The Hidden Power of the AP Open Question

One of the most common questions asked among new and veteran AP Lit teachers alike is, “What titles should I teach?” It is not an easy question to answer, as the list of titles listed on the AP Lit exam numbers over 400 now. Plus there are other considerations, such as length, authorship, genre, diversity, difficulty, and many more. When considering a change in titles, one overlooked tool is the history of the exam itself, namely in Question 3: The Open Question.

A free download of this list is available on TpT, since it’s getting hard to find online!

The first way to use Question 3 is by studying the questions. For example, I noticed over in 2016 that many of the questions being used for the Open Essay were geared toward gothic novels. I switched from reading just Frankenstein to studying gothic novels in a book club unit, just in time for the the 2018 exam, which was geared perfectly for gothic novels. In fact, Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Picture of Dorian Gray were all suggested titles to study. After that, I began looking closer at the types of questions included on Q3 and making adjustments as needed. A document with all of the open questions can be downloaded for free from my Teachers Pay Teachers store here.

Another way to study the Open Question is to examine the titles included in the suggestions. Remember that students aren’t required to choose from that list, so I don’t suggest requiring them to do so. However, the list does inform AP Lit readers the types of titles that the College Board is reading…and recommending. I recently studied suggestions from the 2019 exam and there were three new titles never mentioned on an AP Lit exam before. They were:

  • The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Now I’ve got some titles to add to my never-ending “To-Read” list! This list also emphasizes some of the most popular and treasured titles among the College Board. The titles that have been listed more than ten times are:

This compiled list of AP Lit titles is also a free download from TpT!
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Antigone by Sophocles
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Billy Budd by Herman Melville
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevski
  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller
  • Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
  • The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  • King Lear by William Shakespeare
  • Light in August by William Faulkner
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • Native Son by Richard Wright
  • Othello by William Shakespeare
  • A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
  • Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  • Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  • A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  • A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

While AP Lit teachers do not need to choose from this list, these could be looked to as reliable choices. The whole list of AP Lit titles from the Open Question can be downloaded for free from Teachers Pay Teachers here.

One last way I study the Open Question is by looking at what titles are “trending.” I use this term to describe titles that have been included on the exam in just the past 10 years. Titles such as Don Quixote, The Bluest Eye, and The Mill on the Floss were suggested for the first time in over ten years. The most suggested titles in the last ten years are:

  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • King Lear by William Shakespeare
  • The Odyssey by Homer
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Studying trending titles can be enlightening in finding popularity among more recent works. For example, Oryx and Crake was only published in 2003, and yet it’s been suggested on the exam four times already. If one were looking for a strong modern contender, that would be an excellent choice. A document listing “trending” titles is available on my TpT store as well, but is not available online anywhere else! Click here to access it!

I hope this helps explain how studying former exams, particularly the Open Question, can help you make course decisions. Please feel free to download the resources linked here. They are available for free! They are linked below for your convenience.

AP Lit Open Response Titles List

Open Response Question Prompts for AP Lit

AP Lit “Trending” List

My 10 Favorite Poems to Teach in AP Lit

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, but 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 to AP Lit students:

“Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath

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, with references to various images to items that are treasured for what they carry rather than what they are (old houses, watermelons, elephants). 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 and I enjoy teaching it from my own perspective. 

“Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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, in my experience, have shown to have a general 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, in an effort to show the breaking down of classic poetry styles. 

“Lot’s Wife” by Anna Akhmatova

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, who was turned into a pillar of salt for looking backward as her hometown of Sodom and Gomorrah burned. 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. 

“I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” is a personal favorite but it is often taught in 9th or 10th grades. This poem builds on most students’ working knowledge of Hughes and his reputation for representing the plight of black artists 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.”

“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, and I can’t help but get a little misty-eyed every time I teach it. It truly is a beautiful poem. 

“The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché

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’s meant to resemble prose. Secondly, it contains a strong expletive. There are ways to get this lesson wrong 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, even picking one up 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.

“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 poems written on a similar topic or theme. Even though that practice has been discontinued, 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 African Americans in a fight for civil rights, eventually leading 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. Ample opportunities for historical analysis and discussion are found in these two poems.  

Out, Out–” by Robert Frost

Robert Frost is typically remembered for his nature poems, but this longer poem titled after Macbeth’s final soliloquy has always been my favorite of Frost’s. 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, and most 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. 

“Digging” by Seamus Heaney

It was hard to pick a favorite Seamus poem, but 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 poems from this Irish master. 

“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 complicated and complex poem studies and spend some time with a more witty and simplistic poem. Jenny Joseph’s charming poem about growing old and “wearing purple” is humorous and relatable, but is not without its thematic applications. We usually have an interesting discussion about what students look forward to doing once they are “old” that they couldn’t get away with now. My students are also intrigued by the fact that Joseph’s poem inspired the Red Hat Society, which can now boast over 70,000 members. 

There are many other wonderful poems that make up my AP curriculum but these are just a few of my favorites. Honorable mentions include Li Young Lee’s “A Story,” Robert Penn Warren’s “True Love,” Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song,” William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say,” and Countee Cullen’s “Incident.” What are your favorite advanced poems to teach? 

The links included in this post are to some of the lessons I’ve created for my Teachers Pay Teachers store. If you’re interested in adding these poems to your curriculum, I’m working on creating resources for all of my AP poems and will continue to link to them as I create them. You can also buy a growing bundle of all of my AP Lit poem studies by clicking here

Teacher Appreciation & TpT Gift Card Giveaway

Teacher apprecitation giveaway blog post

My first memory of having a distinctly attentive teacher goes back to when I was in fourth grade. Our class was learning about fractions and for whatever reason (let’s be honest, it’s probably because I am terrible at math), I just couldn’t get it. My teacher spent several lessons working with me while everyone was moving forward with their homework and I got more frustrated and embarrassed as the week moved on. One day, she asked me to arrange to stay late so she could see me after school. I thought for sure that I was in trouble, or at worst I would be “demoted” to third grade because I couldn’t understand fractions.

But instead, my teacher spent an extra hour after school with me and we played with beans.

My breakthrough happened when she explained how fractions worked using dried beans and we arranged them into full figures. I still vividly remember that “aha” moment as my 4th-grade brain finally understood fractions. And good news: I still understand them!

These are the stories that teachers live for. However, in the nature of our profession, my fourth-grade teacher probably has no idea that she made that impression on me.

I have been blessed with many amazing teachers over the years:

  • My fifth-grade teacher, who used three distinctively creative and motivating rewards systems, including “lunch bunch,” choosing prizes from buckets (which I’m sure he paid for out of pocket), and the privilege of choosing the next month’s seating chart. His civil competition strategies no doubt fed into my love for competing for tiny tin-foil stars in my own classroom. 
  • My eighth-grade teacher, who held up my short story about a mouse in front of the whole class. Rather than ridiculing it, as I was expecting, he read it aloud and praised my brilliant narrative choices (which I still maintain were purely done out of luck). That was the first time I realized I was a gifted writer, and that I enjoyed using my writing to explain things to others.
  • My freshman Spanish teacher, who let me hang out in her classroom long after everyone had gone home because I was often waiting for a ride home into the evening hours. Even though I pestered her about stories about college, drew all over her whiteboard, and almost never did anything to actually assist her in grading or prep work, she still happily tolerated my presence. This taught me to be intentionally relational with my students, and that sometimes just an open classroom door is an important invitation to a lonely student. 
  • My art teacher, who fed into my creativity, even when I had absolutely no idea how to apply it. She let me dabble in everything–with very mixed results. I never excelled in art, but I learned that my imagination can apply to many parts of life, and that you don’t need to be an artist to be creative. 
  • My sophomore English teacher who ultimately inspired me to follow my subject matter, instilling a love of Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, William Shakespeare, and a hatred for The Old Man and the Sea, which we still argue about over Facebook. His attitude and antics taught me that students learn more when they stay engaged, and you don’t have to like it, but you do have to read it. 

My list could go on and on, including some wonderful college professors, my mentors and colleagues at my first high school placement, and the professional “family” that I’ve found at my current school. I truly have been blessed to be surrounded by teachers.

As a gift to any educator who reads this, I’m offering a giveaway for a $10 Teachers Pay Teachers gift card. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post, or e-mail me at aplitandmore@gmail.com if you’d prefer, by 11:59 pm CST on Friday, May 11. 

Thank you to all educators out there, both in the classroom and beyond, including office staff, cafeteria workers, custodians, homeschool teachers, stay-at-home mamas, daycare employees, Sunday School teachers, administrators, professors, and anyone else who helps shape the minds and hearts of young people. I hope someone gives you an idea of how much your actions can touch a life.

And to Mrs. Dykes, Mr. Block, Mr. Timm, Señora Hutchins, Miss Sohn, and Mr. Chilman, thank you for shaping my life and inspiring me to teach. This one is dedicated to you.

In case you haven’t heard, the Teachers Appreciation Sale is going on at Teachers Pay Teachers from now until Wednesday, May 9. All items in my store are 25% with the code THANKYOU18.

Just Caught You Reading

Just Caught You Reading

Every spring, I go into the classroom next door and greet the ninth graders with that most dreaded news: they must complete summer reading. Our school implemented a summer reading program a few years ago as a way to engage students in doing something academic over the summer, and to make our English program a little stronger. The jury is still out on whether this achieves the first objective, and I’m slightly biased towards the second one. However, it did usher in one of my favorite projects, which I call Just Caught You Reading.

Before school lets out, I challenge students to send me a picture of them reading a book, any book, anywhere. I give out “bonus brownie points,” aka, nothing but pride, to take it in a creative location or in a unique place.

I now have 5 years of Just Caught You Reading pictures in my classroom. For current students at my school, I post their pictures on my bulletin board in the back of my classroom. After students graduate, they move to the top of my walls, and they’re getting extensive enough that they currently wrap halfway around the room, creating a unique and delightful border.

Caught me Reading

I’ve had some wonderful photos submitted. This year I had a student read Gatsby at Loch Ness:

Another perched on the back of her horse for a sojourn into Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire:

JCYR 4

Some are scenic:

JCYR 3

Some are active:

JCYR 2

This project has been a delightful opportunity to show other students in my class that it can be fun to read. Yes, obviously we probably can’t read upside down or while we play tennis, but these students really did take a book with them to Loch Ness and the Canadian Rockies, and I’d like to think that maybe they relaxed with a book for even a few minutes.

I encourage other ELA educators to implement this project over the summer, or as a back to school assignment. If nothing else, you’ll wind up with a great collection of photos to display.

For more creative teaching ideas and resources, follow me at my TPT store!