Independent Reading Strategies for AP Lit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2019 Independent Reading Strategy

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

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

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

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

Several new and incoming AP Lit teachers have wondered what really happens day-by-day in AP Lit. Therefore, I set out to write everything down to give a detailed overview of what we cover in my own class, both for curious teachers and for those have have purchased my AP Lit Full Course on TpT. As I post this now, it’s become a diary of my most complicated year of teaching AP Lit, or a diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year, if you will.

Not only was it the year I had to pivot my materials to meet a revised (and constantly changing) AP Lit exam and CED, but it was interrupted by COVID-19 and the last 9 weeks were completed online. However, I was still able to record each day’s general focus, as well as record my thoughts and feelings as I had to cut and change my curriculum in the spring. (I have also included links to materials that are downloadable on TpT)

Disclaimers

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

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

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

Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year - the year of PIVOT

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Fiction: Unit 1*

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

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

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

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

Day 10: Presented notes on HTRLLAP chaps 5-7 + Interlude, assigned chaps 8-10. For the Interlude we did a brief discussion before moving on.

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

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

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

Did you know? Although How to Read Literature Like a Professor has become a fixture in many English classes, not everyone is a fan. Alan Jacobs, author and professor, criticizes the book for its message that “reading is best done by highly trained, professionally accredited experts.

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

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

Did you know? Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting was the first announced runner up for the Booker Prize in 1999, after the judges’ discussion grew contentious.

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

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

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

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

Poetry: Unit 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year - AP Classroom Tracking Sheets
Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year – After each PPC my students log their strongest and weakest skills on one of these tracking sheets. We store them in my classroom for reflection at the end of the year.

New to AP Classroom? Check out my blog post that explains how to set up AP Classroom and use Personal Progress Checks throughout the year.

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

Day 26: Began poetry notes on Sound and Structure. We connected our discussion to evidence from “Women” where applicable.

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

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

Day 29: Began poetry notes on Imagery, Tone, and other elements. We connected our discussion to “To an Athlete Dying Young” where applicable.

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

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

Did you know? The AP Lit exam will no longer ask questions specific to rhyme scheme and meter. I still teach this material to reinforce how structure can affect meaning, but it is skippable.

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

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

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

Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year - Poetry essential skill tests
Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year – The poetry essential skill tests were laid out like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 40: Metamorphosis Socratic Seminar.

Short Fiction Unit 2 – Prose Unit

Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year - Prose Analysis
Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year – Here’s a layout of my prose unit, which uses movie clips to build engagement for prose analysis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 57: Earnest projects due, finished Earnest movie.

Long Fiction or Drama Unit 2 – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Day 58: Began short fiction lesson on Romanticism. This was to provide context for our upcoming unit on Frankenstein.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you know? “Warning” by Jenny Joseph essentially started the Red Hat Society, which boasts over 50,000 members.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you know? Sometimes I teach Frankenstein and sometimes I do gothic novel literature circles. To learn more about this unit, click here.

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

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

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

Day 77: Frankenstein test.

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

Poetry Unit 2

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

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

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

Diary of an AP Lit Plague Year - "The Colonel" by Carolyn Forche
Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year – I cannot express how much I love Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel.” I love teaching it and I love reading it myself.

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

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

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

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

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

*I have since created a unit on Toni Morrison’s Beloved and hope to teach it next year. I’m trying to get approved by my head of school but in the case of parents objecting, I intend to teach it simultaneously with Things Fall Apart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry Unit III – Poetry Then and Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you know? “Shooting an Elephant” captures Orwell’s self-disgust and growing distrust of colonialism as he worked as a police officer in British-occupied India.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recap:
CED Units we covered completely:

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

CED Units we started but didn’t complete:

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

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

Reflection

The 2020-2021 school year was my 14th year of teaching AP Lit and it was by far my most difficult. Even if the pandemic hadn’t struck I think I still would have called it the hardest. Being in a position of mentorship for so many new and incoming AP Lit teachers is a huge blessing, once that I don’t take for granted.

I worked hard all summer studying the new CED and AP Lit rubrics, then discovered in the fall that I wasn’t focusing enough on the individual standards. I spent the entire school year poring over the document, changing everything I had just changed already. At times it felt like I was standing in quicksand, as the rubric I learned inside and out was revised in September, after some of us had been using it for over a month. AP Classroom was also difficult to navigate and my ire for the question bank is still going strong.

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

Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year

Diary of an AP Plague Year - Samuel Pepys
Samuel Pepys, 1633-1703.

One of my favorite texts to teach in my British Literature class is The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Pepys was kind of a nobody, but he lived through some serious events. He attended the first showing of Romeo and Juliet at the Globe, got drunk at famous taverns, survived the Great Fire of London, and detailed his experience with surviving the bubonic plague. In October of 1663 he confirmed what every Londoner feared, “to my great trouble, [I] hear that the plague is come into the City.”

In his diary Pepys details walking through the streets and seeing doors marked with signs of the plague. He describes the sounds of constant church bells and the smells of fires and tobacco being constant. However, at the end of his experience Pepys turns an indifferent eye towards the families who suffered from the plague, even remarking about a pile of dead bodies, “I am come almost to think nothing of it.”

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

This Bookshelf Hack Will Eliminate Content Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP Lit Task Card Lessons and Ideas

At the beginning of the school year I was trying to think of a way to make the AP Lit standards visible and accessible for my students, so I turned the questions from the CED into task cards (and naturally, I made them pretty!). These task cards are available in my store here, but you can also make your own using the questions from the CED if you wish.

In my own classroom I’ve used the task cards to help my students reflect on particular standards in Personal Progress Checks.

So far in the school year I’ve been looking for ways to implement these task cards into lessons. I’ve given particular cards to students during post-PPC reflections (which I discuss in this blog post).

I’ve also used the task cards to attempt a bit of backward design in our poetry unit. As we neared the end of our poetry lessons, I placed all of the task cards (minus the ones on writing) around the room. I passed out the 5 central poems we had discussed and written about as a class and put their titles on the whiteboards as well. Students were asked to select a standard that matched with one of our poems, then write a 1-2 sentence response to that standard’s question. The only rule I had: Each sentence must contain a bold claim (that’s the language I use for a claim that is arguable and unique). As they posted their sentences I read their responses, gauging if they were reading for our upcoming poetry assessment (which they were!).

I’m still looking for ways to implement these task cards in my own lessons, but rather than wait for me to collect a year’s worth of ideas, I asked for help from some friends on Instagram.

Here are some other fantastic uses for these task cards in AP Lit classrooms:

“I use them in Socratic Seminar circles! Everyone picks a question within each category and they discuss them with whatever lit we are currently reading. I love them! Sometimes, I pull them out and use them to spark class discussions, too.” @Readnclick

“My students are reading 1984 right now in chunks. For the first two assigned readings…I went through the list of skills and found the skills I thought were relevant and could be related to the reading. Then, I made a Google Slide and designated one prompt per student. Students had to respond to the prompt with a claim based on the reading, and then find 3-4 quotes to support their claim throughout the chapters. Students were able to hone in on one skill for the reading rather than jump all over the place. Then, we discussed the reading in class we discussed their answers so students who didn’t have the prompt were able to hear how that student answered & add/comment if needed, and students have access to all of the quotes/answers because it was all compiled on one Google Slide!” @smccormick19

Here’s a pic from my lesson at the end of our poetry unit. Students selected a task card and wrote a sentence in response to show deep understanding.

“I’ve used them with short stories so far. Getting ready to start The Kite Runner and plan to integrate them in class discussions and in literature circles, too. Gives kids a chance to take ownership of the discussion.” @jbridge82

“I absolutely love these cards!!! I use them every day!! I have them color coded by standards and laminated. A lot of times I will do rotation learning stations for close read assignments and I use the cards to create the questions and prompts. I have also used them “Family Feud” style where I will ask questions relating to the standards and let kids “buzz” in to answer. It’s a great review!” @meganjyount

@mrsjayj sent me this picture of her students reflecting on the task card questions in connection with their study of Things Fall Apart.

“I just finished using the character ones for Things Fall Apart…I put some characters’ names in a box and I had students pick out their names and then assigned them one of the character skill task crds. They worked together to answer the question pulling three pieces of evidence to support their thinking. Then each group presented their standard question and answers. I had the students ask the presenters questions and judge if they fully addressed the standard in their answer. It led to really rich discussions. And we talked about how they should continue thinking about these questions and the standards while they’re reading and begin to annotate with these characterization skill cards in mind.” @mrsjayj

I’d love to hear more ideas of how you use these task cards, or just the questions from the CED itself, with your students to further their AP Lit studies. If you’re interested in a set of task cards like these ladies are using, they can be purchased from my TpT store here.

My AP Lit First Day Lesson

As I prepared my AP Lit first day lesson for this year, I knew that I needed to try something different from years past. For one, I’ve been learning so much from fellow teachers and I wanted to try something both engaging but rigorous. Secondly, I wanted to clearly indicate the expectations for the course on the first day. In the end, I think the lesson was both a clear indication of the work we do, as well as an invitation to grow in analysis.

Overall, I designed this lesson to demonstrate my three expectations for AP Lit students throughout the year.

  1. Read actively
  2. Demonstrate understanding
  3. Think critically

Note: I’ve added some notes and strategies to take this lesson from an in-class activity to a digital one. Read through, paying particular attention to the “But what if I’m digital?” headings for some online teaching ideas.

Step 1 – Active Reading

Annotation Handout
My AP Lit First Day Lesson – This handout is a free download!

To start off the class, I passed out a handout on annotation that I created (found for free here). This handout explains the benefits to annotation. These benefits include increased active reading, less re-reading later, and stronger connections between the prompt and the text. Then I passed out a printed copy of David M. Wright’s article, “Why Read Literature.” I like this article because it is clearly organized, but it is not too simple. For example, it uses allusions, strong vocabulary, and makes strong, even arguable claims. I gave students about 10 minutes to read and annotate the text (using this time to take attendance and circulate to look for annotation styles). This exercise showed the students what I expect when I require active reading.

Check out this post if you’re looking to garner active reading skills through independent reading in AP Lit.

But what if I’m digital?

To show close reading, students can annotate on a digital annotation too or you could change your requirements to note-taking instead of annotation. I prefer asking to see note-taking, so students can handwrite or type and no one needs to download or print anything. If you do require annotation, these apps or programs can help you out:

  • Noteability (ideal for ipads)
  • Highlight and comment features in Google Doc, Word 365, or other online word processing sites
  • Kami
  • Hypothesis (Chrome extension)
  • Perusall
  • Glose
  • Edji
  • DocentEDU
  • Turnitin.com

Step 2 – Demonstration of Understanding

Why Read Literature Handout
AP Lit First Day Lesson – This handout is a free download!

Next, I distributed my “Why Read Literature” One Pager and handout (also free, found here!) Using some samples from previous assignments, I explained the concept of a one-pager, a demonstration of learning through images, words, symbols, and other visual images. While one-pagers are a great opportunity to showcase artistic abilities, drawing talent is not required. (Here’s a great article that explains the benefits of using one-pagers in the classroom) I asked the students to fill the white space with Wright’s three criteria for a Great Book, as well as the six benefits to reading literature. Filling out the one-pager can take anywhere from 10-30 minutes to fully complete. I stopped them at 20. To shorten this time, you could ask students to partner up and complete the assignment together. This one-pager shows my students what I expect when I ask them to demonstrate understanding.

But what if I’m digital?

If I were going digital I would still assign students to show their understanding, I would just ask that they use a sheet of paper from home. If that is unavailable students could create an infographic, poster, or digital file to show their main understandings. Here are some platforms students can use to show understanding in creative ways:

  • Canva
  • Flipgrid
  • Adobespark
  • TikTok
  • Notability
  • Padlet
  • Glogster

Step 3 – Critical Thinking

Finally, when the one-pagers were done, I asked students to look at the question on the bottom of the handout. It asks them if they agree with the article or not. If yes, why? If no, why not. As expected, I heard overwhelming yeses. Without my help, the discussion fell flat after about one minute. When prodded for more, several students gave longer answers. And, as expected once again, each answer began with, “I like how he…” or “I like that he…” I let this continue for a few more minutes, then I told them what I needed to hear when I ask them to think critically.

Pushing Critical Thinking: Expand & Scrutinize

I told my students they need to go beyond agreeing with the author. If you agree, you need to expand with your own reason.

One student brought up that they liked Wright’s discussion of how Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed the mindset of America in favor of abolishing slavery, supporting the point that literature can change a culture. Using this example, I asked them what other pieces of literature they could think of that, when read, changed a society’s mindset or opinion of an issue. Suddenly, students were alive with ideas. Titles like The Diary of Anne Frank, The Communist Manifesto, and recent articles discussing the “white savior” concept of To Kill a Mockingbird were all brought up. This, I explained, was strong critical thinking in support of a text. They agreed, but also demonstrated how the text applied to their own worldview and literary exposure.

Next, I challenged them to find something to criticize. They weren’t expecting this. I think many students get an article or text and consider it “holy” since the teacher passed it out. It wasn’t until I told them I did not agree with everything in the article that they even considered it. However, it didn’t take long for one student to take the bait. He suggested that perhaps not all great literature has be written in elevated language, as Wright suggests. This led to a great conversation, naming other “Great Books” with lower reading levels from their own experience. In the end, my students learned what it means to think critically about a text.

But what if I’m digital?

This activity can still continue online in a live discussion (such as Zoom) or through an online forum. In fact, I would use this first “discussion” opportunity as a stepping stone towards building norms for your classroom and creating netiquette rules. For example, if few participate, you’ll need to find ways to bolster participation through daily points or exit slips. If too many dominate the discussion, message them privately and ask them to listen as well as they speak. And if discussion moves off-topic or gets out of hand, set some ground rules on decorum and netiquette. There are some great letters and templates online for such rules and norms.

Conclusion

This lesson took about 45 minutes in total to complete. Furthermore, it met our learning target to understand the three expectations of AP Lit: read actively (through annotation), demonstrate understanding (through our one-pager), and think critically (through in-class discussion).

The handouts featured in this post are available for free in my Teachers Pay Teachers store. I suggest pairing this lesson with an overview of AP Lit and its required skills, another free resource.

For more lessons and details of how I run my AP Lit class, check out this day-by-day diary of the 2019-2020 school year.