Before you read this, it’s important to know something: this is not a post about the canon. Or, maybe it is. What I mean is, this is not a discussion of books being “AP-worthy” because they’re in the literary canon. Frankly, I’m sick of the canon and all it represents. I’m not going to advocate reading books just because they are part of an elite and nebulous club of mostly-white authors. Conversely, this is the first in a six week blog post series about inclusivity in AP English Literature. This week’s focus: pairing your students with engaging books that will work for AP learners. Let’s begin…
What do we mean when we say AP-worthy?
Most AP English Literature teachers are avid readers. As we read, we are constantly asking ourselves, “Is this a book I want to share with my students?” If we really like it, it becomes, “Is this a book I want to teach in class?” But the real question we’re always asking is, “Is this AP-worthy?”
Determining a book’s “worthiness” of being in an AP English Literature class is a messy, convoluted process. The teacher must consider the book’s:
Rigor/Complexity – This one is easy. I love a Mary Higgins Clark book now and then, but I know my girl’s not complex.
Length – Sadly, we’re racing against a clock. Invisible Man is a fantastic book to teach, but it takes approximately 5-6 weeks to study it as a class. That’s a big consideration.
Intended Audience – By this I mean we want books written for an adult reader but with issues that students can relate to as well.
Relevant social issues – I think this is the number one reason that 19th century literature is fading away. It’s hard to get my students to empathize with poor Elizabeth Bennet who’s being pressured to find a husband. That’s not a very relatable issue today.
Readability – Another reason that the classics are losing traction is that the Lexile level of those books is very high, while our students’ median reading level is gradually declining. You want to challenge your students, but you also want them to be able to understand it without you.
Controversial content – These rules vary by school or district. Many AP Lit teachers are free to choose their content without question, but many others must answer to administrators, school boards, or parents frequently.
Appropriateness – By this I don’t mean questionable content, but psychological content or potential for triggers. For example, I wouldn’t recommend Sapphire’s Push to just anyone, especially if I learned the intended reader had a history of sexual trauma.
…and that’s just a start. Personally, I feel like I have a fairly strong reading habit. I read fast, and I try to get through 20-25 new books a year. But in comparison to the books that are used on the AP Lit exam, or even worse, the books that are discussed on the AP Lit Facebook pages, I can never keep up.
It took a long time to learn this lesson, but I’m learning that there will be no way to read all the books. I read what I can when I can, and I pray that heaven has a library. But that’s not the point of this blog post.
4 Quick Questions: Is this book AP-worthy?
I believe you can determine if a book has a place in your AP Lit classroom or the hands of your students by asking 4 quick questions. If you can answer “yes” to all four questions, I believe the book is “AP worthy.” You can even teach it if you’re able to find the time and materials, but if not, you can allow it into your independent reading library.
Disclaimer 1: These are not published rules or endorsed by College Board. They are the questions I ask myself before I teach or endorse a book as being “AP-worthy,” learned from 15 years of teaching experience in AP English Literature.
Disclaimer 2: I do not have prerequisites or entrance exams in my AP Lit class, and I thoroughly believe that any willing student belongs in my AP Lit class. If they’re willing to work hard and listen to feedback, I would love to teach them. Because my class is focused on inclusiveness, I sometimes get students who are reluctant readers, English language learners, or that read far below grade level. I use these 4 quick questions to decide if a high-interest, “non-classic” book will work for them in particular.
Question #1 – Is it written for an adult audience?
Before you attack me, I am not saying that young adult books cannot be used in an AP Lit classroom. In fact, The Hate U Give is rapidly becoming a staple in AP Lit classes, which is wonderful! But the difference between The Hate U Give and Diary of a Wimpy Kid is that THUG can be enjoyed by young adults and adults, while Wimpy Kid is really meant just for kids. (Believe it or not, I had a smart aleck ask me to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid just last year, so that is why I’m using it as an example).
To determine if the book passes this test, ask yourself if the book presents adult problems in an approachable way for young readers, or kid problems that adults don’t really face. Here are some that come to mind:
Adult Problems for Younger Readers
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Kid Problems for Young Readers
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maude Montgomery
One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
This one may be the hardest to determine, so follow your gut. I also don’t usually allow a student to read a book that is significantly below their reading level. If I know they can handle more complex material, I push them to do so.
Question #2 – Is it a Stand-Alone Novel?
This one breaks a lot of hearts, but I don’t consider works that are a part of a series to be AP-worthy. And it is not because they are not good enough, or rigorous enough, or readable. If you know me personally you know that I have a great many Harry Potter decorations in my office, so I’ve got nothing but love for many works in a series. Here’s why I don’t allow them: it becomes impossible to analyze a topic thoroughly when it’s a work in a series.
In 2016, I scored for Q3 (the open question) on the AP Lit exam. That year’s prompt was about a character who deceives others and it was a joy to grade. I got one essay that discussed Severus Snape and my heart did a little cartwheel. I mean come on, analyzing Severus Snape as a character who deceives? And analyzing the effect of this deception? I could have read a whole book on that topic…and that was the problem with it. To analyze Snape’s deception would have taken a whole book to do it properly! Consider, it took J.K. Rowling 7 books to fully lay out that character. How can one student do the question justice in only 40 minutes?
Therefore, I always veto works in a series.* When students fight me, I explain the Snape example and they understand. It’s not the depth that’s the problem with works in a series, it’s the width. There’s simply too much material to cover in a short time frame.
*I thought of one exception! There are some novels that originate a series that comes later, but can be studied as a standalone work. One that comes to mind is Fredrik Backman’s Bear Town. I’d allow a student to analyze Bear Town in an essay, but not its sequel Us Against You, because it relies on plot and character information from both novels to work.
Question #3 – Does it Pass the 2009 Test?
This needs some explanation. I’m not sure what was going on with the College Board in 2009, but the open questions it produced that year were broad. And I mean, laughably broad. Here was the 2009 open question:
A symbol is an object, action, or event that represents something or that creates a range of associations beyond itself. In literary works a symbol can express an idea, clarify meaning, or enlarge literal meaning. Select a novel or play and, focusing on one symbol, write an essay analyzing how that symbol functions in the work and what it reveals about the characters or themes of the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot.
Basically, students had to analyze a symbol. When you think about it, almost every book has a symbol, or at least one that you could argue. (This doesn’t have to be a BIG SYMBOL, like Gatsby’s green light or Paul D’s red tobacco tin heart. User-argued symbols count!) The purpose behind this test is to look for rigor. If a symbol is not evident in a book at all, it may not be rigorous enough to teach complexity to AP Lit students.
Question #4 – Does it Pass the other 2009 Test?
If you thought the 2009 question was too simple, it gets worse. Check out the Form B question for the same year:
Many works of literature deal with political or social issues. Choose a novel or play that focuses on a political or social issue. Then write an essay in which you analyze how the author uses literary elements to explore this issue and explain how the issue contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot.
In other words, the 2009 Form B question asks, does the book focus on relevant political or social issues? Notice that I threw the word “relevant” in there, since I also firmly believe that some books that were “classics” need to be relieved because their “cultural context” has drastically changed (I’m looking at you, Huck Finn). This question is used to determine if the student will learn anything relevant about their life and society during the reading. If a book with a symbol has rigor, then a book with a strong political or social issue has relevance.
The tiny flaw in my system…
Now, one caveat I’ve realized that to answer all four of these questions, there’s a good chance you’ll need to have read it yourself. Obviously if the book just won the Pulitzer (hello, Nickel Boys!) you can allow it, but there may be other books that you’ve just never heard of. This presents a tough problem: do you deny a book simply because you haven’t had time to read it? I used to say yes, but now I say no. I either read it myself or I turn to my community of AP teachers on Facebook and get the answers to these questions. If I haven’t read it, someone there has, 100% of the time.
Let me sum up
There you have it, those are my 4 quick questions to determine a novel’s place in your classroom. To recap, here they are:
Before I close, I want to throw in one final suggestion: try to let your students read what they want to read. So your student wants to use their independent reading time to read a short, contemporary text and you’d rather they read a gothic novel. Hey, guess what? They’re still reading. And please, if a student comes to you begging to read a book for class, be wary about shutting them down. Of course there are exceptions (I actually had someone ask about Fifty Shades of Gray once), but it’s still dangerous behavior. When a kid has passion for a book, please don’t kill it.
I’ve used this strategy to include some nonconventional texts in my AP Lit class over the years, some of which have gone on to be our most popular and meaningful works. They may not be referenced on the AP Lit exam, but they passed my test with flying colors and my students loved them. These include Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, Room by Emma Donoghue, Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, and even Andy Weir’s The Martian.
What criteria do you consider when determining if a text is “AP-worthy?” What do you think of my “4 quick questions” strategy? Let me know in the comments! To learn more about independent reading my AP Lit classroom, check out this blog post, and to look for resources for your favorite novels and plays check out my TpT store.
Confession: I did not participate in the 2020 AP Lit Scoring. It was a combination of screen fatigue, lack of childcare, and skepticism towards my ability to learn the new online scoring methods. Now that the reading has ended I am happy I abstained, simply because I know I would never have gotten through the allotted 5 hour work day requirement.
That being said, I still want to be a vessel of help for AP Lit teachers, especially those new to the game. For that reason I’ve interviewed several people who did participate in the scoring who can give you some focused feedback on the writing process and the new rubric. Please use their tips going forward in your own classroom, sharing with your students as needed. Make sure you read to the end, where I share a few other nuggets of wisdom I got from the readers on Facebook.
Susan – 18 years in education, 8 years teaching AP Lit, 5 years as an AP Reader, 2020 Pilot Reading participant.
Donna – 17 years in education, 16 years teaching AP Lit, 11 years of AP Reading, 3 years as a table leader, 1 year on the selection team.
Eric – 15 years in education, 7 years teaching AP Lit, 6 years of AP Reading, 2020 Pilot Reading participant.
Angela – 14 years teaching AP Lit, first year reader.
Sarah – 19 years in education, 12 years teaching AP Lit, first year reader.
Dionne – 22 years in education, 11 years teaching AP Lit, 2nd year reading.
Q1: What advice do you have regarding the thesis point?
ANSWER THE PROMPT. I’m amazed at how many students do say why a character or relationship or whatever the prompt specifies is complex but rather just lists a couple of devices the author uses and starts writing. Strong essays answer the prompt up front then spend the rest of the essay defending that answer.
In general, I’d say about 90-95% of the essays I read received the point. A significant number of them didn’t place the thesis at the beginning of the essay, which is not a requirement, but the development of the argument can be much harder to follow if the thesis comes at the end. I would strongly encourage students to try to place their thesis in the first paragraph for their own benefit. If the student isn’t sure what their thesis is, I tell them to leave 1-2 blank lines and go back at the end. Essays that did not receive the thesis point generally were wildly off topic or simply restated the prompt without ever presenting any further information about the devices or techniques used in the prompt.
Students should be sure that their thesis goes beyond merely restating the prompt or parroting the words in the prompt. It needs to expand beyond a list of devices and answer the HOW by connecting author’s choices to a bigger idea about the character or setting.
Move beyond the prompt to an assertion. Make a claim, make an assertion. Answer the prompt. It seems to have become cliché to say that. Listing devices and techniques does not constitute as a thesis statement. Too many turn the prompt question to a statement listing devices and do not answer the prompt with an assertion.
The essays with a clearly written thesis in the intro, either as a stand alone intro or incorporated into a broader paragraph tended to be the higher scoring essays. However, I was diligent about accepting a thesis as long as it was somewhere in the essay. Many students, however, wrote what they thought was a clear thesis but did not actually address the prompt. For example, “The author used imagery, characterization , and tone to describe the relationship between Maggie and Tom.” No mention of what relationship or how it is a COMPLEX relationship.
Q2: What advice do you have on the line of reasoning points?
I taught my kids to ‘come full circle every paragraph.’ Tie in their explanations and proof with their main idea and assertion from the thesis statement.
Connections: Move from one point that connects to another point. Think about connections and flow. Now, this may be quite hard to accomplish in 45 minutes- Practice, practice, practice. This will reveal the line of reasoning.
In general, essays that scored 4 points on evidence and commentary discussed two (or more) literary techniques/devices and that discussion was part of a larger, developed argument (LINE OF REASONING) that connected to the thesis without difficulty. Essays that scored 3 in this category generally focused on one device/technique or left out key elements or evidence, but still offered good analysis that supported the LINE OF REASONING. Papers that scored 2 would use specific and relevant evidence from the text but often left out any analysis: mentioning that there was a use of onomatopoeia in the passage without explaining the purpose or effect of that use (with little more support) would often fall in the range of a 2. Essays that scored a 1 would make casual reference to the text and/or literary techniques/devices without much analysis, or would engage in mostly plot summary with little analysis.
Make sure each topic sentence and commentary supports and ties back to the thesis.
Be sure that the elements discussed in the line of reasoning are ones that can be explained fully and that can connect back to the character’s complexity and WHY the author chose to include them. For example, many students chose point of view as a literary device yet did not really address how it impacted the portrayal of the character’s complexity. Simply mentioning it is not sufficient to develop the argument. Choose the devices that you can use to build the most meaningful argument (Other choices that yielded weak results were alliteration and onomatopoeia.) Often, essays lacked supportive details to sustain an argument about the character.
Q3: For students who scored well in the line of reasoning, what were the best strategies?
Addressing the nuances and details in the passage instead of just the obvious tended to “deepen” the line of reasoning.The better essays were those that could discuss elements like irony, sarcasm, and humor in a way that supported the character’s complexity. These essays went beyond the obvious literary elements and showed the student’s ability to think critically about a character whom they just met.
Students consistently showed a progression of ideas or how points built upon or extended prior points as opposed to stating the same argument over and over.
The students who organized their essay chronologically were the easiest to score. There were some who organized by devices, which was effective if they actually saw how the author uses the devises to illustrate the relationship’s complexity (and say what they think the complexity actually is, because so many just used the word complex without ever saying what they see as the complexity).
Students whose lines of reasoning (arguments) were the most coherent had a clear thesis and connected the author’s use of literary devices/techniques to that thesis. Students need to analyze and not just identify the techniques/devices: mentioning that there is a humorous tone will not be enough-a good essay discusses specific examples of humor (diction, imagery, details) and explains how they create that tone. To get 4/4, the student needed to analyze two or more devices.
The really good papers didn’t just list what techniques they saw and why, they went into how those techniques came back to the main idea.
Q4: What advice do you have on the complexity point?
This was by far the biggest glaring issue that came out of my scoring is that so, so many of the students did not see any complexity in the passage. Many just repeated in various ways that the siblings were loving, kind, etc. They missed all the subtleties or just completely misread the relationship. They either do not have enough practicewith 19th century texts and their language and customs, or the students just haven’t had enough practice writing thesis that articulate explicitly these subtleties. The ones who did get it wrote beautiful essays tying in the Victorian norms of gender, but those were so few and far between. The middle ones saw that there was something beneath the surface and tried to discuss that dynamic, but maybe didn’t quite get the depth.
Students who were able to analyze their interpretation within a broader context throughout the essay typically earned the sophistication point. I think this is the easiest way to earn the sophistication point.
In class I hit this hard, and after seeing the essays my kids wrote, I know I need to keep hitting it hard. I explain this as “opposing adjectives.” I use the example that my son, who is 10, finished elementary school. On one hand, I am so excited for him to start middle school this coming year! But, at the same time, he’s my baby boy – it kind of breaks my heart that he’s growing up. THAT is complexity. I am both happy and sad. So, I use that as an example and I ask my kids to address that constantly throughout the year. Many of the papers I saw were NOT addressing the complexity.
“Complex” it is an abstract word that must be made concrete for the reader. What is it about the character that is complex, (different parts that can be connected)? Be very specific and connect one point to the other in character study.
Students should delve beneath the surface. For example, if the author provided physical descriptions of a character, then determine WHY the author would do so. What do those physical descriptions have to do with the character’s internal psychological conflict or conflict with the world at large? Students should ask themselves…what makes this character complex? These are not one-dimensional, flat characters. Seek to identify what is confusing or unpredictable in the passage and then tie that to the character’s persona. Consider the interaction (or lack thereof) with the setting or with other characters. What does this reveal?
The most common avenue for getting the sophistication point that I saw was to analyze in the broader social context. Students who did this often used tools from other course, most notably psychology, to offer a psychoanalytic framework to analyze the character. To get the point, this analysis needs to be pervasive and run throughout the essay. A casually passed-off reference to psychology isn’t sufficient for the sophistication point. The other avenues of the point were less common, most notably the “alternative interpretations” aspect. Identifying or exploring tensions in the passage was more common. The fourth avenue, being “stylistically vivid and persuasive throughout the essay”, is a higher bar than it may seem to be. I think many classroom teachers will want to give their students this point because they are generally strong writers, but essays that receive the sophistication point need to be truly breathtaking in their prose.
Q5: What other advice do you have for students writing their essays?
Take time to read and annotate the passage before you write. Have a plan (pre-write or outline) before you begin. Develop a thesis and muster evidence to support that thesis. If you are not sure what your thesis is, leave 1-2 blank lines and go back as soon as you can figure it out.
Every essay is an argument. Take a position about the character (or setting or whatever the focus of the prompt is). Then PROVE your argument with support from the passage that you lay out in a logical manner. Planning ahead is essential. Row B of the rubric is the “pot of gold”—use it as an opportunity to create and sustain a supportable argument.
When I first begin to teach the Q2, I have my students break down the prompts into the minute questions and we talk about how many questions they have to answer. After reading 2 years in a row, my plan is to have them address the question of the prompt first – write out a list of evidence for their relationship and how it is complex. THEN go back and look for the literary elements. Again, the more sophisticated essays did not list and apply the literary elements; instead, they discussed the relationship and merely tied in the literary elements as they appeared. Those essays were much more smooth, their ideas and transitions having solid ground.
Do not worry about listing the devices you plan to discuss, instead address the complexity (i.e. a shift) and tie to a deeper theme.
Study character complexity–make it a standard in character development analysis. Make it real for them. This practice helps with narrative writing and college essay writing. Exercises where the students do character analysis on people they know and/or themselves are beneficial.
This is not just a writing test; it’s a thinking test. Take your time reading, thinking about, and outline the passage before jumping into writing.
Q6: What advice do you have for AP Lit teachers preparing to teach their students this fall?
Every year when I start stressing about all I need to cover during the year, I remind myself that if my students are reading and writing on a consistent basis, they are moving forward. This year will probably be crazier than most so I’m keeping my plans simple; less is more.
I know that some teachers choose to set aside the rubric for later in the year, but I think it’s important for students to understand the expectations of the rubric early on. The sooner they can provide a solid thesis, the sooner they will be able to “design” a line of reasoning. It benefits students if they can see the elements of the rubric fall into place earlier rather than later. Teaching and giving students feedback on their thesis statements early in the year will help them to deepen them through continued practice. Teach students to look for the nuances in a passage. Those understated details or images often reveal the most telling aspects of a character or setting. They should not be glossed over or ignored.
1) Be flexible. So much is unknown, so have some broad plans ready, but be ready also to change them if you have to switch to a new method of instruction. 2) Don’t teach to the test, specifically. Work on skills that the will help students do well on the AP test, but are also useful for the transition to college. Writing, in general, is always a high value skill. Discussion (whether in person or online) is crucial. The ability to analyze a text, image, film, or speech is endlessly fruitful. 3) Be kind to yourself. Don’t expect to be perfect. It takes several years before you can really comfortably teach any class competently, and to do it expertly takes more than that. 4) Take time for yourself. Don’t spend every waking hour grading, planning, working. If you can’t give yourself a break, you will risk burning out.
Begin early with small repetition. You want the students to resort to rote memory in terms of how to begin with a solid thesis. Widen your horizons however possible. I try to ensure there is a wide variety of time periods as well as cultures represented. And practice. Overwrite. Have them do 2-3 timed writings, then go through a workshop together in class, then choose their most successful essay to hand in for a score. And, I know I am alone in this, but DO NOT give full grades for the timed writings. This is practice and the kids panic over it. There is no need to make their timed writings a quiz grade. Reduce the panic and they’ll focus on the practice.
Show them the difference between paraphrase versus analysis. Guiding students to recognizing and pondering juxtapositions is time well spent. Conflict often reveals some elements of complexity. Literary devices were named and listed- too often generalizations were made on the effect. Tone is not “used.” It is not a device or tool that the author uses. Tone is created. The question should be, how is the tone created?
From day one introduce the word “complexity” with the texts you are reading. Reinforce complexity throughout by focusing on how authors use devices to shift the narrative (in a poem, in a short story, in a novel). Tie this into assignments from the beginning: read the poem/ chapter/ passage, locate at least one shift in tone, ID the tone before the shift and after the shift, what causes the shift, etc. And continue to sprinkle in the 19th and 18th century text passages (for example A Doll House would be a good one to discuss gender). But I think even taking Clint Smith’s poetry or Natasha Trethewey can yield the same practice if the teacher really pushes the close reading and identifying shifts/complexity.
Q7: How did you find the 2020 AP Lit scoring process since it was online?
Scoring online was fine – slightly stressful since we were implementing a new rubric and didn’t have the ability to talk face to face about it. I read so much slower – almost half less than I would at the in-person reading. Part of this had to do with the new rubric and not being fully confident applying it, part was probably due to focus issues from working online, and part was because I was working in isolation. Unlike many readers I’ve spoken with, while communication was frustrating at times, I would score online again (but definitely prefer in person).
The online scoring process went well technically since they had system checks in place. Our table leader was accessible through chat, email, and we had their phone number. Aids and tools in reading responses were accessible as well. For me, it all went smoothly. The only issue I had was on Monday. I was told it was because they had more raters online than anticipated so they were received odd error codes. It was remedied quickly though.
Readers were given a lot of feedback on their scoring—probably more than is feasible in a physical setting. Also, essays were guaranteed two readers and in many cases, three readers. My process of ”internalizing” (learning to apply) the rubric and assessing student writing was equally as meaningful as it would have been in Salt Lake City. Of course, I missed seeing old friends and meeting new ones in person but given the circumstances, I am grateful to have been a part of this year’s Reading and will definitely participate again if invited.
This was my first time as a Reader, so I do not have the in-person experience with which to compare. But overall, it was a smooth process. The hardest part for me was just sitting in a my house alone for five days staring at the computer screen. Also, because I am a mom to twin 9-year-olds, I had help keeping them all week and the first weekend while I scored.
My personal experience with the “distributed Reading” was generally good. My reading pace was considerably slower than at the in-person Reading. Part of this was adjusting to the new rubric, although I had graded Q1 essays using the new rubric at the 2020 Pilot Reading. Another reason for the slower pace was technological- I found it harder to read essays on my computer screen. Part of it was situational: I was at home, surrounded by distractions. And part of it was at the advice of my Table Leader, who recommended a slower pace after the first day. We were told to work between 5-8 hours per day, so I settled in at around 5.5 per day. My only complaint about the Reading was the lack of feedback and information in the training. We were not really given a clear explanation about the “star system” that measured our performance.
I went into this knowing there was a rush to determine how best to handle things. And that there was no “good” way to do it completely (as we see now with our schools trying to determine how to open in the fall). I did find it much harder than I anticipated. This is a result of the domino effect of the new changes not being ready on time in the fall. With the new rubric, no one to really talk it through with or get multiple explanations from table mates, etc., I found it isolating, frustrating, and I truly began to doubt abilities. I started with 100% calibration, and then Sunday, nothing I did was correct and I got shut out and had to recalibrate. If I had been sitting with my own peers, I would have had the checks and balances, verbal explanations, visual references, etc.
Additional tips from the online reading (gathered from Facebook)
Above all, complexity was the topic most discussed. Define it, practice it, perfect it.
Establish the text’s complexity before listing literary devices or elements.
Complexity means more than one. It can be found all over, especially when it’s subtle. Even a conflicted character is complex.
Analysis of complexity, relationships, or other tasks from the prompt are more important than literary devices.
Thesis and line of reasoning go hand in hand. Connect the two and you’ll have a strong essay.
You need to respond to the prompt. Restating the prompt is not a thesis.
Approaching Your Essay
Do not jump around in your analysis of the text. Organize your essay chronologically.
Don’t organize your essay by literary element.
Each paragraph needs at least one example. Examples should be direct quotes, not paraphrases.
The bottom line to analysis is “so what.” Always answer the “so what” to move further into complexity.
“Paraphrasing a quote is not analysis.”
To score in the 3-4 range of the middle row, you need to answer more than HOW? You need to answer SO WHAT?
While the complexity point is desired, it should be the least important in instruction. Focus on Rows A and B first.
Things to Avoid
Avoid sentences that begin with “this shows that…”
Avoid analyzing imagery unless you’re actually talking about an image.
Never mention diction without an adjective in front. A TEXT OBVIOUSLY HAS DICTION.
Try to avoid “used.” Ex: The author used ____ to show…
Don’t write unless you have something to say. Better to spend a few minute brainstorming than write useless or baseless sentences while you’re getting to your point.
Practice caution when analyzing diction and imagery, which are often thrown around and not properly analyzed. Pair them with “so what.”
For more feedback and reflections on the 2020 AP Lit Scoring, check out Susan Barber’s blog posts on the site AP Lit Help. You can access Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Or, if interested in making a comparison, you can read my own reflections on the 2018 AP Scoring.
Whether you’re a newbie or a veteran to AP Lit instruction, the biggest question always lies in what titles to teach. Unfortunately, an AP Lit teacher cannot just teach books all year long (as much as we want to), as poetry and writing need equal time and instruction. With the new CED’s emphasis on short fiction being factored in, there is even less time to teach in-class novels and plays. Because of this, many of us integrate independent reading requirements in our classes.
Over the years I’ve attempted a few independent reading strategies to my various classes. It began with suggested reading, which, unsurprisingly, almost no one completed. I knew that this strategy wasn’t working, but I was green and in over my head in so many areas that independent reading seemed like the least of my worries.
After four years at one school, I moved to a different state with my husband to be closer to family. I was hired at my current school in a unique part-time position. Although my pay was drastically decreased, this posting was a blessing in disguise, as the only class I had to prep for was AP Lit. This extra time allowed me to make improvements to my AP curriculum that I hadn’t had time for yet, and one of the things I developed was what I called the INP, the independent novel project. My students were expected to read one novel per semester independently, and compose a 3-4 page paper on a prompt as the end assessment. This prompt was selected during a one-on-one meeting that we set up when each student finished reading. We chose from released Q3 prompts for our paper topics and I used a custom rubric for scoring.
This project began to lost its luster in the past couple of years, as I noticed fewer and fewer of my students practicing strong time management skills. Too many of them put off reading their novels (or simply read SparkNotes instead) and scrapped their paper together at the very last minute. I was also reconsidering the use of a long paper as the project’s summative assessment, as the AP Lit exam made use of on-demand writing only.
I was disappointed with my students’ use of time, but I also wasn’t considering how to give them that time back.
This summer, I approached my independent reading strategy with a fresh perspective. I had been reading about different teachers doing genius hours and “Starbucks modes” in their classrooms, which inspired me. However, I was also apprehensive. How could I consider giving up precious classroom time for independent reading, when I was already feeling like I’d never get it all done?
In the end, I took the risk. I laid out our new independent reading strategy, which was as follows:
2019 Independent Reading Strategy
Each student had to read a novel or play off of an approved list, compiled from former AP Lit exams and my own personal reading. They were expected to read one title per quarter, increasing our independent reading quota from 2 to 4 books.
Students were given 30 minutes per week to get comfortable and read their book.
When students completed their independent read, they composed a Q3 (open question style) timed writing, which I had them type for the sake of time. I permitted these to be written at home and even with their books if necessary, but restricted them at a 40 minute time limit. The prompts were selected from released AP Lit tests for each title uniquely, so students weren’t aware of their particular prompt until they began the assignment.
I required students to pick from some parameters in certain quarters. For example, in Quarter 2 they had to pick a “classic text” (composed before 1900) or a play. In Quarter 3 they had to pick a contemporary text, meaning it had to be written in the past 40 years.
In exchange for quiet and respectful use of time, students were given permission to access my Keurig coffeemaker, a prized possession in my classroom. Students kept personalized mugs and their favorite K-cup flavors stashed away until our independent reading time rolled around. Surprisingly, this was by far their favorite part of the activity.
As I look back on the end of the year, I’m happy to report that our new independent reading strategy is a vast improvement over our former ways. I’ve always told my students that if they want to be a better writer, they need to be a better reader. By prioritizing reading during class time, students are learning that reading is really that important. I’ve also been surprised and impressed that my students are using their independent reading time wisely, and so far this year no one has forgotten their books on independent reading days.
Several new and incoming AP Lit teachers have wondered what really happens day-by-day in AP Lit. Therefore, I set out to write everything down to give a detailed overview of what we cover in my own class, both for curious teachers and for those have have purchased my AP Lit Full Course on TpT. As I post this now, it’s become a diary of my most complicated year of teaching AP Lit, or a diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year, if you will.
Not only was it the year I had to pivot my materials to meet a revised (and constantly changing) AP Lit exam and CED, but it was interrupted by COVID-19 and the last 9 weeks were completed online. However, I was still able to record each day’s general focus, as well as record my thoughts and feelings as I had to cut and change my curriculum in the spring. (I have also included links to materials that are downloadable on TpT)
Disclaimer 1: This is meant to be descriptive in nature, not prescriptive. Due to variations in school schedule, curriculum requirements, teacher style, and a myriad of others, no one teacher’s schedule will ever look like someone else’s. This was posted to a) give an overview of how my AP Lit Full Course Bundle works day by day; and b) to provide an overview of how an AP Lit class operates for anyone looking to compare.
Disclaimer 2: I’ve omitted days that veered away from our normal schedule, such as standardized testing, school spirit activities, and final exam periods. These make up for 10-15 of my school calendar days in total.
Disclaimer 3: I’m on a modified block schedule, so each block period is an hour and a half long. I’ve indicated them by labeling them as “block” and they could be counted as two class periods.
Day 1: “Why Read Literature” Article & One Pager Activity, went over course & changes to the course. I reminded students of reflections for summer reading and gave due dates.
Day 2: Summer reading reflections due, discussed changes in expectations for AP Lit writing (specifically the rubric), went over new rubrics and sample essay (1999 prose prompt, “The Crossing”).
Day 3: (seniors gone on retreat) Taught and learned AP Lit vocabulary words using Quizlet review game.
Day 4: Timed Writing on summer novel (individual Q3 prompts based on chosen title).
Day 5 (block): Rolled out independent reading project, complete book tasting (see pictures below). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.
Day 6: Timed writing rehash: focused on making bold claims and avoiding plot summary, reviewed and revised timed writing from earlier in the week.
Short Fiction: Unit 1*
*For future years I will use my short story boot camp unit to fulfill the requirements of Short Fiction Unit 1. I do hope to continue using How to Read Literature Like a Professor in my first few weeks of class, as it works great as an introduction to the course.
Day 9: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 1-4, assigned chaps 5-7 + Interlude.
Day 10: Presented notes on HTRLLAP chaps 5-7 + Interlude, assigned chaps 8-10. For the Interlude we did a brief discussion before moving on.
Day 11: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 8-10, assigned chaps 11-13.
Day 12 (block): Vocab Quiz 2, Poem study (“It Was Not Death” by Emily Dickinson). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.
Day 13: Presented notes on HTRLLAP chaps 11-13, assigned chaps 14-15.
Did you know? Although How to Read Literature Like a Professor has become a fixture in many English classes, not everyone is a fan. Alan Jacobs, author and professor, criticizes the book for its message that “reading is best done by highly trained, professionally accredited experts.
Day 14: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 14-15, assigned chaps 18-20*. *I do not assign chapters 16-17 to my students because they’re literally titled “they’re all about sex” and some of the parents in my very conservative school would not be too keen on that. However, I do teach the content in the next day’s notes, so they still get the principles in these chapters.
Day 15: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 16-20, assigned Interlude + chaps 21-23. Writing assignment: Handed out prompt for 2008 prose question on Anita Desai’s “Fasting, Feasting.” Assigned students to write a thesis and “baby outline.” A baby outline is what I call a simple bullet-pointed overview of the main points they intend to make. No textual support is needed in a baby outline.
Did you know? Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting was the first announced runner up for the Booker Prize in 1999, after the judges’ discussion grew contentious.
Day 16 (block): Vocab Quiz 3, “Fasting, Feasting” gallery walk. Then, we looked at thesis statements and then discussed each claim. We asked questions like, are there bold claims? Are the claims arguable? Would they earn the thesis point? Read independently for the last 30 minutes.
Day 17: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 21-23, assigned chaps 24-26.
Day 18: Notes on HTRLLAP chaps 24-26. Prepared for prose timed writing.
Day 19: Prose timed writing, 2018 “Blithedale Romance” prose prompt.
Day 21: Timed writing rehash (Zenobia prompt). For this rehash we really tackled the line of reasoning element, cutting our essays apart and reconstructing them to show shifts. We highlighted summary versus analysis and considered how much more detail was needed to bring the point home. See pictures from this day below.
Day 23: Concluded figurative language notes. Assigned explication* on “Women” by Alice Walker. *I must note that for future years I am moving away from the explication, which has always been difficult to explain the parameters and expectations, and will instead focus on the “AP Lit paragraph.” I will change all future assignments in this log to the AP paragraph assignment to avoid confusion.
Did you know? The AP Lit exam will no longer ask questions specific to rhyme scheme and meter. I still teach this material to reinforce how structure can affect meaning, but it is skippable.
Day 32: This was new this year. I noticed that my students were having a hard time engaging in some of the poems I was using, so I suggested they bring in a song with particularly poetic lyrics. We spent the class period listening to each other’s songs and annotating lyrics as we would poems. Overall, it was a nice break from the rigor of this unit and the assessments that were coming up later in the week. For my own song, I shared “So Will I” by Hillsong United, which relies on hyperbole to send its powerful message.
Day 34 (block): Vocab Quiz 7, completed 3 poetry skill tests. I made copies of each poem skill test but knew that not all would be used. After our quiz, I put the titles of each skill test in a bowl and students drew three. I gave them the poem and questions for each of the titles they drew and they took about 45 minutes to complete this. I liked this method over every student getting the same skill tests because they had to prepare for all of the skills and hearing them discuss the different poems they got was a good discussion. Finally, we read independently for the last 30 minutes.
Day 35: Poetry timed writing (2011 Li-Young Lee’s “A Story”)
*This unit was done when my juniors were gone on a week-long trip, so I completed it with seniors only. We also study The Importance of Being Earnest as our Unit 1, which is why this unit is so short. It does not meet all of the requirements of that unit on its own, but in combination with Earnest it definitely does.
Day 36: Introduction to existentialism lesson with 4 components (Crash course video, comic strip, short story, microfiction). Discussion on existentialism. Assigned Part 1 of Metamorphosis for homework.
Day 37: Notes on Part 1. Assigned Part 2 for homework.
Day 38 (block): (No vocab quiz this week, my juniors were gone) Poem study (“Digging” by Seamus Heaney). Read independently for the last 30 minutes.
Day 39: Notes on Part 2. Assigned Part 3 for homework.
*I have since created a unit on Toni Morrison’s Beloved and hope to teach it next year. I’m trying to get approved by my head of school but in the case of parents objecting, I intend to teach it simultaneously with Things Fall Apart.
Day 86: Introduction to Things Fall Apart (about the author, style of storytelling, overview of themes, etc.). Assigned chapters 1-3 for homework.
Day 87: Discussed and took notes on chapters 1-3. Assigned chapters 4-6 for homework.
Day 88 (block): Voice Lesson 9. Conclude dshort fiction lesson on Realism, including written analysis assignment. Read independently for the last 30 minutes.
Day 89: Discussed and took notes on chapters 4-6. Assigned chapters 7-10 for homework.
And this is when everything happened. My school went on spring break…and never came back.
COVID-19 forced my school, like most other American schools, into online-only mode. I will record what we worked on for the rest of the year, but please understand the following: a) because we could only meet online twice per week, we did not cover what we should have, b) because the AP Exam was moved to a prose-only question, I had to abandon or cut materials that were no longer relevant to the 2020 test. I will explain what I would have taught at the end of this post.
Day 90: Things Fall Apart Quiz 1 (chaps 1-10), discussed Chapters 7-10. Assigned chapters 11-13 for homework.
Day 91: Voice Lesson 10. Began short fiction lesson on Modernism.
Day 92: Discussed and took notes on chapters 11-13. Assigned chapters 14-16 for homework.
At this point my students and I had a discussion about the barriers in our way as we approached the AP exam. We decided to focus on short fiction and poetry and to stop reading Things Fall Apart as a class, a decision that was very difficult for me. Several students continued to read it on their own, but ultimately it became too hard to guide them through the book how I wanted to in our online forum.
Day 93: Finished short fiction lesson on Modernism, completed written analysis assignment.
Day 94: Voice Lesson 11. Began poetry then and now unit. Watched “Complainers” by Rudy Francisco and compared it with “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Discussed contrasts in each and considered which has more “literary merit.”
Day 95: Watched “Say My Name” by Idris Goodwin and compared it with “The Naming of Cats” by T. S. Eliot. Discussed words and phrases in each and consider which has more “literary merit.”
Once again, plans got changed. In the middle of April it was announced that the AP Exam would be a prose essay only. Since we were stuck with only two class periods per week (of only 30-40 minutes), we moved away from poetry and focused on prose. I finished work on my Short Story Boot Camp, now my Short Fiction Unit 1 unit, and we covered that material in preparation.
Did you know? “Shooting an Elephant” captures Orwell’s self-disgust and growing distrust of colonialism as he worked as a police officer in British-occupied India.
Day 101: Short Story Boot Camp Lesson 6: Point of view. Read over excerpts and discussed as a class. Read “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner and completed a line of reasoning for that text. Prepared for timed writing on a prose text. The students voted on which text they’d like to read and they picked “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell.
Day 102: Completed timed writing on “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell (custom prose prompt).
Day 103: Test prep day. Normally I’d go through writing and multiple choice strategies for a week or two before the exam, but there wasn’t much of a need anymore. Instead we focused on the online testing element and completed the AP demo.
Day 104: Voice Lesson 15. Timed writing rehash for “Shooting an Elephant.”
Day 105: AP Lang Exam prep (my school doesn’t offer AP Lang as a test, but most of my Lit students take the exam. Since seniors were graduating before the actual exam, I had to give an overview of the rhetorical analysis essay before the AP Lit exam. Not ideal, but what can you do).
Day 106: Juniors only (seniors graduated). Assigned AP Lit film analysis for homework and last assignment.
Day 107: Last day of class with my juniors. Gave final goodbyes and exit survey.
The 2020-2021 school year was my 14th year of teaching AP Lit and it was by far my most difficult. Even if the pandemic hadn’t struck I think I still would have called it the hardest. Being in a position of mentorship for so many new and incoming AP Lit teachers is a huge blessing, once that I don’t take for granted.
I worked hard all summer studying the new CED and AP Lit rubrics, then discovered in the fall that I wasn’t focusing enough on the individual standards. I spent the entire school year poring over the document, changing everything I had just changed already. At times it felt like I was standing in quicksand, as the rubric I learned inside and out was revised in September, after some of us had been using it for over a month. AP Classroom was also difficult to navigate and my ire for the question bank is still going strong.
That being said, the struggles in the fall helped me cope better with the arrival of the pandemic. It forced me to pause everything and take a step back. What did my students really need to do today? What skills are important, and what is expendable? The streamlined test helped my students and I focus on just a fraction of what we had hoped to cover, but also took away any anxiety associated with poetry or long fiction. As I write this I literally just signed my contract for the 20-21 year. I have no idea what next year will bring, but I now feel like I can face anything after surviving this school year.
Diary of an AP Lit Pandemic Year
One of my favorite texts to teach in my British Literature class is The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Pepys was kind of a nobody, but he lived through some serious events. He attended the first showing of Romeo and Juliet at the Globe, got drunk at famous taverns, survived the Great Fire of London, and detailed his experience with surviving the bubonic plague. In October of 1663 he confirmed what every Londoner feared, “to my great trouble, [I] hear that the plague is come into the City.”
In his diary Pepys details walking through the streets and seeing doors marked with signs of the plague. He describes the sounds of constant church bells and the smells of fires and tobacco being constant. However, at the end of his experience Pepys turns an indifferent eye towards the families who suffered from the plague, even remarking about a pile of dead bodies, “I am come almost to think nothing of it.”
While I am incredibly blessed that my family and I have not contracted COVID-19, I refuse to become desensitized to it. Nor am I under the impression that it is over (as I write this in May 2020). I am aware that life will never be the same again and I will never forget this. I suppose in writing this I simply wanted to get a brief chance to do what Pepys did, to write down what I did day by day as I went about my life. Like in Pepys’ diary, my entries are brief and unemotional most of the time, but I hope they do encapsulate what it was like to teach AP Lit during the time of the Coronavirus crisis. Or if nothing else, that you give you an idea of what happens in a not-so-normal year of teaching AP Lit.
As an AP Lit teacher in a parochial school, I’ve constantly had to walk the tightrope between books that are rigorous and books that are “parent-approved.” It’s no secret that most of the books published in the past 40 years contain some element of strong language, violence, drug abuse, or sexual activity. There are also so many wonderful books that have some or even all of these elements that are great reads for AP Lit students. When making a book list or recommending a title to a student for independent reading, I usually have to know that student’s parents before I can recommend some of my more “colorful” titles.
For those who don’t have to worry about parental concerns, there are still some books that are dark or disturbing enough to trigger some students. Despite the freedom we have as advanced literature teachers, I believe some element of sensitivity is needed when recommending a book to a teenager. Recommending a book is like arranging a setup, so it’s important to ask yourself, is this a book that will hurt this student or a relationship in that student’s life? Or am I recommending a title that could deepen their empathy, widen their view into the world, and strengthen their feelings of kindness and humanity?
Once you think about it, recommending a book to a student is a pretty big responsibility.
In the fall of last year, I tried a new strategy that completely erased all parental concerns for the entire school year and helped me get to know my students’ comfort levels in reading during the first few weeks. It also increased my students’ interests in independent reading. Here’s what you need to get started:
A roll of masking tape or washi tape
A permanent marker
A classroom library (even small collections are great for a start!)
Next, go through and label each book with a 1, 2, or 3 by putting a small strip of tape on the spine. Here’s a breakdown of what each number means:
1 –Little to no objectionable material. Some infrequent uses of “TV-level cursing” (words you can say on television) or mild acts of violence may be used. (examples: Pride and Prejudice, Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, etc.)
2 –Infrequent objectionable material, which may include frequent “TV-level cursing,” infrequent stronger curse words, plot events relating to sexual activity (but not graphic portrayals), and some strong acts of violence (examples: Brave New World, The Road, 1984)
3 –Objectionable material, which may include regular use of stronger curse words, plot events relating to sexual activity which may be graphic or violent, and several strong acts of violence (examples: Beloved, Atonement, The Things They Carried)
In the first week of the school year, I send an email home to my AP Lit students’ families, explaining the 1-2-3 system. However, I also use this as an opportunity to explain why 2- and 3- level titles are worth reading, despite having a strong religious or moral stance against some of the content within. In my first year of doing this, all but one family gave me the okay for their child to read 3-level books at my discretion.
That discretion is important; it’s a tool that AP and other advanced literature teachers should practice before doling out any title. For example, my student who loves animals more than humans would perhaps not do well with a title that contains animal abuse. And a child that you know struggles with an eating disorder should stay away from a narrative that has an unhealthy relationship with food. And obviously, students who have shared with you a struggle with an abusive relationship should avoid reading about a similar relationship, unless they particularly request this.
Obviously these details will not be apparent in the first few weeks of school (and sometimes not even in the final few weeks), but I’ve learned that students open up in surprising ways when they’re asking for a book recommendation. This is a special gift bestowed unto few people, but particularly English teachers.
We can take measures to respect this special relationship and endorse titles that are rigorous and even provocative, as long as we know our students can handle it.
Implementation of this system shows a respect for both higher literature and the emotional development of your students. It also keeps parents informed, which is an added bonus. I can attest that I did not have a single challenge from an AP parent all year, and several came forward to appreciate this approach in particular.
If you’re interested in implementing this system you can access my AP Lit parent email here, just copy and change the text to match your own voice or decisions in the classroom. And to learn more about my independent reading strategies in AP Lit you can explore some of my other blog posts on the topic, or get a jump-start by purchasing my Independent Novel Project on TpT.