FAQs with Gina Kortuem

I’m in the laborious process of overhauling my website and TpT store name. This is likely a year-long ordeal, but it made me look back on the history of starting this business venture. Six years ago when I began this process, I never could have dreamed how much it would affect me. Beginning this website and my TpT store has not only been impactful in a financial way, but it’s opened up new skills that I didn’t know I had, those in writing, business, graphic design, social media planning, and of course, teaching.

It’s weird to me when people are intimidated by me or frightened to ask me a question. I’m literally the most ordinary person alive, a true literary nerd who spends most of her time at home with her noisy kids. I wanted to press pause for a moment and answer some frequently asked questions that I get from buyers, followers, and students to help you get to know me a little better.

AP® Lit Questions

How long have you been teaching AP® Lit?

I started teaching AP® Lit in my very first year of teaching, which was 2006. I am a rare example of a first-year teacher and first-year AP® Lit teacher. And before you think I got it because I’m so awesome…that’s not at all true. I was hired at a small, private school where first year teachers were basically asked to teach all the classes, plus coach and cover after school events. My first years of AP® Lit were not very strong, but they definitely taught me how it feels to struggle with this course. I know how it feels to be given this class, minimal materials for preparation, and a classroom of learners who immediately learn that you are not cut out for the job. This experience motivates me to write for my website, create for TpT, and support teachers through social media every single day.

How often do you formally assess writing in AP® Lit?

I make my students write an on-demand essay for each of the nine units, plus at the end of each quarter for our independent reading program. I also assign APE-structured paragraphs (see above) as formative work in most of our units.

How do you teach students to support their claim with evidence and commentary?

APE Writing Handout and Bookmark - Lit and More
This free resource explains how APE can organize body paragraphs for any writing assignment. Plus, it comes with a bookmark!

Last year I began emphasizing APE: Assert, Prove, Explain. I even made a poster for my AP® Lit students to remember the standard paragraph organization as we wrote paragraphs in units 1 and 2. We also highlighted sample paragraphs using three different color highlighters in order to practice this strategy. I found this practice so helpful in structuring solid essays, that I began using it with my Honors and English 10 students, then all of my electives as well. It doesn’t quite tackle the line of reasoning, but that’s our focus later on!

How is your school handling the battle between AP® and dual credit?

We’re struggling, as most are. I only have six students in AP® Lit this year, which is a gift when it comes to lessons and grading. However, it does make me wonder how low I can go before we drop the class altogether.

How do you teach the sophistication point?

Since the 2021 data indicated that less than 1% of the test-takers earned the sophistication point, I’m giving up on it at the moment. I used to emphasize it earlier in the year, but this year I’m spending more time perfecting the line of reasoning, to ensure a high score in Evidence & Commentary. I’ll show examples of essays that did earn the sophistication point and exactly how they did it, but probably not until spring. I use a modified rubric throughout the year, so students won’t lose points for not having the sophistication point until I teach that to them.

How do you balance the workload between AP® and all your other classes?

This is tough, but it is something I continually work on. I rarely assign all of the homework I prepare for my units. Also, sometimes when I do assign a paragraph response, we only go over a claim or we share our answers as a discussion. When we do this, I don’t need to grade it later, but I still have a formative assessment to make sure my students are on the right track.

Academic Questions

What’s your favorite book to teach?

This is such a hard question! I had many answers in mind that were all plays (12 Angry Men, Othello, The Crucible, Fences), but since this asks about a book I’m going to stick to the novel form. I think my favorite has always been Frankenstein. In both of the schools I was hired at, Frankenstein was not a selected text to teach in AP® Lit. And within two years, it was. I am really not sure what I love so much about it, but something just clicks when I teach it. Also, I love watching them turn from hating it, tolerating it, and suddenly being weirdly passionate about it in just three weeks.

What made you want to teach high school kids over college-aged students?

I think this was an easy choice because of how supportive my own high school teachers were to me. When I think of my high school teachers, I think of adults who made time for me and gave me a space to grow and be myself. I am one of those people who knew she wanted to be a teacher since fifth grade. My high school teachers solidified my chosen grade level and I’ve never doubted it.

What’s your mission statement?

My Teaching Mission - Gina Kortuem

My mission statement, as displayed in my classroom, is, “I will work in love to help each student grow and reach individual success in my class.”

One of our activities during workshop week was to design a mission statement, as well as identify three core values that we use in our teaching. Mine are honesty, creativity, and kindness. Our school also gave us stands to display our mission statements. I loved this activity and have found it one of the most powerful activities in terms of getting me ready to return to the classroom.

How do you convince your students to read, rather than Googling summaries?

It’s hard not to take this personally when this happens, but a lot of this relates to student buy-in. If your students value your class and care about doing well, whether it be for grades, self-respect, or growth, they’ll want to do the work. No matter how hard you try as a teacher, there will be students who don’t value your class, and those are the kids will cut corners. Personally, I work to make sure my students feel respected and challenged, as well as avoid busywork. If this, coupled with mandatory grades, doesn’t motivate them to read, there really isn’t much more I can do.

How did you craft your World Lit class?

This is my first time teaching World Lit, so I’d say we’re still in a beta year. However, I’m having so much fun with it! When moving to my new classroom, I chose a travel-themed classroom design. This fed into my World Lit class as we approached literature from around the world. I’ve organized the units thematically, including what makes a hero, crime and punishment, a search for self, and learning lessons.

In the classic curriculum, most of our texts were European, which didn’t feel very “World” to me. Therefore, I’m trying to move out of Europe a little more and bring in more diverse offerings. So far this semester we’ve read texts from Russia, Brazil, Germany, France, Greece, Ghana, the Czech Republic, Mexico, and Japan. As we explore the texts by themes, it teaches my students that people all around the world struggle with these universal topics, and it makes them want to read more world titles as well!

How do you get your kids to do homework?

This is a tough one, made tougher when teaching kids coming off online or pandemic learning. I also think that issues with cheating, entitlement, and laziness are a growing generational issue. I don’t mean to say that this generation of students are those things, but they have grown their whole life with answers literally at their fingertips. Many have been trained to seek out other people’s answers since they were given a laptop, iPad, or cell phone in their formative years. Therefore, asking them to struggle with a text or piece of writing for a prolonged period seems like an impossible task.

Therefore, when it comes to homework, I always remember to remain intentional. If my students can’t identify the purpose of an assignment, I shouldn’t make them do it. Furthermore, if it’s something that can be easily found online, I don’t even bother (see note above as to why). Another thing I do to combat homework mutiny is to make my expectations very clear on the first day of class. I tell my students that if they do their readings, complete assignments with active and critical thinking, and work continuously to improve their writing, they will get a good score in the class.

However, if they skip readings, phone in assignments or skip them completely, they will not grow or earn a strong score. My course is designed for learning. Those who refuse to struggle with texts simply will not succeed. That tends to scare students into doing work for at least the first semester. I also resort to pop quizzes or on-the-fly Socratic assignments just to keep them honest, when necessary. What do I do when they don’t submit? Well, my school has a standard 50% penalty on formative work and 10% per day on summative work. This helps manage the problem quite a bit!

What is your absolute favorite lesson plan of all time?

If I had to pick just one, it would be any day I roll out independent reading in my classes. One of my favorite things to do is match a person with a book, and independent reading is a great way to make reading personalized for my students. I love pitching my favorites, comparing popular movies to books they’d like, and helping students recommend books to their peers. This is hands down the lesson that leaves me the most inspired and fulfilled.

Any tips for grading faster?

Reclaiming Your Time - Blog Post from Lit and More
This blog post from a few years ago explains how I work hard during school hours to avoid bringing work home.

There are a few strategies I use to get through grading quickly:

  • Create detailed rubrics that allow you to circle descriptors, rather than write them out each time. This still gives feedback, but speeds up the process.
  • Write down lesson plans, take pictures of posted notes, and save all instructional material. Then, you can remember what you taught last year and use it again in future years.
  • Use your prep hours to do the work you hate the most. I love planning lessons, but I dread grading. Therefore, I take my planning home when I need to and get as much grading done as possible at school.

Personal Questions

How do you run a business, teach, and raise a family at the same time?

Kortuem Family
Photo credit: Elizabeth Greve Photography

I almost didn’t include this question, but I honestly get asked it a lot. I first began working on my business when my youngest child was turning one year old. My husband and I had three kids under the age of 6, which sounds chaotic. But here’s something that many don’t consider: all of my kids were in bed by 7:30. And since I wasn’t exactly going out every night, I started posting my resources in my spare time.

Now, my kids are leaving the “at-home” stage and we’re entering the soccer/gymnastics/piano lessons stage. I’m looking into getting wifi in my car so I can keep up with them! My TpT creation has slowed down since I’m constantly creating new resources for new classes. I also scaled back to focus on being there for my kids and take care of my health, but the progress is slow and steady!

What does a typical day look like for you, hour by hour?

My school has a modified block schedule, so I’ll do a normal 7-hour (non-block) day. I wake up around 6:15 and get myself ready for school before my kids wake up at 6:30. My husband works from home, so he gets the kids ready and packs lunches so we can all be out the door by 7:10. I have to be at school by 7:30.

Currently I have prep during first hour, so I get to drink my coffee, make copies, and finalize lessons from 7:30-8:48 (unless I have any before-school meetings, which are rare). I then teach 2nd hour (English 10) before we have Flex Time. This is a time for students to catch up on missing work, have a study hall, or get a snack and socialize. Then I teach 3rd hour (Honors English 10) and 4th hour (AP® English Lit). Unfortunately, I don’t get a second prep hour this semester since teachers now have to cover study halls during those prep hours. So 5th hour is study hall before I head to a 25 minute lunch. I eat lunch in the lounge with my co-workers and it is one of the best moments of my day! After lunch it’s 6th hour (Journalism) and 7th hour (World Lit).

After school my kids have practices and lessons to get to, so I usually leave school by 4:00 each day. We’re all home by 5 and then it’s making dinner, spending time with family, and reading before bed. Everyone is in bed by 8:30, which is when I usually take my laptop to the couch. I work on TpT, blogging, or occasional lesson planning before I head upstairs for my night time ritual. I almost always take a bath before bed, where I read. Then, I bring the book into bed with me and fall asleep by 11!

What’s the hardest part about being a teacher and how do you deal with it?

Lit and More

I think my answer matches what many teachers would say: I struggle when parents, law-makers, and anyone who isn’t a teacher judge my teaching. I’ve had family members tell me that teachers are overpaid. One even yelled at me for taking his tax money, since he doesn’t have kids. (Side note: I’m a private school teacher in a different district–in no way do I use his tax money). I don’t have parent issues very often, but they usually stem from quick judgments that could be solved with simple communication. Then there is the never-ending barrage of dictums, decrees, and laws coming from legislators and community leaders who have never taught a day in their lives, yet they presume they should tell us how to do our job. Being in private school presents different angles to this problem, but it still remains.

When I feel frustrated with teaching, which was how I felt for the entire 2020-2021 school year, I rely on my teacher community to help me through. This includes my co-workers at school who counsel me at lunch, my teacher besties when we get together for a weekend meal, and the endless network of educators on social media. When I’m struggling they pick me up. And hopefully when I’m succeeding, I can use my experience to help guide other struggling teachers.

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