One of the six featured skills in Poetry Unit 1 of the AP Lit CED is STR 3.D: the function of contrasts. This skill seems difficult and hard to approach, but it’s actually one of the most widely applicable skills in the whole CED.
Teaching contrasts with the “odd couple” archetype
Contrast is a difficult skill because it doesn’t seem like a skill. It’s like repetition or literal meanings of words, kids know they’re there, but don’t know what they’re supposed to say about them.
To introduce concepts, I love applying movies and television. Ask students to name friendships or couples from pop culture that showcase the idiom “opposites attract.” Some of my favorites from modern shows are Nick and Schmidt from New Girl, David and Patrick from Schitt’s Creek, or Mindy and Danny from The Mindy Project. The pairing of two opposites often creates something beautiful and humorous, and it can even be seen in relationships within students’ own families.
I’ve got three clips you can choose from to demonstrate the idea of an “odd couple,” or opposites attracting. I have no idea why but all of my favorites are all-male relationships. The first is from New Girl:
The second is from my absolute favorite show, Schitt’s Creek:
And finally, the original Odd Couple, Oscar and Felix!
Ask your class, how are the two characters opposites? And yet, how do they function well, despite their drastic differences? These differences are called contrasts, and when we study them we learn more about a text or concept.
Focus Poem & Questions
If I had to select one poem to use in approaching contrasts, I’d pick Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.” This poem is simple and many will have read it before in junior high or ninth grade, so returning to it makes it more approachable.
Questions for Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice”
What is this poem about?
What two images does the speaker use to drive the poem?
Name some connotations of fire. Of ice?
In line 3, the word “desire” is used in connection with fire. And in line 6, the word “hate” is suddenly used as a placeholder for ice. Here’s where we study another contrast. What is changed by referring to desire as “fire?” What about hate as “ice?”
Can you find any shifts in this poem, be it in structure, tone, meaning, imagery, or something else?
Literally, this poem is about the end of the world. Broadly, many apply this poem to the destructive forces of science or of hate. The two central images are fire and ice, polar opposites and a great example of a central contrast driving the poem. Fire, when combined with desire, often connotes feelings of uncontrolled passion. Ice and hate means cold calculation; phrases such as “cold-blooded” or “cold-hearted” often crop up. Studying the similarities and differences between these central concepts is another form of contrast. Finally, contrast can also arise from shifts in tone, setting, structure, imagery, or almost anything else. Ask students what shifts they notice and if they can derive any meanings or claims from them.
Here are some other poems that can help you teach contrasts. Thanks to the Facebook community for helping with suggestions:
“pity this busy monster, manunkind” by e. e. cummings
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.
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
“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
“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.
As a teacher of AP Lit, you can’t avoid teaching poetry. And to be a successful teacher of AP Lit, you shouldn’t try to. Of course there are “classics” and particular forms you have to teach, like a lot of long-dead white guys who wrote sonnets. However, the writers at CollegeBoard (who create the AP exams) appreciate both modern and classic writers of poetry. The key is to mix old with new, to find culturally diverse and universally advanced poems that will expose students to a variety of different poem types, but also keep them interested. This is a list of some of my favorite poems to teach in AP Lit:
This short poem is unexpectedly witty and a little dark, and it usually disarms students as they read it. As the first line indicates, the nine-line poem functions as a riddle for pregnancy. It contains references to various images to items that are treasured for what they carry rather than what they are. Plath’s overall message is that while pregnancy is miraculous, mothers are allowed to be somewhat resentful of their treatment as a vessel rather than as a person. As a mother of three, I can attest that this feeling is surprisingly accurate. For that reason, I enjoy teaching it from my own perspective. You can find this in this work of collected poetry by Plath.
Shelley’s treatise against pride and hubris is just as relevant today as when it was published 200 years ago. The allusion to Ramses II usually intrigues high school students who, show a surprising curiosity toward Egyptian history. I also introduce this poem by playing a reading by Bryan Cranston taken from Breaking Bad. Like Walter White’s efforts to provide for his family beyond his inevitable death, Ramses erected monuments of himself in an effort to demonstrate his power and live forever. I also love showing how the meter and form starts off as a Shakespearean sonnet, but falls away from this form. This connects structure to meaning, and shows the breaking down of classic poetry styles. You can find Shelley’s beloved poems in this collection.
If you don’t know anything about Anna Akhmatova, take a break and go read up on her. I can wait. Seriously, she is so awesome. This poem takes the story of Lot from Genesis 19 and expounds on Lot’s poor wife. Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt after she looked backward to watch her hometown of Sodom and Gomorrah burn. The bible hails her as an example of God’s punishment when we disobey or lose trust in him. Akhmatova provides context for Lot’s wife and questions if she deserves the reputation given to her in single bible verse. I’ve found the comparison between the biblical text to this poem fodder for excellent conversation, particularly with young women. Akhmatova’s poems, including her masterpiece Requiem, can be found in this collection.
“I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” is a personal favorite, one popular with 9th or 10th grade teachers. This poem builds on most students’ working knowledge of Hughes and his reputation for representing the plight of black people in the early 20th century. “I, Too, Sing America” has a more comparative style, showcasing the unfair treatment of African Americans in Hughes’ time of composition. What makes the poem so masterful is that the tone is not of complaining, but instead is confident and triumphant. The speaker proclaims that while he does not have the rights he deserves, “Tomorrow, I will be at the table when company comes.” This poem and many other Hughes’ favorites can be found in this collection.
“Oxygen” by Mary Oliver
This is literally my favorite poem. Ever. Everything about it is so perfect. It’s beautifully simplistic and cyclical, but also has advanced poetic elements within. The ongoing image of things that feed on air is easy to relate to. The central lines, “It is your life, which is so close to my own that I would not know where to drop the knife of separation. And what does this have to do with love, except everything?” provide a beautiful image of modern romance and companionship. I can’t help but get a little misty-eyed every time I teach it. It truly is a beautiful poem. Oliver is one of the masters of 20th century poetry. Her best works, including “Oxygen,” can be found in this collection.
Forché’s poem is radically different from most of the poems I teach in AP Lit. For one, it doesn’t look like a poem, as it intentionally looks more like prose. Secondly, it contains a strong expletive. There are ways to botch this lesson if the incident is not researched properly, but it has the potential to be an extremely sobering and serous lesson. Forché’s poem is shocking as it describes the dictator spilling a bag of human ears and gesturing with it. What’s even more shocking is that the events described are completely true. Trust me, you simply must teach this poem. Forché recently published details of this full experience in her new memoir, What You Have Heard is True.
“The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall and “American History” by Michael S. Harper
One way to change up a poetry lesson is to do a poetry comparison study. Up until recently, AP Lit exam questions sometimes asked students to write essays about two similar poems. Even though College Board has discontinued this practice, it is still a valuable skill for AP Lit students. One of my favorite comparison studies is the treatment of the Birmingham church bombings of 1963. This hate crime united Americans in a fight for civil rights, eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These poems provide different treatments of this act of terror, with Harper’s relating it to acts of the Revolutionary War, while Randall’s is more sentimental and songlike. You can find ample opportunities for historical analysis and discussion in these two poems.
People typically remember Robert Frost for his nature poem. However, this longer poem titled after Macbeth’s final soliloquy is one of my favorites to teach. I typically guide my students through a narrative analysis of the story told in the poem, then follow up with a more historical analysis. The context and background of World War I is not coincidental. In fact, many believe that the poem’s unfortunate boy represents all young soldiers who were sacrificed in the war efforts. The poem has plenty of advanced poetic elements, as an added bonus. You can find Robert Frost’s collected works in this anthology.
“Digging” by Seamus Heaney
It was hard to pick a favorite Seamus poem, as he’s my favorite poet. Overall, the autobiographical and geographical analysis opportunities of “Digging” make it my favorite to teach. Heaney is a favorite with CollegeBoard and most of the world, especially in his native Ireland. Heaney pays homage to his beautiful Irish home and the generations of laborers who worked before him in the Irish peat. “Digging” is both simple and complex, and students find themselves easing into advanced poetry analysis quite easily. Runners up for Heaney’s poems are “Midterm Break” and “Scaffolding” if you want to include more from this Irish master. “Digging” is actually the first poem in this collection of Heaney’s, titled 100 Poems.
“Warning” by Jenny Joseph
In the spring my AP students tend to show a veil of weariness and fatigue, as well as signs of spring fever. When I see this, we take a break from complex poem studies and spend some time with a more simplistic poem. Jenny Joseph’s charming poem about growing old and “wearing purple” is humorous and relatable. However, this poem is not without its thematic applications. We usually have an interesting discussion about what students look forward to doing once they are old. Also, what could they get away then in the future, that they can’t now? It’s intriguing to learn that Joseph’s poem inspired the Red Hat Society, which can now boast over 70,000 members. This poem is available in a hardcover illustrated version, found here.
There are many other poems that make up my AP curriculum but these are just a few of my favorites. How do you pick just 10 poems to teach in AP Lit? Honorable mentions include:
Li Young Lee’s “A Story”
Robert Penn Warren’s “True Love”
Lucille Clifton’s “mulberry fields”
Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song”
William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say”
Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son”
The links included in this post are to some of the lessons I’ve created for my Teachers Pay Teachers store. You can also buy a growing bundle of all of my AP Lit poem studies by clicking here. To learn more about how I use poetry on a regular basis in AP Lit, check out this blog post.
These are just my top 10 poems to teach in AP Lit. Drop me a line in the comments and let me know what yours are!
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