Confession: I did not participate in the 2020 AP Lit Scoring. It was a combination of screen fatigue, lack of childcare, and skepticism towards my ability to learn the new online scoring methods. Now that the reading has ended I am happy I abstained, simply because I know I would never have gotten through the allotted 5 hour work day requirement.
That being said, I still want to be a vessel of help for AP Lit teachers, especially those new to the game. For that reason I’ve interviewed several people who did participate in the scoring who can give you some focused feedback on the writing process and the new rubric. Please use their tips going forward in your own classroom, sharing with your students as needed. Make sure you read to the end, where I share a few other nuggets of wisdom I got from the readers on Facebook.
Susan – 18 years in education, 8 years teaching AP Lit, 5 years as an AP Reader, 2020 Pilot Reading participant.
Donna – 17 years in education, 16 years teaching AP Lit, 11 years of AP Reading, 3 years as a table leader, 1 year on the selection team.
Eric – 15 years in education, 7 years teaching AP Lit, 6 years of AP Reading, 2020 Pilot Reading participant.
Angela – 14 years teaching AP Lit, first year reader.
Sarah – 19 years in education, 12 years teaching AP Lit, first year reader.
Dionne – 22 years in education, 11 years teaching AP Lit, 2nd year reading.
Q1: What advice do you have regarding the thesis point?
ANSWER THE PROMPT. I’m amazed at how many students do say why a character or relationship or whatever the prompt specifies is complex but rather just lists a couple of devices the author uses and starts writing. Strong essays answer the prompt up front then spend the rest of the essay defending that answer.
In general, I’d say about 90-95% of the essays I read received the point. A significant number of them didn’t place the thesis at the beginning of the essay, which is not a requirement, but the development of the argument can be much harder to follow if the thesis comes at the end. I would strongly encourage students to try to place their thesis in the first paragraph for their own benefit. If the student isn’t sure what their thesis is, I tell them to leave 1-2 blank lines and go back at the end. Essays that did not receive the thesis point generally were wildly off topic or simply restated the prompt without ever presenting any further information about the devices or techniques used in the prompt.
Students should be sure that their thesis goes beyond merely restating the prompt or parroting the words in the prompt. It needs to expand beyond a list of devices and answer the HOW by connecting author’s choices to a bigger idea about the character or setting.
Move beyond the prompt to an assertion. Make a claim, make an assertion. Answer the prompt. It seems to have become cliché to say that. Listing devices and techniques does not constitute as a thesis statement. Too many turn the prompt question to a statement listing devices and do not answer the prompt with an assertion.
The essays with a clearly written thesis in the intro, either as a stand alone intro or incorporated into a broader paragraph tended to be the higher scoring essays. However, I was diligent about accepting a thesis as long as it was somewhere in the essay. Many students, however, wrote what they thought was a clear thesis but did not actually address the prompt. For example, “The author used imagery, characterization , and tone to describe the relationship between Maggie and Tom.” No mention of what relationship or how it is a COMPLEX relationship.
Q2: What advice do you have on the line of reasoning points?
I taught my kids to ‘come full circle every paragraph.’ Tie in their explanations and proof with their main idea and assertion from the thesis statement.
Connections: Move from one point that connects to another point. Think about connections and flow. Now, this may be quite hard to accomplish in 45 minutes- Practice, practice, practice. This will reveal the line of reasoning.
In general, essays that scored 4 points on evidence and commentary discussed two (or more) literary techniques/devices and that discussion was part of a larger, developed argument (LINE OF REASONING) that connected to the thesis without difficulty. Essays that scored 3 in this category generally focused on one device/technique or left out key elements or evidence, but still offered good analysis that supported the LINE OF REASONING. Papers that scored 2 would use specific and relevant evidence from the text but often left out any analysis: mentioning that there was a use of onomatopoeia in the passage without explaining the purpose or effect of that use (with little more support) would often fall in the range of a 2. Essays that scored a 1 would make casual reference to the text and/or literary techniques/devices without much analysis, or would engage in mostly plot summary with little analysis.
Make sure each topic sentence and commentary supports and ties back to the thesis.
Be sure that the elements discussed in the line of reasoning are ones that can be explained fully and that can connect back to the character’s complexity and WHY the author chose to include them. For example, many students chose point of view as a literary device yet did not really address how it impacted the portrayal of the character’s complexity. Simply mentioning it is not sufficient to develop the argument. Choose the devices that you can use to build the most meaningful argument (Other choices that yielded weak results were alliteration and onomatopoeia.) Often, essays lacked supportive details to sustain an argument about the character.
Q3: For students who scored well in the line of reasoning, what were the best strategies?
Addressing the nuances and details in the passage instead of just the obvious tended to “deepen” the line of reasoning.The better essays were those that could discuss elements like irony, sarcasm, and humor in a way that supported the character’s complexity. These essays went beyond the obvious literary elements and showed the student’s ability to think critically about a character whom they just met.
Students consistently showed a progression of ideas or how points built upon or extended prior points as opposed to stating the same argument over and over.
The students who organized their essay chronologically were the easiest to score. There were some who organized by devices, which was effective if they actually saw how the author uses the devises to illustrate the relationship’s complexity (and say what they think the complexity actually is, because so many just used the word complex without ever saying what they see as the complexity).
Students whose lines of reasoning (arguments) were the most coherent had a clear thesis and connected the author’s use of literary devices/techniques to that thesis. Students need to analyze and not just identify the techniques/devices: mentioning that there is a humorous tone will not be enough-a good essay discusses specific examples of humor (diction, imagery, details) and explains how they create that tone. To get 4/4, the student needed to analyze two or more devices.
The really good papers didn’t just list what techniques they saw and why, they went into how those techniques came back to the main idea.
Q4: What advice do you have on the complexity point?
This was by far the biggest glaring issue that came out of my scoring is that so, so many of the students did not see any complexity in the passage. Many just repeated in various ways that the siblings were loving, kind, etc. They missed all the subtleties or just completely misread the relationship. They either do not have enough practice with 19th century texts and their language and customs, or the students just haven’t had enough practice writing thesis that articulate explicitly these subtleties. The ones who did get it wrote beautiful essays tying in the Victorian norms of gender, but those were so few and far between. The middle ones saw that there was something beneath the surface and tried to discuss that dynamic, but maybe didn’t quite get the depth.
Students who were able to analyze their interpretation within a broader context throughout the essay typically earned the sophistication point. I think this is the easiest way to earn the sophistication point.
In class I hit this hard, and after seeing the essays my kids wrote, I know I need to keep hitting it hard. I explain this as “opposing adjectives.” I use the example that my son, who is 10, finished elementary school. On one hand, I am so excited for him to start middle school this coming year! But, at the same time, he’s my baby boy – it kind of breaks my heart that he’s growing up. THAT is complexity. I am both happy and sad. So, I use that as an example and I ask my kids to address that constantly throughout the year. Many of the papers I saw were NOT addressing the complexity.
“Complex” it is an abstract word that must be made concrete for the reader. What is it about the character that is complex, (different parts that can be connected)? Be very specific and connect one point to the other in character study.
Students should delve beneath the surface. For example, if the author provided physical descriptions of a character, then determine WHY the author would do so. What do those physical descriptions have to do with the character’s internal psychological conflict or conflict with the world at large? Students should ask themselves…what makes this character complex? These are not one-dimensional, flat characters. Seek to identify what is confusing or unpredictable in the passage and then tie that to the character’s persona. Consider the interaction (or lack thereof) with the setting or with other characters. What does this reveal?
The most common avenue for getting the sophistication point that I saw was to analyze in the broader social context. Students who did this often used tools from other course, most notably psychology, to offer a psychoanalytic framework to analyze the character. To get the point, this analysis needs to be pervasive and run throughout the essay. A casually passed-off reference to psychology isn’t sufficient for the sophistication point. The other avenues of the point were less common, most notably the “alternative interpretations” aspect. Identifying or exploring tensions in the passage was more common. The fourth avenue, being “stylistically vivid and persuasive throughout the essay”, is a higher bar than it may seem to be. I think many classroom teachers will want to give their students this point because they are generally strong writers, but essays that receive the sophistication point need to be truly breathtaking in their prose.
Q5: What other advice do you have for students writing their essays?
Take time to read and annotate the passage before you write. Have a plan (pre-write or outline) before you begin. Develop a thesis and muster evidence to support that thesis. If you are not sure what your thesis is, leave 1-2 blank lines and go back as soon as you can figure it out.
Every essay is an argument. Take a position about the character (or setting or whatever the focus of the prompt is). Then PROVE your argument with support from the passage that you lay out in a logical manner. Planning ahead is essential. Row B of the rubric is the “pot of gold”—use it as an opportunity to create and sustain a supportable argument.
When I first begin to teach the Q2, I have my students break down the prompts into the minute questions and we talk about how many questions they have to answer. After reading 2 years in a row, my plan is to have them address the question of the prompt first – write out a list of evidence for their relationship and how it is complex. THEN go back and look for the literary elements. Again, the more sophisticated essays did not list and apply the literary elements; instead, they discussed the relationship and merely tied in the literary elements as they appeared. Those essays were much more smooth, their ideas and transitions having solid ground.
Do not worry about listing the devices you plan to discuss, instead address the complexity (i.e. a shift) and tie to a deeper theme.
Study character complexity–make it a standard in character development analysis. Make it real for them. This practice helps with narrative writing and college essay writing. Exercises where the students do character analysis on people they know and/or themselves are beneficial.
This is not just a writing test; it’s a thinking test. Take your time reading, thinking about, and outline the passage before jumping into writing.
Q6: What advice do you have for AP Lit teachers preparing to teach their students this fall?
Every year when I start stressing about all I need to cover during the year, I remind myself that if my students are reading and writing on a consistent basis, they are moving forward. This year will probably be crazier than most so I’m keeping my plans simple; less is more.
I know that some teachers choose to set aside the rubric for later in the year, but I think it’s important for students to understand the expectations of the rubric early on. The sooner they can provide a solid thesis, the sooner they will be able to “design” a line of reasoning. It benefits students if they can see the elements of the rubric fall into place earlier rather than later. Teaching and giving students feedback on their thesis statements early in the year will help them to deepen them through continued practice. Teach students to look for the nuances in a passage. Those understated details or images often reveal the most telling aspects of a character or setting. They should not be glossed over or ignored.
1) Be flexible. So much is unknown, so have some broad plans ready, but be ready also to change them if you have to switch to a new method of instruction. 2) Don’t teach to the test, specifically. Work on skills that the will help students do well on the AP test, but are also useful for the transition to college. Writing, in general, is always a high value skill. Discussion (whether in person or online) is crucial. The ability to analyze a text, image, film, or speech is endlessly fruitful. 3) Be kind to yourself. Don’t expect to be perfect. It takes several years before you can really comfortably teach any class competently, and to do it expertly takes more than that. 4) Take time for yourself. Don’t spend every waking hour grading, planning, working. If you can’t give yourself a break, you will risk burning out.
Begin early with small repetition. You want the students to resort to rote memory in terms of how to begin with a solid thesis. Widen your horizons however possible. I try to ensure there is a wide variety of time periods as well as cultures represented. And practice. Overwrite. Have them do 2-3 timed writings, then go through a workshop together in class, then choose their most successful essay to hand in for a score. And, I know I am alone in this, but DO NOT give full grades for the timed writings. This is practice and the kids panic over it. There is no need to make their timed writings a quiz grade. Reduce the panic and they’ll focus on the practice.
Show them the difference between paraphrase versus analysis. Guiding students to recognizing and pondering juxtapositions is time well spent. Conflict often reveals some elements of complexity. Literary devices were named and listed- too often generalizations were made on the effect. Tone is not “used.” It is not a device or tool that the author uses. Tone is created. The question should be, how is the tone created?
From day one introduce the word “complexity” with the texts you are reading. Reinforce complexity throughout by focusing on how authors use devices to shift the narrative (in a poem, in a short story, in a novel). Tie this into assignments from the beginning: read the poem/ chapter/ passage, locate at least one shift in tone, ID the tone before the shift and after the shift, what causes the shift, etc. And continue to sprinkle in the 19th and 18th century text passages (for example A Doll House would be a good one to discuss gender). But I think even taking Clint Smith’s poetry or Natasha Trethewey can yield the same practice if the teacher really pushes the close reading and identifying shifts/complexity.
Q7: How did you find the 2020 AP Lit scoring process since it was online?
Scoring online was fine – slightly stressful since we were implementing a new rubric and didn’t have the ability to talk face to face about it. I read so much slower – almost half less than I would at the in-person reading. Part of this had to do with the new rubric and not being fully confident applying it, part was probably due to focus issues from working online, and part was because I was working in isolation. Unlike many readers I’ve spoken with, while communication was frustrating at times, I would score online again (but definitely prefer in person).
The online scoring process went well technically since they had system checks in place. Our table leader was accessible through chat, email, and we had their phone number. Aids and tools in reading responses were accessible as well. For me, it all went smoothly. The only issue I had was on Monday. I was told it was because they had more raters online than anticipated so they were received odd error codes. It was remedied quickly though.
Readers were given a lot of feedback on their scoring—probably more than is feasible in a physical setting. Also, essays were guaranteed two readers and in many cases, three readers. My process of ”internalizing” (learning to apply) the rubric and assessing student writing was equally as meaningful as it would have been in Salt Lake City. Of course, I missed seeing old friends and meeting new ones in person but given the circumstances, I am grateful to have been a part of this year’s Reading and will definitely participate again if invited.
This was my first time as a Reader, so I do not have the in-person experience with which to compare. But overall, it was a smooth process. The hardest part for me was just sitting in a my house alone for five days staring at the computer screen. Also, because I am a mom to twin 9-year-olds, I had help keeping them all week and the first weekend while I scored.
My personal experience with the “distributed Reading” was generally good. My reading pace was considerably slower than at the in-person Reading. Part of this was adjusting to the new rubric, although I had graded Q1 essays using the new rubric at the 2020 Pilot Reading. Another reason for the slower pace was technological- I found it harder to read essays on my computer screen. Part of it was situational: I was at home, surrounded by distractions. And part of it was at the advice of my Table Leader, who recommended a slower pace after the first day. We were told to work between 5-8 hours per day, so I settled in at around 5.5 per day. My only complaint about the Reading was the lack of feedback and information in the training. We were not really given a clear explanation about the “star system” that measured our performance.
I went into this knowing there was a rush to determine how best to handle things. And that there was no “good” way to do it completely (as we see now with our schools trying to determine how to open in the fall). I did find it much harder than I anticipated. This is a result of the domino effect of the new changes not being ready on time in the fall. With the new rubric, no one to really talk it through with or get multiple explanations from table mates, etc., I found it isolating, frustrating, and I truly began to doubt abilities. I started with 100% calibration, and then Sunday, nothing I did was correct and I got shut out and had to recalibrate. If I had been sitting with my own peers, I would have had the checks and balances, verbal explanations, visual references, etc.
Additional tips from the online reading (gathered from Facebook)
- Above all, complexity was the topic most discussed. Define it, practice it, perfect it.
- Establish the text’s complexity before listing literary devices or elements.
- Complexity means more than one. It can be found all over, especially when it’s subtle. Even a conflicted character is complex.
- Analysis of complexity, relationships, or other tasks from the prompt are more important than literary devices.
- Thesis and line of reasoning go hand in hand. Connect the two and you’ll have a strong essay.
- You need to respond to the prompt. Restating the prompt is not a thesis.
Approaching Your Essay
- Do not jump around in your analysis of the text. Organize your essay chronologically.
- Don’t organize your essay by literary element.
- Each paragraph needs at least one example. Examples should be direct quotes, not paraphrases.
- The bottom line to analysis is “so what.” Always answer the “so what” to move further into complexity.
- “Paraphrasing a quote is not analysis.”
- To score in the 3-4 range of the middle row, you need to answer more than HOW? You need to answer SO WHAT?
- While the complexity point is desired, it should be the least important in instruction. Focus on Rows A and B first.
Things to Avoid
- Avoid sentences that begin with “this shows that…”
- Avoid analyzing imagery unless you’re actually talking about an image.
- Never mention diction without an adjective in front. A TEXT OBVIOUSLY HAS DICTION.
- Try to avoid “used.” Ex: The author used ____ to show…
- Don’t write unless you have something to say. Better to spend a few minute brainstorming than write useless or baseless sentences while you’re getting to your point.
- Practice caution when analyzing diction and imagery, which are often thrown around and not properly analyzed. Pair them with “so what.”
For more feedback and reflections on the 2020 AP Lit Scoring, check out Susan Barber’s blog posts on the site AP Lit Help. You can access Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Or, if interested in making a comparison, you can read my own reflections on the 2018 AP Scoring.