AP & Accessibility: Reducing Heavy Student Workloads

This is my fifth installment in a series on representation in AP Lit, both in authors and in students. If AP classes remove their systems of gatekeeping (which they should), teachers will need to prepare to have more types of learners in their classes. We cannot assume that each of our students has taken an AP class before taking ours. We cannot assume that our students do nothing but homework all evening long. And we definitely can’t beat them with literature so hard that they leave our class hating it. For many of us, it’s time to reduce heavy student workloads.

This blog post will offer some strategies I use to keep the homework load low while keeping the rigor and engagement high.

The Problem: Assigning too much reading homework

One of the biggest crimes that AP Lit teachers commit is over-assigning reading homework. I’ve heard of teachers justifying up to 2 hours of reading per night, even counting weekends as 2 nights! This is unconscionable. When assigning reading or homework in general, never assume your students have nothing better to do than read. Many of our students are juggling the following commitments in addition to our AP Lit homework:

12 engaging and rigorous books for reluctant readers
To help build engagement for reluctant readers, check out this list of 12 unconventional titles for AP Lit.
  • part-time jobs
  • extra-curricular expectations
  • volunteer requirements
  • chores or expectations at home, such as baby-sitting siblings
  • other homework assignments
  • general hobbies, relaxation, and general teenage activities

To assume that our students have nothing better to do than read for AP Lit is not only selfish, it’s damaging. Research shows that our students suffer more from anxiety, depression, and other crippling mental illnesses than any other generation. Pressure to complete heavy burdens of homework can only compound those illnesses.

How to Fix It:

First, be clear with students on day 1 what kind of reading responsibilities they can expect in class. I usually tell my students that their homework will be limited to 30 minutes per night. I also clarify that not every night will have reading homework.

When reading long texts such as novels, portion out readings over several days or weeks. I avoid making a whole book due by a certain day. I believe most of our students lack the general time management skills to tackle this in responsible ways. One great tool for assessing the amount of time a reading takes is Read-o-meter. I use this for planning novel units and for assigning excerpts for homework. You simply copy and paste a text into the text box (PDFs of most texts can be found online), and it provides an estimated time for the average reader to complete the task. Then, I add at least 5-10 minutes to the estimate. Remember, most students probably don’t read at an English teacher’s pace! This is a great tool to reduce heavy workloads for high school students.

Read-o-meter example
Using the website Read-o-meter and an online PDF of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I learned that Chapter 1 takes the average reader 8 minutes to complete. I’d assume that my lowest or slowest readers will need about 13 minutes to read the chapter, especially if annotation or notes are required.

The Problem: Taking on too many long books

Trevor Packer Tweet about fewer long works

Another change that is happening in many AP Lit classes is the reduction of long works from 7-12 novels per year to only 3-5. When Trevor Packer first introduced this idea back in 2018 (see top tweet), I admittedly bristled at the thought. At the time I was teaching 6-8 long works a year and the notion of cutting that in half was ridiculous.

After some reflection and true evaluation of the CED, I realized that Mr. Packer had a point. My students went into each exam praying that their question would align with one of our 6-8 books, because if it didn’t they felt immediately lost.

How to Fix It

Upon reducing some of my long texts, I learned that fewer books meant a slower pace, and thus a deeper dive. My students no longer had to rush through books in a week or two but could afford to actively read, annotate, and reflect. With smaller reading assignments, I was able to integrate more writing and analysis tasks without overloading students.

Not only does this help reduce student workload, but it can better prepare them for question 3 and literary analysis in general. By introducing students to short fiction through short stories or excerpts, they get to prepare for many different writing prompts. The way I see it, long fiction prepares them for deep diving a text, but short fiction prepares them for all of the daily analysis practice they also need.

The Problem: Long Papers

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It’s a universal truth that English teachers always have too much grading to do. In AP Lit, it seemed that nightly and weekly grading sessions came with the job. In my first few years I was a fixture at Barnes and Noble for full afternoons. I spent that time grading timed writings and long papers from my AP Lit students. Not only were the long papers a drain on my personal life, they were sucking the time of my students as well.

As time progressed, I have learned that timed writings are here to stay. However, I don’t necessarily need to assign long papers in AP Lit. Now, I know some schools or districts require certain assignments, such as the college essay or a literary theory paper. But if you aren’t constrained by any requirements, I see no reason why long papers must be in the AP curriculum.

How to Fix It

To ease the paper-grading load, consider different assignments that can showcase analysis but ease your weekend work. These assignments can be projects, presentations, group work, discussions, Socratic Seminars, or discussion posts. Not only will this ease your grading time, it will help all levels of learners experience different assignments and assessment strategies. I still highly recommend timed writings, but feel free to tackle them how the AP readers do, grade according to the rubric, give some feedback, and move on. Save the detailed feedback for the in-class rehash.

The Problem: Grading on-demand essays takes forever

You know that feeling when you finally finish a stack of essays? You proudly return the essays to your students, prepared to field questions and give focused feedback, and instead they tuck the essay away and leave the room. This always frustrated me. Why do I spend hours grading essays, giving detailed feedback, for students not to even read it? My frustration compounded when I saw students making the same mistakes on the next timed writing, because they never saw my comment in the first place.

Reduce heavy workloads: AP Lit Help
Check out Susan Barber’s post about walking students through the essay process. While it may not reduce the number of essays you grade, it certainly improves the quality of essays you’ll have to grade.

How to Fix It

Once you’ve been an AP reader, you learn how quickly you really can mow through a pile of essays. If I get into the right mindset, I can get through a pile of 20 essays in less than an hour. However, this doesn’t allow me much time at all for feedback. If I want writing scores to improve, I need to tell students where they lost points and how they can improve.

These on-demand writing tips can improve your students' writing and reduce your grading load with insider tips
For more tips on integrating on-demand essays and reducing the grading load, check out this resource on Teachers Pay Teachers.

The way that I grade at an AP reader pace but still improve writing scores is through rehashes. A writing rehash is a group session that reviews writing feedback as a group rather than individually. When I grade a class’ timed writing responses, I have four items in front of me: my students’ essays, the rubrics, a post-it, and a stapler. I score each essay using the rubric, tally the score on the post it, staple, and move on. However, I also use the post it to make brief notes of themes or concepts we need to review.

Example

If you see the example below, this was an earlier assignment. We needed to review precision in analysis, avoiding summary, and making analytical commentary. You can also see that I incorporate writing workshop activities to help my students experience the feedback, rather than read it. I still offer individual feedback when a student needs it or veers way off course. Still, this method helps me grade faster and give student feedback in more practical ways.

Reducing heavy workloads through writing rehashes - slide 1
Reducing heavy workloads through student rehashes - slide 2
Reducing heavy workloads through writing rehashes - slide 3
These are some shots from a rehash after one of our earlier timed writings. I take brief notes as I score a stack of timed writings, then compile them into a PowerPoint that we go over as a group. I often use quotes from the essays themselves (without names), mostly of exemplary essays.

Another benefit of using rehashing is that I can use them to give focused feedback without requiring rewrites or extra work. This cuts down on both student and teacher workload, but doesn’t send the message that writing is secondary or unimportant. To learn more about how I use rehashing to improve student writing and save teacher grading time, check my blog post for AP Lit Help.

The Problem: Too much homework in general

We’ve already discussed assigning too much reading homework, but giving a lot of homework in general and lead to student overload. Not to mention, all that homework isn’t going to grade itself. When teaching an AP class, you will always feel like you’re not doing enough. Therefore, it’s easy to overcompensate for lost class time with assigning extra homework. (This pressure is compounded when teaching virtually, where students seem to learn at an even slower pace).

When creating homework, ask yourself: Why am I assigning this homework?

  1. Prove student understanding
  2. Complete work that didn’t get finished in class
  3. Check for reading
  4. Meet perceived standards of rigor for advanced placement

In my opinion, unless you’re meeting the criteria for numbers 1 or 2, homework is unnecessary. And even if you’re meeting criteria 1 or 2, there are ways to meet both without assigning homework.

How to Fix It

Let’s look at the four criteria again:

Reason 1: To prove student understanding

While student work, especially written analysis, can prove student understanding, it does not have to be done as homework. In fact, by introducing more in-class work analysis through discussion, you can gauge student understanding through formative observations. This results in more collaboration, less student work, and virtually no grading.

Reason 2: To complete work that didn’t get finished in class

Honestly, this is my number 1 reason for assigning homework. Often times I intend to get to something in class but we simply run out of time, so I scramble and give it as homework. Decisions like this often stem from a desire to stick to a schedule and avoid falling behind. To avoid this, I try to plan only 1-2 weeks at a time. If I don’t get to a particular activity, I table it for the following day or scrap it entirely so it doesn’t contribute to homework overload.

Reason 3: To check for reading

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Bell-ringers are a great way to gauge student understanding without quizzes or homework
I created these bell-ringers for How to Read Literature Like a Professor to check for student understanding and completion of readings. I grew tired of overburdening my students and my workload with daily quizzes. Plus, bell-ringers are faster, more efficient, and more engaging than quizzes.

While homework can be used to check for reading, there are other ways to check. Some use quizzes (but that’s more grading). I prefer bell-ringers. I allow 3-5 minutes to respond to a particular bell-ringer from a previous night’s reading. As they complete their work, I circulate the room and check their progress. It is often quite clear who did the reading and who didn’t. A quick debrief after each bell-ringer usually solidifies my suspicions and I’m able to determine who’s keeping up with our readings…and who isn’t. Other intro activities like entrance slips can be done verbally or quickly. This helps to reduce heavy workloads and give you the feedback you need.

Reason 4: To meet perceived standards of rigor for advanced placement

This is just silly. The mark of rigor isn’t workload, it’s critical thinking. If you’re being held to any standards of rigor they should be judged during class, not by workload.

One Last Thing

Reducing heavy workloads - Practice makes progress

Other than workload, another damaging practice among AP teachers is rigid grading practices. Many pride themselves in grading according to a strict scale for on-demand essays, systems where students who earn less than a 4 on the 6-point rubric get a C or lower. Some have even boasted about failing students who score low on these assessments. Others enforce graded pre-tests, mock exams on day 1, and other damaging systems designed to “scare” students from AP Lit. The idea is that those who are “less able” will drop the class and the teacher can continue to teach only the brightest of the bunch.

I’m beginning my 15th year of teaching and I cannot emphasize enough that this is not best practice. While students should know about the standards of rigor and expectations in AP Lit, this can be communicated in other, non-graded ways. Furthermore, the AP exam is a stressful event. To get students prepared for that exam, timed writings and practice tests should be designed as methods of practice. Do not score them on a system where only a perfect score gets an A. This leads to feelings of despair, unworthiness, and disengagement. The best teachers are the ones who look look for progress over perfection. Furthermore, good teachers take steps to reduce heavy workloads, both in their own lives and in their students’, to ward off burnout and increase engagement and growth.

1 thought on “AP & Accessibility: Reducing Heavy Student Workloads”

  1. Thank you for your insights. It’s my first time teaching AP Lit, and with distance learning for at least the first month, it’s a bit stressful trying to think of ways in which I don’t overburden my students or myself. Your suggestions help a great deal.

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