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!

AP Lit Task Card Lessons and Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My AP Lit First Day Lesson

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

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

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

To start off the class, I passed out a handout on annotation that I created (found for free on my TpT store). This handout explains the benefits to annotation, including 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.

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, as well as how to involve non-artsy students) Students were asked 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.

Finally, when the one-pagers were done (or almost done, some were allowed to finish up during the discussion), 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.

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

For example, one student brought up that they liked Wright’s example 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 that there was a facet of the “Why Read Literature” article that I myself disagreed with 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 where more and more students agreed, 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.

This lesson took about 45 minutes in total to complete, and 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, also found for free in my store.

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.


How Analyzing Film Can Actually Strengthen Your AP Prose Lessons

I have been teaching AP Lit for almost 15 years, and the test prep has always been a difficult process. For years my students felt stressed about the open question, so I created the Independent Novel Project. Then, they felt overwhelmed and underprepared for the poetry question, so I created weekly poem lessons and two intensive poetry units. This leaves just the prose question. I didn’t know why, but my students felt unprepared and baffled by the prose question, always forgetting the meaning of syntax and the purpose of diction. I drilled them by adding more novels and plays, but nothing seemed to help.

Then, last year I had the “fortunate misfortune” of scoring the prose question for the 2018 AP Lit exam, which explored Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance. Although I had to read more about Zenobia than one human being ever should, I did learn that writing for the prose prompt takes more than just regular analysis skills. Literary elements used in prose are powerful but often overlooked, and it takes a keen eye to pick out just the right details for written analysis.

With this in mind, I created a weeklong prose unit that explored the most common literary terms mentioned on past AP Lit prose questions. To make it interesting, I connected the skills in my notes to popular characters from literature and films. This resource is for sale on Teachers Pay Teachers, but I will share a few of my favorite lessons from this resource here.

Lesson 1: Diction

One subset of diction is dialogue, and you can learn a lot about a character from dialogue. In this lesson, I take quotes from famous movie characters (well, they’re famous from my time, so I also like to look at it as introducing classic characters to these young bucks) and we analyze what their spoken lines say about them. Take Sally.

Sally Albright is one of my favorite characters, and she comes from my favorite romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally. In my notes, I record Sally’s lunch order:

But I’d like the pie heated, and I don’t want the ice cream on top, I want it on the side. And I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it. If not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it’s real. If it’s out of a can, then nothing.

Sally Albright, When Harry Met Sally

I ask the students, what do Sally’s lines tell us about her character? First, it reinforces Harry’s assertion that she is “high maintenance.” Her defense is that ”she knows what she wants.” Sally is picky, but only because she hates being let down. By being assertive with what she wants, she hopes to spare anyone disappointment later. We continue this discussion with several other characters, and eventually students learn that every line of dialogue serves a purpose, and it is usually to further the plot or, in this case, to build character.

Lesson 2: Syntax

Syntax is one of the most difficult literary elements to teach, since it really just means how words are arranged. My students argue that you can make a case out of any syntactical arrangement, so how do we know if that is what the author intended? I remind them that author intent is not really the point. The AP exam rubric asks for a persuasive answer, so if they can support their assertion with textual evidence, it doesn’t matter if the author approves of it.

In this lesson, I took famous quotes from different novels and explored different syntactical arrangements, including a midsentence break, beginning and ending with significant words, choppy sentence structure, and parallelism. To demonstrate parallelism, I included lines from one of America’s most beloved novels, To Kill a Mockingbird. In it, Atticus says,

People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.

Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

In this quote, the words are arranged to deliberately reuse the word “for” at the end of each phrase. This is parallelism, a form of repetition. Since the original word ended with “look for,” the change to the word “listen” in front of “for” puts more emphasis on that word. Atticus is giving wisdom to his children, and Atticus is a man who listens more than he speaks. The meaning behind this wisdom would not be lost on his children, but Harper Lee employs parallelism to make sure it isn’t lost on us.

Lesson 3: Point of View

Most students understand how to identify the point of view of a textual excerpt, thanks to classic short story lessons. However, AP readers expect a more advanced knowledge base, which includes knowledge of an unreliable narrator, 2nd person point of view, and stream-of-consciousness narration.

There was no better author of unreliable narrator than Edgar Allan Poe. In his classic short story “A Tell-Tale Heart,” we see the thoughts of a madman as he hears the beating heart of the man he just killed. Poe writes,

Yet the sound increased—and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath—and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly—more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men—but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!—this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!

Narrator, “The Tell-Tale Heart”

These lines convince the reader that the heartbeat is not real, but is only heard in the mind of the narrator. Until this point, the reader isn’t sure if this is a supernatural thriller or a psychological thriller. Here, he proves his unreliability, and we shift to enjoying watching him unravel.

While these points of view may seem alien to readers, most of them are easier to understand in film. Shutter Island, Fight Club, Atonement, and Gone Girl are all popular films (and books, by the way) that employ an unreliable narrator. Most students have seen one of these, and relating this lesson to these films will help solidify the information.

Lesson 4: Tone & Other Elements

Tone is another tricky element. While students won’t have a hard time understanding it, analyzing tone is a different story. My students struggle with labeling tone, and figuring out how to incorporate it into a literary analysis.

To illustrate tone in my lesson, I picked three popular books-turned-movies that featured a prominent death. I presented a quote which depicted this death and asked students to analyze the tone.

This was a questionable move, but I included the death of Fred Weasley. And I’ll be honest here, I wept while writing these slides. Spoilers aside, the words accompanying Fred’s death are some of the most heartbreakingly ironic words in literature. They say:

And Percy was shaking his brother, and Ron was kneeling beside them, and Fred’s eyes stared without seeing, the ghost of his last laugh still etched upon his face.

JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

After we all dry our eyes, students must analyze the tone of these words. First of all, heartbreaking is accurate, as the author emphasizes that Fred is surrounded by his brothers at his death, including his own twin. Furthermore, Fred was a jokester in life, and by discussing the ghost of a laugh on his face she adds a tone of cruelty to the words, emphasizing Fred’s undeserved death.

These are just single slides from lessons designed to take a full hour, and they don’t mention the annotation and writing activities, but I hope they give a little clarification on how to make prose instruction more interesting and meaningful for your AP Lit students. To access my AP Lit Prose materials click on any of the headings for individual lessons, or click here for the full weeklong unit.