Using the AP Skills: The Interstate, the Microscope, and the Compass

In a recent conversation with some other AP® Lit teachers (the likes of which I am humbled to be included), we began talking about the role that the AP® Lit skills play in our students’ approaches to education. We described the skills using three different symbols, and I began to think that it would be an awesome way to help communicate to our students how the study of skills can help them be better readers in general.

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The Interstate – Different entrance and exit points

AP Lit & More - The Interstate

This conversation arose in a discussion of how we can use the AP® Lit skills in class effectively, without becoming too formulaic. The risk of a skill-based approach is that it can rob students of the fundamental love of reading. Obviously, this is the last thing we want.

In talking about how we can implement the AP® Lit skills in our instruction, Susan Barber compared the CED® and its skills to an interstate. She said, “I talk a lot about the skills as a way into the text. It’s like an entrance ramp onto the interstate. We have different points that we can enter the text, but we enter that interstate at different times and places.

Susan continued to say, “Depending on our own personal experiences and our reading abilities, we’re all going to enter at different points. That’s why it’s nice to have a wide variety of skills that have different nuanced implications to them, because they give us lots of different ways to enter a text.

The Microscope – Zoom in and zoom out

AP Lit & More - The Microscope

After Susan compared the skills to an interstate, Julie Adams, another AP® Lit teacher, explained that she thought of the skills more as a microscope. She said, “When we look at the text, we kind of look at it from an aerial view. We are looking for things we can grasp onto initially, like characters or conflict. But as we get immersed into the work, we begin to zoom into the text like a microscope. That’s when we see more intricate skills like dialogue or figurative language.

I like this strategy because you don’t only use it to “zoom in,” but you also need to zoom out. Julie said, “When we finish looking closely at the text, it’s like we zoom the microscope back out again. That’s when we consider how it comments on the human experience and start examining themes.

The Compass – Find your navigational point

AP Lit & More - The Compass

After I heard Susan and Julie discuss their unique way of looking at the CED® and its skills, I realized that I always approached it as a compass. I like to reach for the skills when I’m confused by a text. I tell my students that when they start feeling lost in a story, pause and consider one of the broader elements of the CED®, such as identifying the narrator or considering the structure of the text. This helps us find a point for navigation and gives us a sense of direction.

I try to use this strategy with my students, especially when they feel confused by a poem or excerpt given in a free-response question. Rather than panic and say, “What’s happening? I’m lost!” I encourage them to pinpoint one piece of analysis they can feel confident in. Then, they can use those skills to ground them as they make interpretations. This can also help keep them from getting too carried away in interpretations that lead to a misreading.

Using these Approaches With Your Students

This conversation stayed with me for a while. I was struck at the different interpretations and strategies of using the skills, as well as the symbolic ways of looking at them. I turned it into a lesson that I used with my own AP® Lit students this week and I think it helped a lot. Not only does it help them understand how to analyze a text, it encourages different ways of approaching a text and of using the AP® skills.

“Click Clack the Rattlebag”

AP Lit & More - Click Clack the Rattlebag

I decided to pair this lesson with Neil Gaiman’s “Click Clack the Rattlebag.” I chose this text for several reasons. One, it’s short enough to read and analyze in a single lesson. Two, it’s open to varied interpretations. Three, it’s kind of creepy, which is engaging for students. This is especially true if you show Gaiman’s performance of the text, found here.

I put my students into three groups, assigning each a strategy to use (interstate, microscope, or compass). I created a simple handout that reminded them of the three skill-strategies, which you can download here. They read the text, annotating and discussing as they went, then talked about it for a few minutes. After some time spent in reflection and discussion, they shared their answers.

Here’s a basic summary of my students’ responses:

The Interstate

AP Lit & More - Interstate, Microscope & Compass

This group explained how they approached the text by targeting different skills. One student chose to analyze the story’s characters, while another was very focused on narrator and point of view. Although they targeted different skills, they ended up at the same central point of discussion. This was if the boy was truly frightened or if something more was happening. There were some theories that the boy may have been messing with his baby-sitter, or that he was some form of the rattlebag himself, which was where the students “exited” off the interstate at different points. Each brought their own approaches to reading to the discussion, and that didn’t divide the group but actually worked to enrich the conversation.

The Microscope

AP Lit & More - Literature is a Verb
I used the Interstate, Microscope, and Compass lesson as my day 2 lesson in AP Lit. To read my day 1 lesson, click here!

The group choosing the microscope strategy chose a skill with which they could use to approach the story. They discussed the narration, then the relationship between the boy and the narrator. When it came time to zoom in, they focused on the dialogue specifically. They also talked about the descriptions of the boy’s “precocious” nature, which came and went, as well as the physical description of their proximity as they walked upstairs. Upon zooming out, they talked about the story’s universal qualities. This story evokes fear and creepiness, as well as the relatable feeling of being spooked by something you can’t explain.

The Compass

My compass group selected a skill to help them navigate into the story. They, like every other group, chose to target the narrator. They were sure of who he was (the boy’s sister’s boyfriend) and why he was there (she had to run an errand and he was left to baby-sit in the new, creepy house). Once they had these facts straightened out, they discussed the boy’s intentions and motivations for talking about the rattlebag. There was still some debate on whether the boy was intending to scare his sitter, but the conversation stayed within limits. No one ventured into “misreading territory” because they kept returning to the skills of narrator, point of view, and character to keep them in check.


AP Lit & More - AP Lit Skill Handout
I suggest giving your students a copy of the different AP Lit skills when doing this lesson. For a printable version with a clean design, check out this handout here.

I used this lesson on our second day of class. I paired it with an introduction of the AP® Lit skills and how they can be helpful in assisting analysis. This lesson worked better than I expected, mostly because the students remained so engaged in their analysis and discussions. I almost used this activity with a poem, but I think choosing an interpretive but accessible short story was a better strategy. Some have asked about using these skills to analyze other works, so I hope to return to it. It will be a great strategy when picking apart highly interpretive or muddled literature or for keeping discussions from running off the rails in misreadings.

If you use this lesson with your own students, I’d love to hear how it goes for you! Leave me a comment or email me at to give me your feedback! And of course, thank you to Susan Barber and Julie Adams for this inspiring conversation. This lesson would not exist without them!

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