The First Few Weeks: Differentiation & Work Ethic

This article is the third in a blog series focused on inclusivity in AP English Literature. This week’s installment will focus on differentiation your instruction to reach all levels of learners in AP Lit. In high achieving schools, AP classes are often reserved for only top level learners. However, this system of gatekeeping is not in the best interest of education. Not all top learners belong in AP English Lit, and many who aren’t “top level” can thrive in the class. Therefore, my policy is: if you are willing to do the work, you belong in the class.

These ideas are especially for teachers who don’t have prerequisites, entrance exams, or other structures in place to limit AP students. While all are welcome in AP classes, it can be difficult to advance the students who are already strong writers while simultaneously reaching students who are less enthusiastic about the class. These strategies will engage both your voracious and reluctant readers, as well as improving students’ writing at all levels.

First Day Activity – Active Reading, Discussion, and Critical Thinking

I’ve already devoted an entire blog post to my first day lesson, which you can read about for full details. The main goal of my first day is to demonstrate three of the main four skills of AP Lit as I see them: close reading, Socratic discussion, and critical thinking. The only skill we don’t hit immediately is writing, and that is only because writing is SUCH A BIG SKILL that it needs multiple days of its own. This lesson gives tips on annotating to improve their close reading, helps them move beyond “I agree” and “I noticed” discussion strategies, and learn to think critically about texts that they read. To see the full details of my first day lesson you can read this full blog post.

My AP Lit First Day Lesson
This blog post details my first day of class in AP Lit, where I focus on active reading, discussion, and critical thinking.

Using How to Read Literature Like a Professor to Analyze Television & Film

Most readers know that I like to begin the year with Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. I prefer to read it in class, if time allows, but many prefer to use the book as summer reading. I love this book because he explains the basics of literary analysis, connecting things from fiction to real life with concrete examples and identifying patterns.

In my experience with HTRLLAP, most students find the book very intimidating. While the lessons inside are still useful, Foster’s text can make students feel underprepared or ill-equipped for literary analysis, especially when it comes to writing. In order to combat this, I like to take Foster’s lessons beyond his examples. I often piggyback off his examples using young adult texts, titles that are common in grades 8-10, and even television and film.

Example

Here’s an example. I had a student one year who kept saying he was the “dumbest kid in class.” Of course he wasn’t, but he felt that way. He had never read any of the titles mentioned in the text and, frankly, Foster was losing him. However, in class one day I related Foster’s chapter on “marked characters” and asked them to identify examples not from literature, but from television shows. Suddenly this student came alive with ideas from Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Lost, and other shows. Over the next few days he kept running into class telling me other ideas from HTRLLAP that he noticed in television shows. Eventually he became so engrossed in the process that his family asked him to watch tv in a different room, as they grew tired of his constant interruptions of literary analysis.

Now obviously I had to coerce this student to begin applying these principles to literature, as I didn’t want him writing an essay on a television show for the AP exam. But the strategy of applying HTRLLAP to film, television, and even songs makes Foster’s lessons easier for all students to understand. They then have a firm foundation that they can take with them as we begin literary analysis of short fiction and novels.

Picking Poetry – the Riddle Factor

Like most of the AP teachers I know, I usually try to introduce poetry as early as I can. For the last few years my first poem has been “Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath. I choose this poem because it’s a riddle, and a fairly difficult one at that. I read the poem aloud for them, tell them it’s a riddle, and then set them free to guess. When one student finally guesses that it’s a riddle for pregnancy, we break the poem down image by image, line by line, compounding the difficult “clues” for Plath’s poem.

I love this lesson because my students usually approach poetry with groans and dread. They never “get it,” the teacher finds more in the poem than the author meant (debatable), poems are boring, etc. However, Plath’s poem is short, inviting, and provocative. This lesson tells students that not all poems have to be dry or boring, and it invites them to explore more throughout the year.

While students should explore a range of poems, styles, and authors, I like to pick simpler or more narrative poems for differentiation and scaffolding in AP Lit. Along with “Metaphors,” here are some other introductory poems I choose:

  • “The Black Walnut Tree” by Mary Oliver
  • “Out, Out–” by Robert Frost
  • “The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall
  • “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes
  • “My Father and the Fig Tree” by Naomi Shihab Nye
  • “Lot’s Wife” by Anna Akhmatova

Student Achievement Structured Around Goals

SMART Goals - Differentiation in AP Lit

One thing that has never changed in all my years of teaching AP Lit is the use of student-designed goals. I did this from day 1 and I still do it each year. After we go through the expectations of the course, I ask students to create three goals for themselves. I require them to use SMART goals, a system you are probably familiar with. If not, SMART goals (see graphic) help students set goals that they can measure along the journey, not just at the end of the year. To help students form SMART goals we usually have to address perceived weaknesses. If I have reluctant readers in the group, sometimes they make a goal to simply finish every book.

Examples of strong SMART goals are:

  • Read every assigned reading on time.
  • Use all of my allotted writing time, not finish early and turn it in as-is.
  • Select one book over 500 pages for independent reading and read every single page.
  • Write down my comments before sharing them in each discussion.

Examples of weak SMART goals are:

  • Earn a 5 on the AP Lit exam (not measurable or timely, as scores come out mid-July).
  • Try hard (not specific or measurable).
  • Ace every test (probably not very realistic or attainable).

We also implement goal-setting after each timed writing and PPC multiple choice exam. I created trackers for students to record their score, what they need to improve on, and what goals they should set to improve on their next assessment. The idea is to use this data and these goals each quarter to help students measure their progress towards their SMART goals and their overall growth in writing, active reading, and critical thinking.

Student tracking data and setting goals
After each Performance Progress Check on AP Classroom, my students fill out their score data and set goals for their next PPC. We have another tracker that we use after each timed writing. Both are FREE downloads from my TpT store.

Strategies for Scaffolding Writing

When it comes to differentiation in AP Lit, writing is by far the hardest variable to scaffold. Here are some strategies I use in the first few weeks to learn my students’ abilities and help move them down the path towards strong analysis.

Gradual Timed Writing Practice

As many AP Lit teachers do, I assign my students to read a novel for summer reading. Our assessment for our summer reading is a timed writing. I give students released prompts from the actual exam, or create my own modeled after those questions if the perfect prompt isn’t available. Instead of limiting them to 40 minutes I allow the whole class period, but that is the only additional help I offer.

When it comes to reading the essays, I score them according to the criteria of the rubric, offering as much feedback as possible. However, I do not write a score on the finished essays. The next day, I pass back the essays with my feedback. I put students into small groups (grouped with a mixture of high, medium, and low scores) and let them share highs and lows of their own essays. Following our small group discussions we return to a whole class. Together, we brainstorm some things we learned from our first timed writing as a whole class.

The most important part of this process is allowing students to rewrite their essays. This is the only time I allow a revision, but it is so important. This allows students who misread the prompt or wrote full summaries to start from scratch. It likewise offers mid- and high-scoring students an equal chance to sharpen their analysis. I score this essay again and log these scores in as final.

Always Remember: APE

Probably the most common writing misstep I see in the first few weeks is students’ reliance on summary rather than analysis. Even after we discuss the difference between summary and analysis, I’ve found that students often revert due to adrenaline, confusion, or simply being at a loss of what to say. It’s frustrating for all of us. Students know they aren’t supposed to summarize, they know the difference between analysis and summary, and yet they still do it all the time. One tool I’ve created to combat summary is based on APE, which stands for Assert Prove Explain.

I did not coin this acronym, it has in fact been around for a while. I did, however, create a handout and bookmark to help students remember this strategy as they ease into analytical writing. Remember, not all of your AP students have taken an advanced placement course before. So while some understand what we mean by balancing analysis with textual support, many don’t have the tools to do this quickly. Therefore, teaching students to assert, prove, and explain helps them get into the rhythm of analysis. Once they get the hang of analysis supported by proper textual support, then you can begin to work on creating a true line of reasoning, growing complexity, stronger literary elements, and sophisticated writing voice.

Summary Versus Analysis

Line of Reasoning mapping
This was our model essay. I didn’t do this activity in the beginning of the year because I HADN’T THOUGHT OF IT YET. I certainly will in the future!
Highlighting for Analysis - Differentiation in AP Lit
This was a student’s essay. This was one of my top writers but even she struggled with balancing textual support (the red) with analysis (the yellow).

The war against summary is not easily won. It’s even more frustrating when students don’t realize they’re summarizing.

Last year I tried a more hands-on approach to help students identify their own summary. At the end of our timed writing rehash, I distributed a high-scoring released essay from the College Board. Then, I asked students to use markers, highlighters, or different color pens to mark the following in a text:

  • Mark the thesis in green. Mark references to the thesis or the continued line of reasoning in green as well.
  • Label all textual support in red.
  • Identify the student’s analysis (the “so what”) in yellow.
  • (Sometimes I have them identify all references to literary techniques in a fourth color, but this may be better saved until later in the school year).

The class marked up their sample essays and we debriefed it as a whole group for a moment. After that, I asked students to do the same process on their own essays. Before I even asked them to do this, many students were already realizing their mistakes. Many groaned as they marked long portions in red with nary a yellow in sight. This exercise proved so helpful that I hung the sample essay in our room for students to access.

Work Ethic

As I finish this up, I’m realize that I may come off as a very accommodating teacher. God forbid, the word “easy” may even be used. I do want to clarify a major foundation of my teaching strategy. While I do not require that my students have a high GPA, there is one trait they must possess.

In order to succeed in my class, my students better have grit.

This is another important foundational component of the first few weeks. If my students come to class unprepared, I make it very clear that I cannot help them. I’ve had plenty of super-smart students attempt to coast through AP Lit. And yes, these students are often very strong writers and get great scores on their standardized tests. However, in my 14 years of teaching AP Lit I’ve learned this about these kids: the way they write in September is the way they’ll write in May. These students will exit with a strong GPA and equally high standardized test scores, but they won’t grow.

Growth Over Scores

Just this last year I had a student take my course, telling me he’d drop it after just the first day. He told me he was too dumb and too lazy, to which I argued that he certainly was not. Somehow I convinced him to stay, but we had to have the same conversation at our semester break. This student had been putting in great work, but was still doubting himself. This doubt compounded when he saw that he often scored lower than his classmates. Once again, I convinced him to stick with it. His spirits were especially low during our distance learning months, so much so that I even FaceTimed him to help him register for the test.

When I finally got my scores last week, I had some very high scores, none of which were very surprising. But I literally did a happy dance when I saw that my doubtful student earned a 3. That score meant more to me than all of the others. Not only did he develop in his reading and writing, this student learned that hard work yields growth and success.

Inclusivity in AP Lit

To conclude, this is a basic overview of some of the strategies I use for differentiation in AP Lit. I try to use our first month to cultivate an atmosphere of hard work and inclusivity. I recently developed three norms to describe our class:

  1. Everyone is welcome.
  2. Everyone’s voice is worthy.
  3. Everyone tries.

To read my previous posts on the topic of inclusivity in AP English Lit, check these out:

4 Quick Questions to Determine if a Book is “AP-Worthy”

Non-white Authors to Diversify Your AP Lit Curriculum

My AP Lit First Day Lesson

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

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

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

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

Step 1 – Active Reading

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

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

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

But what if I’m digital?

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

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

Step 2 – Demonstration of Understanding

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

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

But what if I’m digital?

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

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

Step 3 – Critical Thinking

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

Pushing Critical Thinking: Expand & Scrutinize

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

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

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

But what if I’m digital?

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a powerpoint, I put the following instructions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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