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.

Literature is a Verb – An Introductory Lesson

I write this as I muse upon last night’s Mosaic professional development session with David Miller. Like the rest of the crowd, I found David’s message and way of speaking calming and invigorating at the same time. The presentation had a profound effect on me, breaking through the barrier that had built up over five months of unrest, anxiety, and uncertainty. David Miller said one thing that seemed to affect his listeners the most:

Literature is a verb.

David Miller

Before he was even finished, I began planning out an activity that I hoped would intrigue new students and cultivate the idea that literary analysis is a journey, not a skill. In normal days I would have planned this as a gallery walk, but instead I focused on a lesson that could be done in a classroom with social distancing, or virtually (both synchronously and asynchronously). I’m happy to be able to share it with you.

Step 1 – Lesson Prep

The prep for this lesson isn’t difficult. You simply select 4-8 selections of literature and prepare them to be printed or posted to your students. I have an editable example made for download, here. For my lesson, I have chosen the following pieces of literature:

  1. Poem – “what the cicada said to the black boy” by Clint Smith
  2. Novel excerpt – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
  3. Poem – “Warning” by Jenny Joseph
  4. Nonfiction excerpt – Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston
  5. Poem – “Follower” by Seamus Heaney
  6. Novel excerpt – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Step 2 – Reading the Excerpts

To begin the lesson, distribute your excerpts randomly among your students. If teaching in person, hand out the poems evenly and indiscriminately to your students. If teaching virtually, assign them in a random order. Students are given simple tasks:

Examine your excerpt. Then, respond as best as you can to the following questions:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. How do you know?
  3. Why does it matter?

(Thank you to the member from Mosaic who put these simplified questions in the chat. I didn’t catch your name, but they were perfect)

Encourage students to annotate their texts and prepare answers to each question. If this is happening in class, five minutes should be enough time for each student to prepare a perfunctory answer.

Literature is a verb

Step 3 – Literature is a Verb

In class, ask all students who have excerpt 1 to stand in place. After reading the piece aloud (or playing a performance), ask each student to share his or her reflections on the three questions. Encourage alternative answers, even opening it up to the rest of the class. If possible, highlight a line or phrase from the text and ask them to process questions 1, 2, and 3 just for that line. Continue with the second text, gathering responses from those students, and so on through all of the excerpts.

To hammer home the “literature is a verb” concept, students need to understand that analysis of literature is not a black and white process. Above all, seek interpretation rather than one right answer. The role of the teacher here would be to provide context info for the text when requested or needed. Otherwise just guide, push, and expand on students’ answers. They may be hesitant to participate at first, but as questions and theories are accepted and celebrated, more will begin to feel creative and start thinking outside the box. However, the beauty of question 2 (how do you know?) will keep the theories grounded. They’ll soon learn that interpretations are welcome, but must be supported by the text to stand at all.

Why does it matter?

Question 3 (why does it matter?) is ultimately the most important. This is the question that links literature to purpose and emotions, usually by connecting it to social movements and personal feelings. On the surface, only one of my chosen texts directly alludes to a political or social movement. However, upon digging deeper into all of the texts, profound statements on social norms and emotions are present:

  • Clint Smith’s poem discusses feelings of oppression and police hostility. This poem is the most explicit in the “why does it matter” discussion.
  • Eleanor Oliphant is struggling with ghosts in her past and a deep, decades-long struggle with depression and mental illness.
  • “Warning” discusses social norms and expectations, and a hidden delight in breaking them.
  • Hurston’s Barracoon is an emotional anthropological study of identity and freedom, from the perspective of one of the last people to be enslaved and shipped to America.
  • Heaney’s “Follower” delicately examines a shifting balance in aging generations, as a son becomes the caregiver to his father.
  • And the unspoken conflicts from Pride and Prejudice discuss the social and gender norms of the 19th century. Plus Darcy’s willingness to comment on them outright says even more.

In discussing literature as a verb, David Miller explained that it needs to be practiced. He also said:

Literature is more caught than taught.

David Miller

The importance in doing any of this is to emphasize the discussion, the insight, and the exploration of literature. We are not giving them tools that help illuminate “the one and only right answer.” Instead, we are trying to cultivate tools that help them read actively, find evidence, and explore meaning in text and in life.

Virtual modification

If this is being done virtually, the lesson can continue unmodified if it is a live, synchronous lesson. If this is a recorded or asynchronous lesson, these questions can be moved to a discussion forum or virtual website like Flipgrid.

Application

I have two intentions to follow up this lesson. The first is that I intend to close the lesson explaining that “literature is a verb” is a lifestyle. Too often I have students who take AP Lit and expect to walk out of class earning a 5 based on my instruction alone. I want them to learn that high-scoring students are not only strong writers, but they are readers. If they want to learn more, than they need to live out literature as a verb.

My other intention is to continue the lesson as a homework assignment. I could invite each student to choose an excerpt (as they were assigned one the first time). They would then continue answering questions for 1, 2, and 3, modeling the practice we experienced in class. The other option is to allow students to choose their own excerpt and apply 1, 2, and 3 to it. I think I am going to go this route and ask them to find an excerpt from their summer reading (a choice novel from a cultivated list) to practice on.

Literature is a ver

Conclusion

To conclude, I want to reflect on one more moment from David Miller’s presentation. He shared how he passed along one of his novels from college to his mother. When his mother approached, book in hand, she startled him with an intriguing question. She said, “I see that you’ve underlined parts of this book. How did you know what parts to underline?”

That story resonated so much with me personally. I come from a very logically-oriented family. My father is a reader but not a sharer, and my mom and brother don’t read for pleasure. My husband, while an occasional reader, is an accountant. He and I live in different worlds when it comes to books. I love these people, but they don’t understand how I “see” when I read. I’ve even had a co-worker, a fellow English teacher, ask me this question. She put it this way, “how do you know where the analysis is?” I realized that this person had never been given the chance to love literature, to explore it and to apply it. This ability to read and underline is something that many of us take for granted. Perhaps this lesson, and David Miller’s insights in general, can help us guide those readers who are simply looking for the parts to underline.

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.

12 Engaging and Rigorous Books for Reluctant Readers

If AP English Literature is going to become a course where all learners are welcome, then some of us may need to find more engaging and rigorous books. As of now, here are the most frequently-cited books on the AP English Lit exam:

  1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (published 1952, Lexile level 950L)
  2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (published 1860, Lexile level 1150L)
  3. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (published 1847, Lexile level 880L)
  4. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (published 1902, Lexile level 890L)
  5. King Lear by William Shakespeare (published 1606)
  6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostevski (published 1866, Lexile level 990L)
  7. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (published 1916, Lexile level 1060L)
  8. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (published 1847, Lexile level 890L)
  9. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (published 1884, Lexile level 990L)
  10. Moby Dick by Herman Melville (published 1851, Lexile level 1230L)
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Now obviously most AP Lit teachers branch way out from this list. But if one studied the most frequently cited titles only, they would run into several problems:

  • Only 1 out o f 10 is by a nonwhite author
  • None of these works were published within the last 50 years.
  • Only 1 was published in the last 100 years.

Another consideration is a book’s Lexile level. It is difficult to compare a Lexile score (which rates a text’s difficulty) with a student’s reading score (which tests their reading abilities). But test data supports the trend that our students’ reading scores are dropping every year. Therefore, many of these books could be too complicated for incoming AP Lit students.

Consider Rigor + Engagement

For this reason, AP Lit teachers are challenged to find books that are healthy mix of engaging and rigorous. If a book is too rigorous and not engaging, the students won’t become emotionally invested in the story and may stop reading it altogether. If a book is too engaging and not rigorous enough, discussion becomes plot focused and students will struggle with deep analysis.

Here is a list of 12 books that you can use to breathe some fresh air into your AP Lit curriculum. I mostly use these books as independent reading suggestions, but some have even used them as whole-class reads. They certainly break the mold as “works of literary merit,” but perhaps that is just what we need right now.

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

What started as a spunky young adult book is rapidly becoming a favorite among adults as well. In fact, Angie Thomas’ debut novel is becoming a common fixture in AP English Lit, even as a whole class read.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com)

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: The Hate U Give

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed. Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr. But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

Engagement

Thomas’ poignant story of 16-year-old Starr Carter is more relevant today than ever. Your students won’t be able to put it down because the story is gripping, heartfelt, and so important.

Rigor

Complexity lies in her challenges as she constantly has to choose between her worlds of white versus black, hate versus love, and action versus inaction. THUG uses a system of themes and symbols as well.

Drawbacks

The Hate U Give‘s Lexile level is 590, which is very low for AP Lit. AP teachers who wish to integrate THUG as a whole class text should, to use a phrase I recently learned from teacher and author Jim Burke, “teach up.” This means to add complexity by supplementing it with other texts and current events. It may be a better fit as an independent read for a reluctant readers.

Room by Emma Donaghue

This is probably my most popular independent read. It’s so popular that I’ve bought at least three copies and I still don’t think any remain in my possession. You’ve probably heard of the movie starring Brie Larson (which earned her an Oscar in 2016), but the book is much more complex.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com)

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: Room

To five-year-old-Jack, Room is the world…. Told in the inventive, funny, and poignant voice of Jack, Room is a celebration of resilience—and a powerful story of a mother and son whose love lets them survive the impossible.

To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits. Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough … not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, Room is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

Engagement

The book is fast-moving and heartfelt, drawing readers in quickly. The climax falls in the middle of the book rather than near the end, so it becomes so unputdownable. Many of my students admit to reading it in a mere matter of days.

Rigor

The book employs a unique vocabulary as well as Jacob doesn’t refer to things such as “our bed” or “the plate.” Instead, he calls them “Bed” and “Plate.” This reminded me of how the reader had to understand Orwell’s system of Newspeak in 1984. There are dozens of AP-level writing prompts that pair with this book and it touches on many universal conflicts and themes as well.

Drawbacks

The only drawback to consider is that it was made into a fairly successful movie, so watch out for students who “substitute” the movie for the book. The movie is not from Jack’s point of view, which loses its biggest level of complexity. However, that makes it pretty easy to spot who skipped the reading.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

If you’re looking to infuse your curriculum with some nonfiction, Trevor Noah’s memoir is exactly what you’re looking for. I literally cannot stop recommending this book.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com)

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: Born a Crime

The memoir of one man’s coming-of-age, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed. Trevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle.

Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother—his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.

Engagement

Noah’s quick wit and natural storytelling abilities make this a rare uplifting book for AP. Furthermore, many students do not know nearly enough about South Africa’s system of apartheid. Therefore, natural curiosity can spur them on as well. The book has a shocking and heartfelt ending, which will ensure students won’t fall away as they read.

Rigor

Born a Crime encompasses many universal themes and conflicts, especially feelings of oppression and loneliness. Noah’s discussion of the different languages in South Africa add complexity, as well as his non-chronological storytelling methods.

Drawbacks

Some teachers shy away from nonfiction in AP Lit. However, the new CED description specifies that nonfiction is permissible as an AP Lit text, so I don’t think it should deter teachers.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Murder mystery. Coming-of-age story. Romance novel. Biological study. Where the Crawdads Sing offers so much in its pages that it can engage even the most reluctant reader.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: Where the Crawdads Sing

For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.

Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.

Engagement:

Owens’ novel begins with the discovery of a dead body, then flips back and forth between the beginning and end of the novel. The suspense drives the plot, resulting in a quick read.

Rigor:

This is a rare book where the setting functions as a character of its own, adding depth and complexity. The dual story-telling structure adds complexity as well.

Drawbacks:

The romance factor might make it a slightly more popular pick with girls than guys, but I’ve had success with both.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

This is a newer read for me, as I just read it this past June. I immediately sent messages out to my previous AP class, letting them know that it was a book many of them would enjoy.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: Salvage the Bones

A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch’s father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn’t show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn’t much to save. Lately, Esch can’t keep down what food she gets; she’s fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull’s new litter, dying one by one in the dirt, while brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child’s play and short on parenting.

As the twelve days that comprise the novel’s framework yield to the final day and Hurricane Katrina, the unforgettable family at the novel’s heart—motherless children sacrificing for each other as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce—pulls itself up to struggle for another day. A wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, “Salvage the Bones” is muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real.

Engagement:

The rising suspense of the approaching hurricane plus the deterioration of Esch’s family makes the book interesting and hard to put down. The perspective into Esch’s psyche is especially inviting for young female readers.

Rigor:

While the story can seem plot-focused, Ward actually integrates a number of literary symbols into the narrative. The strong narrative point of view, literary symbols, and Ward’s use of figurative language throughout make the novel plenty rigorous.

Drawbacks:

The novel does depict some sexual acts in somewhat graphic terms, so those with conservative school boards or parents may want to consider that.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Wells

I’ve had a lot of success with assigning The Glass Castle for students who struggle with finding things to analyze. It’s definitely one of my most popular independent reads.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: The Glass Castle

A tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that, despite its profound flaws, gave the author the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.

Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an “excitement addict.” Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town — and the family — Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.

Engagement:

Walls’ story is so extraordinary that it verges on unbelievable. Could any two parents really be this…unique? Since it is very much a true story, readers want to continue to see how Walls gets out, a detail that they know going into the story.

Rigor:

This memoir relies heavily on symbolism and themes to characterize Wells’ feelings throughout the whole experience. My students have found many opportunities for writing about it, using analysis of themes, figurative language, symbolism, and other literary elements.

Drawbacks:

Once again, this is a memoir. I don’t believe that a text is any “lesser” just because it’s nonfiction, but some school’s may require fiction only in AP Lit.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

I’ll admit a bias on this one, as this is my all time favorite book. I’ve never read a book that made me laugh and cry at the same time on numerous occasions. While I read it for pleasure, I’ve found several writing prompts that would work for Ove. It is a great selection for students who struggle with symbols and figurative language.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: A Man Called Ove

A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

Engagement:

I mean, come on. It’s like Up, but instead of a dog it’s a cat. And, you know, no balloons. It’s precious and wonderful. Furthermore, it works for any gender. I’ve never had a student not enjoy this book.

Rigor:

The book moves in and out of time, making it one you’ll need to construct to get the full story. Some dislike Backman’s style of writing, using clipped, almost clichéd phrases to open and close his short chapters. However, if you consider those as thematic or symbolic statements (which they are), they contribute to the book’s rigor.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

I’m a big fan of Sandra Cisneros’ short stories. I use both “My Name” and “Eleven” in my classes for short fiction or supplements. Her book The House on Mango Street has been recommended as a Q3 text, which is a unique choice considering its structure of compiled vignettes.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: The House on Mango Street

Acclaimed by critics, beloved by readers of all ages, taught everywhere from inner-city grade schools to universities across the country, and translated all over the world, The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero.

Told in a series of vignettes – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous–it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.

Engagement:

Because each chapter is a vignette, little background knowledge is necessary to understand each tale. The text feels more approachable and gets to the point quickly. Students can easily read it as one vignette per day as well, for students who need a lot of structure.

Rigor:

On the flip side, a short text still requires a sharp eye. It can become a challenge to write about since you have to piece the vignettes all together. The book’s unique structure and plot design makes it rigorous.

Drawbacks:

As I said, it’s a book of vignettes, so it can be a hard one to write about. I tend to rely on it more to supplement long texts as a short fiction work.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Some people consider this book too “pop fiction” for AP Lit, and that’s debatable. I wouldn’t choose this one for an in-class read, but I would definitely recommend it for independent reading.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine.

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: she struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding unnecessary human contact, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen, the three rescue one another from the lives of isolation that they had been living. Ultimately, it is Raymond’s big heart that will help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one. If she does, she’ll learn that she, too, is capable of finding friendship—and even love—after all.

Smart, warm, uplifting, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine whose deadpan weirdness and unconscious wit make for an irresistible journey as she realizes. . .the only way to survive is to open your heart.

Engagement:

Eleanor’s quirky personality and Honeyman’s dark humor blend into an interesting story. It’s unlikely that students have never read a story featuring a protagonist as damaged as Eleanor. Plus, the book has a huge plot twist at the end!

Rigor:

This book employs a very unreliable narrator (which is part of the plot twist). That complication makes the plot harder to construct and relies more on inferences when analyzing.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I read both The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys recently and would recommend both for AP Lit. But what I noticed about The Underground Railroad more than Nickel Boys was its sensitivity and approachability. This would be a great work to push cautious or sheltered readers into upper level titles. It presents real-life conflicts but avoids graphic violence, language, or sexuality.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: The Underground Railroad

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

Engagement:

Students are drawn in to learn what happened to Cora’s mother, then will continue reading to see if Cora really escapes. The tragic part of this narrative is that no one who escapes slavery ever really feels free, so the threat of being discovered propels the suspense.

Rigor:

I love this book for exposing struggling readers to the concept of magical realism. While I wouldn’t classify this book in that genre necessarily, there are elements of just enough fantasy that can help them grapple with that difficult genre.

Drawbacks:

I know some teachers are looking for books that discuss systematic racism but aren’t slave narratives. If you already teach Beloved, The Underground Railroad may be just too similar to pair with it. Consider Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys if you want a gritty story that isn’t a slave narrative. Racism and systematic racial oppression are still major conflicts in The Nickel Boys.

Misery by Stephen King

I know I just lost the respect of a lot of you, but hear me out. Last year, I had a very strong reader struggling to engage with Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See for independent reading. However, she was moving through Stephen King’s books very quickly in her spare time. She approached me and asked if she could read one of his books instead. Being a huge Stephen King fan myself, we took the gamble and she read Misery. She ended up writing a high-scoring analysis on Annie’s methods of deception for her writing assessment, solidifying my opinion that Stephen King can exist in an AP classroom.

Synopsis (from Amazon):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: Misery

Best-selling novelist Paul Sheldon thinks he’s finally free of Misery Chastain. In a controversial career move, he’s just killed off the popular protagonist of his beloved romance series in favor of expanding his creative horizons. But such a change doesn’t come without consequences. After a near-fatal car accident in rural Colorado leaves his body broken, Paul finds himself at the mercy of the terrifying rescuer who’s nursing him back to health – his self-proclaimed number one fan, Annie Wilkes. 

Annie is very upset over what Paul did to Misery and demands that he find a way to bring her back by writing a new novel – his best yet, and one that’s all for her. After all, Paul has all the time in the world to do so as a prisoner in her isolated house…and Annie has some very persuasive and violent methods to get exactly what she wants… 

Engagement:

Stephen King has never struggled with engaging readers. This story is gripping and Annie Wilkes is truly terrifying. Even if students are familiar with the excellent movie adaptation, things actually get so much worse in the book.

Rigor:

This is is probably the least rigorous of all of these books, so much so that I wouldn’t recommend for the lowest-level readers. Instead, it’s a great choice for those hard to please students, who tend to find everything so boring. Like the deception prompt from 2016, there are several writing tasks that can yield good analysis.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

The Metamorphosis is my go-to when I need a 1-2 week unit for AP Lit. In the past, I’ve used with my seniors when the juniors go on their class trip in the fall. This year, I’m actually reserving the unit in case I fall ill or need to be out for 1-2 weeks.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: The Metamorphosis

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was laying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.”

With its startling, bizarre, yet surprisingly funny first opening, Kafka begins his masterpiece, The Metamorphosis. It is the story of a young man who, transformed overnight into a giant beetle-like insect, becomes an object of disgrace to his family, an outsider in his own home, a quintessentially alienated man. A harrowing—though absurdly comic—meditation on human feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and isolation, The Metamorphosis has taken its place as one of the most widely read and influential works of twentieth-century fiction. As W.H. Auden wrote, “Kafka is important to us because his predicament is the predicament of modern man.”

Engagement:

I love this book for engaging reluctant readers. One, it’s so short. Two, it’s so weird. Three, there are several interpretations and applications of Kafka’s text, which can pique curious readers’ imaginations.

Rigor:

Because there is no “one” interpretation, students will love discussing why Samsa is an insect. The book’s existential themes complicate the rigor of this novella.

Further Reading

As always, I’m constantly reading and exploring new texts to add to my AP Lit classroom library. I love having suggestions of engaging and rigorous titles to suggest to my students. To learn how I use independent reading in class check out this blog post, or this resource on Teachers Pay Teachers for ready-made resources. To see how I build engagement and rigor in the first few weeks of AP Lit, check out this blog post!

The First Few Weeks: Differentiation & Work Ethic

This article is the third in a blog series focused on inclusivity in AP English Literature. This week’s installment will focus on differentiation your instruction to reach all levels of learners in AP Lit. In high achieving schools, AP classes are often reserved for only top level learners. However, this system of gatekeeping is not in the best interest of education. Not all top learners belong in AP English Lit, and many who aren’t “top level” can thrive in the class. Therefore, my policy is: if you are willing to do the work, you belong in the class.

These ideas are especially for teachers who don’t have prerequisites, entrance exams, or other structures in place to limit AP students. While all are welcome in AP classes, it can be difficult to advance the students who are already strong writers while simultaneously reaching students who are less enthusiastic about the class. These strategies will engage both your voracious and reluctant readers, as well as improving students’ writing at all levels.

First Day Activity – Active Reading, Discussion, and Critical Thinking

I’ve already devoted an entire blog post to my first day lesson, which you can read about for full details. The main goal of my first day is to demonstrate three of the main four skills of AP Lit as I see them: close reading, Socratic discussion, and critical thinking. The only skill we don’t hit immediately is writing, and that is only because writing is SUCH A BIG SKILL that it needs multiple days of its own. This lesson gives tips on annotating to improve their close reading, helps them move beyond “I agree” and “I noticed” discussion strategies, and learn to think critically about texts that they read. To see the full details of my first day lesson you can read this full blog post.

My AP Lit First Day Lesson
This blog post details my first day of class in AP Lit, where I focus on active reading, discussion, and critical thinking.

Using How to Read Literature Like a Professor to Analyze Television & Film

Most readers know that I like to begin the year with Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. I prefer to read it in class, if time allows, but many prefer to use the book as summer reading. I love this book because he explains the basics of literary analysis, connecting things from fiction to real life with concrete examples and identifying patterns.

In my experience with HTRLLAP, most students find the book very intimidating. While the lessons inside are still useful, Foster’s text can make students feel underprepared or ill-equipped for literary analysis, especially when it comes to writing. In order to combat this, I like to take Foster’s lessons beyond his examples. I often piggyback off his examples using young adult texts, titles that are common in grades 8-10, and even television and film.

Example

Here’s an example. I had a student one year who kept saying he was the “dumbest kid in class.” Of course he wasn’t, but he felt that way. He had never read any of the titles mentioned in the text and, frankly, Foster was losing him. However, in class one day I related Foster’s chapter on “marked characters” and asked them to identify examples not from literature, but from television shows. Suddenly this student came alive with ideas from Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Lost, and other shows. Over the next few days he kept running into class telling me other ideas from HTRLLAP that he noticed in television shows. Eventually he became so engrossed in the process that his family asked him to watch tv in a different room, as they grew tired of his constant interruptions of literary analysis.

Now obviously I had to coerce this student to begin applying these principles to literature, as I didn’t want him writing an essay on a television show for the AP exam. But the strategy of applying HTRLLAP to film, television, and even songs makes Foster’s lessons easier for all students to understand. They then have a firm foundation that they can take with them as we begin literary analysis of short fiction and novels.

Picking Poetry – the Riddle Factor

Like most of the AP teachers I know, I usually try to introduce poetry as early as I can. For the last few years my first poem has been “Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath. I choose this poem because it’s a riddle, and a fairly difficult one at that. I read the poem aloud for them, tell them it’s a riddle, and then set them free to guess. When one student finally guesses that it’s a riddle for pregnancy, we break the poem down image by image, line by line, compounding the difficult “clues” for Plath’s poem.

I love this lesson because my students usually approach poetry with groans and dread. They never “get it,” the teacher finds more in the poem than the author meant (debatable), poems are boring, etc. However, Plath’s poem is short, inviting, and provocative. This lesson tells students that not all poems have to be dry or boring, and it invites them to explore more throughout the year.

While students should explore a range of poems, styles, and authors, I like to pick simpler or more narrative poems for differentiation and scaffolding in AP Lit. Along with “Metaphors,” here are some other introductory poems I choose:

  • “The Black Walnut Tree” by Mary Oliver
  • “Out, Out–” by Robert Frost
  • “The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall
  • “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes
  • “My Father and the Fig Tree” by Naomi Shihab Nye
  • “Lot’s Wife” by Anna Akhmatova

Student Achievement Structured Around Goals

SMART Goals - Differentiation in AP Lit

One thing that has never changed in all my years of teaching AP Lit is the use of student-designed goals. I did this from day 1 and I still do it each year. After we go through the expectations of the course, I ask students to create three goals for themselves. I require them to use SMART goals, a system you are probably familiar with. If not, SMART goals (see graphic) help students set goals that they can measure along the journey, not just at the end of the year. To help students form SMART goals we usually have to address perceived weaknesses. If I have reluctant readers in the group, sometimes they make a goal to simply finish every book.

Examples of strong SMART goals are:

  • Read every assigned reading on time.
  • Use all of my allotted writing time, not finish early and turn it in as-is.
  • Select one book over 500 pages for independent reading and read every single page.
  • Write down my comments before sharing them in each discussion.

Examples of weak SMART goals are:

  • Earn a 5 on the AP Lit exam (not measurable or timely, as scores come out mid-July).
  • Try hard (not specific or measurable).
  • Ace every test (probably not very realistic or attainable).

We also implement goal-setting after each timed writing and PPC multiple choice exam. I created trackers for students to record their score, what they need to improve on, and what goals they should set to improve on their next assessment. The idea is to use this data and these goals each quarter to help students measure their progress towards their SMART goals and their overall growth in writing, active reading, and critical thinking.

Student tracking data and setting goals
After each Performance Progress Check on AP Classroom, my students fill out their score data and set goals for their next PPC. We have another tracker that we use after each timed writing. Both are FREE downloads from my TpT store.

Strategies for Scaffolding Writing

When it comes to differentiation in AP Lit, writing is by far the hardest variable to scaffold. Here are some strategies I use in the first few weeks to learn my students’ abilities and help move them down the path towards strong analysis.

Gradual Timed Writing Practice

As many AP Lit teachers do, I assign my students to read a novel for summer reading. Our assessment for our summer reading is a timed writing. I give students released prompts from the actual exam, or create my own modeled after those questions if the perfect prompt isn’t available. Instead of limiting them to 40 minutes I allow the whole class period, but that is the only additional help I offer.

When it comes to reading the essays, I score them according to the criteria of the rubric, offering as much feedback as possible. However, I do not write a score on the finished essays. The next day, I pass back the essays with my feedback. I put students into small groups (grouped with a mixture of high, medium, and low scores) and let them share highs and lows of their own essays. Following our small group discussions we return to a whole class. Together, we brainstorm some things we learned from our first timed writing as a whole class.

The most important part of this process is allowing students to rewrite their essays. This is the only time I allow a revision, but it is so important. This allows students who misread the prompt or wrote full summaries to start from scratch. It likewise offers mid- and high-scoring students an equal chance to sharpen their analysis. I score this essay again and log these scores in as final.

Always Remember: APE

Probably the most common writing misstep I see in the first few weeks is students’ reliance on summary rather than analysis. Even after we discuss the difference between summary and analysis, I’ve found that students often revert due to adrenaline, confusion, or simply being at a loss of what to say. It’s frustrating for all of us. Students know they aren’t supposed to summarize, they know the difference between analysis and summary, and yet they still do it all the time. One tool I’ve created to combat summary is based on APE, which stands for Assert Prove Explain.

I did not coin this acronym, it has in fact been around for a while. I did, however, create a handout and bookmark to help students remember this strategy as they ease into analytical writing. Remember, not all of your AP students have taken an advanced placement course before. So while some understand what we mean by balancing analysis with textual support, many don’t have the tools to do this quickly. Therefore, teaching students to assert, prove, and explain helps them get into the rhythm of analysis. Once they get the hang of analysis supported by proper textual support, then you can begin to work on creating a true line of reasoning, growing complexity, stronger literary elements, and sophisticated writing voice.

Summary Versus Analysis

Line of Reasoning mapping
This was our model essay. I didn’t do this activity in the beginning of the year because I HADN’T THOUGHT OF IT YET. I certainly will in the future!
Highlighting for Analysis - Differentiation in AP Lit
This was a student’s essay. This was one of my top writers but even she struggled with balancing textual support (the red) with analysis (the yellow).

The war against summary is not easily won. It’s even more frustrating when students don’t realize they’re summarizing.

Last year I tried a more hands-on approach to help students identify their own summary. At the end of our timed writing rehash, I distributed a high-scoring released essay from the College Board. Then, I asked students to use markers, highlighters, or different color pens to mark the following in a text:

  • Mark the thesis in green. Mark references to the thesis or the continued line of reasoning in green as well.
  • Label all textual support in red.
  • Identify the student’s analysis (the “so what”) in yellow.
  • (Sometimes I have them identify all references to literary techniques in a fourth color, but this may be better saved until later in the school year).

The class marked up their sample essays and we debriefed it as a whole group for a moment. After that, I asked students to do the same process on their own essays. Before I even asked them to do this, many students were already realizing their mistakes. Many groaned as they marked long portions in red with nary a yellow in sight. This exercise proved so helpful that I hung the sample essay in our room for students to access.

Work Ethic

As I finish this up, I’m realize that I may come off as a very accommodating teacher. God forbid, the word “easy” may even be used. I do want to clarify a major foundation of my teaching strategy. While I do not require that my students have a high GPA, there is one trait they must possess.

In order to succeed in my class, my students better have grit.

This is another important foundational component of the first few weeks. If my students come to class unprepared, I make it very clear that I cannot help them. I’ve had plenty of super-smart students attempt to coast through AP Lit. And yes, these students are often very strong writers and get great scores on their standardized tests. However, in my 14 years of teaching AP Lit I’ve learned this about these kids: the way they write in September is the way they’ll write in May. These students will exit with a strong GPA and equally high standardized test scores, but they won’t grow.

Growth Over Scores

Just this last year I had a student take my course, telling me he’d drop it after just the first day. He told me he was too dumb and too lazy, to which I argued that he certainly was not. Somehow I convinced him to stay, but we had to have the same conversation at our semester break. This student had been putting in great work, but was still doubting himself. This doubt compounded when he saw that he often scored lower than his classmates. Once again, I convinced him to stick with it. His spirits were especially low during our distance learning months, so much so that I even FaceTimed him to help him register for the test.

When I finally got my scores last week, I had some very high scores, none of which were very surprising. But I literally did a happy dance when I saw that my doubtful student earned a 3. That score meant more to me than all of the others. Not only did he develop in his reading and writing, this student learned that hard work yields growth and success.

Inclusivity in AP Lit

To conclude, this is a basic overview of some of the strategies I use for differentiation in AP Lit. I try to use our first month to cultivate an atmosphere of hard work and inclusivity. I recently developed three norms to describe our class:

  1. Everyone is welcome.
  2. Everyone’s voice is worthy.
  3. Everyone tries.

To read my previous posts on the topic of inclusivity in AP English Lit, check these out:

4 Quick Questions to Determine if a Book is “AP-Worthy”

Non-white Authors to Diversify Your AP Lit Curriculum