Your Questions Answered: FAQs About Teaching AP Lit

It’s the end of July and teachers are preparing to move back into their classrooms. A good portion of these teachers are first timers, which could mean several things. Some are bright-eyed twenty-two-year-old grads, eager to step into their first job. Some are new to the teaching field after making a career shift. And others have been teaching for years but are approaching a new grade level or subject for the first time. Teachers who are new to AP Lit often feel intense pressure to meet high standards and produce high-scoring students in their first year. Furthermore, there are countless ways to structure an AP Lit class and no standardized reading list, so many new teachers feel completely lost.

For this post I’ve teamed up with another AP Lit teacher, Ashlee Tripp, to provide two different perspectives. We asked new AP Lit teachers for some burning questions they had as they readied for the new school year, and we actually got so many that we created two blog posts to answer them all! I’ll cover half of them here, and make sure you click here to access the other half of the material on Ashlee’s blog!

Q: How many books do I teach, and which ones?

This blog post provides answers to common questions about teaching AP Lit from two experienced AP teachers.

Gina: These are the top two questions I see in the AP Lit Facebook groups. I think the number of texts we teach, an achievement that used to be competed about among AP Lit teachers, is becoming arbitrary. A teacher could teach 15 books but if her students never write then what’s the point? I say, teach as many books as it takes to do it well. For the upcoming school year, I’ll be teaching six texts (two plays, two novels, a novella, and How to Read Literature Like a Professor). I did eliminate two from last year’s list to make room for short fiction units. As for which books to pick, the College Board answer would be to find books that are complex, diverse, and engaging. However, I think it’s equally important to teach books you love. Students can sense when you’re teaching a book because you have to, making them less likely to read it. I would encourage new AP Lit teachers to stick to some “safe” texts, but don’t be afraid to take risks. If there’s a new book that you think would be perfect for AP Lit but you don’t know if it’s “AP approved,” take a leap and try it out! And also, don’t forget to let us know how it went! AP Lit teachers are always looking for books to add to our must-read list.

Ashlee: I think you have 3 camps on this—those who read more than 10, those who read 5-10, and those who read 3-4, and you just have to decide which camp you would excel in as a teacher! I give a summer survey, and consistently over 80% of my kids identify themselves as readers. It just makes sense to me to push my kids to read a wide range of texts. I constantly get e-mails from graduates thanking me for making them read more because it helps them manage the reading load of college. We’ll be doing nine novels (three choice, two book club, and four whole class) and two plays this upcoming year. That’s cutting three books from last year to include even more poetry and short fiction than I have ever done! My first year teaching AP Lit, we did all whole class reading chronologically: Oedipus Rex, Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, King Lear, Paradise Lost, Candide, Frankenstein, Crime and Punishment, Heart of Darkness, The Handmaid’s Tale, and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Last year, I let the kids choose their whole class texts; out of a list of ten, they chose eight, had one book club, and three choice books. This year, I’m still thinking about it, but there have been major curriculum changes in our lower grade levels, so I’ll be adjusting for that and the new standards. As of now, I’m thinking we’ll move thematically and do dystopian book clubs (previously summer reading) followed by a whole class read of 1984, a Shakespeare play (I’ll probably let them choose), Frankenstein, The Great Gatsby, Invisible Man, The Importance of Being Earnest, and a Contemporary option in book clubs. I may end up cutting Invisible Man in favor of something shorter depending on how the year is going, but I like to have them read a longer text if time allows. My kids have never had a year where they took the exam and didn’t have at least five of the texts we read listed for Q3 (though I don’t think it’s that big of a deal if you don’t cover the listed books).

Q: How much do my students’ scores matter?

Gina: It depends on your school and your administrator. Most administrators will look at your scores and possibly discuss them, but from a data standpoint. I think you should always look at your scores and learn from them, but never define your teaching ability or your students by their scores. Keep them tucked away in a file or file cabinet, make any necessary changes to the following year, and move on. 

Ashlee: My admin looks at our AP scores, but I don’t think they matter as much as we sometimes think they do. My principal sends congratulatory texts to anyone over the national averages in July, and we get our essay exams back, but that’s about it. I think it depends on your school and your state. I use the scores to plan and set goals for the following year… last year I wanted to improve Q2 responses and multiple choice averages, and we drastically improved on each because I was more intentional on planning for those things! I also let kids talk me into doing a poetry standalone unit instead of weekly poems last year, and our Q1 responses went down by 0.2 points. Never again! LOL Just remember you can always do more poetry, and poems are short and sweet and oh so complex.

Q: How much of my time should be devoted to test prep?

Gina: The answer to this question depends on how much of your course is driven by the exam. If your test double duties as a dual enrollment or Brit Lit course, the exam may not be the best assessment for the work you do. But if you teach the AP Lit course at your school and the exam is the ultimate end goal for the course, I’d recommend at least 20% of class time be spent on test-prep activities and assessments. My class is strictly an AP class so we do multiple choice practice tests at least every quarter and timed writings each month. With the new AP Classroom resources being posted, I am hoping to do shorter multiple choice activities each week if possible. My literature units are also driven by the new AP Lit standards and many of our activities are filled with close reading and analysis activities. Some of my units, like my prose analysis unit and my test prep unit, are purely driven by the exam, but could apply to SAT and ACT preparation as well.

Ashlee: We spend April specifically on test prep, but I do go over the format of the exam and the expectations at the beginning of the year, and the kids do a mock exam in August, in December, and again in April. Otherwise, we’re just a college-level English class, and I treat it as such. If you’re teaching your kids how to think critically as they read and write, then you’re preparing them for the test the entire year.

Q: How often should students practice timed writing?

Gina: My students complete a timed writing about every two weeks. I’d actually like to do it weekly but I can’t handle the grading load. One way to incorporate more on-demand writing is to scale it down. Sometimes I just ask students to produce a thesis statement or a short outline for a text we’re studying. I give them a few minutes and we share in class. This only takes about 10 minutes in total, rather than spending an entire class period on a timed essay.

Ashlee: I do a full timed write about as often as Gina, maybe a little less. And we do tons of thesis statements, outlines, paragraphs or discussions of released prompts throughout the year. I’d rather get through more texts than spend an entire class period every week doing a full essay. That said, they read, write, and discuss at least one text every single day in class. 

Q: Can I see a sample syllabus?

Here’s an example of the first page of my visual syllabus, a version I switched to last year.

We got so many requests for this! I recently moved from a written syllabus to a visual one, and Ashlee has explored this as well. The links to all four examples are included below:

Q: What does a typical class period look like?

Gina: My lessons vary depending on what we’re studying and what day of the week it is. Our school is on a modified block, so once a week I get them for a block period. On these days we start with a vocabulary quiz and a poem study. This takes up about half of the class period, so most of my classes are structured to last about 45 minutes. I’m not nearly as structured as Ashlee, and my lessons vary by what we are reading. Sometimes we spend almost an entire period in small and whole group discussion, other times we move from lecture to discussion to independent reading. I’m usually pretty amped up to start each lesson so I prefer to begin with bell-ringers or introductory activities and conclude lessons with independent reading. 

Ashlee: I wish I was more structured! I’d love to model my class after Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days, but that’s still goals for me. I do start with 10 minutes of reading every day, and then from there it depends on the day! I use the same strategies in AP that I use in all of my classes: learning stations, gallery walks, Socratic seminars/discussions, think pair share, silent discussions, speed dating, circles, etc. I have 50-minute classes three days a week and an 80-minute block once a week. Ideally? It would probably look something like this (though it doesn’t always):
10 min. free reading 
10-15 min. text study/mini-lesson (longer on block days)
20-25 min. writing/discussing/practicing (longer on block days)
5 min. sharing/closure

Q: How do you vary your teaching patterns to avoid monotony, but encompass recurrent practice of the same skills?

Gina: I pick different summative assessments for each long fiction unit we complete. They vary between a test, Socratic Seminar, long essay, project, and more. Each one has a timed writing, but everything else varies. I have also begun pairing literature lessons with mini-lessons on certain skills or materials pertaining to the text. For example, in Frankenstein we explore Paradise Lost and foils, whereas in Things Fall Apart we study proverbs and folk tales. Honestly, every unit seems pretty different in my AP class! The things that do become a routine are our weekly vocab quizzes and poem studies. Those are ever present, no matter what unit we’re in. 

Ashlee: One way is through the volume of texts we read and study, but I also try to change up how we’re interacting with a text from day to day, how we’re responding, how we’re learning… and I’m always trying new strategies and adjusting! 

Q: What’s the best wine to pair with essays?

Gina: I’m not an avid wine drinker, so I’m going to defer to a fellow Facebook member for my answer. She said:
Persuasive Essays: Merlot or rosé
Narrative Essays: Sauvignon blanc or pinot noir
Expository Essays: Chardonnay or cabernet

Ashlee: Where’s the moscato? Actually, Hemingway said to write drunk and edit sober, so I don’t tend to pair grading essays with wine. Maybe that’s why I despise grading so much!

Want to see more questions answered? Head over to Ashlee’s blog to read the rest!

Gina Kortuem has a Masters in education from Bethel University and is going into her 14th year of teaching AP English Lit. She works in a parochial K-12 school in St. Paul, MN where she teaches AP Lit, Brit Lit, Shakespearean Lit, and the sophomore English 10 classes. In addition to teaching the class she has worked as an AP Reader five times and has scored for each essay type. She teaches full time and also runs the Teachers Pay Teachers store AP Lit & More.

Ashlee Tripp is a high school English teacher in Douglas County School District, just south of Denver, CO. She has an MAT English and BA in psychology with a focus in neuroscience. She currently teaches AP Lit (seniors), College Composition I and II (juniors and seniors), and Young Adult Literature elective (juniors and seniors). This is her fourth year teaching AP Lit, but she’s been teaching for a decade, two years at the college level and eight years at the high school level. In all of her spare time she enjoys reading every genre of literature and writing for her blog. You can find her blog, Life’s a Tripp, at http://www.ashleetripp.com and purchase AP Lit and other teaching resources from her TpT store that she recently started.


A Book Tasting: A Valuable Lesson for Your AP Lit Readers

In my AP Lit class we do independent reading each semester. The students get to choose a book off an extensive list of titles, which can sometimes be overwhelming. Despite my emphasis on student choice, many of my students in the past have chosen haphazardly or without thinking, leading to disappointment or abandoned reading later on in the semester. For that reason, I reexamined my introduction to the unit and changed it a up a little bit. The result was our very first Book Tasting, which was a huge success! This activity can be done for any grade in middle or high school, as long as there is student choice and an organized reading list. Here’s how you can put on a book tasting in your own class.

Set Up

For this lesson, you will need the following:

  • A list of titles that students can choose from, organized logically (I choose by date), printed out for them to keep
  • A copy of each book
  • Short plot summaries or plot premises (such as what would be on the back of a book jacket), printed and posted next to the book
  • Space in your room for conferencing and quiet reading
  • Instructions, printed out or displayed on a PowerPoint
  • Post-Its
  • Book Review sheets – On these sheets, students had to indicate the title, author, and year published. Then they had to indicate what kind of book review they completed (see below). Finally they had to write 3-5 sentences explaining their opinion on this book and whether they might read it or not. My book review sheets are a free download!
  • Optional: One-Pagers or Student Reviews – Before I did this activity, I assigned my students to create a One-Pager for the book they read for summer reading, which was off of the same reading list. I placed the One-Pager next to my prepared written summary. The students enjoyed hearing feedback from people other than the teacher.
Some student reviews or One-Pagers

Display your books, either on a shelf or on tables. Place your written summaries next to each book, then a Post-It on each summary. If you like you can organize the books by genre or date. Mine were ordered chronologically by date of publication.

Procedure

As students walked in to class, I handed out the written instructions and explained briefly the purpose behind the activity. I had spent the day before explaining the project behind these novels since I wanted this day to be purely focused on finding the right book. Before they could begin browsing, I asked each student to go around and indicate which books they had read. They did this by writing their name on the Post-it note next to the book. This only took a minute or two.

The goal of the day was to review seven different books. In order to complete a review, they had to “sample” or “taste” them. There were three different ways to “sample” a book:

  • Book Review – Students read the printed premise, and any corresponding student One-Pagers.
  • Reading – Students read the first 5-10 pages of the book.
  • Interview – On the post-it next to the book, they could find a student who had read that book. In one of our conferencing areas, they paired off or got into small groups and spent some time learning about the book. The student who read it was asked to give concise and honest feedback on the book, as well as supplying their own version of a plot premise. The student completing the review took notes on their review sheet.

I also made it mandatory that they read the back cover or jacket of the book for each book review, as well as the first paragraph of each novel.

Completing these book reviews took about an hour. Asking students to complete seven reviews quickly proved too ambitious and I lowered it to five, which was much more manageable. Since our block periods are an hour and half long, this left the last half hour for quiet reading time. Most students were cemented and confident with their choice after an hour of browsing and a half an hour of reading.

Reflection

Other than needing to reduce the number of book reviews I required, this was a perfect lesson. My students reported that they enjoyed the time to browse and appreciated the different styles of “tasting” they were able to do. And now that the semester is over, I also noticed that fewer students abandoned their books or reported disliking them. This means the lesson really did meet my goal of helping students make more informed choices in their independent reading.

To access the book review files just click here for the free file. This resource is not available through Teachers Pay Teachers, only for my blog readers! For AP Lit teachers interested in learning more about the independent reading project my students are doing in these pictures, all of the materials are for sale through my Teachers Pay Teachers store. Click here to learn more.

Why Teach Frankenstein? The Treasure That is Gothic Literature

My first year in the teaching field was also my first year teaching AP Lit. Being a new teacher, I relied on a lot of trial-by-basis lessons and also made use of most of what the previous teacher had left behind for me. While I did eventually survive that first year (by some miracle), I buckled down in the summer months and made necessary changes to my AP curriculum.

And the very first thing I did was added Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley’s gothic classic has always been one of my favorite books to teach to AP Lit students. Not only do I personally enjoy it, but I love watching my students approach the text and react to the novel’s two polarizing main characters and the horrific actions that both commit.

If you’re considering adding Frankenstein to your curriculum, or even just to your reading list, here are some benefits I can point out for you:

Gothic Novel – If you go back and look at the open question prompts over the past few years (free list here!), you can see that many of the questions apply to gothic novels and Byronic heroes. In fact, there were four gothic titles suggested in the 2018 question alone. Gothic novels are loved by literature teachers and professors because they balance suspense, characterization, and descriptive imagery in an accessible, but not-too-easy, combination. While there are many gothic novels that are absolutely wonderful, Frankenstein seems the most exciting to most teenagers because of their prior knowledge of the story based on Hollywood interpretations. Which leads me to my next point…

Complexity – This novel may seem easy because they have made so many movies about it, but it is startlingly complex. To start with, the book has three narrators, organized in a frame narration. Secondly, there is no clear villain. In fact, debates over who is responsible for the death of William can get pretty heated in my classroom. Another complicated factor is the diction, which is elevated and somewhat archaic. AP Lit students absolutely must be exposed to language like this in preparation for the exam. While it can be a struggle, the complexity of this novel helps prepare them for the AP Lit exam and its language better than many modern texts. Click here for a Frankenstein AP Lit style multiple choice assessment, with a detailed answer key!

“When falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness?” 

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus, “Zeus and Ganymede (Theft of Fire)” by Christian Griepenkerl (1878) .

Allusions – One thing my AP Lit students struggle with in older texts is identifying allusions. While I often have to point them out, Frankenstein helps them find meaning and purpose behind allusions in order that they may start finding them on their own. There are two prevalent allusions in Frankenstein (among others). The first is indicated in Shelley’s subtitle, calling Frankenstein “The Modern Prometheus.” There are actually several myths about Prometheus that connect to Frankenstein. In Hesiod’s version, Prometheus stole fire from Zeus, who had retracted the gift of fire from mankind after some displeasing sacrifices. Prometheus stole the fire back and dispensed it among humans, resulting in Pandora’s creation, and we all know how that ended. In a later variation of Hesiod’s myth and another by Plato, Prometheus used fire to bestow life on clay figures, resulting in the birth of mankind.
The other central allusion is to John Milton’s Paradise List, which contains more direct references. When the creature learns the English language, one of his three texts is Paradise Lost. As he reads, the creature relates to Adam for being the first of his kind. However, he also empathizes with Satan, wondering why he was abandoned by his creator and set at enmity from him. These two allusions not only reference older, historical texts, but leave enough room for interpretation and debate among AP Lit students.

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…” 

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
“The Fall of Satan” by Gustave Doré, (1866)

Prior Knowledge – So many students come in on our first day of Frankenstein with an attitude that they already know the story. I like to put them in their place (you know, who doesn’t like a power trip?) by giving them an introductory quiz. This quiz points out that there is no Igor, that the bride of Frankenstein was not a real thing, and that nowhere in the text does it say the creature fears fire more than anything. In fact, most don’t even know that Frankenstein is the name of the creator rather than the monster! This little activity piques their interest and opens doors for real and true Frankenstein knowledge to enter in. If you’re interested in this introductory quiz, I have it for sale on my TpT store for only $1.00.

Modern Connections – One last benefit of Frankenstein is the plethora of ethical and scientific debates that stem from the text. Was it wrong for Victor to try and defeat death? When it comes to the creature, is he murderous because of nature or nurture? When does medical research cross the boundaries of ethics? Is it wrong to attempt to create a more perfect creature, such as what is being done with gene therapy?

Frankenstein is not only the first creation story to use scientific experimentation as its method, but it also presents a framework for narratively examining the morality and ethics of the experiment and experimenter.

Audrey Shafer, Stanford Medicine

Audrey Shafer discusses the ongoing debates going on in the minds of researchers in the scientific and medical fields, constantly at war between beating time and obeying the rules of ethics. To read more about her take on Frankenstein from the point of view of a doctor, click here for the article. But whether or not your students pre-med or future philosophy majors, most cannot resist the bait to discuss what Victor could have done if he had continued with his experiment, and what the ramifications of those actions might have been.

For these reasons and many others, I absolutely adore teaching Frankenstein to my AP Lit students. The text is relevant, challenging, relatable, and interesting. Furthermore, College Board’s recent writing prompts rely heavily on the gothic style, so a gothic novel is an absolute must in current AP reading lists. I highly suggest you add Frankenstein or a gothic book like it to your AP Lit curriculum if you teach the course. If Frankenstein is off the menu for whatever reason, I’m also fond of the following gothic titles:

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (this one is a novella, but could be a good option if there is no time to add a longer text)
  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

If you like thinking outside the box, these modern texts contain many similarities to gothic novels and could be great suggestions for hesitant or struggling readers:

  • The Shining by Stephen King
  • The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (a personal favorite!)
  • ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  • In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
  • The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

If you are looking to add Frankenstein to your curriculum but need AP-level resources in a hurry, I sell several standalone products in my TpT store, including Guided Reading Notes, quizzes, a Socratic seminar, a unit test, and a full unit bundle with all of these and more. See below for a full list!

I have also created a Gothic Novel book club resource, which focuses on group discussion activities and pushing students toward literary self-discovery. Click here to learn more!

TpT Products referenced:
AP Lit Frankenstein Unit Bundle
AP Lit Frankenstein Socratic Seminar
AP Lit Frankenstein Introductory Quiz
AP Lit Frankenstein Unit Test
AP Lit Frankenstein Guided Reading Notes
AP Lit Frankenstein Multiple Choice Quiz
AP Lit Open Response Title List (FREE)

College Board & Common Core: A Look at the Future of AP Lit

Yesterday I read a tweet that made me gasp so loud my husband came running. When I read the aforementioned tweet, he was markedly less excited, but even he (a non-teacher) understood its implications.

Trevor Packer, College Board’s senior vice president for Advanced Placement Program and Instruction, began a series of tweets informing educators on the performance results of each AP exam. When he got to AP Lit, he didn’t pull any punches.

Packer’s first tweet said: “The 2018 AP English Literature scores: 5: 5.6%; 4: 14.6%; 3: 27.2%; 2: 36.1%; 1: 16.5%. This is bad news: after last year’s record low, this is a further significant decline in student performance, the lowest proportion of AP Lit scores of 3,4,5 ever, I believe.”

Ouch. Several teachers replied their sassy retorts, all beautifully worded of course, but that one didn’t hurt my feelings. Getting students to read anything, let alone a classic piece of literature is like trying to convince them to delete SnapChat, so I’m not surprised the scores declined a little. But more on that later.

It was Packer’s second tweet that made me gasp.

“What’s the reason for the continued drop in AP English Lit scores? Exam difficulty = constant; teaching ability has not declined; participation did not grow. A hypothesis: has increased focus on non-fiction texts in earlier years reduced student readiness for literary analysis?”

When my husband came running, I read the tweet, then said, “I think the College Board just challenged the Common Core!”

Now I’m aware that taking shots at the Common Core is no new development. People have been insulting it since its inception, and it hasn’t really slowed down much. But this was an international testing service pointing fingers at the standards in the Common Core for actually lowering test scores.

It certainly isn’t a new concept, just from a different voice. English teachers have been expressing their dismay at losing face-time with literature ever since CCSS began its enforcement. Several Twitter users agreed with Packer, saying:

“I said the same thing to my department! I truly believe that the non fiction focus has left the students with the inability to deeply read these pieces not to mention lacking the basic knowledge of terms.” @sonnimarie

“More and more nonfiction in earlier grades’ state testing is increasing focus on that area; lit analysis is becoming seen as a ‘luxury’ skill to teach. AP English Lit needs a pipeline in each school to function successfully for students en-masse.” @JasonProff

“This is exactly what I was thinking. Schools focus so much on non-fiction and argumentative writing now, including in elementary, that our students are lacking the ability to see things abstractly or layered with meaning.” @maestraJOLLY

“It was told to me years ago that it used to be 70% fiction, 30% nonfiction in most ELA classes. Now, it’s flipped. Shakespeare doesn’t matter. Novels are read as a class. Poems are cute little activities. But manuals, articles, maps, etc…those are Bible.” @theteachingcurc

Several educators agreed with him, noting that Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction reading, called informational text in their language, was designed to speak to a student’s entire school day, not just their time in ELA. When it was rolled out, many districts and administrators (and textbook companies) interpreted this to mean that ELA teachers must teach no more than 50% fiction and the rest should be devoted to studying informational text, starting a growing trend of analyzing nonfiction texts. While this movement has resulted in some great lesson plans, (and high scores for AP English Language students), it has also significantly cut into the time devoted to teach fictional texts, aka literature and poetry. Apparently CCSS has had a lot of confusion and backlash over this miscommunication, since they have a portion of their website devoted to explaining themselves more clearly:

Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 10.09.20 PM
Taken from the Common Core’s FAQ page

Not all of Packer’s readers agreed with him–casting blame on other trends they’ve seen. Some blamed the lack of reading in today’s students, saying:

“I think these results shed some light on the issue. Kids are reading less overall, which affects their reading stamina, prior knowledge, and desire to dig into a work of literature.” @MeganPank

“If an athlete doesn’t practice free throws, he/she will probably go 2 for 6 in a game. If an actress doesn’t practice her lines, she probably won’t remember them for the play. If a student never reads anything…you can probably finish this statement.” @theteachingcurc

Others claimed that a lack of motivation interferes with these tests, especially since the AP tests occur in the first two weeks of May (I myself can attest to the partial truth of this, since our seniors had to come back after their finals to finish AP testing. Some even missed graduation practice for an exam):

“Speaking from my high school’s perspective: AP Lit is offered as a senior class…so senioritis and a blatant disregard for the course should be considered at least a minor factor for low scores.” @StefanLuts

Others blamed the rising trend in dual enrollment, where high school students can take college courses through their local school and earn college credit. This earns them more guaranteed credits, as opposed to AP tests which are score-based, and still dependent on the acceptance policies at each university.

“Dual enrollment opportunities have to have decreased the number of capable kids taking AP. College credit is easier to get that way, sadly.” @coopercoach

While Packer’s incriminating remarks against CCSS made some waves, I was equally intrigued by a tweet that followed it.

“Part of the issue w/ AP Eng Lit performance: the exam only has one question focused on a novel/play, but much class time is spent on long texts rather than close reading/analysis of short fiction/poetry. Top advice: reduce the # of novels/plays; focus on frequent short analyses.”

Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 10.12.50 PM
Trevor Packer’s series of tweets about the 2018 AP Lit results–and their implications

Yes. The VP of CollegeBoard actually advocated for fewer books in AP Lit. As can be expected, there was the expected outrage:

“By all means, let’s read fewer books. After all, reducing the number of books students have read prior to taking AP Lit has worked so well. *sarcasm*” @gmfunk

“I have to disagree with you here. Students can still be taught close reading skills AND full length tests. The MC and prose passage FRQ are chosen from full texts. Teachers can use full texts to teach test skills and still value the literary experience.” @TeachAPE

“Man, that sounds like a TERRIBLE idea. Are you seriously advocating for deemphasizing significant works? And that’s a better plan than revisiting the exam? Wow. Just, wow.” @mtownsel

I’ve given myself several days to think it over and have formed my final opinion: I agree with Trevor Packer.

Put down your torches and lower your pitchforks, I’m not going to stop teaching novels and plays. But I think I understand Mr. Packer’s advice here. In the days back before Twitter (yes, I taught AP Lit back then, cringe) and when AP testing was still growing, AP Lit teachers heavily emphasized classics. Most syllabi contained the same kinds of books, all at least fifty years old, and almost all written by white men. Some of these oldies-but-goodies include:

Crime and Punishment
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (430 pages)
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (968 pages)
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (368 pages)
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1488 pages)
Tess of d”Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (592 pages)
Moby Dick by Herman Melville (544 pages)
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (848 pages)
Absolam! Absolam! by William Faulkner (which also contains the longest sentence in literature at a whopping 1288 words!) (378 pages)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (464 pages)
(I’ve used Amazon’s top-selling paperback versions to compile page numbers, to attempt an equal approach to all titles)

Seeing a trend here? Now mind you, there are other books on that list that were shorter and/or by female or minority authors. But these classic behemoths have held on somehow and still remain on many AP Lit teachers’ reading lists. And it’s not that these books are bad, not at all. But they are long. And, yes, I’ll say it, sometimes they are needlessly long. I mean, my goodness, Dickens and Hugo were paid by the word! You don’t think they got a little verbose in hopes for a higher payday?

We obviously need to be reading novels and plays. But when forming a reading list, my game plan is to diversify my options and cover as many novels and plays as I reasonably can.

I still teach a long book by a white guy (All the King’s Men) and another longer book (Frankenstein). But the rest of my novels are shorter, being less than 250 pages long. They are also more diverse, both in writers and time period (Things Fall Apart and Beloved). I even teach a novella (The Metamorphosis), so scandalous! Let’s not forget the plays, which include A Raisin in the Sun, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Shakespeare’s King Lear and Twelfth Night. Add to that over 60 different poems plus two individual novels (which is where you can encourage your stronger readers to take on the longer texts), and I feel my students are fairly prepared by the time they get to the AP exam. Would classical AP teachers consider them “well-read”? Probably not. But each year, they have many different titles to choose from when the dreaded open question rolls around. And I don’t assign more than 30 pages of reading each night, allowing time for other homework, after-school jobs, extra-curricular activities, and sometimes even a social life.

This is turning out to be longer than I expected, so I’ll try to sum up. Trevor Packer isn’t necessarily saying we should teach fewer books. He’s just asking if we could, and still get decent test scores. If I tried to teach 20 “classic” novels to my AP students I’d burn out (and frankly, I’d be bored). Furthermore, my students wouldn’t read them. Instead I’ve chosen a handful of diverse texts, which I love, and I teach them enthusiastically. When you make a book sound so exciting it’s harder for a student to ignore the readings; they want to know what they are missing! Since my AP scores haven’t come out yet I may change my tune by next week, but this strategy has worked in my favor over the past 10 years, so I feel like I’m on pretty solid ground.

Please subscribe to my email list or follow my blog for further notifications on future blog posts. If you’re interested in any of my teaching materials for the novels listed, please visit my TpT store for more information. If you teach AP Lit and do not currently incorporate an independent reading project, I’d strongly encourage you to begin using one immediately. I have a model for sale on TpT, called an Independent Novel Project, for a discounted price right now.