You Responded: Gatekeeping, Representation, and Inclusivity in AP

I first began this series on representation, and inclusivity in AP Lit in early July. Our country was going through a civil rights movement I had never experienced before, at least not in my own lifetime and in my own hometown. I spent a good amount of time silently reading and reflecting, until a follower on Instagram messaged me. Although I’ve never met this person, I’ll never forget the conversation.

She said: Reading and teaching the great works of Black authors is a step. Using your voice & platform to speak against anti-racist practice is another.
I replied: I never feel informed or qualified enough to speak up–how do you know when to listen versus when to speak?
She said: When you feel courageous.

This shook me.

I looked back at my 14 year career as an AP Lit teacher at private schools in the midwest and felt like I wasn’t qualified to speak up. My student population doesn’t vary much in race or socio-economic class. Furthermore, I’ve made a career out of doling out advice to AP teachers. Sometimes, we take for granted that our students are often “the best of the best.”

But then, I thought about what it meant to be brave. To be brave meant calling out institutions like the College Board for establishing years of gatekeeping in AP classes. It also meant exposing my own shortfalls in offering diverse voices in my reading material, and sharing the research I was conducting on a nightly basis. Finally, one thing I did feel qualified in doing was sharing strategies to reduce student workload and meet the needs of all students in AP classes, not just “the best of the best.”

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I’ve come to the end of my series, which I’ll recap next week (and offer myself a much needed week off as I approach the start of a new school year). But when I sat down to brainstorm this 6-week series, one thing I knew I wanted to do was share the ideas, strategies, and opinions of other AP teachers facing the same issues. Over the course of 6 weeks I’ve surveyed almost 75 people and will share my findings here. Some contributed enough to say that they struggle with these issues, which gave me hope. I no longer feel like a someone who has to have all the answers. Instead, I am a veteran teacher seeking answers among my peers, among published works, and among those in the education field internationally.

I’m listing the questions I asked in my survey verbatim below. I’ll quote some of the most helpful or profound answers, then bullet point additional thoughts and trends. All answers were recorded anonymously.

Question 1 – What kind of admission policy does your school or district have for taking AP classes? Check all that apply.

Question 1

The results were:

  • Minimum GPA requirement – 4%
  • Entrance exam – 2%
  • Minimum test score requirement – 6%
  • A prerequisite course (such as AP Lang) – 15%
  • Teacher recommendation – 36%
  • My school has no prerequisite – 62%
  • Other (these responses included administrator, guidance counselor, or parent requests or overrides) – 15%

Reflection

These responses surprised me in a good way. I expected there to be systems of gatekeeping in place in almost every school, but it sounds like that is phasing out. While there are still complaints about systems where all students must take AP Lit, it feels like the antiquated system of keeping curious learners out of the class is going.

Quote on gatekeeping

By the way, if you’re unfamiliar with the concept of gatekeeping, I encourage you to do some research about it. Simply defined, gatekeeping refers to the act of choosing who can access certain materials, services, or information. It is present in healthcare, psychology, journalism, economics, and many other spheres. This includes education. When people refer to gatekeeping in education, they are discussing systems like entrance exams, minimum GPAs, teacher recommendations, and other requirements designed to keep certain students out of a particular class or educational experience.

Question 2 – What strategies do you use to reach reluctant or low-level readers?

User answers:

I make sure to check in with the student individually every day. Sometimes a social check-in, other times during an assignment, and other times to go over the feedback I’ve given on their assignments. I also say things like “you’re going to love this story/character/etc.”

Question 2

I try to find what they are interested in. Sometimes, they need non-fiction. I had one kid who finally dove into manga and then got really into reading. You just have to show them all the possibilities.

Just try to get them excited about reading, peer pressure in a class with rigorous expectations. I can work with kids who are “lower” if they have work ethic and willingness to work.

Finding books etc that intrigue them, sometimes reading aloud passages to get them “hooked”- seating arrangements that are based on collaboration and doing lots of discussion based activities, incorporating art and artistic projects.

I begin by helping them find the right reading material. Then, I continuously rework my lessons in order to make them more collaborative and engaging. When all my best intentions are realized, my students read because they’re excited to be a part of the conversation and community we’ve created in our classroom.

I try to pick highly engaging text. I do a lot of I do, we do, you do. And I use film clips.

I read a number of pieces aloud and incorporate class discussion. I believe even my strong readers can benefit from hearing a piece, allowing them, as well as their lower peers, to better recognize tone and detail they may miss in independent reading.

Other responses and trends:

12 Engaging and Rigorous Books for Reluctant Readers
Check out this blog post for titles to engage your reluctant readers!
  • By far, the most frequent and emphatic answer to this question was student choice. This could be through independent reading or even books in the curriculum, teachers indicated that student choice equals student buy-in, thus more engagement.
  • Many indicated group activities such as partner sharing and jigsawing activities to help engage and assist lower-level students.
  • Teachers mentioned using scaffolded assignments and graphic organizers rather than constant writing assignments to gauge understanding.
  • Many teachers mentioned using audio recordings or teacher read-alouds to model proper reading and engage students.

Question 3 – What tips and strategies do you have for keeping the workload manageable for slower readers, busy students, and the learning disabled?

User answers:

Question 3

I think teachers themselves have to have a growth mindset. And we need to look at what we want all learners to gain from being in our class.

Less is more. I don’t need to teach 5 novels throughout the year. I can teach skills with fewer texts and go deeper.

All assignments are planned to include time in class to complete all work for average ability students, so nothing needs to be done outside of class time. The students with LDS work with an inclusion teacher and have their assignments modified to suit their learning needs.

I make all audio that’s available in the public domain available for my students. I also make most of the homework reading only and spend class time doing discussions, activities, etc.

Do work that is appropriate for their level. They are not in competition with the person next to them. Their goal is to improve- not to one-up the person beside them.

We do must work in class. Reading is the only homework I generally assign. We do analysis efficiently using graphic organizers and collaboration rather than a long, tedious list of questions to answer. I look for big picture analysis strategies that apply to almost anything and focus on those rather than learning all the literary terms.

A calendar for each text with built in time to catch up. I also put in the syllabus due dates are flexible if we have an honest, open discussion before the day something is due.

Other responses and trends:

  • Common answers revolved around constant communication, such as weekly meetings, regularly posted reading schedules, office hours, and emails home when a student is falling behind.
  • Many teachers rely on group work with specialized pairings (struggling student with stronger, mentor student) to help foundering students
  • Several indicated giving no homework other than reading, or completing all reading during class time.
  • Some said they simply ask students to practice time management skills and use calendars to indicate due dates.
  • Other were much more hands-on, devoting times before school, during lunch, after school, and even on Saturdays for struggling students.

Question 4 – How do you establish rigor and uphold a strong work ethic while also maintaining an inclusive classroom for multiple learning levels?

User answers:

Question 4

Rigor is about being at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy, not about work load or work “difficulty.” I can provide rigor without overwhelming students who are also taking three or four other honors/AP classes. I spend the first quarter chunking writing into very short, manageable assignments that are quick to grade for me and doable for the students. I can turn these around immediately and give feedback to students who are struggling. Because I can see where students are with these minute skills, I can schedule quick in-class conferences and get in front of issues with students who are lagging behind.

The standards are still expected but I might work more one-on-one with a small group of students or a single student on a skill. I use conferencing for all students to meet them where they are and push them forward.

A lot of assignments are projects, so students are challenged to think independently, creatively, and to create original content. The various levels of learners generally rise to those challenges. Modified rubrics are applied when necessary according to the level of learner.

I track individual progress so that students get rigor appropriate for them. Students compare their work to their own previous work, not a peer’s grade, to see improvements for themselves.

I expect each student to work to the best of their ability, whatever that may be. Conferencing is an important element of helping all students succeed.

Have clear expectations, build relationships with students, and ask critical questions, and give a variety of writing assignments and have many class discussions.

Other responses and trends:

  • While there were many strong answers, this was the most skipped question in my survey. Furthermore, several commented that they struggle with this the most, or that COVID-related changes, such as virtual instruction or the lack of group work, would hinder this more than anything else. In short, teachers seemed to be the most frustrated in answering this question.
  • Many teachers cited methods like scaffolding, conferencing, and revisions to help students reach goals. Many also emphasized the importance of individual goals rather than group goals.
  • Some answers indicated a more classic model, where students are expected to advocate for themselves. Teachers follow any IEPs, but other than that no modifications or conferences were done.
  • More, however, indicated making modifications and spending lots of time in conferences to help struggling students.
  • I got very few answers referencing particular learning styles, which I found surprising.

Question 5 – What suggestions, strategies, or ideas do you have to increase representation of all students in AP Lit? This includes diversity in race, religion, socioeconomic class, gender, sexuality, and more.*

*Due to a user error in creating the survey, question 5 was omitted for the first half of those taking the survey.

User answers:

Give them choice reading, do book talks with them, offer a class library, ask kids for suggestions on books, podcasts, IG accounts that they like and let them share. Expand GENRES for lit classes. Graphic novels (like Persepolis), novels in verse (like A Long Way Down), collections of short stories from diverse voices.

Question 5

I vary my choices of poetry and short stories from recent publications, such as The New Yorker, and I offer three choice texts from a list that includes many writers and works.

Seeing themselves in the texts they read and in the way we value the stories that are told. Using critical theory to recognize power relationships. Connecting texts to current events and putting value in both the struggles and the joy of these lives.

The more welcoming and interesting the content is the more students want to take the course. The more willing the teacher is to use grading and discussion as a measurement of success and a source for praise the more confident the students are about staying in the class.

This is a systemic problem. Students take AP Lit at my school senior year, so by then they have been told for their entire school career where they belong. I try to make sure my students and prospective students know that anyone can take the course. I also try to include works to be more inclusive of the under represented.

Boot the canon and be open to contemporary texts; let students collaborate; emphasize community rather than competition; allow students to be experts in their own cultures.

I teach in a very conservative school that restricts the diversity of the texts we read; however, I try to get students to examine the material from multiple perspectives through our discussions. They pay attention to whose voices we are not hearing. I am also going to try to use the Living Poets resources to add more voices in a “less threatening way.”

Using texts that are representative. You can still have rigor without using dead, white guys as the text.

Other responses and trends:

  • Once again, student choice was a popular response for this question.
  • Many teachers expressed frustration with the canon or their district’s selected text, but supplement their curriculum with diverse voices and perspectives through poetry, short fiction, and classroom libraries.
  • Respondents emphasized the need to discuss all literature the context it was written and in the context of our current way of life. Text pairing and aligning it with current events were suggested ideas.
  • Others suggested using critical lenses or other literary theories to help students gain critical thinking skills as they examine their school’s texts.
  • Several suggested that this issue needs to be addressed earlier, putting more representative works (particularly in sexuality and race) in the hands of middle school and elementary students.

Reflection

As I look back on the responses in this survey, I’m heartened by the overwhelming desire expressed by AP teachers who want to teach all students and want to improve our levels of representation. However, there were outliers who expressed views that AP is for select students only. Some said that differentiation and scaffolding were unneeded in an advanced class. Others even expressed views that diversity and inclusivity were not important concerns for teachers of AP Lit. While I find these expressions disappointing, I believe they reflect an outdated view of the College Board and the Advanced Placement program. Overall, it feels like most of us want to reach all students without watering down a strong academic program.

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