Converting to Digital Teaching

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

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

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

Gracious

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

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

Adaptable

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

Prepared

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

Specific

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

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

Pre-Lesson Work

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

Online Lesson

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

Supplementary Materials

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

Discussion Opportunity

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

Demonstration of Understanding

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

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

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

Resources to Assist in Online Learning:

Learning Platforms:

For Lessons & Supplementary Materials:

Additional Blogs/Websites with Ideas & Tips

Reclaiming Your Time – How I Stick to a 40 Hour Workweek

This school year marks my 14th straight year teaching of AP English Literature. While I’ve learned quite a few strategies in that time, when I first started out in the profession I demonstrated all of typical first year teacher traits:

  • I was usually only planned one day ahead (if that).
  • I took grading home every single night.
  • My weekends were consumed with prepping, planning, and grading.
  • I often stayed late, sometimes not seeing the light of day except for weekends.
  • My self-care was terrible.
  • I was overloaded with extra-curriculars, including coaching and directing school plays.

I’m sure many first year (and even 14th year teachers) can commiserate with a few of these. But here’s what’s wrong with the teaching profession: we fully accept that burnout is part of the job, when it shouldn’t be. Veteran teachers (myself included) see our fellow educators flailing and we say, “It’s okay, we’ve all been there,” then walk away. Instead, we ought to offer a lifeline, not doing the work for them, but teaching them how to work smarter. That’s what I’m going to try to do.

This is not meant to be judgmental or preachy. These are simply some things I’ve learned over the course of my career that have taught me how to use my time wisely. I can now say with confidence in my 14th year that I stick to a 40 hour work week. (I do work more than 40 hours each week, but the extra time is on TpT work, so I don’t consider that as part of my school-paid work week). So, with all that being said, here are my tips to reclaim your time as a teacher while still remaining a good teacher:

Use your prep time to prep

I am an outgoing, extraverted person who loves a good gabfest. I’ve been guilty of blowing off an entire prep period to chat with a fellow teacher, and while it leaves me feeling fulfilled as a person, it often makes me feel stressed afterwards. One of the biggest tips I can offer is to use your prep hour(s) to prep. “Prep work” may include lesson planning, making copies, or grading. I really struggle with grading at school but I struggle even more with grading at home, so sometimes I force myself to close my door and get a stack of tests done before I can talk to a teacher friend.

Work during your assigned work hours

Another thing I see newer or burned out teachers do is come late or leave early, choosing instead to take work home to grade. When I first got hired at my current school I had a 7th hour prep. I often left during 7th hour, went home to nap (I was pregnant most of the school year), and worked on school stuff from 7-10 each night. Although I was able to keep up, I resented the work because it robbed me of my evenings with my husband. It can be tempting to work on your schedule, saying “I work better at night,” or “I need to go to the coffee shop to get this done.” However, successful teachers have learned to arrive on time, work during that time, and stay until the work day ends. By forcing yourself to get it all done at school during school, you’ll gradually remove the need to work at night and on the weekends.

Portion out big grading tasks daily

As an English teacher, I’m aware that there are times when it cannot all get done during work. This especially applies to grading papers. As the only sophomore English teacher at my school I get flooded with paper grading 3-4 times a year when research papers and giant poetry portfolios get submitted. I used to procrastinate until the weekend, then take my giant stack of grading to a coffee shop and kill a whole Saturday. Not only would this destroy my weekend (and my mood), but I usually lost focus as the day wore on, giving less attention to the later papers, resulting in uneven and unfair grading. After years of teaching, I’ve found a strategy for approaching that giant grading stack. When the flood comes in, I force myself to grade a certain number each day, rather than grading a giant stack weeks later. For example, for my 70 sophomores I make myself grade 10 papers per day. I try to get these done during one of my prep hours or after school. If I get all 10 done, I don’t have to bring them home. If I don’t, then it’s homework. I do this each school day for 7 days. Even if I don’t bring them home for the weekend, I still get the entire grade’s papers back to them by the following week, which is considered decent turnaround time among English teachers.

Write everything down the first time

I learned this lesson when preparing for my first maternity leave and it has probably been the biggest time-saver for me. I was facing only 6 weeks of leave but it still took me months to prepare notes for my sub since I had to write everything down. When I found myself doing it again for my second kid, I vowed to write these things down as I taught them, eliminating the need to explain every single detail to a sub (be it short-term or long-term). The biggest time saver has been in creating guided reading notes. When I teach a book or unit for the first time, I create very detailed PowerPoint notes to help guide my lessons. These do not need to be used as a lecture, but they create a baseline for what needs to be taught each day. I then post these notes on our online learning platform (we use Schoology) for any students who need to access them later. When I need to teach the book the following year, all of my lessons and notes are right there waiting for me. I just adjust them to meet my needs and I’m off! The amount of time this saves is incalculable. Instead of spending an hour reading the chapter, taking notes, then preparing a lesson, I simply review my notes from before and I’m ready to teach, all in under 5 minutes. Bottom line: Find a way to write down what you work on as you work on it, then save it. This is one of the best ways to work smarter, not harder, as a teacher.

To learn more about how guided reading notes can save you time and exactly what they look like, check out my previous post about them here.

Reflect on teaching materials before you put them away

Another way to work smarter not harder is to take a few minutes to reflect on a lesson before you put it away for the year. For example, for years I found myself facing the same problem when I taught Hamlet. Even though I was following a structured unit plan, I always ended up needing at least one extra week to fit it all in, throwing off my schedule for the following weeks. As I put the materials away one year, I quickly grabbed a post-it and placed it on top of my Hamlet folder, saying, “Need more time for soliloquies, adjust unit plan for one extra week!” Lo and behold, next-year-me took out Hamlet, saw the post-it, and finally adjusted the unit plan to teach it right. My memory is terrible, so I guarantee I would have gone on to make that same mistake year after year had I not took a moment to reflect on my shortcomings.

Use the experts

I only learned this lesson recently, but you don’t need to feel like you have to create everything. I got hired with almost no teaching materials to go off of, and when I switched to my new school I got even less. It has always been the norm for me to create things from scratch, and luckily I’m fairly good at it. However, there are times when I just don’t have the ability, energy, or time to create something from scratch. This is exactly why Teachers Pay Teachers exists. Being a TpT author, I felt like a hypocrite buying materials from the site when I created them myself, so even though I sold on the site I never bought from there for my first two years. It wasn’t until I saw very established TpT sellers posting the materials they had bought from other sellers on Instagram that I realized it is okay to get help. I started buying materials for my Brit Lit class and my sophomores and was so grateful for the time it saved me. Sure I still needed to customize most things, but the effort it saved me in coming up with ideas was incalculable. Overall, here is my point: Feel free to create and start from scratch, but do not feel like you have to. Even better, with TpT School Access you can now buy these amazing resources with school funds, saving you from spending your own money (because, honestly, that’s how it ought to be).

Learn to say no or let go

This last one is the hardest for most of us, myself included, and I’m sure you have heard it before. However, it remains true that you cannot pour from an empty cup. If you’re burning out, you cannot continue and expect to feel better. A change is required. According to Psychology Today, these are the common signs of burnout in the workplace:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion, including insomnia, increased illness, decreased appetite, anxiety, and physical symptoms such as chest pain or headaches.
  • Feelings of cynicism and detachment, including pessimism, isolation, and overall lack of enjoyment.
  • Ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment, including feelings of apathy, irritability, and a lack of productivity.

I struggled terribly last year, coping mostly with feelings of cynicism and detachment due to a difficult work environment. I did take a step back and consider leaving my school, and even my profession. I interviewed at my alma mater, revised my resume, and seriously considered working on TpT full time. In the end, I decided that I loved my school, my students, and my co-workers enough to make some necessary changes. I made changes to my social life and my outlook. However, I also had to say no to a few things that I loved. One the hardest decisions was closing down our school’s writing center, which I had worked for a year and a half to bring up to a thriving status. Unfortunately, budget constraints made it impossible to make this a paid position. I told my principal that without compensation I would close the program down, which I ultimately had to do. I’m sad that such a strong program had to end, but I still feel it was the right decision for my mental health and overall self-care.

I hope that these tips help you reclaim some of your own time whether you’re a first year teacher or in your 40th year. Following these strategies has allowed me to spend more time with my family and even create a side business that now doubles my teaching salary. If you have any more tips for self-care or saving time in the teaching profession I’d love to hear them!

15 Ways to Liven Up a Lesson With Media

One thing that I’ve always worked hard at is keeping lessons interesting. I believe in mixing different elements of instruction and content into each lesson, and to do that I often integrate different forms of media. Here are 15 different strategies for integrating your lessons with various media types. By the way, these can apply beyond English classes too!

Video

Music Videos

Music videos are a great way to engage students in content-related materials with culturally-relevant songs. I’ve incorporated videos from Childish Gambino, Colbie Caillat, and Justin Timberlake over the years. Best of all, these videos go beyond songs by building on the depth of themes in a visual way. Check out this article to learn about how you can incorporate Childish Gambino’s video of “This is America” in a 9th grade ELA class.

Still from Childish Gambino’s “This is America” music video

Movie Clips

Showing movie clips is a weekly (if not daily) activity in my classroom. I have always had a deep love of film and I enjoy introducing older or lesser known titles to my students (as well as popular titles!). Recently I added to a lesson on suspense in “The Birds” by using clips from Jaws, Back to the Future, and The Lost World. While students understood suspense fairly well before they began the lesson, I found that by showing my students these clips before we read “The Birds,” they became more excited to see what suspense lay in store for them.

Documentaries

Documentaries are another excellent way to deepen lessons, especially those that require cultural context. I’ve relied on documentaries to add to lessons on The Crucible, Animal Farm, and Dracula. One of my favorites is the PBS series Riding the Rails, which I use to deepen my students’ understanding of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Full Movies

Being a movie fan, it’s always tempting to show a full film to my students. However we all understand that there is never enough time to fit it in, so I rarely show a full movie in my classes. I’ve made some exceptions in the past for movies like Big Fish. Aside from being a beautiful movie overall, I find that it beautifully pairs with a lesson on magical realism (to see how I integrate this film and others to teach magical realism check out this resource!). I also usually show the full version of our Shakespearean films when reading the corresponding plays. I’m especially a fan of movies that modernize the setting without changing the words, such as Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) or Rupert Goold’s Macbeth (2010).

Interviews & Readings

Still of Taylor Mali performing his spoken word poem, “Totally Like Whatever, You Know”

Another way that I incorporate video into classes is by showing interviews or readings with authors before we do a literature study. I’m a particular fan of showing interviews with Chinua Achebe and Ray Bradbury, as they don’t shy away from sharing their opinions and inspiration for their respective books. I also pair videos of poetry readings by poets whenever I can. My favorites are those by Taylor Mali, Carolyn Forché, and Billy Collins. Here are a few clips I’ve used in class:

TED Talks

If you go onto Teachers Pay Teachers and search for TED Talks you’ll see hundreds of results. Using TED Talks in the classroom is not a new idea and high school students have shown to be overwhelmingly receptive to the content in TED Talks. Some that I’ve used in my own classroom include:

TED-Ed Lessons

The short videos from TedEd help with engagement and reinforcement in almost any subject area

One spinoff of TED Talks are TED-Ed lessons, which are beautifully made videos specifically for educational use. If you teach ELA and haven’t yet looked into using TED-Ed video lessons, please do! These short, engaging videos are great for reinforcement or introduction to many different concepts in the ELA classroom, including literary elements, writing strategies, research methods, grammar, and more. My all-time favorite TED-Ed lesson is Tim Adams’ lesson on anti-heroes, which I use with my sophomores in our study of Fahrenheit 451.

Print Media

Magazines

One way I’ve incorporated magazines into class is in studying propaganda methods through print ads. In my propaganda media study, based on Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This curriculum, students page through magazines and analyze the logical fallacies present in current media campaigns. You can check out this resource here to learn more.

Newspapers

Websites like Newsela bring informational text to classrooms in engaging and approachable ways.

While it’s a sad fact that newspapers are dying out, informational text is still valued in the ELA classroom, especially those whose districts adhere to CCSS. Many teachers subscribe to Newsela for student-friendly and age-appropriate content from newspapers and other informational text.

Audio

Songs

I love using songs to engage students in English class, especially when we’re studying poetry. In fact, when studying poetry every day for three weeks, my sophomores and I begin each class with a song with especially poetic lyrics. I’ve also used songs to pair with specific poems, such as in my British Literature class. In one particular lesson, students were comparing the attitudes towards war in Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” and Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.” To reinforce the attitudes towards war, we matched the poems to corresponding songs. Owen’s bleak attitude about the ravages of war matched with Edwin Starr’s song “War” from 1969. On the other hand, Brooke’s patriotic poem that depicted war as beautiful and heroic matched with Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” from 2003. These connections from old, British poems to newer American songs helped reinforce theme and meaning.

Podcasts

Like TED Talks, podcasts have become an explosive new media that has caught on with high school students. They too have made their way into the classroom. I’ve heard of ELA classes studying Serial and listening to Malcolm Gladwell, just to name a few. For more ideas about using podcasts in the classroom, check out Common Sense Media’s list of 16 suggested podcasts for educational use (grades K-12!).

Internet

Article galleries

This article on a “wall-sized” television eerily mirrors the parlors in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

One recent jigsaw activity that I used with our study of Fahrenheit 451 was a gallery walk between five different news stories. I had these articles printed out and placed in various areas of the classroom, then asked students to visit stations and read at least three of them. Each article discussed a technological advancement or commercial development that matched with something from the plot of Fahrenheit 451. These articles opened my students’ eyes and let them see that the characters in Bradbury’s novel are not that far removed from our own reality. Some of the articles I used for this activity were:

Webquests

Another common activity involving the internet is a webquest, however the overwhelming amount of media available sometimes makes webquests difficult to manage. Rather than asking my students to do webquests on vast topics, I prefer to set them loose to answer a question. For example, in our study of How to Read Literature Like a Professor, I drop hints that Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was based on a work from Greek mythology. However, they don’t know which one. After a short webquest activity they learn that it is in fact partially based on Theseus and the Minotaur. The information they pick up on the webquest helps them understand the relationship between the two texts, reinforcing the underlying lesson in How to Read Literature Like a Professor.

Google searches

Have you considered Google a media strategy? I use it for teaching ethical research strategies and proper citation methods!

This sounds silly, but I’ve actually been implementing Google search and its results in teaching MLA and ethical research lately. My students suffer from Googlitis, the feeling that everything can be solved and cited with Google. I like to teach them that Google has its flaws as a search engine when searching for peer-reviewed articles, and thus I teach them how to use Google Scholar. We’ve also randomly searched for something on Google and practiced creating a citation for it, or discussed whether that search result is a credible source. Bottom line: Google can be the enemy or the tool that helps mold your students into thorough researchers.

Blogs

Another internet strategy making its way into classrooms is the mandatory student blog. I first heard about student blogs when I was observing a writing center at a local high school. The district had set up the writing center as a class, and students had to not only serve as writing coaches but contribute to a weekly writing blog online. This trend has been growing in recent years and has several excellent websites that can help your students create and maintain educational blogs. To learn more about integrating blogs in your classroom, read Kathleen Morris’ article here.

If your lessons are feeling stale or you are looking for ways to lengthen a lesson in an engaging way, I encourage you to try one of these media strategies out. If you have any more suggestions on ways to incorporate media in your lessons please comment below!

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.


4 Ways Teachers Misuse “How to Read Literature Like a Professor”

You’ve probably heard of Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor and may already use it in your classroom. Foster’s text, while not originally written for classroom use, has become a staple for many AP Lit teachers. Foster puzzles over this phenomenon in the preface of the book’s second edition, saying he is flattered by the new audience but did not anticipate the book being a tool for teachers.

Because How to Read Literature Like a Professor (henceforth called HTRLLAP for the sake of my sanity) is neither textbook or novel, AP teachers have integrated it into their classes in many different ways. I’ve been teaching it for a few years and have deduced some excellent strategies for incorporating HTRLLAP into the AP classroom. Furthermore, I’ve learned four consistent ways to effectively kill HTRLLAP’s joy and knowledge. Here are four ways that AP teachers misuse Foster’s text:

#1 Assign it as summer reading

This one is going to ruffle some feathers, but I think the worst mistake AP teachers make when using HTRLLAP is assigning it for summer reading. That being said, I totally understand the reasons behind doing it. Foster’s book is not exactly short, and a universal truth among AP Lit teachers is that we are always running out of class time. However, exporting it to summer reading introduces a new set of problems:

  • Some kids will not read it
  • Many kids will not fully grasp all of the book’s meaning
  • Some information may be forgotten in the summer months
  • Chapters blend together, making individual lessons hard to remember
  • SOME KIDS WILL NOT READ IT

That first one seemed so obvious I felt it needed mentioning again. Personally, I find HTRLLAP too valuable to let students rush it, skim it, or skip it altogether. Instead, I devote the first three weeks of AP Lit to studying the book, usually 3-4 chapters at a time. Each day the students take a short quiz on the reading, then we go over notes and breakout texts from each chapter (available for purchase from my Teachers Pay Teachers store, see below). By including it in the school year my students learn that the book is important. In fact, we treat it as our textbook, referencing it often enough that some students buy their own copy so they can annotate the text permanently. For these reasons and more, I cannot allow Foster’s text to be doomed to die on the summer reading list.

#2 Confine it to the page

Another common crime committed by AP Lit teachers is to simply discuss HTRLLAP as it is, when I believe teachers should model intertextuality skills and connect Foster’s lessons to their own favorite books. Foster does an amazing job of this in his book, which is one of the reasons people love reading it. He throws in allusions as well as Master Shakespeare, and clearly he has done his reading homework before writing the book. However, not many teenagers have read Lolita, “Sonny’s Blues,” or Dubliners in their spare time. To say it frankly, some of Foster’s textual references are too highbrow for teenagers.

To combat this, I move HTRLLAP beyond Foster’s text and connect it to novels and plays that I know my students have read before coming to my class. To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, and Animal Farm are popular choices in my lessons. Another thing I love to do is use Foster’s lessons to analyze film and television. Some of my students were more insightful in their analysis of Breaking Bad and Inception than any other text we read throughout the year. See below for some examples of the connections to television and film I make in my notes:

©AP Lit & More, 2019
©AP Lit & More, 2019
©AP Lit & More, 2019
©AP Lit & More, 2019

One of my favorite memories was of a student running into my classroom and joyfully telling me that his family wouldn’t watch television with him anymore–because he couldn’t stop analyzing the shows. He was using Foster’s methods to make predictions and spoiling the endings of live television! I was so proud!

Foster’s appeal grows when modeled and expanded. I urge you as a teacher to model understanding of Foster’s lessons with books, plays, movies, songs, television shows, and other references from your experience. By showing them that you can make these connections with HTRLLAP, they’ll begin to make their own.

#3 Use the One-and-Done Approach

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Typography Poster, available for purchase on TpT

Probably the most common crime against HTRLLAP is analyzing it as the beautiful resource that it is–and then abandoning it on a shelf for the rest of the year. In my use of the text, we study it at the beginning of the year for a reason. The students are told to use each of Foster’s lessons (there is one per chapter) to guide them throughout the year. At the end of the unit, I give students smaller versions of a classroom poster I designed, showing each of Foster’s chapter lessons on one document. My students look to this poster throughout the year and use the handout to study for the AP Lit exam.

Just last year, we were discussing a detail from All the King’s Men when all of a sudden a student shouted out, “He’s going South!” The rest of the class was puzzled for a moment, until another kid lit up and responded, “He’s going to run amok!” The poster reminded them of one of Foster’s chapter lessons, and all at once the class was making predictions as a group. I almost cried.

For more details on this poster see the links at the bottom of this blog post!

#4 Skip the Writing Assignment

The final misuse of HTRLLAP is skipping Foster’s last chapter, which contains a short discussion of Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party.” I understand the motive to skip it, since Mansfield’s story is 1) long, and 2) hard. However, Foster included it in his text for a reason. AP Lit students need to practice close reading paired with analytical writing.

In my classroom, I ask students to read “The Garden Party” only, without the commentary afterwards. They come in to class ready to discuss it and we spend 20 minutes drafting an on-demand essay analyzing the story. They partner up and share their insights, and then we return to HTRLLAP. Together we read the rest of Foster’s text and his insightful take on Mansfield’s short story. My students usually have a dramatic reaction to his chapter, and it is always one of despair and anger. I have yet to have any student make the connection to hell that Foster makes in his book. However, this exercise is not designed to break their spirits. It is to show how a story can be interpreted in varying ways, and how looking for patterns can yield such interesting results. I follow this lesson with our first prose timed writing of the year (I prefer the 2009 prose question based on Ann Petry’s The Street). Overall, consistently pairing HTRLLAP with writing trains students to read closely, looking for patterns and predictions like Foster trains them in his book.

If you already use How to Read Literature Like a Professor in your AP classroom, I commend you for finding such a rich resource for your students. I hope this blog has convinced you to use it purposefully in order to make the book more than just a book but a valuable resource in your AP students’ toolbox.

If you are looking to add How to Read Literature Like a Professor to your AP Lit curriculum (or your own lessons need an overhaul), I have a ready-made unit available on my Teachers Pay Teachers store. This resource has recently been modified to match the College Board’s new course description and hits several of their essential skills. I actually count this unit as a short fiction unit in my own course planning. You can purchase my How to Read Literature Like a Professor bundle here, or the typography posters alone here.