Independent Reading Strategies for AP Lit

Whether you’re a newbie or a veteran to AP Lit instruction, the biggest question always lies in what titles to teach. Unfortunately, an AP Lit teacher cannot just teach books all year long (as much as we want to), as poetry and writing need equal time and instruction. With the new CED’s emphasis on short fiction being factored in, there is even less time to teach in-class novels and plays. Because of this, many of us integrate independent reading requirements in our classes.

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Over the years I’ve attempted a few independent reading strategies to my various classes. It began with suggested reading, which, unsurprisingly, almost no one completed. I knew that this strategy wasn’t working, but I was green and in over my head in so many areas that independent reading seemed like the least of my worries.

After four years at one school, I moved to a different state with my husband to be closer to family. I was hired at my current school in a unique part-time position. Although my pay was drastically decreased, this posting was a blessing in disguise, as the only class I had to prep for was AP Lit. This extra time allowed me to make improvements to my AP curriculum that I hadn’t had time for yet, and one of the things I developed was what I called the INP, the independent novel project. My students were expected to read one novel per semester independently, and compose a 3-4 page paper on a prompt as the end assessment. This prompt was selected during a one-on-one meeting that we set up when each student finished reading. We chose from released Q3 prompts for our paper topics and I used a custom rubric for scoring.

This project began to lost its luster in the past couple of years, as I noticed fewer and fewer of my students practicing strong time management skills. Too many of them put off reading their novels (or simply read SparkNotes instead) and scrapped their paper together at the very last minute. I was also reconsidering the use of a long paper as the project’s summative assessment, as the AP Lit exam made use of on-demand writing only.

I was disappointed with my students’ use of time, but I also wasn’t considering how to give them that time back.

This summer, I approached my independent reading strategy with a fresh perspective. I had been reading about different teachers doing genius hours and “Starbucks modes” in their classrooms, which inspired me. However, I was also apprehensive. How could I consider giving up precious classroom time for independent reading, when I was already feeling like I’d never get it all done?

In the end, I took the risk. I laid out our new independent reading strategy, which was as follows:

2019 Independent Reading Strategy

  1. Each student had to read a novel or play off of an approved list, compiled from former AP Lit exams and my own personal reading. They were expected to read one title per quarter, increasing our independent reading quota from 2 to 4 books.
  2. Students were given 30 minutes per week to get comfortable and read their book.
  3. When students completed their independent read, they composed a Q3 (open question style) timed writing, which I had them type for the sake of time. I permitted these to be written at home and even with their books if necessary, but restricted them at a 40 minute time limit. The prompts were selected from released AP Lit tests for each title uniquely, so students weren’t aware of their particular prompt until they began the assignment.
  4. I required students to pick from some parameters in certain quarters. For example, in Quarter 2 they had to pick a “classic text” (composed before 1900) or a play. In Quarter 3 they had to pick a contemporary text, meaning it had to be written in the past 40 years.
  5. In exchange for quiet and respectful use of time, students were given permission to access my Keurig coffeemaker, a prized possession in my classroom. Students kept personalized mugs and their favorite K-cup flavors stashed away until our independent reading time rolled around. Surprisingly, this was by far their favorite part of the activity.

As I look back on the end of the year, I’m happy to report that our new independent reading strategy is a vast improvement over our former ways. I’ve always told my students that if they want to be a better writer, they need to be a better reader. By prioritizing reading during class time, students are learning that reading is really that important. I’ve also been surprised and impressed that my students are using their independent reading time wisely, and so far this year no one has forgotten their books on independent reading days.

For lists of suggested titles plus other independent reading strategies for AP Lit, check out my Independent Reading Project, which can be used for both the semester-long strategy or the weekly independent reading strategy. The lists of released titles from the AP Lit exam and released questions from the AP Lit exam can be downloaded from my TpT store for free.

A Day-by-Day Look at My Craziest Year of AP Lit

Several new and incoming AP Lit teachers have wondered what really happens day-by-day in AP Lit. I set out to write everything down to give a more detailed overview of what we cover in my own class, both for curious teachers and for those have have purchased my AP Lit Full Course on Teachers Pay Teachers. As I post this now in mid-May, it’s become a mini diary of my most complicated year of teaching AP Lit. Not only was it the year I had to pivot my materials to meet a revised (and constantly changing) AP Lit exam and course description, but it was interrupted by COVID-19 and the last 9 weeks were completed online. However, I was still able to record each day’s general focus and activity, as well as record my thoughts and feelings as I had to cut and change my curriculum in the spring. (I have included links to materials that are downloadable or for purchase on TpT)

Disclaimer 1: This is meant to be descriptive in nature, not prescriptive. Due to variations school schedule, curriculum requirements, teacher style, and a myriad of others, no one teacher’s schedule will ever look like someone else’s. This was posted to a) give an overview of how my AP Lit Full Course Bundle works day by day; and b) to provide an overview of how an AP Lit class is run for anyone looking to compare.

Disclaimer 2: I’ve omitted days that veered away from our normal schedule, such as standardized testing, school spirit activities, and final exam periods. These make up for 10-15 of my school calendar days in total.

Disclaimer 3: I’m on a modified block schedule, so each block period is an hour and a half long. I’ve indicated them by labeling them as “block” and they could be counted as two class periods.

Day 1: “Why Read Literature” Article & One Pager Activity, went over course & changes to the course, reminded students of reflections for summer reading and gave due dates.

Day 2: Summer reading reflections due, discussed changes in expectations for AP Lit writing (specifically the rubric), went over new rubrics and sample essay (1999 prose prompt, “The Crossing”).

Day 3: (seniors gone on retreat) Taught and learned AP Lit vocabulary words using Quizlet review game.

Day 4: Timed Writing on summer novel (individual Q3 prompts based on chosen title).

Day 5 (block): Rolled out independent reading project, complete book tasting (see pictures below). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 6: Timed writing rehash: focused on making bold claims and avoiding plot summary, reviewed and revised timed writing from earlier in the week.

Short Fiction: Unit 1*

*For future years I will use my short story boot camp unit to fulfill the requirements of Short Fiction Unit 1. I do hope to continue using How to Read Literature Like a Professor in my first few weeks of class, as it works great as an introduction to the course.

Day 7: Introduced How to Read Literature Like a Professor, assigned chapters 1-4 for homework

Day 8 (block): Vocab Quiz 1, AP Lit multiple choice practice (Frankenstein excerpt) and discussion. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 9: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 1-4, assigned chaps 5-7 + Interlude.

Day 10: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 5-7 + Interlude, assigned chaps 8-10.

Day 11: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 8-10, assigned chaps 11-13.

Day 12 (block): Vocab Quiz 2, Poem study (“It Was Not Death” by Emily Dickinson). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 13: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 11-13, assigned chaps 14-15.

Day 14: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 14-15, assigned chaps 18-20*.
*I do not assign chapters 16-17 to my students because they’re literally titled “they’re all about sex” and some of the parents in my very conservative school would not be too keen on that. I do teach the content in the next day’s notes, so they still get the principles in these chapters.

Day 15: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 16-20, assigned Interlude + chaps 21-23. Writing assignment: Handed out prompt for 2008 prose question on Anita Desai’s “Fasting, Feasting.” Assigned students to write a thesis and “baby outline.” A baby outline is what I call a simple bullet-pointed overview of the main points they intend to make. No textual support is needed in a baby outline.

Day 16 (block): Vocab Quiz 3, “Fasting, Feasting” gallery walk. Looked at thesis statements and discussed each claim. We asked questions like are there bold claims? Are the claims arguable? Would they earn the thesis point? Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 17: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 21-23, assigned chaps 24-26.

Day 18: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 24-26, prepared for prose timed writing.

Day 19: Prose timed writing, 2018 “Blithedale Romance” prose prompt.

Poetry: Unit 1

I did not have my Short Story Boot Camp materials done at this time, but this is when I would teach it if I had. I intend to use it here for future years.

Day 20 (block): Vocab Quiz 4, poem study (“Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 21: Timed writing rehash (Zenobia prompt). For this rehash we really tackled the line of reasoning element, cutting our essays apart and reconstructing them to show shifts. We highlighted summary versus analysis and considered how much more detail was needed to bring the point home. See pictures from this day below.

Day 22: Began Intro to Poetry notes: Figurative Language.

Day 23: Concluded figurative language notes. Assigned explication* on “Women” by Alice Walker.
*For future years I am moving away from the explication, which has always been difficult to explain the parameters and expectations, and will instead focus on the “AP Lit paragraph.” I will change all future assignments in this log to the AP paragraph assignment to avoid confusion.

Day 24 (block): Vocab Quiz 5. Completed Personal Progress Check 1 (short fiction) on AP Classroom. Self-scored and recorded notes and goals in our bin. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

After each PPC my students log their strongest and weakest skills on one of these tracking sheets. We store them in my classroom for reflection at the end of the year.

Day 25: Poem study: “Women” by Alice Walker.

Day 26: Began poetry notes on Sound and Structure.

Day 27: Concluded sound and structure notes. Assigned AP Lit paragraph analysis on “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman.

Day 28: Vocab quiz 6, poem study: “To an Athlete Dying Young.” Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 29: Began poetry notes on Imagery, Tone, and other elements.

Day 30: Concluded Imagery, Tone & Misc. notes, assigned AP Lit paragraph analysis on “Musee des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden. Prepared for skills test with task cards and gallery walk (see below).

Day 31: Poem study on “Musee des Beaux Arts.” Began notes on Rhyme Scheme and Meter.

Day 32: This was new this year. My students were having a hard time engaging in some of the poems I was using, so I suggested they bring in a song with particularly poetic lyrics. We spent the class period listening to each other’s songs and annotating lyrics as we would poems. It was a nice break from the rigor of this unit and the assessments that were coming up later in the week. For my own song, I shared “So Will I” by Hillsong United, which relies on hyperbole to send its powerful message.

Day 33: Completed PPC 2 (Poetry Unit 1). Self-scored and recorded weaknesses and goals, filed away in the classroom bin.

Day 34 (block): Vocab Quiz 7, completed 3 poetry skill tests. I made copies of each poem skill test but knew that not all would be used. After our quiz, I put the titles of each skill test in a bowl and students drew three. I gave them the poem and questions for each of the titles they drew and they took about 45 minutes to complete this. I liked this method over every student getting the same skill tests because they had to prepare for all of the skills and hearing them discuss the different poems they got was a good discussion. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

The poetry essential skill tests were laid out like this.

Day 35: Poetry timed writing (2011 Li-Young Lee’s “A Story”)

Long Fiction or Drama Unit 1 – Kafka’s The Metamorphosis*

*This unit was done when my juniors were gone on a week-long trip, so I completed it with seniors only. We also study The Importance of Being Earnest as our Unit 1, which is why this unit is so short. It does not meet all of the requirements of that unit on its own, but in combination with Earnest it definitely does.

Day 36: Introduction to existentialism lesson with 4 components (Crash course video, comic strip, short story, microfiction). Discussion on existentialism. Assigned Part 1 of Metamorphosis for homework.

Day 37: Notes on Part 1. Assigned Part 2 for homework.

Day 38 (block): (No vocab quiz this week, my juniors were gone) Poem study (“Digging” by Seamus Heaney). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 39: Notes on Part 2. Assigned Part 3 for homework.

Day 40: Metamorphosis Socratic Seminar.

Short Fiction Unit 2 – Prose Unit

Here’s a layout of my prose unit, which uses movie clips to build engagement for prose analysis.

Day 41: Rolled out prose unit, discussed annotation. Completed lesson on diction.

Day 42 (block): Vocab Quiz 8, poem study (“Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” by John Crowe Ransom. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 43: Discussed homework from diction lesson. Completed lesson on syntax.

Day 44: Discussed homework from syntax lesson. Completed lesson on point of view.

Day 45: Discussed homework from point of view lesson. Completed lesson on tone.

Day 46 (block): Vocab quiz 9, poem study (“Lot’s Wife” by Anna Akhmatova). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 47: Discussed homework from tone lesson. Completed PPC 4 (short fiction unit 2) on AP Classroom. Self-checked and logged weaknesses and goals in classroom bin.

Day 48: Timed writing on prose (2009 Anne Petry’s The Street prompt).

Long Fiction or Drama Unit 1 – The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Day 49: Introduction to Oscar Wilde, the Victorian audience, and Earnest. Began reading in class.

Day 50: Read in class, finish Act I. Took notes on Earnest handouts to tracked themes and literary elements.

Day 51: Began Act II of Earnest as a class.

Day 52 (block): Vocab Quiz 10, poem study (“Toads” by Phillip Larkin). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 53: Finish reading Act II as a class. Took notes on Earnest handouts and tracked themes and literary elements.

Day 54: Watched portions of The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) movie.

Day 55: Assigned Earnest projects. Read Act III as a class. Took notes on Earnest handouts and tracked themes and literary elements.

Day 56 (block): Vocab Quiz 11. Complete PPC 3 (Long Fiction Unit 1) on AP Classroom. Self-scored and logged weaknesses and goals in classroom bin. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 57: Earnest projects due, finished Earnest movie.

Long Fiction or Drama Unit 2 – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Day 58: Began short fiction lesson on Romanticism.

Day 59: Concluded lesson on Romanticism, assigned written analysis.

Day 60: Introduced Frankenstein notes (Mary Shelley, themes, frame narrative, gothic novel elements, etc.). Assigned Letters 1-4 for homework.

Day 61: Discussed and completed notes for Letters 1-4. Assigned chapters 1-3 for homework.

Day 62 (block): Voice Lesson 1 for practice. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 63: Discussed and completed notes for chaps 1-3. Assigned chapters 4-6 for homework.

Day 64: Discussed and completed notes for chaps 4-6. Assigned chapters 7-10 for homework.

Day 65: Frankenstein quiz 1. Discussed and completed notes for chaps 7-10. Assigned chapters 11-13 for homework.

Day 66 (block): Voice Lesson 2, poem study “Warning” by Jenny Joseph. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 67: Discussed and completed notes for chaps 11-13. Assigned chaps 14-16 for homework.

Day 68 (block): Voice lesson 3, Frankenstein Jenga activity (found in the files of the AP Lit Facebook group). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 69: Discussed and completed notes for chaps 14-16. Assigned chaps 17-19 for homework.

Day 70: Discussed and completed notes for chaps 17-19. Assigned chaps 20-21 for homework.

Day 71 (block): Voice lesson 4, poem study (“The Forge” by Seamus Heaney). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 72: Discussed and completed notes for chaps 20-21. Assigned chaps 22-23 for homework.

Day 73: Frankenstein quiz 2. Caught up on misc. notes or concepts.

Day 74: Discussed and completed notes for chaps 22-23. Assigned chap 24 for homework.

Day 75 (block): Voice lesson 5, completed PPC 6 (long fiction or drama unit 2). Self-scored and recorded weaknesses and goals. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 76: Discussed and completed notes for chap 24. Reviewed for test.

Day 77: Frankenstein test.

Day 78: Completed timed writing on Frankenstein (I choose a released Q3 prompt that can work for Frankenstein. There are many to choose from and I vary my choice from year to year).

Poetry Unit 2

Day 79: Analyzed and discussed “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Completed a line of reasoning brainstorming sheet for this poem.

Day 80 (block): Voice Lesson 7. Began short fiction mini-lesson on Realism. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 81: Analyzed and discussed “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché. Completed a line of reasoning brainstorming sheet for this poem.

I cannot express how much I love Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel.” I love teaching it and I love reading it myself.

Day 82: Analyzed and discussed “Out, Out–” by Robert Frost. Completed a line of reasoning brainstorming sheet for this poem.

Day 83: Analyzed and discussed “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold. Completed a line of reasoning brainstorming sheet for this poem.

Day 84 (block): Voice lesson 8. Complete PPC 5 (Poetry unit 2). Self-scored and recorded weaknesses and goals. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 85: Poetry timed writing ( 2014 prompt “For That He Looked Not Upon Her” by George Gascoigne)

Long Fiction or Drama Unit 3: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Day 86: Introduction to Things Fall Apart (about the author, style of storytelling, overview of themes, etc.). Assigned chapters 1-3 for homework.

Day 87: Discussed and took notes on chapters 1-3. Assigned chapters 4-6 for homework.

Day 88 (block): Voice Lesson 9. Conclude dshort fiction lesson on Realism, including written analysis assignment. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.

Day 89: Discussed and took notes on chapters 4-6. Assigned chapters 7-10 for homework.

And this is when everything happened. My school went on spring break…and never came back.

COVID-19 forced my school, like most other American schools, into online-only mode. I will record what we worked on for the rest of the year, but please understand the following: a) because we could only meet online twice per week, we did not cover what we should have, b) because the AP Exam was moved to a prose-only question, I had to abandon or cut materials that were no longer relevant to the 2020 test. I will explain what I would have taught at the end of this post.

Day 90: Things Fall Apart Quiz 1 (chaps 1-10), discussed Chapters 7-10. Assigned chapters 11-13 for homework.

Day 91: Voice Lesson 10. Began short fiction lesson on Modernism.

Day 92: Discussed and took notes on chapters 11-13. Assigned chapters 14-16 for homework.

At this point my students and I had a discussion about the barriers in our way as we approached the AP exam. We decided to focus on short fiction and poetry and to stop reading Things Fall Apart as a class, a decision that was very difficult for me. Several students continued to read it on their own, but ultimately it became too hard to guide them through the book how I wanted to in our online forum.

Day 93: Finished short fiction lesson on Modernism, completed written analysis assignment.

Poetry Unit III – Poetry Then and Now

Day 94: Voice Lesson 11. Began poetry then and now unit. Watched “Complainers” by Rudy Francisco and compared it with “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Discussed contrasts in each and considered which has more “literary merit.”

Day 95: Watched “Say My Name” by Idris Goodwin and compared it with “The Naming of Cats” by T. S. Eliot. Discussed words and phrases in each and consider which has more “literary merit.”

Once again, plans got changed. In the middle of April it was announced that the AP Exam would be a prose essay only. Since we were stuck with only two class periods per week (of only 30-40 minutes), we moved away from poetry and focused on prose. I finished work on my Short Story Boot Camp, now my Short Fiction Unit 1 unit, and we covered that material in preparation.

Day 96: Voice Lesson 12. Short Story Boot Camp Lesson 1: Characterization. Read over excerpts and discussed as a class. Read “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros and completed a line of reasoning for that text.

Day 97: Short Story Boot Camp Lesson 2: Setting. Read over excerpts and discussed as a class. Read “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and completed a line of reasoning for that text.

Day 98: Voice Lesson 13. Short Story Boot Camp Lesson 3: Plot order of events. Read over excerpts and discussed as a class. Read “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” by Nadine Gordimer and completed a line of reasoning for that text.

Day 99: Short Story Boot Camp Lesson 4: Plot sequence of events. Read over excerpts and discussed as a class. Read “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl and completed a line of reasoning for that text.

Day 100: Voice Lesson 14. Short Story Boot Camp Lesson 5: Narrator. Read over excerpts and discussed as a class. Read “EPICAC” by Kurt Vonnegut and completed a line of reasoning for that text.

Day 101: Short Story Boot Camp Lesson 6: Point of view. Read over excerpts and discussed as a class. Read “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner and completed a line of reasoning for that text. Prepared for timed writing on a prose text. The students voted on which text they’d like to read and they picked “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell.

Day 102: Completed timed writing on “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell (custom prose prompt).

Day 103: Test prep day. Normally I’d go through writing and multiple choice strategies for a week or two before the exam, but there wasn’t much of a need anymore. Instead we focused on the online testing element and completed the AP demo.

Day 104: Voice Lesson 15. Timed writing rehash for “Shooting an Elephant.”

Day 105: AP Lang Exam prep (my school doesn’t offer AP Lang as a test, but most of my Lit students take the exam. Since seniors were graduating before the actual exam, I had to give an overview of the rhetorical analysis essay before the AP Lit exam. Not ideal, but what can you do).

Day 106: Juniors only (seniors graduated). Assigned AP Lit film analysis for homework and last assignment.

Day 107: Last day of class with my juniors. Gave final goodbyes and exit survey.

Recap:
CED Units we covered completely:

  • Short Fiction Unit 1
  • Poetry Unit 1
  • Long Fiction Unit 1
  • Short Fiction Unit 2
  • Poetry Unit 2
  • Long Fiction Unit 2

CED Units we started but didn’t complete:

  • Short Fiction Unit 3 (literary movements). We covered Romanticism, Modernism, and Realism.
  • Poetry Unit 3 (Poetry then and now). We ended it when it was announced that the test would be a prose question.
  • Long Fiction or Drama Unit 3 (Things Fall Apart). We cut it for time and because the online forum was too difficult to conduct literary analysis at the time.

What we would have covered if COVID-19 hadn’t hit:

Reflection

The 2020-2021 school year was my 14th year of teaching AP Lit and it was by far my most difficult. Even if the pandemic hadn’t struck I think I still would have called it the hardest. Being in a position of mentorship for so many new and incoming AP Lit teachers is a huge blessing, once that I don’t take for granted. I worked hard all summer studying the new CED and AP Lit rubrics, then discovered in the fall that I wasn’t focusing enough on the individual standards. I spent the entire school year poring over the document, changing everything I had just changed already. At times it felt like I was standing in quicksand, as the rubric I learned inside and out was revised in September, after some of us had been using it for over a month. AP Classroom was also difficult to navigate and my ire for the question bank is still going strong.

That being said, the struggles in the fall helped me cope better with the arrival of the pandemic. It forced me to pause everything and take a step back. What did my students really need to do today? What skills are important, and what is expendable? The streamlined test helped my students and I focus on just a fraction of what we had hoped to cover, but also took away any anxiety associated with poetry or long fiction. As I write this I literally just signed my contract for the 20-21 year. I have no idea what next year will bring, but I now feel like I can face anything after surviving this school year.

Samuel Pepys, 1633-1703.

One of my favorite texts to teach in my British Literature class is The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Pepys was kind of a nobody, but he lived through some serious events. He attended the first showing of Romeo and Juliet at the Globe, got drunk at famous taverns, survived the Great Fire of London, and detailed his experience with surviving the bubonic plague. In October of 1663 he confirmed what every Londoner feared, “to my great trouble, [I] hear that the plague is come into the City.” In his diary Pepys details walking through the streets and seeing doors marked with signs of the plague. He describes the sounds of constant church bells and the smells of fires and tobacco being constant. However, at the end of his experience Pepys turns an indifferent eye towards the families who suffered from the plague, even remarking about a pile of dead bodies, “I am come almost to think nothing of it.”

While I am incredibly blessed that my family and I have not contracted COVID-19, I refuse to become desensitized to it. Nor am I under the impression that it is over (as I write this in May 2020). I am aware that life will never be the same again and I will never forget this. I suppose in writing this I simply wanted to get a brief chance to do what Pepys did, to write down what I did day by day as I went about my life. Like in Pepys’ diary, my entries are brief and unemotional most of the time, but I hope they do encapsulate what it was like to teach AP Lit during the time of the Coronavirus crisis. Or if nothing else, that you give you an idea of what happens in a not-so-normal year of teaching AP Lit.

This Bookshelf Hack Will Eliminate Content Challenges

As an AP Lit teacher in a parochial school, I’ve constantly had to walk the tightrope between books that are rigorous and books that are “parent-approved.” It’s no secret that most of the books published in the past 40 years contain some element of strong language, violence, drug abuse, or sexual activity. There are also so many wonderful books that have some or even all of these elements that are great reads for AP Lit students. When making a book list or recommending a title to a student for independent reading, I usually have to know that student’s parents before I can recommend some of my more “colorful” titles.

For those who don’t have to worry about parental concerns, there are still some books that are dark or disturbing enough to trigger some students. Despite the freedom we have as advanced literature teachers, I believe some element of sensitivity is needed when recommending a book to a teenager. Recommending a book is like arranging a setup, so it’s important to ask yourself, is this a book that will hurt this student or a relationship in that student’s life? Or am I recommending a title that could deepen their empathy, widen their view into the world, and strengthen their feelings of kindness and humanity?

Once you think about it, recommending a book to a student is a pretty big responsibility.

In the fall of last year, I tried a new strategy that completely erased all parental concerns for the entire school year and helped me get to know my students’ comfort levels in reading during the first few weeks. It also increased my students’ interests in independent reading. Here’s what you need to get started:

  • A roll of masking tape or washi tape
  • A permanent marker
  • A classroom library (even small collections are great for a start!)
Here’s my current classroom library, labeled in my simple 1-2-3 system to make book selection easier.

Next, go through and label each book with a 1, 2, or 3 by putting a small strip of tape on the spine. Here’s a breakdown of what each number means:

1 – Little to no objectionable material. Some infrequent uses of “TV-level cursing” (words you can say on television) or mild acts of violence may be used. (examples: Pride and Prejudice, Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, etc.)

2 – Infrequent objectionable material, which may include frequent “TV-level cursing,”  infrequent stronger curse words, plot events relating to sexual activity (but not graphic portrayals), and some strong acts of violence (examples: Brave New World, The Road, 1984)

3 – Objectionable material, which may include regular use of stronger curse words, plot events relating to sexual activity which may be graphic or violent, and several strong acts of violence (examples: Beloved, Atonement, The Things They Carried)

In the first week of the school year, I send an email home to my AP Lit students’ families, explaining the 1-2-3 system. However, I also use this as an opportunity to explain why 2- and 3- level titles are worth reading, despite having a strong religious or moral stance against some of the content within. In my first year of doing this, all but one family gave me the okay for their child to read 3-level books at my discretion.

That discretion is important; it’s a tool that AP and other advanced literature teachers should practice before doling out any title. For example, my student who loves animals more than humans would perhaps not do well with a title that contains animal abuse. And a child that you know struggles with an eating disorder should stay away from a narrative that has an unhealthy relationship with food. And obviously, students who have shared with you a struggle with an abusive relationship should avoid reading about a similar relationship, unless they particularly request this.

I only endorse books that I myself have read, so if I have to go to bat for a book I’m fully informed.

Obviously these details will not be apparent in the first few weeks of school (and sometimes not even in the final few weeks), but I’ve learned that students open up in surprising ways when they’re asking for a book recommendation. This is a special gift bestowed unto few people, but particularly English teachers.

We can take measures to respect this special relationship and endorse titles that are rigorous and even provocative, as long as we know our students can handle it.

Implementation of this system shows a respect for both higher literature and the emotional development of your students. It also keeps parents informed, which is an added bonus. I can attest that I did not have a single challenge from an AP parent all year, and several came forward to appreciate this approach in particular.

If you’re interested in implementing this system you can access my AP Lit parent email here, just copy and change the text to match your own voice or decisions in the classroom. And to learn more about my independent reading strategies in AP Lit you can explore some of my other blog posts on the topic, or get a jump-start by purchasing my Independent Novel Project on TpT.

3 Successful Strategies for Distance Learning (and 2 that Failed)

I’ve now been teaching online for a full month, due to COVID-19 closures in my state. Because of our spring break schedule we were able to make the switch to distance learning fairly quickly. Since then, I’ve tried (and failed at) several different strategies for teaching my sophomores and AP Lit students. Here are some strategies I’ve found that work, and a few that totally bombed.

Disclaimer: My school requires mandatory conferences (similar to Zoom meetings) twice weekly as our “classes.” These conferences are at a set time and are required to last at least 15 minutes, with the option to last up to an hour. Our students are asked to attend and to submit homework, but late penalties are not being enforced. I’m just explaining this since many other schools are on different systems, so experiences may fluctuate based on teacher expectations.

What Worked – Discussion Posts

With traditional classes, I often rely on a lot of introductory Q & A or mini-discussions to engage students and introduce the concept of the lesson. Now that I’m online, I’m lucky if my students (who attend) have even turned on their mics. Because of technology capabilities, I’m usually the only one capable of talking in a standard class. After the first week of dead air, I switched tactics and posted short questions to our online discussion board before and after classes. I keep most of these discussion posts optional and ungraded, but my students are still participating. Although it’s not the same, it’s shown me that my students are still learning and staying (mostly) engaged. In fact, I’ll sometimes mention them in the next day’s lesson and that will illicit a response from a student who may have otherwise remained silent during our conference time.

What Didn’t Work – Required Discussion Post Responses

Another thing I’ve tried is requiring students to read each other’s discussion posts and to comment on them. I remember doing this often in online classes for my masters, so I figured it would be a great way mimic a classroom discussion. NOPE. Not only are my students not quite ready for the critical thinking demanded from this exercise, it’s really hard to make them care. Get ready for a lot of “I agree with you, great point with…” x 25 with this strategy. I quickly abandoned it, relying simply on the initial discussion post and leaving it there.

Lots of this. Not worth it, in my opinion.

What Worked – Optional Viewing Parties

As I transitioned to our new distance learning unit on heroes with my sophomores, I realized that I needed to integrate many movie clips. There were some lessons, such as our day studying superheroes, where I had six different movie clips to show. This put me in a difficult spot, since I wanted my students to have the option of watching the movie, but I knew others needed to keep their lessons short (like my student who spends each day watching her 1-year-old brother while her mom works). I decided to show the first clip as an attention-getter to the whole class, then move on to teach the material and assign the homework. After I finished, I invited students to stay for a “viewing party” for the remainder of the clips. It turns out half of the class stayed each time, while others signed off. I did the same when we were reading The Crucible. I offered a viewing party during my office hours for anyone who wanted to watch the movie, and again several students tuned in. I feel like this strategy is respectful of students’ time but also offers expansion or relational activities for students who need it.

What Didn’t Work – Classic Discussions

Once my AP Lit classes moved online, I tried so hard to replicate our normal AP Lit classes. The hardest day for me was the day I realized this was impossible. No matter what I did, I simply could not get my students to participate in a class discussion on our online platform. I chalk this failure up to several factors:

  • Low morale due to school closures (especially with my seniors)
  • Difficulty in being heard with various mic and tech issues
  • The struggle to be heard over others in a limited online setting
  • Fear of being wrong, sounding stupid, not doing the reading, etc. (typical reasons you’d see in a traditional classroom)

What Worked – Pre-Assigning Analytical Questions

Here’s what my pre-assigned questions look like on Schoology. Students respond to their assigned task in a discussion post-style forum and I can refer to them during the lesson.

After too many attempts at discussions during class I finally stopped and re-assessed what I needed. I needed to know 1) that my students were paying attention, 2) that they did the reading, and 3) that they were participating in analysis. Before our next class, I broke our lesson up into chunks and assigned 1 short question for each student. I asked the students to read over the upcoming lesson and texts and prepare an answer that they would “teach” to their peers during the lesson. The results were extraordinary! My students were poised and ready to share and we had no more awkward dead air as I waited for someone to speak up. I asked them for feedback at the end of the lesson and we all agreed: this was the best strategy for AP Lit class going forward.

These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned with the transition to online teaching. Please reach out and share any more lessons you’ve learned during this time, as I’d love to hear them!

Converting to Digital Teaching

As I’m writing this, I’m getting bombarded with communication regarding COVID-19. Teachers that I follow virtually and some that I know personally were just notified that their classes are being moved to online-only, and some have been given almost no time to prepare. In general, teachers in America are freaking out. And for good reason. We’ve been focusing on building relationships through engaging, face-to-face classroom instruction, and suddenly almost all of those descriptors have been taken away.

The good news for us is that this is only temporary. We must find a way to adapt and carry on. However, most of us don’t have the luxury of a two-week vacation and instead are told to carry on our classroom instruction…via the internet.

Well I spent some time brainstorming and a little bit of time researching and I’ve come up with an acronym to keep in mind when transitioning to temporary online instruction. Tell yourself to look for GAPS:

Gracious

You are likely frustrated or frightened of a sudden change in workspace, but remember that most of your students are probably feeling the same way. As you design due dates and determine what your students will do with their time at home, consider their abilities when working at home. Ask yourself: will all my students have access to these materials?* Will my students be juggling other stressors in their life related to this emergency? How much other homework is being given by other classes? Above all, if a student is struggling with the transition to online, make yourself available and be gracious in helping them cope with this change. Consider having “office hours” and hosting a Google Hangout once a week so students can chat with you if they have questions.

*Note: Do not require students to continue to work online unless your school mandates this. Not all schools or families are equipped for this setup!

Adaptable

Along with graciousness, make sure you remain flexible as you and your students transition to an online learning environment. Don’t be surprised if your plan fails, technology doesn’t work (warning: it won’t always work), or communication isn’t clear. Plan for confusion, and be ready to roll with it as needed.

Prepared

The best way to go forward in this new territory is with an organized plan. This does not mean you have to have all elements planned, troubleshooted, and prepared before day 1. However, you should aim to be planned at least one day ahead. Also, make sure you preview all materials you require your students to complete, view, or take, and consider what you will do if any of these plans need adjusting.

Specific

To avoid complications or miscommunication, it is important to be as specific as possible when transitioning to online learning. Be clear on what is required versus what is supplementary. Be clear on what needs to be done before an assessment, and when an assessment is due. Be clear on how you are available for help and the best way for students to reach you. Clear communication and guidelines will only save time for both you and your students.

Now that you’ve got the right mindset to approach this new change, it’s time to prepare your materials. Rather than start from scratch, look for ways to work smarter, not harder. Rely on materials that are already posted online for your lessons, supplementary materials, or even for assessments. See my list at the bottom of this article for several resources you can access to assisting you in online teaching. As you organize materials to post to your students, sort them into categories. I’ve taken my materials on How to Read Literature Like a Professor and divided them out so you can see how this translates to high school ELA.

Pre-Lesson Work

This refers to the material you want done before students take any assessments, participate in discussions, or post any assignments. This would also exclude the lesson materials themselves. Assigned readings or homework are the most common criterial for pre-lesson work. It is very important to be clear on what needs to be done before they progress, and that it should be done before anything else.
Example: Students must:
– read chapters 1-3 of How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Online Lesson

Here is where you include materials you have created or cultivated to assist in student learning. Consider, what do they need to meet this lesson’s objective? If you are able, post your own materials here, such as handouts, lecture notes, or even a video you’ve created of your content. To save time, consider posting online materials that teach the same content.
Example: Students must:
– review the guided reading notes correlating with How to Read Literature Like a Professor chapters 1-3

Supplementary Materials

When posting supplementary materials, consider your most at-risk or high-needs students. What extra help would they need to meet your lesson’s objective? Remember that while you want all students to see it, these resources are ultimately optional. If you need students to do it, move it to the online lesson. While it can be easy to eliminate supplementary materials, they can often be integrated to engage your students with a simple media clip. See my related post on integrating media to engage your students.
Example: Students can:
– watch the video “The Beauty of the Dinner Scene” on YouTube (correlating with chap 2)

Discussion Opportunity

This is an optional element, but most teachers (and students!) find themselves missing the interpersonal aspect of the classroom once the learning moves online. If you can, incorporate a discussion forum or other method where students can still see, read, or hear from one another.
Example: Students must:
– Post to the discussion forum online and answer the following question: Provide an example of a “vampire” archetype from a book, movie, or short story. Explain how this character fits the archetype as Foster describes in chapter 1.

Demonstration of Understanding

If you’ve been mandated to move learning online, this is the required part. Basically, this is the grade. What assessments will your students take to show demonstration of learning? In keeping with the GAPS tip, consider providing several options for demonstration of learning. See below:
Example: Students must:
– Complete one of the following assessments:
1) Quiz on chapters 1-3 (this quiz can only be attempted once and is timed!)
2) Write a literary analysis of a text that aligns with chapter 3 of How to Read Literature Like a Professor (see corresponding rubric)
3) Create a visual guide for “spotting a vampire” aligning with chapter 2 of How to Read Literature Like a Professor (see corresponding rubric).

I hope this article helped you learn how to approach the new paradigm that is online teaching. I’d love to hear additional tips from those with more experience or perspectives. To conclude, here are some parting tips as you approach this new teaching design:

  • Pick a learning platform you can use if your school doesn’t have one. Canvas, Moodle, and Google Classroom are all free and very popular among teachers. If these are too complicated, consider simply starting a blog and posting to that. Students would only need a website instead of any joining code. 
  • Break big assignments or big-point assessments into numbered steps. 
  • Don’t feel like you have have everything done before students begin work. Approach this experience like a first year teacher – stay organized, and be at least one day ahead. 
  • At the same time, remember that even though you’re at home, you’re still teaching and it’s still work. Don’t expect to get everything done in just one hour. Think of this way: your students are required to use their at-home time on school work and you want them to meet all of your expectations. They deserve the same from you. 
  • Allow yourself to use lesson materials and assessments that already exist. Websites like Teachers Pay Teachers, Turnitin.com, Khan Academy, and so many more already offer learning resources for instruction and assessments that can save you hours of time, and many of them are available for free!

Resources to Assist in Online Learning:

Learning Platforms:

For Lessons & Supplementary Materials:

Additional Blogs/Websites with Ideas & Tips