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My 10 Favorite Poems to Teach in AP Lit

As a teacher of AP Lit, you can’t avoid teaching poetry. And to be a successful teacher of AP Lit, you shouldn’t try to. Of course there are “classics” and particular forms you have to teach, like a lot of long-dead white guys who wrote sonnets, but the writers at CollegeBoard (who create the AP exams) appreciate both modern and classic writers of poetry. The key is to mix old with new, to find culturally diverse and universally advanced poems that will expose students to a variety of different poem types, but also keep them interested. This is a list of some of my favorite poems to teach to AP Lit students:

“Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath

This short poem is unexpectedly witty and a little dark, and it usually disarms students as they read it. As the first line indicates, the nine-line poem functions as a riddle for pregnancy, with references to various images to items that are treasured for what they carry rather than what they are (old houses, watermelons, elephants). Plath’s overall message is that while pregnancy is miraculous, mothers are allowed to be somewhat resentful of their treatment as a vessel rather than as a person. As a mother of three, I can attest that this feeling is surprisingly accurate and I enjoy teaching it from my own perspective. 

“Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shelley’s treatise against pride and hubris is just as relevant today as when it was published 200 years ago. The allusion to Ramses II usually intrigues high school students who, in my experience, have shown to have a general curiosity toward Egyptian history. I also introduce this poem by playing a reading by Bryan Cranston taken from Breaking Bad. Like Walter White’s efforts to provide for his family beyond his inevitable death, Ramses erected monuments of himself in an effort to demonstrate his power and live forever. I also love showing how the meter and form starts off as a Shakespearean sonnet, but falls away from this form, in an effort to show the breaking down of classic poetry styles. 

“Lot’s Wife” by Anna Akhmatova

If you don’t know anything about Anna Akhmatova, take a break and go read up on her. I can wait. Seriously, she is so awesome. This poem takes the story of Lot from Genesis 19 and expounds on Lot’s poor wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt for looking backward as her hometown of Sodom and Gomorrah burned. The bible hails her as an example of God’s punishment when we disobey or lose trust in him. Akhmatova provides context for Lot’s wife and questions if she deserves the reputation given to her in single bible verse. I’ve found the comparison between the biblical text to this poem fodder for excellent conversation, particularly with young women. 

“I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” is a personal favorite but it is often taught in 9th or 10th grades. This poem builds on most students’ working knowledge of Hughes and his reputation for representing the plight of black artists in the early 20th century. “I, Too, Sing America” has a more comparative style, showcasing the unfair treatment of African Americans in Hughes’ time of composition. What makes the poem so masterful is that the tone is not of complaining, but instead is confident and triumphant. The speaker proclaims that while he does not have the rights he deserves, “Tomorrow, I will be at the table when company comes.”

“Oxygen” by Mary Oliver

This is literally my favorite poem. Ever. Everything about it is so perfect. It’s beautifully simplistic and cyclical, but also has advanced poetic elements within. The ongoing image of things that feed on air is easy to relate to. The central lines, “It is your life, which is so close to my own that I would not know where to drop the knife of separation. And what does this have to do with love, except everything?” provide a beautiful image of modern romance and companionship, and I can’t help but get a little misty-eyed every time I teach it. It truly is a beautiful poem. 

“The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché

Forché’s poem is radically different from most of the poems I teach in AP Lit. For one, it doesn’t look like a poem, as it’s meant to resemble prose. Secondly, it contains a strong expletive. There are ways to get this lesson wrong if the incident is not researched properly, but it has the potential to be an extremely sobering and serous lesson. Forché’s poem is shocking  as it describes the dictator spilling a bag of human ears, even picking one up and gesturing with it. What’s even more shocking is that the events described are completely true. Trust me, you simply must teach this poem.

“The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall and “American History” by Michael S. Harper

One way to change up a poetry lesson is to do a poetry comparison study. Up until recently, AP Lit exam questions sometimes asked students to write essays about two poems written on a similar topic or theme. Even though that practice has been discontinued, it is still a valuable skill for AP Lit students. One of my favorite comparison studies is the treatment of the Birmingham church bombings of 1963. This hate crime united African Americans in a fight for civil rights, eventually leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These poems provide different treatments of this act of terror, with Harper’s relating it to acts of the Revolutionary War, while Randall’s is more sentimental and songlike. Ample opportunities for historical analysis and discussion are found in these two poems.  

Out, Out–” by Robert Frost

Robert Frost is typically remembered for his nature poems, but this longer poem titled after Macbeth’s final soliloquy has always been my favorite of Frost’s. I typically guide my students through a narrative analysis of the story told in the poem, then follow up with a more historical analysis. The context and background of World War I is not coincidental, and most believe that the poem’s unfortunate boy represents all young soldiers who were sacrificed in the war efforts. The poem has plenty of advanced poetic elements, as an added bonus. 

“Digging” by Seamus Heaney

It was hard to pick a favorite Seamus poem, but the autobiographical and geographical analysis opportunities of “Digging” make it my favorite to teach. Heaney is a favorite with CollegeBoard and most of the world, especially in his native Ireland. Heaney pays homage to his beautiful Irish home and the generations of laborers who worked before him in the Irish peat. “Digging” is both simple and complex, and students find themselves easing into advanced poetry analysis quite easily. Runners up for Heaney’s poems are “Midterm Break” and “Scaffolding,” if you want to include more poems from this Irish master. 

“Warning” by Jenny Joseph

In the spring my AP students tend to show a veil of weariness and fatigue, as well as signs of spring fever. When I see this we take a break from complicated and complex poem studies and spend some time with a more witty and simplistic poem. Jenny Joseph’s charming poem about growing old and “wearing purple” is humorous and relatable, but is not without its thematic applications. We usually have an interesting discussion about what students look forward to doing once they are “old” that they couldn’t get away with now. My students are also intrigued by the fact that Joseph’s poem inspired the Red Hat Society, which can now boast over 70,000 members. 

There are many other wonderful poems that make up my AP curriculum but these are just a few of my favorites. Honorable mentions include Li Young Lee’s “A Story,” Robert Penn Warren’s “True Love,” Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song,” William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say,” and Countee Cullen’s “Incident.” What are your favorite advanced poems to teach? 

The links included in this post are to some of the lessons I’ve created for my Teachers Pay Teachers store. If you’re interested in adding these poems to your curriculum, I’m working on creating resources for all of my AP poems and will continue to link to them as I create them. You can also buy a growing bundle of all of my AP Lit poem studies by clicking here

Tips For Making Shakespeare Fun

For 12 years now I’ve been teaching English Language Arts to high school students, and with most ELA course loads inevitably come a healthy dose of Shakespeare. Throughout my career, I’ve taught the following Shakespearean works:

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  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Julius Caesar
  • Hamlet
  • Macbeth
  • King Lear
  • Othello
  • The Taming of the Shrew
  • Henry VI, Part I
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Twelfth Night

…plus numerous sonnets. In my experience I’ve discovered several methods that have helped me market Shakespeare to high school students as an enjoyable, relatable author.

Read aloud in class

This one goes directly against the number one suggestion from another ELA blogger, but I have never had success with students reading Shakespearean language at home. At times we’ll need to finish a reading as homework in my AP Lit class, but even they have a lot of questions when they come back. But sophomores? Freshmen??? Have you ever tried to teach them poetry, let alone archaic poetry in iambic pentameter? No, thank you. I firmly believe that plays are meant to experienced, if not on the stage then at least through reading them aloud.

This is why my students study Shakespeare’s words in my classroom. We assign parts. We reenact scenes. We discuss quotes, dissect lines and even words. But it all happens together. By reading together, we can learn it together, and I don’t have to recap and summarize entire scenes that were assigned as reading.

Watch a Production

I don’t teach a drama class so our short reenactments are crude and often for sake of engagement rather than drama. But Shakespeare’s works are masterpieces, and students need to see them acted out. For each unit in my Shakespearean Lit course, we spend half of our weekly block periods watching a movie that goes along with the play we’re studying. And I mean an actual Shakespearean production, not a teen movie based loosely on a plot line. Sometimes the productions are straightforward and classic (Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, 1996), sometimes they’re a bit more interpretive (Rupert Goold’s Macbeth, 2010). I am also a fan of Oliver Parker’s Othello (1995), Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012), Franco Zeferelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Trevor Nunn’s King Lear (2008), and Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night (1996). I also suggest you watch it in parts as you read the play, rather than reading it all the way through, taking the test, and having a “reward” by watching it. Just today we watched the first 45 minutes of Macbeth, and one of my students said, “This helps so much. It helps to see it.”

Use Labels & Character Maps

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Back when I first started teaching Julius Caesar, I realized right away that my students were struggling with keeping track of everybody. I don’t blame them; that play has 35 characters, not counting those labeled as “servant” or “messenger.” After the first act, I worked much more actively to help students keep track of characters. Each student was assigned to at least one JC character, then given a paper placard with the character’s name, description, and a color attributed to it. Tribunes got one color, senators another, servants another, and so on. Likewise, in my Shakespearean Lit course my students often ask for a character map. I sketch out the characters on the whiteboard (poorly; I’m not artist) and show relationships between everybody. We update the character map as we read, indicating deaths and changes in relationships. Students have told me that even though this is a pretty rudimentary method of instruction, it helps to have a quick map to refer to throughout the unit.

Make Connections to Modern Times

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One reason modern interpretations like 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man are so popular is that they take an ancient story and show it updated to reflect modern conflicts. But Shakespeare’s stories already reflect so many universal and relevant themes. By making connections to our modern world, students will find relevancy to the Bard’s words, and suddenly a 400-year-old work seems personal. They just might need some help finding the connections.

Consider the following theme connections for some of these works:

Romeo and Juliet – Love vs. lust, cliques, gossip, infatuation
Macbeth &  – The corrupting influence of power
Julius Caesar – Ethics, politicians’ use of rhetoric
The Taming of the Shrew – Gender roles, sexism, marriage roles, feeling pressured in relationships
Hamlet – Depression and mental illness, coping with grief, friendship, betrayal

These don’t have to be spelled out for students, just suggested. Ask them the right questions near the beginning of the play, build on them, and soon students are making connections left and right. I can’t tell you how interesting it has been to teach Julius Caesar in this political climate!

These are just some of my suggestions to make teaching Shakespeare more rewarding and engaging. What tips would you offer to fellow ELA teachers? Please comment with any tips you may have!

For updates on future blog posts, just follow me on this blog, and check out my Instagram @aplitandmore for daily tips and inspiration!

 

 

First Day Activities: Get-to-Know-You Activity & Room Procedures Scavenger Hunt

Happy back to school season! I am currently feeling that special kind of tired which is end-of-the-first-week-back-at-school-tired. I’m trying out a few different activities this year, including my first breakout escape room game which I purchased from Teachers Pay Teachers.

The typical boring first day routine for me goes: icebreaker, syllabus, procedures, homework/regular teaching. I definitely wanted to change things up this year, but I needed to plan appropriately. For one, my sophomores don’t usually need a normal icebreaker activity. We only have about 50 sophomores so they already know each other, but I need to get to know them.

I came up with an introductory activity that takes about 10 minutes, which lets me get to know them in a not-too-cheesy way.

First of all, I made sure to have lots of pieces of construction paper on hand, as well as many markers. I asked students to draw a large circle in the center of their paper, then a vertical line above and below that circle, as well as a horizontal line to the left and the right.

On a powerpoint, I put the following instructions:

In the top left square: Write a list of strengths that you bring to class. These could be subject-related (i.e. I’m a fast reader) or personality-related (i.e. I’m fairly organized).
In the top right square: Write a list of weaknesses that you bring to class. Again, these could be subject-related (i.e. I really struggle with poetry) or personality-related (i.e. I’m a huge procrastinator).
In the bottom left square: What kind of learner are you?
Visual: You learn through pictures and spatial images
Auditory: You learn through lectures and audiobooks or podcasts
Kinesthetic: You learn through activities and physical      movement
Musical: You learn through songs and music
Artistic: You learn through doodling and sketching
Logical: You tend to learn by applying logic and reason
In the bottom right square: What are some goals you have for this year? These could be English-related or more personal. Try to make your goals specific and measurable.
In the middle circle: Write your name and surround it with images and/or words describing your personality and personal favorites.

As I said, this activity only took about 10 minutes and the students enjoyed it overall. It gave them the option to work together but it wasn’t required. When the students finished we posted them on the whiteboard, but I made sure to take them down at the end of each class. I looked them over to learn about each student and will retain them to reference later when making groups.

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The other activity that I introduced this week was a scavenger hunt guiding students through the procedures and resources in my classroom. It took a lot of prep work but I made sure to keep it organized so it would be all ready for me for the future.

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When students walked into class I asked them to organize themselves in six groups. Before they began, I emphasized the following directions (printed on the front of each envelope):

  1. Read the directions carefully.  
  2. THIS IS NOT A RACE. Points are given for accuracy, and some tasks are worth more than others. If I see you spending too long on a task that isn’t worth it, I will move you along.  
  3. Complete the tasks as a group. Try to work to get everyone involved, and under no circumstances should you split up.
  4. Do not ask other students for help. If you are stumped, ask me and I will help you along.  
  5. Have fun! 

Each task led them to a different resource or routine in my classroom.img_9268.jpg

Task 1: On a sheet of paper, students had to write the classroom number of various teachers common on their schedules. Astute students were able to locate the school fire escape map located in by the door to answer the questions. They then had to submit the sheet into our class’ homework bin (which they also had to find on their own).

Task 2: Students had to find out homework posted on Schoology and write it in a planner or digital calendar program. Then they had to show it to me to get credit.

Task 3: This one was the longest. Students had to write a works cited for three resources stowed in my room: a copy of Animal Farm, the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, and a magazine article about our local area. Students were not allowed to look up citations online (especially on EasyBib!). Instead, they learned that I have MLA formatting and citation styles on my wall all the time. Hello, Credible Hulk! Once again, the works cited had to be submitted to the homework bin. img_9005.jpg

Task 4: We are a Christian school, so we have a class verse posted in my room and we start each day in prayer. For this task students had to pick a topic for prayer (I have a cup of them written on popsicle sticks) and pray as a small group. Then they had to memorize the class verse and recite to me without error.

Task 5: In this task, students had to find the absent folder, where extra handouts are stored for each class. In that folder I had hidden brightly colored paper. The group had to take out 3 sheets of paper and staple them together, then three-hole punch them. On the first page, they had to write the Word of the Week. On the second page, they had to write the day’s learning target. On the third page, they had to write the two schools I attended for my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees (this was mostly to remind students that I kind of know what I’m doing in our classroom). Once again, this was turned into the homework bin.

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Task 6: The final task asked students to examine our syllabus. They had to write various information from our syllabus, including the books we read over the year, the five rules of the classroom, and my email address (with my name spelled correctly!).

Overall, this task took about an hour to complete all the way through, so it was a great way to use our block period. After everyone was finished we went through the correct answers together. The activity introduced students to the classroom procedures and helped me correct some common mistakes they make throughout the year, such as turning homework in the wrong spot, not knowing where to access extra materials, or resorting to EasyBib instead of using simple classroom resources to create a citation. Plus, I didn’t have to spend a half an hour giving a boring tour of my classroom!

I don’t have this resource as a downloadable item on TpT because it is so highly customizable to my classroom, but please feel free to adapt and use it in your own teaching!

Flexible vs. Assigned Seating in the High School Classroom

Flexible vs. Assigned Seating

If you’re like me and you are on Instagram or Twitter, the most buzzed about educational topic this summer seems to be flexible seating. And while it may be a movement more common among teachers of younger learners, there is still a lot of merit in using flexible seating in a high school classroom. However, as many seasoned high school teachers will realize, allowing students to sit wherever they want by whomever they want often drastically competes with good classroom management.

I’ve always been a fan of assigned seating, but over the past few years I’ve incorporated many different kinds of “learning stations” in my classroom to allow students to work comfortably and in their best environment.

The end result is that I use a healthy mix of both assigned and flexible seating options in my classroom instruction.

And since I just finished setting up my classroom yesterday, I thought I’d show you some of the strategies I use to balance flexible seating with assigned seating in my classroom, and how I facilitate between them.

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Here is an overall image of my classroom setup. I use tables rather than desks because I incorporate small group discussion and differentiated activities quite often. Since the students rearrange themselves frequently, tables have been a much better fit than the traditional desks I used to have. I have five groups of two smaller tables pushed together, and one group of a large table in the back of the room. When students have time to work on their own or in a group, I encourage larger groups to sit at the back table.

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I also have this smaller table near the door of the classroom, and if you see below it there is a surge protector underneath it. This is my “laptop charging station,” so students who need to charge laptops but prefer a table top can sit here and continue working as they would at their desks.

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This is one of the most coveted spaces in my room, which has been nicknamed the “cozy corner.” The pillows with armrests (bought from Target) are great for leaning against the wall. Students like to get comfy and work individually or in small groups here, but last year I started to find students using it to nap on the sly.  This year I incorporated this pretty coffee table ($50 on Facebook Marketplace) to encourage more sitting and less laying.

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In the corner of my room I also have these five colorful stools which I purchased from Amazon last year (here is the link). We use these when students want to pull up a chair or move around frequently. These are lightweight and small, so they’re a lot safer to move across a room than my bulky chairs. I was also incredibly lucky to snag this amazing rolling, adjustable standing desk from my principal last year. So far this little baby has been used as a mobile workspace for me when I have to move around the room with my laptop, a podium for giving speeches and presentations, an extra student desk with a chair, a mobile standing desk for a student with a back problem, and a portable desk for a student in a wheelchair. I highly recommend every teacher have one of these in their room if they can find the space in the budget. It’s a lifesaver!

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Last year, I also discovered another problem with allowing students to move throughout the room to work. While many wanted to sit on the floor or by a partner, I found that most were confined to spots near an outlet because so many of their laptops needed to be charged (my school is on a 1:1 with devices, so each student has their own laptop or tablet for classroom use). So this year I hit the Target dollar spot and bought a few surge protectors and extension cords to reach to the middle of the room. I can’t keep them out all the time because of tripping hazards, but on writing days (which occur frequently in ELA classrooms) I can extend power to the middle of the classroom so students have more flexibility in where they sit.

The last tool for managing a mix between flexible and assigned seating is this sign that I printed double-sided and laminated. It is posted on my whiteboard, right next to our learning targets and daily homework posts. Students will simply need to look at the sign when they walk in to learn if they need to go to their assigned seat or if they can grab a comfier spot where they choose. I can also flip the sign in the middle of class if we move from whole class discussion to work time in groups. This product is a free resource in my TpT store if you are interested in downloading it! Just click here!

These are some of the flexible seating strategies that I am able to manage in my own classroom, but I still can’t move beyond assigned seating for at least part of the time. Please feel free to comment below, what elements of flexible seating have you found success with? Are there any ideas included here that you want to try out?