Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor is becoming a fixture in AP Lit and other advanced literature classes. While teachers love this book, students often struggle with Foster’s highbrow references. To overcome this, many of us use references to popular films and television shows to enhance Foster’s main principles. Here are my favorite shows to help reinforce Foster’s principles and help your students get the most out of How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Each show is paired with a clip to help make your planning just a bit easier!
Breaking Bad is one of my favorite television series. The show is gritty and dark, not typical for my usual queue of The Great British Baking Show and Parks and Recreation. That being said, I love Breaking Bad for reinforcing various allusions and other Fosterisms. Several Shakespearean plays and characters align with Breaking Bad, as well as parallels with Greek mythology, biblical allusions, and symbols in general.
Breaking Bad centers around a dysfunctional family, so there’s no shortage of meal scenes. This awkward meal between Jesse, Skylar, and Walt reinforces the principles of Chapter 2 and communion, especially on what happens when a meal is unfinished.
Avatar: The Last Airbender
This is a show my own students have been using for analysis, particularly about being physically marked. The story, which follows Aang and his friends on a mission to save the world, employs rich symbols. The show’s strong imagery aligns with Fosterisms on geography and season as well.
This scene reveals Aang’s abilities as the last survivor of the Air Nomads. In this scene, Aang is revealed to be the Avatar, one able to wield all four earthly elements. His powers align with the arrow on his head, separating him as the last and most powerful of his race.
I almost put Mad Men here, but I think Downton Abbey is a little more student-friendly and has similar alignments with HTRLLAP’s principles. I like it for reinforcing ideas from “It’s all political” and the chapters about sex. While Downton is relatively tame, any scene that implies or shows sex is usually more about communication and relationships. Likewise, there are other scenes that are more sexual in nature without showing anything at all.
After Anna is brutally raped, she hides it from her husband, nearly destroying their new marriage. In this scene, Bates finally confronts her and tells her that he knows. This tense scene implies the rebuilding of their marriage and Anna’s return to Bates’ bed, which she’s avoided since the rape. Pay particular attention to how Bates touches Anna and when she returns his touches at the end.
The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead is another show that is a bit out of my range, as I struggle with gore. However, in our discussions of How to Read Literature Like a Professor, my students often bring up The Walking Dead and its spinoffs. This show is built on a lot of biblical allusions and there are some good talking points for the significance of violence. Of course, geography, weather, and sidekicks apply too.
This showdown between Shane and Dale is great for biblical allusion and geography. Shane is often aligned with Satan himself, as Dale implies that Shane thrives in a loveless, godless world. The setting of this tense moment, in a lush and isolated swamp, adds to the effect as well.
Clips from Stranger Things are sure to be a hit, as many students follow it religiously. The show is rich with symbols and political interpretations. I also love it for explaining the danger of standing next to the hero. (SPOILERS AHEAD) The show’s brutal killings of Barb (season 1), Bob (season 2), and Alexei (season 3) all reinforce the message of this chapter.
This scene shows how dangerous it is to help the Hawkins crew in their attempts to take down the government or the Soviets. Even Alexei couldn’t be saved in a public place, as he’s shot for even associating with the wrong side.
Game of Thrones
While I don’t openly endorse Game of Thrones to my students due to its strong adult content, it does align with many principles from How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Its fantastical setting works well with geography, season, and allegories. Furthermore, it employs a unique array of characters that discuss being physically marked and blind. And of course, it has plenty of violence to analyze.
When Arya Stark is blinded by the many-faced God, Arya Stark is forced to live as a beggar. Although initially attacked on the street, the attacks force her to fight back, proving her warrior spirit still lives. Eventually she is invited to move to the temple and train as a warrior, using her heightened other senses to make her even stronger. This scene is perfect for reinforcing Foster’s teachings on blindness.
Check back soon for a similar post pairing How to Read Literature Like a Professor and movies for the classroom!
If you’re looking for more help with teaching How to Read Literature Like a Professor, check out my materials on Teachers Pay Teachers. I’ve got notes, bell-ringers, quizzes, and an interactive hyperdoc, all of which can be found in my HTRLLAP bundle.
Also, make sure you’re subscribed to my email list to be notified first for new blog posts, sales, and other strategies for teaching ELA and AP Lit.
Over the years, I’ve taught Hamlet over a dozen times and to several different levels of learners. In my first AP Lit teaching position I taught it since it was already in the curriculum. I loved its complexity and discussion potential, but I easily tired of what I perceived was Hamlet’s whiny personality.
When I moved schools in 2010, Hamlet was in my Shakespearean Lit curriculum and Macbeth was our AP Lit Shakespeare text. Since then, Hamlet has moved into AP Lit, and back out of it again. Today, it lives in my Shakespeare course. My Shakespearean text in AP Lit is King Lear (for right now), and that’s only if we have time for it.
I’ve wavered back and forth on my opinions on Hamlet. It seems like it hit its AP Lit hey day from 1994-2000. In that time, it was a fixture on suggested titles for Q3. In my time as an AP reader, Hamlet was so frequently analyzed (and abused) that I began to roll my eyes at it. However, when done well, essays on Hamlet can be some of the highest-scoring in the bunch. Here are the benefits and alternatives to teaching Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Note: In this post I share some links to Hamlet resources from my TpT store. All of these resources are included in my Hamlet bundle (they are not included in my AP Lit Full Course bundle, unfortunately). If you’re considering teaching Hamlet, this resource is geared for any level, not just AP!
The Benefits of Teaching Hamlet
Depictions of Grief
When I first began teaching Hamlet was overly dramatic, whining about his father’s death to avoid doing anything of purpose. Since then, I’ve really come around on our favorite Dane. Part of that transformation stemmed from witnessing my own father’s reaction to his mother’s death.
My grandmother passed away from cancer in 2005. She was preceded in death only a month earlier by my grandfather, who died from a massive heart attack while my grandma was in the shower. His death was so shocking and unexpected that our wounds were still raw when my grandma followed him only a month later, ironically on my 21st birthday. Several years later, I noticed my father grew irritated and moody at mentions of my grandma, my grandpa, or anyone else in his family. Relationships with his siblings grew more strained until they were officially estranged. I mentioned once to my other grandmother that he never seemed to get over his mother’s death. She responded, “Why doesn’t he just get over it? People die, you know!”
I’ve since watched my husband’s family grieve over the loss of my father-in-law, and in 2014 I lost my beloved grandfather, the man to whom I owe my love of story-telling. Grief is a universal feeling, however, everyone grieves differently. Some, like Gertrude, throw themselves into new adventures or even relationships. Others, like both Hamlet and my dad, need to feel that grief longer than others. And both are completely acceptable.
One of my favorite activities to pair with Hamlet is a discussion of the five stages of grief. In this free resource on TpT, students can track Hamlet’s progression through the five stages, and even discuss other Hamlet characters’ grief as well.
Range of Interpretations & Performances
Another benefit to teaching Hamlet is the rich variety of teaching possibilities it includes. It seems like almost every scene has multiple perceived meanings. Every line touches on at least one theme. There are so many quotes! So many big moments! And then, there’s the performances!
If you search for Hamlet on IMDB, you’ll find over 50 results. More than 50 performances you could share with your students. I like to show a variety of Hamlet interpretations to my students and let them pick a favorite. My three favorite to show in class are:
Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet starring Kenneth Branagh, 1996. Pure in dialogue, this movie skips no scenes or even lines, resulting in a very long film (over 4 hours!). It’s still rich in interpretation, however, moving the action to an updated baroque palace and making some bold choices in Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship.
Franco Zefferelli’s Hamlet starring Mel Gibson, 1990. While I don’t believe the acting in this one is very strong, it’s setting appears to be in medieval Denmark as the play depicts. Hamlet’s soliloquy from the castle’s catacombs is also useful for explaining themes for struggling readers.
Gregory Doran’s Hamlet starring David Tennant, 2009. Tennant’s t-shirt wearing Hamlet is a bit more zany and approachable with teenagers. Its modern setting helps students see the relevancy with this play, and its play-within-a-play scene is truly fun.
When we get to “To Be or Not to Be,” I show the same speech from all three of these performances (plus sometimes Benedict Cumberbatch’s, if I can access it!). Students take notes on the subtle differences in setting, props, movement, inflection, and other decisions. The repetition and variations allow them to fully appreciate this powerful speech, and the complex feelings behind Hamlet as he contemplates suicide.
It’s not hard for students to grasp that Hamlet is struggling with depression. Other than “to be or not to be,” Hamlet’s battle with self-doubt and uncertainty is present in every scene. However, Hamlet is not the only one experiencing mental health issues.
Can we talk about Ophelia for a moment? Poor Ophelia, who is constantly steered around by the men in her life? She slept with Hamlet because he asked her to (note, that’s my own personal inference). Then, she dumped Hamlet because her father and brother told her to. But if that’s not enough, her father then uses her as bait to see if Hamlet is truly mad. This results in the infamous “Get thee to a nunnery!” line. Ophelia must feel so conflicted and anxious, yet she has no one to talk to. Remember, she dumped Hamlet and Laertes is off at school. By the time Laertes returns, Polonius is dead, Hamlet is a wanted man, and Ophelia has become completely unhinged. If there isn’t enough material to analyze Hamlet psychologically, students will certainly find plenty to discuss with Ophelia.
One activity you can do to study Ophelia in depth is a deep dive in her final conversation with Laertes in Act IV. If you’re teaching Hamlet, this resource, as well as other scaffolded activities, are available in my Hamlet bundle on TpT.
Alternatives to Teaching Hamlet
While Hamlet is excellent and arguably Shakespeare’s greatest play, it comes with drawbacks. For one, it’s Shakespeare’s longest play. Secondly, it isn’t easy. In fact, it’s quite hard. Increased difficulty usually means more time, so it won’t be one you can tackle in two weeks. Finally, Shakespeare’s plays come with the inevitable language barrier, which will lead to increased confusion. A strong teacher will need good strategies to break down these language barriers.
If you’re looking for some alternatives to Hamlet that are still by the bard, consider these excellent texts:
Despite my love for Hamlet, Othello is my all-time favorite Shakespeare play. I wish Hamlet explored Claudius’ villainy and motives deeper, but we’re left to explore those mostly through inferences and his single soliloquy in Act III. Conversely, Othello gives us one of literature’s most masterful villains. My students delight in tracking Iago’s manipulations, calling him the ultimate puppet-master by the play’s end. Pair that with Othello’s own self-doubt and uncertainty due to his new marriage and his race, and you get a rigorous and engaging Shakespearean play.
The only play that I consider “harder” than Hamlet is King Lear. While Hamlet has more subtext, Lear has subtext plus a bunch of extra characters. The plot lines alone can spin your head. Furthermore, Lear shares conflicts like madness, rights of kingship, parents vs. children, political plotting with Hamlet. But it also has issues like sibling rivalry, loyalty vs. betrayal, and a classic love triangle to complicate matters. I recommend viewing Richard Eyre’s King Lear (on Amazon Prime) if studying Lear. This film is masterful.
This is a great choice if a) you’re crunched for time, or b) your students have little exposure to Shakespeare. Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, so it won’t take nearly the time that Hamlet will. Furthermore, its central theme of the corrupting influence of power is approachable and relevant with students. Although it may seem simple at the start, Macbeth is still rich in complexity and interpretation, making it an excellent addition to AP Lit. I highly recommend pairing it with Rupert Goold’s film starring Patrick Steward. This version is set in the Soviet Union with Macbeth resembling Joseph Stalin. It’s brilliant!
Why do we always overlook comedies? While my favorite Shakespearean comedy is Much Ado About Nothing, I don’t find it quite as complex as Twelfth Night when it comes to literary analysis. Twelfth Night brings a convoluted plot (hello secret identities), multiple love triangles, plus a fascinating depiction of orders of class in Shakespeare’s time. Of all the comedies, this is one considered the most “AP-worthy.” Plus, it gives you an excuse to show clips from She’s the Man, something my students love.
In short, I don’t have a finite answer to the initial question. I think that answer depends on your students’ exposure to Shakespeare and their educational background. Hamlet is certainly not one size fits all, so while one class may adore it another may hate it. Another thing to consider is that the 2020-2021 school year has been filled with unknowns and a great deal of global tragedy. There is no shame in abandoning Hamlet, which discusses depression and suicide at length, for something lighter like a comedy. Or, in a different approach, it could be a great time to study Othello, Shakespeare’s only play with a black protagonist.
I just finished a six-week series on issues on inclusivity and accessibility in AP English Literature. When I speak of inclusivity I refer to representation of both students and authors in this course. In accessibility, I discuss issues of gatekeeping, differentiation, and workload for AP students. Here is a recap of the six blog posts in case you missed them.
This blog posts presents four simple ways to determine if a book is considered rigorous enough for AP Lit. While showcasing challenging texts, it still embraces works that are engaging and not too high-brow.
One common request among AP teachers is for more texts that are more diverse and representative of our student bodies. This blog posts collects hundreds of novels, plays, short stories, poems, memoirs, and other selections by non-white authors to help diversify and enrich your AP curriculum.
This post presents a more practical presentation of my lessons from the first few weeks of AP English Lit. In it I explain how I establish rigor, build engagement, and lay the foundation for our work ahead.
This post shares 12 engaging but unconventional books for using in AP Lit. These books are perfect for reaching noncommittal, picky, or slow readers with rich and unconventional plots. While these may be more approachable than traditional “canon” books, each is rigorous enough to analyze in a high-scoring essay.
This blog posts discusses strategies and ideas for reducing the classic heavy workloads in AP English. Our students struggle with higher than ever levels of mental illness and anxiety, compounded with being involved in almost everything. These strategies will reduce busywork, help streamline student and teacher work, and ultimately create a better work environment for you and your students.
In this final blog post, I share fellow teachers’ opinions on the issues I’ve been discussing over the previous weeks. The survey data shows a decrease in gatekeeping, resulting in broader and more diverse student representation in AP classes. Furthermore, teachers share strategies for incorporating strategies of differentiation, diversity, and decreasing the workloads of our students.
As I look back on these posts on inclusivity and accessibility, I’m grateful for the opportunity to research and share some of these ideas and strategies for improving AP courses. However, I have learned a great deal myself. I have learned to be more considerate in selecting classroom texts. I’m beginning to move on from a lot of my “classic” curriculum and I’m reading newer and more diverse authors and perspectives. I’m hoping my voracious reading will begin a ripple effect in my students to pick up something new, something different, or something challenging.
For more teaching resources and strategies, subscribe to my email list and visit my TpT store. All of my AP Lit resources have been updated to reflect the new CED and are used in my own classroom!
I first began this series on representation, and inclusivity in AP Lit in early July. Our country was going through a civil rights movement I had never experienced before, at least not in my own lifetime and in my own hometown. I spent a good amount of time silently reading and reflecting, until a follower on Instagram messaged me. Although I’ve never met this person, I’ll never forget the conversation.
She said: Reading and teaching the great works of Black authors is a step. Using your voice & platform to speak against anti-racist practice is another. I replied: I never feel informed or qualified enough to speak up–how do you know when to listen versus when to speak? She said: When you feel courageous.
This shook me.
I looked back at my 14 year career as an AP Lit teacher at private schools in the midwest and felt like I wasn’t qualified to speak up. My student population doesn’t vary much in race or socio-economic class. Furthermore, I’ve made a career out of doling out advice to AP teachers. Sometimes, we take for granted that our students are often “the best of the best.”
But then, I thought about what it meant to be brave. To be brave meant calling out institutions like the College Board for establishing years of gatekeeping in AP classes. It also meant exposing my own shortfalls in offering diverse voices in my reading material, and sharing the research I was conducting on a nightly basis. Finally, one thing I did feel qualified in doing was sharing strategies to reduce student workload and meet the needs of all students in AP classes, not just “the best of the best.”
I’ve come to the end of my series, which I’ll recap next week (and offer myself a much needed week off as I approach the start of a new school year). But when I sat down to brainstorm this 6-week series, one thing I knew I wanted to do was share the ideas, strategies, and opinions of other AP teachers facing the same issues. Over the course of 6 weeks I’ve surveyed almost 75 people and will share my findings here. Some contributed enough to say that they struggle with these issues, which gave me hope. I no longer feel like a someone who has to have all the answers. Instead, I am a veteran teacher seeking answers among my peers, among published works, and among those in the education field internationally.
I’m listing the questions I asked in my survey verbatim below. I’ll quote some of the most helpful or profound answers, then bullet point additional thoughts and trends. All answers were recorded anonymously.
Question 1 – What kind of admission policy does your school or district have for taking AP classes? Check all that apply.
The results were:
Minimum GPA requirement – 4%
Entrance exam – 2%
Minimum test score requirement – 6%
A prerequisite course (such as AP Lang) – 15%
Teacher recommendation – 36%
My school has no prerequisite – 62%
Other (these responses included administrator, guidance counselor, or parent requests or overrides) – 15%
These responses surprised me in a good way. I expected there to be systems of gatekeeping in place in almost every school, but it sounds like that is phasing out. While there are still complaints about systems where all students must take AP Lit, it feels like the antiquated system of keeping curious learners out of the class is going.
By the way, if you’re unfamiliar with the concept of gatekeeping, I encourage you to do some research about it. Simply defined, gatekeeping refers to the act of choosing who can access certain materials, services, or information. It is present in healthcare, psychology, journalism, economics, and many other spheres. This includes education. When people refer to gatekeeping in education, they are discussing systems like entrance exams, minimum GPAs, teacher recommendations, and other requirements designed to keep certain students out of a particular class or educational experience.
Question 2 – What strategies do you use to reach reluctant or low-level readers?
I make sure to check in with the student individually every day. Sometimes a social check-in, other times during an assignment, and other times to go over the feedback I’ve given on their assignments. I also say things like “you’re going to love this story/character/etc.”
I try to find what they are interested in. Sometimes, they need non-fiction. I had one kid who finally dove into manga and then got really into reading. You just have to show them all the possibilities.
Just try to get them excited about reading, peer pressure in a class with rigorous expectations. I can work with kids who are “lower” if they have work ethic and willingness to work.
Finding books etc that intrigue them, sometimes reading aloud passages to get them “hooked”- seating arrangements that are based on collaboration and doing lots of discussion based activities, incorporating art and artistic projects.
I begin by helping them find the right reading material. Then, I continuously rework my lessons in order to make them more collaborative and engaging. When all my best intentions are realized, my students read because they’re excited to be a part of the conversation and community we’ve created in our classroom.
I try to pick highly engaging text. I do a lot of I do, we do, you do. And I use film clips.
I read a number of pieces aloud and incorporate class discussion. I believe even my strong readers can benefit from hearing a piece, allowing them, as well as their lower peers, to better recognize tone and detail they may miss in independent reading.
Other responses and trends:
By far, the most frequent and emphatic answer to this question was student choice. This could be through independent reading or even books in the curriculum, teachers indicated that student choice equals student buy-in, thus more engagement.
Many indicated group activities such as partner sharing and jigsawing activities to help engage and assist lower-level students.
Teachers mentioned using scaffolded assignments and graphic organizers rather than constant writing assignments to gauge understanding.
Many teachers mentioned using audio recordings or teacher read-alouds to model proper reading and engage students.
Question 3 – What tips and strategies do you have for keeping the workload manageable for slower readers, busy students, and the learning disabled?
I think teachers themselves have to have a growth mindset. And we need to look at what we want all learners to gain from being in our class.
Less is more. I don’t need to teach 5 novels throughout the year. I can teach skills with fewer texts and go deeper.
All assignments are planned to include time in class to complete all work for average ability students, so nothing needs to be done outside of class time. The students with LDS work with an inclusion teacher and have their assignments modified to suit their learning needs.
I make all audio that’s available in the public domain available for my students. I also make most of the homework reading only and spend class time doing discussions, activities, etc.
Do work that is appropriate for their level. They are not in competition with the person next to them. Their goal is to improve- not to one-up the person beside them.
We do must work in class. Reading is the only homework I generally assign. We do analysis efficiently using graphic organizers and collaboration rather than a long, tedious list of questions to answer. I look for big picture analysis strategies that apply to almost anything and focus on those rather than learning all the literary terms.
A calendar for each text with built in time to catch up. I also put in the syllabus due dates are flexible if we have an honest, open discussion before the day something is due.
Other responses and trends:
Common answers revolved around constant communication, such as weekly meetings, regularly posted reading schedules, office hours, and emails home when a student is falling behind.
Many teachers rely on group work with specialized pairings (struggling student with stronger, mentor student) to help foundering students
Several indicated giving no homework other than reading, or completing all reading during class time.
Some said they simply ask students to practice time management skills and use calendars to indicate due dates.
Other were much more hands-on, devoting times before school, during lunch, after school, and even on Saturdays for struggling students.
Question 4 – How do you establish rigor and uphold a strong work ethic while also maintaining an inclusive classroom for multiple learning levels?
Rigor is about being at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy, not about work load or work “difficulty.” I can provide rigor without overwhelming students who are also taking three or four other honors/AP classes. I spend the first quarter chunking writing into very short, manageable assignments that are quick to grade for me and doable for the students. I can turn these around immediately and give feedback to students who are struggling. Because I can see where students are with these minute skills, I can schedule quick in-class conferences and get in front of issues with students who are lagging behind.
The standards are still expected but I might work more one-on-one with a small group of students or a single student on a skill. I use conferencing for all students to meet them where they are and push them forward.
A lot of assignments are projects, so students are challenged to think independently, creatively, and to create original content. The various levels of learners generally rise to those challenges. Modified rubrics are applied when necessary according to the level of learner.
I track individual progress so that students get rigor appropriate for them. Students compare their work to their own previous work, not a peer’s grade, to see improvements for themselves.
I expect each student to work to the best of their ability, whatever that may be. Conferencing is an important element of helping all students succeed.
Have clear expectations, build relationships with students, and ask critical questions, and give a variety of writing assignments and have many class discussions.
Other responses and trends:
While there were many strong answers, this was the most skipped question in my survey. Furthermore, several commented that they struggle with this the most, or that COVID-related changes, such as virtual instruction or the lack of group work, would hinder this more than anything else. In short, teachers seemed to be the most frustrated in answering this question.
Many teachers cited methods like scaffolding, conferencing, and revisions to help students reach goals. Many also emphasized the importance of individual goals rather than group goals.
Some answers indicated a more classic model, where students are expected to advocate for themselves. Teachers follow any IEPs, but other than that no modifications or conferences were done.
More, however, indicated making modifications and spending lots of time in conferences to help struggling students.
I got very few answers referencing particular learning styles, which I found surprising.
Question 5 – What suggestions, strategies, or ideas do you have to increase representation of all students in AP Lit? This includes diversity in race, religion, socioeconomic class, gender, sexuality, and more.*
*Due to a user error in creating the survey, question 5 was omitted for the first half of those taking the survey.
Give them choice reading, do book talks with them, offer a class library, ask kids for suggestions on books, podcasts, IG accounts that they like and let them share. Expand GENRES for lit classes. Graphic novels (like Persepolis), novels in verse (like A Long Way Down), collections of short stories from diverse voices.
I vary my choices of poetry and short stories from recent publications, such as The New Yorker, and I offer three choice texts from a list that includes many writers and works.
Seeing themselves in the texts they read and in the way we value the stories that are told. Using critical theory to recognize power relationships. Connecting texts to current events and putting value in both the struggles and the joy of these lives.
The more welcoming and interesting the content is the more students want to take the course. The more willing the teacher is to use grading and discussion as a measurement of success and a source for praise the more confident the students are about staying in the class.
This is a systemic problem. Students take AP Lit at my school senior year, so by then they have been told for their entire school career where they belong. I try to make sure my students and prospective students know that anyone can take the course. I also try to include works to be more inclusive of the under represented.
Boot the canon and be open to contemporary texts; let students collaborate; emphasize community rather than competition; allow students to be experts in their own cultures.
I teach in a very conservative school that restricts the diversity of the texts we read; however, I try to get students to examine the material from multiple perspectives through our discussions. They pay attention to whose voices we are not hearing. I am also going to try to use the Living Poets resources to add more voices in a “less threatening way.”
Using texts that are representative. You can still have rigor without using dead, white guys as the text.
Other responses and trends:
Once again, student choice was a popular response for this question.
Many teachers expressed frustration with the canon or their district’s selected text, but supplement their curriculum with diverse voices and perspectives through poetry, short fiction, and classroom libraries.
Respondents emphasized the need to discuss all literature the context it was written and in the context of our current way of life. Text pairing and aligning it with current events were suggested ideas.
Others suggested using critical lenses or other literary theories to help students gain critical thinking skills as they examine their school’s texts.
Several suggested that this issue needs to be addressed earlier, putting more representative works (particularly in sexuality and race) in the hands of middle school and elementary students.
As I look back on the responses in this survey, I’m heartened by the overwhelming desire expressed by AP teachers who want to teach all students and want to improve our levels of representation. However, there were outliers who expressed views that AP is for select students only. Some said that differentiation and scaffolding were unneeded in an advanced class. Others even expressed views that diversity and inclusivity were not important concerns for teachers of AP Lit. While I find these expressions disappointing, I believe they reflect an outdated view of the College Board and the Advanced Placement program. Overall, it feels like most of us want to reach all students without watering down a strong academic program.
I write this as I muse upon last night’s Mosaic professional development session with David Miller. Like the rest of the crowd, I found David’s message and way of speaking calming and invigorating at the same time. The presentation had a profound effect on me, breaking through the barrier that had built up over five months of unrest, anxiety, and uncertainty. David Miller said one thing that seemed to affect his listeners the most:
Literature is a verb.
Before he was even finished, I began planning out an activity that I hoped would intrigue new students and cultivate the idea that literary analysis is a journey, not a skill. In normal days I would have planned this as a gallery walk, but instead I focused on a lesson that could be done in a classroom with social distancing, or virtually (both synchronously and asynchronously). I’m happy to be able to share it with you.
Step 1 – Lesson Prep
The prep for this lesson isn’t difficult. You simply select 4-8 selections of literature and prepare them to be printed or posted to your students. I have an editable example made for download, here. For my lesson, I have chosen the following pieces of literature:
Poem – “what the cicada said to the black boy” by Clint Smith
Novel excerpt – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Poem – “Warning” by Jenny Joseph
Nonfiction excerpt – Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston
Poem – “Follower” by Seamus Heaney
Novel excerpt – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Step 2 – Reading the Excerpts
To begin the lesson, distribute your excerpts randomly among your students. If teaching in person, hand out the poems evenly and indiscriminately to your students. If teaching virtually, assign them in a random order. Students are given simple tasks:
Examine your excerpt. Then, respond as best as you can to the following questions:
What does it mean?
How do you know?
Why does it matter?
(Thank you to the member from Mosaic who put these simplified questions in the chat. I didn’t catch your name, but they were perfect)
Encourage students to annotate their texts and prepare answers to each question. If this is happening in class, five minutes should be enough time for each student to prepare a perfunctory answer.
Step 3 – Literature is a Verb
In class, ask all students who have excerpt 1 to stand in place. After reading the piece aloud (or playing a performance), ask each student to share his or her reflections on the three questions. Encourage alternative answers, even opening it up to the rest of the class. If possible, highlight a line or phrase from the text and ask them to process questions 1, 2, and 3 just for that line. Continue with the second text, gathering responses from those students, and so on through all of the excerpts.
To hammer home the “literature is a verb” concept, students need to understand that analysis of literature is not a black and white process. Above all, seek interpretation rather than one right answer. The role of the teacher here would be to provide context info for the text when requested or needed. Otherwise just guide, push, and expand on students’ answers. They may be hesitant to participate at first, but as questions and theories are accepted and celebrated, more will begin to feel creative and start thinking outside the box. However, the beauty of question 2 (how do you know?) will keep the theories grounded. They’ll soon learn that interpretations are welcome, but must be supported by the text to stand at all.
Why does it matter?
Question 3 (why does it matter?) is ultimately the most important. This is the question that links literature to purpose and emotions, usually by connecting it to social movements and personal feelings. On the surface, only one of my chosen texts directly alludes to a political or social movement. However, upon digging deeper into all of the texts, profound statements on social norms and emotions are present:
Clint Smith’s poem discusses feelings of oppression and police hostility. This poem is the most explicit in the “why does it matter” discussion.
Eleanor Oliphant is struggling with ghosts in her past and a deep, decades-long struggle with depression and mental illness.
“Warning” discusses social norms and expectations, and a hidden delight in breaking them.
Hurston’s Barracoon is an emotional anthropological study of identity and freedom, from the perspective of one of the last people to be enslaved and shipped to America.
Heaney’s “Follower” delicately examines a shifting balance in aging generations, as a son becomes the caregiver to his father.
And the unspoken conflicts from Pride and Prejudice discuss the social and gender norms of the 19th century. Plus Darcy’s willingness to comment on them outright says even more.
In discussing literature as a verb, David Miller explained that it needs to be practiced. He also said:
Literature is more caught than taught.
The importance in doing any of this is to emphasize the discussion, the insight, and the exploration of literature. We are not giving them tools that help illuminate “the one and only right answer.” Instead, we are trying to cultivate tools that help them read actively, find evidence, and explore meaning in text and in life.
If this is being done virtually, the lesson can continue unmodified if it is a live, synchronous lesson. If this is a recorded or asynchronous lesson, these questions can be moved to a discussion forum or virtual website like Flipgrid.
I have two intentions to follow up this lesson. The first is that I intend to close the lesson explaining that “literature is a verb” is a lifestyle. Too often I have students who take AP Lit and expect to walk out of class earning a 5 based on my instruction alone. I want them to learn that high-scoring students are not only strong writers, but they are readers. If they want to learn more, than they need to live out literature as a verb.
My other intention is to continue the lesson as a homework assignment. I could invite each student to choose an excerpt (as they were assigned one the first time). They would then continue answering questions for 1, 2, and 3, modeling the practice we experienced in class. The other option is to allow students to choose their own excerpt and apply 1, 2, and 3 to it. I think I am going to go this route and ask them to find an excerpt from their summer reading (a choice novel from a cultivated list) to practice on.
To conclude, I want to reflect on one more moment from David Miller’s presentation. He shared how he passed along one of his novels from college to his mother. When his mother approached, book in hand, she startled him with an intriguing question. She said, “I see that you’ve underlined parts of this book. How did you know what parts to underline?”
That story resonated so much with me personally. I come from a very logically-oriented family. My father is a reader but not a sharer, and my mom and brother don’t read for pleasure. My husband, while an occasional reader, is an accountant. He and I live in different worlds when it comes to books. I love these people, but they don’t understand how I “see” when I read. I’ve even had a co-worker, a fellow English teacher, ask me this question. She put it this way, “how do you know where the analysis is?” I realized that this person had never been given the chance to love literature, to explore it and to apply it. This ability to read and underline is something that many of us take for granted. Perhaps this lesson, and David Miller’s insights in general, can help us guide those readers who are simply looking for the parts to underline.