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.

3 Successful Strategies for Distance Learning (and 2 that Failed)

I’ve now been teaching online for a full month, due to COVID-19 closures in my state. Because of our spring break schedule we were able to make the switch to distance learning fairly quickly. Since then, I’ve tried (and failed at) several different strategies for teaching my sophomores and AP Lit students. Here are some strategies I’ve found that work, and a few that totally bombed.

Disclaimer: My school requires mandatory conferences (similar to Zoom meetings) twice weekly as our “classes.” These conferences are at a set time and are required to last at least 15 minutes, with the option to last up to an hour. Our students are asked to attend and to submit homework, but late penalties are not being enforced. I’m just explaining this since many other schools are on different systems, so experiences may fluctuate based on teacher expectations.

What Worked – Discussion Posts

With traditional classes, I often rely on a lot of introductory Q & A or mini-discussions to engage students and introduce the concept of the lesson. Now that I’m online, I’m lucky if my students (who attend) have even turned on their mics. Because of technology capabilities, I’m usually the only one capable of talking in a standard class. After the first week of dead air, I switched tactics and posted short questions to our online discussion board before and after classes. I keep most of these discussion posts optional and ungraded, but my students are still participating. Although it’s not the same, it’s shown me that my students are still learning and staying (mostly) engaged. In fact, I’ll sometimes mention them in the next day’s lesson and that will illicit a response from a student who may have otherwise remained silent during our conference time.

What Didn’t Work – Required Discussion Post Responses

Another thing I’ve tried is requiring students to read each other’s discussion posts and to comment on them. I remember doing this often in online classes for my masters, so I figured it would be a great way mimic a classroom discussion. NOPE. Not only are my students not quite ready for the critical thinking demanded from this exercise, it’s really hard to make them care. Get ready for a lot of “I agree with you, great point with…” x 25 with this strategy. I quickly abandoned it, relying simply on the initial discussion post and leaving it there.

Lots of this. Not worth it, in my opinion.

What Worked – Optional Viewing Parties

As I transitioned to our new distance learning unit on heroes with my sophomores, I realized that I needed to integrate many movie clips. There were some lessons, such as our day studying superheroes, where I had six different movie clips to show. This put me in a difficult spot, since I wanted my students to have the option of watching the movie, but I knew others needed to keep their lessons short (like my student who spends each day watching her 1-year-old brother while her mom works). I decided to show the first clip as an attention-getter to the whole class, then move on to teach the material and assign the homework. After I finished, I invited students to stay for a “viewing party” for the remainder of the clips. It turns out half of the class stayed each time, while others signed off. I did the same when we were reading The Crucible. I offered a viewing party during my office hours for anyone who wanted to watch the movie, and again several students tuned in. I feel like this strategy is respectful of students’ time but also offers expansion or relational activities for students who need it.

What Didn’t Work – Classic Discussions

Once my AP Lit classes moved online, I tried so hard to replicate our normal AP Lit classes. The hardest day for me was the day I realized this was impossible. No matter what I did, I simply could not get my students to participate in a class discussion on our online platform. I chalk this failure up to several factors:

  • Low morale due to school closures (especially with my seniors)
  • Difficulty in being heard with various mic and tech issues
  • The struggle to be heard over others in a limited online setting
  • Fear of being wrong, sounding stupid, not doing the reading, etc. (typical reasons you’d see in a traditional classroom)

What Worked – Pre-Assigning Analytical Questions

Here’s what my pre-assigned questions look like on Schoology. Students respond to their assigned task in a discussion post-style forum and I can refer to them during the lesson.

After too many attempts at discussions during class I finally stopped and re-assessed what I needed. I needed to know 1) that my students were paying attention, 2) that they did the reading, and 3) that they were participating in analysis. Before our next class, I broke our lesson up into chunks and assigned 1 short question for each student. I asked the students to read over the upcoming lesson and texts and prepare an answer that they would “teach” to their peers during the lesson. The results were extraordinary! My students were poised and ready to share and we had no more awkward dead air as I waited for someone to speak up. I asked them for feedback at the end of the lesson and we all agreed: this was the best strategy for AP Lit class going forward.

These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned with the transition to online teaching. Please reach out and share any more lessons you’ve learned during this time, as 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!

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links that earn me a small commission, at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products that I personally use and love, or think my readers will find useful.

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!

Tips For Making Shakespeare Fun

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

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

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

Read aloud in class

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

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

Watch a Production

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

Use Labels & Character Maps

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

Make Connections to Modern Times

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

Consider the following theme connections for some of these works:

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

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

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

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

 

 

Why I’m Obsessed with Guided Reading Notes

A few years ago, back in the first few years teaching at my current school, I was teaching on what was called an “overload” schedule. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s the schedule they give you when all the money is gone. For three years I taught six out of seven periods, five preps a semester, seven preps total a year. For those of you currently on a schedule like this, I offer you my deepest sympathy and bow to your fortitude. After three years on this schedule, money was found to hire an extra English teacher (praise the Lord!) and I was asked to “hand over” two of my electives. Initially, I targeted my Shakespearean Lit course as one I was willing to lose. However, I realized I couldn’t really hand over any materials to an incoming teacher. Sure I had handouts and tests, but there were no notes.

Why? Because the notes were all in my head.

After that moment I realized that the knowledge of my literary content, the knowledge that I spent a lifetime learning, analyzing, creating, and teaching, really ought to be written down. Therefore in the following school year, basking in all the extra time I gained with an easier schedule (joking, there’s never extra time), I created notes to pair with my instruction for every literature unit in my Shakespeare course. The following year I did it with my sophomore classes. Then I started making them for AP Lit. I call them Guided Reading Notes, and they have saved my sanity.

Here is an example of one of my slideshows of guided reading notes from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

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Here are several reasons that Guided Reading Notes are lifesavers: 

  1. Absences. Face it, kids are gonna miss school. Even the darling try-hards have to miss once in a while, and sometimes even more when you factor in college visits, field trips, and testing days. It seems like the older they get, the more school they miss. I got tired of having students ask me what they missed when they were gone. It put me in the position of having to sit down and re-teach the material one-on-one, or simply saying, “We read and discussed chapter 4. Good luck, it’s important.” With guided reading notes, I teach the material in class, but post the notes afterwards on an online learning platform. My school uses Schoology. Before this I used Moodle. Many teachers love Google Classroom. Any of these will support guided reading notes. Simply use them to teach in class, then upload them afterwards. Once you start doing this consistently, students who were absent will know to read over the notes from when they were gone. If they still have questions afterwards, I am happy to give them one-on-one time. But at least this takes the bulk of the extra work off of my plate.
  2. Review. One thing that I find so eccentric and endearing is how quickly the teenage brain can forget something. It helps that I, too, am extremely forgetful. And unfortunately, if a book is long, students tend to forget the events in chapter 1 by the time the test rolls around (which stinks, because as everyone knows chapter 1 sets up all the good stuff for later). Guided reading notes help students review for tests by outlining important details and pointing out big-picture themes, symbols, and plot events. Sometimes students don’t even notice something big until they go through the review. These notes prove even more helpful before our AP Lit exam. I mean, seriously, who remembers what we read back in September? But with 10 minutes of easy review, students can brush up on those important literary units and turn short term knowledge into long term knowledge.
  3. Teacher Sanity. As I said before, my memory is quite bad. Sometimes I think of something brilliant, teach it, and next year I can’t make any sense of what I meant when I put a certain question on the test. By making guided reading notes, I maintain my own sanity from year to year. My students don’t know this, but I use my own notes as a review before I give literature lessons. It has also proven useful when I am absent and need to make sub notes. Instead of writing notes for a full chapter or reading assignment, I can simply assign students to read the guided reading notes, then use class time to complete the next assigned reading. My job: upload and post. I cannot even begin to describe the sanity they have saved my three maternity subs, who found themselves in the intimidating task of subbing for AP Lit. By using my notes, they felt confident that the challenge level was appropriate. Plus, they used my notes to learn the material beforehand!
  4. Multiple Learning Opportunities. My notes don’t simply review everything that happens in a chapter. In fact, I avoid this as often as possible. Guided reading notes are not Sparknotes summaries that replace reading. They are teacher-designed notes that help guide students through the material, pointing out things they might have overlooked and helping them make connections in the literature. I have used guided reading notes to do point out literary elements, pose discussion questions, give a pop quiz, lead a small group activity, organize jigsaw learning, give hints to tough study guide questions, break down important quotes, and more. My students learn very early on that if they want to do well on my tests, they need to study from the notes.

If you are brand new to teaching, guided reading notes are a wonderful tool to use, but keep in mind they take a while to prepare. If you are in your second and third year and you know your content fairly well, creating guided reading notes is a wonderful strategy to reduce prep time for yourself in the future and create study resources for your students to access in the future.

If time is tight and you are interested in purchasing any of my Guided Reading Notes, just visit my Teachers Pay Teachers store and click on the Guided Reading Notes category on the left-hand side. I currently have resources for the following novels and plays:

  • Fahrenheit 451
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Hamlet
  • Frankenstein (AP Lit)
  • Othello
  • King Lear (AP & general student audience)
  • Macbeth
  • All the King’s Men (AP Lit)
  • Things Fall Apart (AP Lit)
  • Julius Caesar
  • Of Mice and Men (includes vocabulary unit)
  • Twelfth Night (AP Lit)