atticus says,
People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
In this quote, the words are arranged to deliberately reuse the word “for” at the end of each phrase. This is parallelism, a form of repetition. Since the original word ended with “look for,” the change to the word “listen” in front of “for” puts more emphasis on that word. Atticus is giving wisdom to his children, and Atticus is a man who listens more than he speaks. The meaning behind this wisdom would not be lost on his children, but Harper Lee employs parallelism to make sure it isn’t lost on us.
Most students understand how to identify the point of view of a textual excerpt, thanks to classic short story lessons. However, AP readers expect a more advanced knowledge base, which includes knowledge of an unreliable narrator, 2nd person point of view, and stream-of-consciousness narration.
There was no better author of unreliable narrator than Edgar Allan Poe. In his classic short story “A Tell-Tale Heart,” we see the thoughts of a madman as he hears the beating heart of the man he just killed. Poe writes,
Yet the sound increased—and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath—and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly—more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men—but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!—this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!Narrator, “The Tell-Tale Heart”
These lines convince the reader that the heartbeat is not real, but is only heard in the mind of the narrator. Until this point, the reader isn’t sure if this is a supernatural thriller or a psychological thriller. Here, he proves his unreliability, and we shift to enjoying watching him unravel.
While these points of view may seem alien to readers, most of them are easier to understand in film. Shutter Island, Fight Club, Atonement, and Gone Girl are all popular films (and books, by the way) that employ an unreliable narrator. Most students have seen one of these, and relating this lesson to these films will help solidify the information.
Tone is another tricky element. While students won’t have a hard time understanding it, analyzing tone is a different story. My students struggle with labeling tone, and figuring out how to incorporate it into a literary analysis.
To illustrate tone in my lesson, I picked three popular books-turned-movies that featured a prominent death. I presented a quote which depicted this death and asked students to analyze the tone.
This was a questionable move, but I included the death of Fred Weasley. And I’ll be honest here, I wept while writing these slides. Spoilers aside, the words accompanying Fred’s death are some of the most heartbreakingly ironic words in literature. They say:
And Percy was shaking his brother, and Ron was kneeling beside them, and Fred’s eyes stared without seeing, the ghost of his last laugh still etched upon his face.JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
After we all dry our eyes, students must analyze the tone of these words. First of all, heartbreaking is accurate, as the author emphasizes that Fred is surrounded by his brothers at his death, including his own twin. Furthermore, Fred was a jokester in life, and by discussing the ghost of a laugh on his face she adds a tone of cruelty to the words, emphasizing Fred’s undeserved death.
These are just single slides from lessons designed to take a full hour, and they don’t mention the annotation and writing activities, but I hope they give a little clarification on how to make prose instruction more interesting and meaningful for your AP Lit students. To access my AP Lit Prose materials click on any of the headings for individual lessons, or click here for the full weeklong unit.