AP Classroom: Features and Best Practices

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This week I had the privilege of being part of a webinar with the facilitators of AP Classroom for AP English Literature and Language. Although I’ve been using AP Classroom for the past year (and even wrote a previous blog post on how to use it!), I learned a lot about its added features and usability. I even used how create with the question bank, a resource I had found mind-boggling before. Here are some cool features you may not be aware of, and a rundown of how I use AP Classroom for data collection and test prep with my students.

Before I begin, here’s a quick overview of some acronyms and terms I’ll use in this blog post:

  • CED – Course and Exam Description. This is the master document that explains what students need to learn in AP Lit and how best to learn it. While also called “the binder,” you can access the PDF here.
  • Skill – Each AP class is broken into standards, which are called skills. You can read about the skills in the AP Lit CED.
  • Unit – Each CED is separated into specific units, which vary according to class. AP English Lit is broken into 9 units (3 on short fiction, 3 on poetry, and 3 on long fiction). See a more detailed breakdown on AP Classroom or the CED.
  • PPC – Personal Progress Check – a miniature practice exam cultivated around a specific unit. There are PPCs for both multiple choice and free response questions.
  • MCQ – Multiple Choice Questions
  • FRQ – Free Response Questions
  • AP Daily – Videos created by master AP teachers and English professors to guide students through each individual skill.

AP Classroom Features

Daily Videos

My favorite new features on AP Classroom are the videos aligned or each unit. These videos help students zero in on individual skills and strategies. You can watch them in class or assign them to students (which is great for those learning virtually or on a hybrid schedule).

Not only do they help students, but they help me get ready for my upcoming lesson. They also offer focus and flexibility. For example, in Carlos Escobar’s video on Setting 2.A, he presented us with a graph for student use. Mr. Escobar asked students to use details from Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.” Although my students had read that story, they were much more engaged with Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a story we had just read for homework. I simply paused the video, asked them to follow his instructions but for that story instead, and we were off and running.

AP Daily Videos
This video on 2.A asks students to analyze “The Story of an Hour,” but we were easily able to apply the graphic to a different short story that we had just read. Lots of flexible and evergreen ideas in these videos!

Takeaway on the AP Daily Videos

Use as you like, change as you wish. Feel free to lean on these master teachers and borrow 6-10 minutes of instruction, or even a full lesson’s worth of ideas!

Visual Graphics Indicating Readiness

Student performance
This graph indicates which students showed mastery of the selected skills, which are approaching readiness, and which students are not yet ready. As we’re only 5 weeks into the school year, these results are fine with me!

I’m a visual learner, so I appreciate the score reports with visual images. After a PPC, I can scan my students’ scores and see how they performed in only a second. Even better, I can see how many showed mastery or exam readiness based on their responses. Clicking on the graphic brings up a box that shows the exact students who scored in each percentile.

Student performance
When I click on the Student Performance image (see above), I can see an overview with student names broken up into percentiles. My own students names were removed, obviously, for the sake of privacy.

When you click on the hyperlinked title of the assessment, you go to an even more detailed breakdown, also visually designed. I can see how the class performed by question or by student.

Student results sorted by question
This is a score breakdown by question. Note: This is not on a personal progress check but on a mini-PPC I created using the question bank.
Student results sorted by student
You can also toggle from question to see student answers. By glancing at this data, I can see that it may be worth reviewing why A was correct for #3, rather than D, the other common answer.

Takeaway on Visual Graphics

There are many ways to see how students performed, from quick surface checks to deep data dives. AP Classroom is configured to make it fast and easy to see how your students are performing in Personal Progress Checks and AP skills.

Increased Search Abilities

When I first began using AP Classroom, I found the question bank frustrating. I decided to stick to the pre-made Personal Progress Checks and avoid the question bank entirely. However, there have been big improvements to the question bank since then.

Using the search features in AP Classroom
In the Question Bank you can browse questions, targeting skills, units, question types, and more. You can even click on the search bar and search by title, author, year, and topic!

One unknown feature is the search bar, which can pull up questions and essay prompts that align with a selected topic or title. You can even see what essay prompts have been used on former exams.

Using the search feature in AP Classroom
Even newer titles like Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See are linked to essay prompts.

The question bank is also where you’d go to create a quiz using questions from AP Classroom. You can use their questions, and even author your own!

Another cool feature I learned about this week was that you can search the closed captioning in the videos. While I haven’t gotten the chance to do it yet, I’m excited to try it. I really like the feature for when I know the instructor said something specific and I want to go to that moment specifically.

Searching the closed captioning
To access the closed captioning Click on the CC in the bottom right corner. Select “Search Video” to look through the closed captions and do a search.

Once you open the closed captioning search, you can type in a word specifically. By clicking that word, it takes you immediately to that moment in the video.

Searching the Closed Captioning
Just type in the word you’re looking for and hit Enter. It will take you to that moment in the video so you can rewatch it as needed.

Takeaway on the Search Features

These are the biggest improvements I’ve seen. Searching the closed captioning on the videos is genius. As for the Question Bank, I still wish the question labels were a bit clearer, I appreciate the search bar and its functions so much.

Topic Questions

This was a feature I hadn’t noticed until this week’s webinar, but if you go to your homepage in AP Classroom, you will see a clean layout. Each unit is laid out in a tab on top. Once you select a unit you can see that unit’s main skills, its corresponding AP Daily videos, plus a little lightbulb labeled “Topic Questions.”

Topic Questions
This overview of Unit 2 shows the main skill, the AP Daily videos, and the Topic Questions, which offer formative questions you can use for daily checks for understanding. Fun fact: by clicking on the Unit Guide you can download the CED pages that pertain to your selected unit!

When clicking on the topic questions, it pulls up the best formative questions that align to your selected unit. This gives you plenty of options to choose from for creating quizzes or quick checks on a particular skill. I haven’t used the Topic Questions yet, but I imagine using them for skill reinforcement in the spring. I want to use their PPC data to customize quizzes for each student based on their weakest skill (read on to see how I collect this data).

Takeaway on the Topic Questions

While these are accessible through the Question Bank as well, they’re helpful if seeking a targeted skill or creating quizzes on a particular unit.

How I Use AP Classroom

I’ve been using AP Classroom for just over a year now, and I really do love it. I don’t use it for Free Response Questions as often as I use it for multiple choice practice. In my year of practice, here are some of my strategies and suggestions with integrating it into your classroom (in person or virtually).

Explanations of right and wrong answers

I think the number one piece of advice I would offer is to allow students time for reflection after a multiple choice personal progress check to understand the questions they got wrong. We practiced with this just today and I heard students saying things like, “Oh, so the adjective was wrong but the rest of it was right. I thought that that didn’t matter…”

AP Classroom
I absolutely love this feature. If a student gets an answer wrong, it explains why that selection is wrong. If they get it right, it explains why it’s right! They can even select the other options and learn why each other option is incorrect. So valuable!

Just like I said in my post about rehashing, students need time to reflect and discuss what needs improving. This is just as true in multiple choice practice as it is for writing.

Student data analysis and reflection

PPC Data Sheets
These PPC data trackers are a free download from my TpT store. You can also get my AP Lit Task cards, available as printables and as interactive Google Slides, for purchase from TpT if you’re interested.

To assist in student reflection, I created one-page data sheets for students to fill out after each PPC. Students briefly record the focused skill and their performance in that skill. I then ask them to reflect on their weakest skill and their strongest. While this may not mean much to them in the moment, I save these data sheets in folders by student name, so we can revisit them in April when we’re doing test prep.

Teacher data analysis and reflection

AP Data - Kortuem
This was the data sheet I used to collect MCQ scores last year. I hoped to use them to guide our test prep time and create personalized quizzes through AP Classroom.

When we complete a multiple choice PPC, we always do them right before we spend 30-45 minutes independently reading (I’m on a modified block schedule). As students read independently, I collect data. It’s weird; I hate math, but I love data.

Last year I created this data sheet to track my students’ MCQ PPC scores. I planned on using it to help guide our test prep time, but the 2020 exam changes altered those plans. I still hope to use them in the same way this year.

As you can see, these four students have various abilities and skill levels. Student C is showing my desired progress, moving from “Approaching Readiness” to “Ready” by the third PPC. But most students are more like Student D, who bounces around from Ready, Approaching Readiness, and Not Ready at random. There’s nothing wrong with this either. I gave this data to my students midyear and will give it again at the end of the year when we prep for the exam. This way they can see exactly where their MCQ weaknesses lie.

I haven’t used AP Classroom for FRQ responses yet, but that is the goal for this school year. How do you intend to use AP Classroom to prep your students? What new features are you looking forward to?

Inclusivity & Accessibility in AP English: A Recap

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.

4 Quick Questions to Determine if a Book is “AP-Worthy”

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.

Nonwhite Authors to Diversify Your Curriculum

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.

The First Few Weeks: Differentiation & Work Ethic

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.

12 Engaging and Rigorous Books for Reluctant Readers

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.

AP & Accessibility: Reducing Heavy Student Workloads

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.

You Responded: Gatekeeping, Representation, and Inclusivity in AP

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.

Reflection

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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!

AP & Accessibility: Reducing Heavy Student Workloads

This is my fifth installment in a series on representation in AP Lit, both in authors and in students. If AP classes remove their systems of gatekeeping (which they should), teachers will need to prepare to have more types of learners in their classes. We cannot assume that each of our students has taken an AP class before taking ours. We cannot assume that our students do nothing but homework all evening long. And we definitely can’t beat them with literature so hard that they leave our class hating it. For many of us, it’s time to reduce heavy student workloads.

This blog post will offer some strategies I use to keep the homework load low while keeping the rigor and engagement high.

The Problem: Assigning too much reading homework

One of the biggest crimes that AP Lit teachers commit is over-assigning reading homework. I’ve heard of teachers justifying up to 2 hours of reading per night, even counting weekends as 2 nights! This is unconscionable. When assigning reading or homework in general, never assume your students have nothing better to do than read. Many of our students are juggling the following commitments in addition to our AP Lit homework:

12 engaging and rigorous books for reluctant readers
To help build engagement for reluctant readers, check out this list of 12 unconventional titles for AP Lit.
  • part-time jobs
  • extra-curricular expectations
  • volunteer requirements
  • chores or expectations at home, such as baby-sitting siblings
  • other homework assignments
  • general hobbies, relaxation, and general teenage activities

To assume that our students have nothing better to do than read for AP Lit is not only selfish, it’s damaging. Research shows that our students suffer more from anxiety, depression, and other crippling mental illnesses than any other generation. Pressure to complete heavy burdens of homework can only compound those illnesses.

How to Fix It:

First, be clear with students on day 1 what kind of reading responsibilities they can expect in class. I usually tell my students that their homework will be limited to 30 minutes per night. I also clarify that not every night will have reading homework.

When reading long texts such as novels, portion out readings over several days or weeks. I avoid making a whole book due by a certain day. I believe most of our students lack the general time management skills to tackle this in responsible ways. One great tool for assessing the amount of time a reading takes is Read-o-meter. I use this for planning novel units and for assigning excerpts for homework. You simply copy and paste a text into the text box (PDFs of most texts can be found online), and it provides an estimated time for the average reader to complete the task. Then, I add at least 5-10 minutes to the estimate. Remember, most students probably don’t read at an English teacher’s pace! This is a great tool to reduce heavy workloads for high school students.

Read-o-meter example
Using the website Read-o-meter and an online PDF of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I learned that Chapter 1 takes the average reader 8 minutes to complete. I’d assume that my lowest or slowest readers will need about 13 minutes to read the chapter, especially if annotation or notes are required.

The Problem: Taking on too many long books

Trevor Packer Tweet about fewer long works

Another change that is happening in many AP Lit classes is the reduction of long works from 7-12 novels per year to only 3-5. When Trevor Packer first introduced this idea back in 2018 (see top tweet), I admittedly bristled at the thought. At the time I was teaching 6-8 long works a year and the notion of cutting that in half was ridiculous.

After some reflection and true evaluation of the CED, I realized that Mr. Packer had a point. My students went into each exam praying that their question would align with one of our 6-8 books, because if it didn’t they felt immediately lost.

How to Fix It

Upon reducing some of my long texts, I learned that fewer books meant a slower pace, and thus a deeper dive. My students no longer had to rush through books in a week or two but could afford to actively read, annotate, and reflect. With smaller reading assignments, I was able to integrate more writing and analysis tasks without overloading students.

Not only does this help reduce student workload, but it can better prepare them for question 3 and literary analysis in general. By introducing students to short fiction through short stories or excerpts, they get to prepare for many different writing prompts. The way I see it, long fiction prepares them for deep diving a text, but short fiction prepares them for all of the daily analysis practice they also need.

The Problem: Long Papers

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It’s a universal truth that English teachers always have too much grading to do. In AP Lit, it seemed that nightly and weekly grading sessions came with the job. In my first few years I was a fixture at Barnes and Noble for full afternoons. I spent that time grading timed writings and long papers from my AP Lit students. Not only were the long papers a drain on my personal life, they were sucking the time of my students as well.

As time progressed, I have learned that timed writings are here to stay. However, I don’t necessarily need to assign long papers in AP Lit. Now, I know some schools or districts require certain assignments, such as the college essay or a literary theory paper. But if you aren’t constrained by any requirements, I see no reason why long papers must be in the AP curriculum.

How to Fix It

To ease the paper-grading load, consider different assignments that can showcase analysis but ease your weekend work. These assignments can be projects, presentations, group work, discussions, Socratic Seminars, or discussion posts. Not only will this ease your grading time, it will help all levels of learners experience different assignments and assessment strategies. I still highly recommend timed writings, but feel free to tackle them how the AP readers do, grade according to the rubric, give some feedback, and move on. Save the detailed feedback for the in-class rehash.

The Problem: Grading on-demand essays takes forever

You know that feeling when you finally finish a stack of essays? You proudly return the essays to your students, prepared to field questions and give focused feedback, and instead they tuck the essay away and leave the room. This always frustrated me. Why do I spend hours grading essays, giving detailed feedback, for students not to even read it? My frustration compounded when I saw students making the same mistakes on the next timed writing, because they never saw my comment in the first place.

Reduce heavy workloads: AP Lit Help
Check out Susan Barber’s post about walking students through the essay process. While it may not reduce the number of essays you grade, it certainly improves the quality of essays you’ll have to grade.

How to Fix It

Once you’ve been an AP reader, you learn how quickly you really can mow through a pile of essays. If I get into the right mindset, I can get through a pile of 20 essays in less than an hour. However, this doesn’t allow me much time at all for feedback. If I want writing scores to improve, I need to tell students where they lost points and how they can improve.

These on-demand writing tips can improve your students' writing and reduce your grading load with insider tips
For more tips on integrating on-demand essays and reducing the grading load, check out this resource on Teachers Pay Teachers.

The way that I grade at an AP reader pace but still improve writing scores is through rehashes. A writing rehash is a group session that reviews writing feedback as a group rather than individually. When I grade a class’ timed writing responses, I have four items in front of me: my students’ essays, the rubrics, a post-it, and a stapler. I score each essay using the rubric, tally the score on the post it, staple, and move on. However, I also use the post it to make brief notes of themes or concepts we need to review.

Example

If you see the example below, this was an earlier assignment. We needed to review precision in analysis, avoiding summary, and making analytical commentary. You can also see that I incorporate writing workshop activities to help my students experience the feedback, rather than read it. I still offer individual feedback when a student needs it or veers way off course. Still, this method helps me grade faster and give student feedback in more practical ways.

Reducing heavy workloads through writing rehashes - slide 1
Reducing heavy workloads through student rehashes - slide 2
Reducing heavy workloads through writing rehashes - slide 3
These are some shots from a rehash after one of our earlier timed writings. I take brief notes as I score a stack of timed writings, then compile them into a PowerPoint that we go over as a group. I often use quotes from the essays themselves (without names), mostly of exemplary essays.

Another benefit of using rehashing is that I can use them to give focused feedback without requiring rewrites or extra work. This cuts down on both student and teacher workload, but doesn’t send the message that writing is secondary or unimportant. To learn more about how I use rehashing to improve student writing and save teacher grading time, check my blog post for AP Lit Help.

The Problem: Too much homework in general

We’ve already discussed assigning too much reading homework, but giving a lot of homework in general and lead to student overload. Not to mention, all that homework isn’t going to grade itself. When teaching an AP class, you will always feel like you’re not doing enough. Therefore, it’s easy to overcompensate for lost class time with assigning extra homework. (This pressure is compounded when teaching virtually, where students seem to learn at an even slower pace).

When creating homework, ask yourself: Why am I assigning this homework?

  1. Prove student understanding
  2. Complete work that didn’t get finished in class
  3. Check for reading
  4. Meet perceived standards of rigor for advanced placement

In my opinion, unless you’re meeting the criteria for numbers 1 or 2, homework is unnecessary. And even if you’re meeting criteria 1 or 2, there are ways to meet both without assigning homework.

How to Fix It

Let’s look at the four criteria again:

Reason 1: To prove student understanding

While student work, especially written analysis, can prove student understanding, it does not have to be done as homework. In fact, by introducing more in-class work analysis through discussion, you can gauge student understanding through formative observations. This results in more collaboration, less student work, and virtually no grading.

Reason 2: To complete work that didn’t get finished in class

Honestly, this is my number 1 reason for assigning homework. Often times I intend to get to something in class but we simply run out of time, so I scramble and give it as homework. Decisions like this often stem from a desire to stick to a schedule and avoid falling behind. To avoid this, I try to plan only 1-2 weeks at a time. If I don’t get to a particular activity, I table it for the following day or scrap it entirely so it doesn’t contribute to homework overload.

Reason 3: To check for reading

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Bell-ringers are a great way to gauge student understanding without quizzes or homework
I created these bell-ringers for How to Read Literature Like a Professor to check for student understanding and completion of readings. I grew tired of overburdening my students and my workload with daily quizzes. Plus, bell-ringers are faster, more efficient, and more engaging than quizzes.

While homework can be used to check for reading, there are other ways to check. Some use quizzes (but that’s more grading). I prefer bell-ringers. I allow 3-5 minutes to respond to a particular bell-ringer from a previous night’s reading. As they complete their work, I circulate the room and check their progress. It is often quite clear who did the reading and who didn’t. A quick debrief after each bell-ringer usually solidifies my suspicions and I’m able to determine who’s keeping up with our readings…and who isn’t. Other intro activities like entrance slips can be done verbally or quickly. This helps to reduce heavy workloads and give you the feedback you need.

Reason 4: To meet perceived standards of rigor for advanced placement

This is just silly. The mark of rigor isn’t workload, it’s critical thinking. If you’re being held to any standards of rigor they should be judged during class, not by workload.

One Last Thing

Reducing heavy workloads - Practice makes progress

Other than workload, another damaging practice among AP teachers is rigid grading practices. Many pride themselves in grading according to a strict scale for on-demand essays, systems where students who earn less than a 4 on the 6-point rubric get a C or lower. Some have even boasted about failing students who score low on these assessments. Others enforce graded pre-tests, mock exams on day 1, and other damaging systems designed to “scare” students from AP Lit. The idea is that those who are “less able” will drop the class and the teacher can continue to teach only the brightest of the bunch.

I’m beginning my 15th year of teaching and I cannot emphasize enough that this is not best practice. While students should know about the standards of rigor and expectations in AP Lit, this can be communicated in other, non-graded ways. Furthermore, the AP exam is a stressful event. To get students prepared for that exam, timed writings and practice tests should be designed as methods of practice. Do not score them on a system where only a perfect score gets an A. This leads to feelings of despair, unworthiness, and disengagement. The best teachers are the ones who look look for progress over perfection. Furthermore, good teachers take steps to reduce heavy workloads, both in their own lives and in their students’, to ward off burnout and increase engagement and growth.

12 Engaging and Rigorous Books for Reluctant Readers

If AP English Literature is going to become a course where all learners are welcome, then some of us may need to find more engaging and rigorous books. As of now, here are the most frequently-cited books on the AP English Lit exam:

  1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (published 1952, Lexile level 950L)
  2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (published 1860, Lexile level 1150L)
  3. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (published 1847, Lexile level 880L)
  4. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (published 1902, Lexile level 890L)
  5. King Lear by William Shakespeare (published 1606)
  6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostevski (published 1866, Lexile level 990L)
  7. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (published 1916, Lexile level 1060L)
  8. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (published 1847, Lexile level 890L)
  9. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (published 1884, Lexile level 990L)
  10. Moby Dick by Herman Melville (published 1851, Lexile level 1230L)
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Now obviously most AP Lit teachers branch way out from this list. But if one studied the most frequently cited titles only, they would run into several problems:

  • Only 1 out o f 10 is by a nonwhite author
  • None of these works were published within the last 50 years.
  • Only 1 was published in the last 100 years.

Another consideration is a book’s Lexile level. It is difficult to compare a Lexile score (which rates a text’s difficulty) with a student’s reading score (which tests their reading abilities). But test data supports the trend that our students’ reading scores are dropping every year. Therefore, many of these books could be too complicated for incoming AP Lit students.

Consider Rigor + Engagement

For this reason, AP Lit teachers are challenged to find books that are healthy mix of engaging and rigorous. If a book is too rigorous and not engaging, the students won’t become emotionally invested in the story and may stop reading it altogether. If a book is too engaging and not rigorous enough, discussion becomes plot focused and students will struggle with deep analysis.

Here is a list of 12 books that you can use to breathe some fresh air into your AP Lit curriculum. I mostly use these books as independent reading suggestions, but some have even used them as whole-class reads. They certainly break the mold as “works of literary merit,” but perhaps that is just what we need right now.

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

What started as a spunky young adult book is rapidly becoming a favorite among adults as well. In fact, Angie Thomas’ debut novel is becoming a common fixture in AP English Lit, even as a whole class read.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com)

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: The Hate U Give

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed. Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr. But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

Engagement

Thomas’ poignant story of 16-year-old Starr Carter is more relevant today than ever. Your students won’t be able to put it down because the story is gripping, heartfelt, and so important.

Rigor

Complexity lies in her challenges as she constantly has to choose between her worlds of white versus black, hate versus love, and action versus inaction. THUG uses a system of themes and symbols as well.

Drawbacks

The Hate U Give‘s Lexile level is 590, which is very low for AP Lit. AP teachers who wish to integrate THUG as a whole class text should, to use a phrase I recently learned from teacher and author Jim Burke, “teach up.” This means to add complexity by supplementing it with other texts and current events. It may be a better fit as an independent read for a reluctant readers.

Room by Emma Donaghue

This is probably my most popular independent read. It’s so popular that I’ve bought at least three copies and I still don’t think any remain in my possession. You’ve probably heard of the movie starring Brie Larson (which earned her an Oscar in 2016), but the book is much more complex.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com)

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: Room

To five-year-old-Jack, Room is the world…. Told in the inventive, funny, and poignant voice of Jack, Room is a celebration of resilience—and a powerful story of a mother and son whose love lets them survive the impossible.

To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits. Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough … not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, Room is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

Engagement

The book is fast-moving and heartfelt, drawing readers in quickly. The climax falls in the middle of the book rather than near the end, so it becomes so unputdownable. Many of my students admit to reading it in a mere matter of days.

Rigor

The book employs a unique vocabulary as well as Jacob doesn’t refer to things such as “our bed” or “the plate.” Instead, he calls them “Bed” and “Plate.” This reminded me of how the reader had to understand Orwell’s system of Newspeak in 1984. There are dozens of AP-level writing prompts that pair with this book and it touches on many universal conflicts and themes as well.

Drawbacks

The only drawback to consider is that it was made into a fairly successful movie, so watch out for students who “substitute” the movie for the book. The movie is not from Jack’s point of view, which loses its biggest level of complexity. However, that makes it pretty easy to spot who skipped the reading.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

If you’re looking to infuse your curriculum with some nonfiction, Trevor Noah’s memoir is exactly what you’re looking for. I literally cannot stop recommending this book.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com)

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: Born a Crime

The memoir of one man’s coming-of-age, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed. Trevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle.

Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother—his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.

Engagement

Noah’s quick wit and natural storytelling abilities make this a rare uplifting book for AP. Furthermore, many students do not know nearly enough about South Africa’s system of apartheid. Therefore, natural curiosity can spur them on as well. The book has a shocking and heartfelt ending, which will ensure students won’t fall away as they read.

Rigor

Born a Crime encompasses many universal themes and conflicts, especially feelings of oppression and loneliness. Noah’s discussion of the different languages in South Africa add complexity, as well as his non-chronological storytelling methods.

Drawbacks

Some teachers shy away from nonfiction in AP Lit. However, the new CED description specifies that nonfiction is permissible as an AP Lit text, so I don’t think it should deter teachers.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Murder mystery. Coming-of-age story. Romance novel. Biological study. Where the Crawdads Sing offers so much in its pages that it can engage even the most reluctant reader.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: Where the Crawdads Sing

For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.

Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.

Engagement:

Owens’ novel begins with the discovery of a dead body, then flips back and forth between the beginning and end of the novel. The suspense drives the plot, resulting in a quick read.

Rigor:

This is a rare book where the setting functions as a character of its own, adding depth and complexity. The dual story-telling structure adds complexity as well.

Drawbacks:

The romance factor might make it a slightly more popular pick with girls than guys, but I’ve had success with both.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

This is a newer read for me, as I just read it this past June. I immediately sent messages out to my previous AP class, letting them know that it was a book many of them would enjoy.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: Salvage the Bones

A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch’s father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn’t show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn’t much to save. Lately, Esch can’t keep down what food she gets; she’s fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull’s new litter, dying one by one in the dirt, while brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child’s play and short on parenting.

As the twelve days that comprise the novel’s framework yield to the final day and Hurricane Katrina, the unforgettable family at the novel’s heart—motherless children sacrificing for each other as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce—pulls itself up to struggle for another day. A wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, “Salvage the Bones” is muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real.

Engagement:

The rising suspense of the approaching hurricane plus the deterioration of Esch’s family makes the book interesting and hard to put down. The perspective into Esch’s psyche is especially inviting for young female readers.

Rigor:

While the story can seem plot-focused, Ward actually integrates a number of literary symbols into the narrative. The strong narrative point of view, literary symbols, and Ward’s use of figurative language throughout make the novel plenty rigorous.

Drawbacks:

The novel does depict some sexual acts in somewhat graphic terms, so those with conservative school boards or parents may want to consider that.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Wells

I’ve had a lot of success with assigning The Glass Castle for students who struggle with finding things to analyze. It’s definitely one of my most popular independent reads.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: The Glass Castle

A tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that, despite its profound flaws, gave the author the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.

Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an “excitement addict.” Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town — and the family — Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.

Engagement:

Walls’ story is so extraordinary that it verges on unbelievable. Could any two parents really be this…unique? Since it is very much a true story, readers want to continue to see how Walls gets out, a detail that they know going into the story.

Rigor:

This memoir relies heavily on symbolism and themes to characterize Wells’ feelings throughout the whole experience. My students have found many opportunities for writing about it, using analysis of themes, figurative language, symbolism, and other literary elements.

Drawbacks:

Once again, this is a memoir. I don’t believe that a text is any “lesser” just because it’s nonfiction, but some school’s may require fiction only in AP Lit.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

I’ll admit a bias on this one, as this is my all time favorite book. I’ve never read a book that made me laugh and cry at the same time on numerous occasions. While I read it for pleasure, I’ve found several writing prompts that would work for Ove. It is a great selection for students who struggle with symbols and figurative language.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: A Man Called Ove

A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

Engagement:

I mean, come on. It’s like Up, but instead of a dog it’s a cat. And, you know, no balloons. It’s precious and wonderful. Furthermore, it works for any gender. I’ve never had a student not enjoy this book.

Rigor:

The book moves in and out of time, making it one you’ll need to construct to get the full story. Some dislike Backman’s style of writing, using clipped, almost clichéd phrases to open and close his short chapters. However, if you consider those as thematic or symbolic statements (which they are), they contribute to the book’s rigor.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

I’m a big fan of Sandra Cisneros’ short stories. I use both “My Name” and “Eleven” in my classes for short fiction or supplements. Her book The House on Mango Street has been recommended as a Q3 text, which is a unique choice considering its structure of compiled vignettes.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: The House on Mango Street

Acclaimed by critics, beloved by readers of all ages, taught everywhere from inner-city grade schools to universities across the country, and translated all over the world, The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero.

Told in a series of vignettes – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous–it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.

Engagement:

Because each chapter is a vignette, little background knowledge is necessary to understand each tale. The text feels more approachable and gets to the point quickly. Students can easily read it as one vignette per day as well, for students who need a lot of structure.

Rigor:

On the flip side, a short text still requires a sharp eye. It can become a challenge to write about since you have to piece the vignettes all together. The book’s unique structure and plot design makes it rigorous.

Drawbacks:

As I said, it’s a book of vignettes, so it can be a hard one to write about. I tend to rely on it more to supplement long texts as a short fiction work.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Some people consider this book too “pop fiction” for AP Lit, and that’s debatable. I wouldn’t choose this one for an in-class read, but I would definitely recommend it for independent reading.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine.

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: she struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding unnecessary human contact, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen, the three rescue one another from the lives of isolation that they had been living. Ultimately, it is Raymond’s big heart that will help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one. If she does, she’ll learn that she, too, is capable of finding friendship—and even love—after all.

Smart, warm, uplifting, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine whose deadpan weirdness and unconscious wit make for an irresistible journey as she realizes. . .the only way to survive is to open your heart.

Engagement:

Eleanor’s quirky personality and Honeyman’s dark humor blend into an interesting story. It’s unlikely that students have never read a story featuring a protagonist as damaged as Eleanor. Plus, the book has a huge plot twist at the end!

Rigor:

This book employs a very unreliable narrator (which is part of the plot twist). That complication makes the plot harder to construct and relies more on inferences when analyzing.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I read both The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys recently and would recommend both for AP Lit. But what I noticed about The Underground Railroad more than Nickel Boys was its sensitivity and approachability. This would be a great work to push cautious or sheltered readers into upper level titles. It presents real-life conflicts but avoids graphic violence, language, or sexuality.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: The Underground Railroad

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

Engagement:

Students are drawn in to learn what happened to Cora’s mother, then will continue reading to see if Cora really escapes. The tragic part of this narrative is that no one who escapes slavery ever really feels free, so the threat of being discovered propels the suspense.

Rigor:

I love this book for exposing struggling readers to the concept of magical realism. While I wouldn’t classify this book in that genre necessarily, there are elements of just enough fantasy that can help them grapple with that difficult genre.

Drawbacks:

I know some teachers are looking for books that discuss systematic racism but aren’t slave narratives. If you already teach Beloved, The Underground Railroad may be just too similar to pair with it. Consider Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys if you want a gritty story that isn’t a slave narrative. Racism and systematic racial oppression are still major conflicts in The Nickel Boys.

Misery by Stephen King

I know I just lost the respect of a lot of you, but hear me out. Last year, I had a very strong reader struggling to engage with Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See for independent reading. However, she was moving through Stephen King’s books very quickly in her spare time. She approached me and asked if she could read one of his books instead. Being a huge Stephen King fan myself, we took the gamble and she read Misery. She ended up writing a high-scoring analysis on Annie’s methods of deception for her writing assessment, solidifying my opinion that Stephen King can exist in an AP classroom.

Synopsis (from Amazon):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: Misery

Best-selling novelist Paul Sheldon thinks he’s finally free of Misery Chastain. In a controversial career move, he’s just killed off the popular protagonist of his beloved romance series in favor of expanding his creative horizons. But such a change doesn’t come without consequences. After a near-fatal car accident in rural Colorado leaves his body broken, Paul finds himself at the mercy of the terrifying rescuer who’s nursing him back to health – his self-proclaimed number one fan, Annie Wilkes. 

Annie is very upset over what Paul did to Misery and demands that he find a way to bring her back by writing a new novel – his best yet, and one that’s all for her. After all, Paul has all the time in the world to do so as a prisoner in her isolated house…and Annie has some very persuasive and violent methods to get exactly what she wants… 

Engagement:

Stephen King has never struggled with engaging readers. This story is gripping and Annie Wilkes is truly terrifying. Even if students are familiar with the excellent movie adaptation, things actually get so much worse in the book.

Rigor:

This is is probably the least rigorous of all of these books, so much so that I wouldn’t recommend for the lowest-level readers. Instead, it’s a great choice for those hard to please students, who tend to find everything so boring. Like the deception prompt from 2016, there are several writing tasks that can yield good analysis.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

The Metamorphosis is my go-to when I need a 1-2 week unit for AP Lit. In the past, I’ve used with my seniors when the juniors go on their class trip in the fall. This year, I’m actually reserving the unit in case I fall ill or need to be out for 1-2 weeks.

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: The Metamorphosis

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was laying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.”

With its startling, bizarre, yet surprisingly funny first opening, Kafka begins his masterpiece, The Metamorphosis. It is the story of a young man who, transformed overnight into a giant beetle-like insect, becomes an object of disgrace to his family, an outsider in his own home, a quintessentially alienated man. A harrowing—though absurdly comic—meditation on human feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and isolation, The Metamorphosis has taken its place as one of the most widely read and influential works of twentieth-century fiction. As W.H. Auden wrote, “Kafka is important to us because his predicament is the predicament of modern man.”

Engagement:

I love this book for engaging reluctant readers. One, it’s so short. Two, it’s so weird. Three, there are several interpretations and applications of Kafka’s text, which can pique curious readers’ imaginations.

Rigor:

Because there is no “one” interpretation, students will love discussing why Samsa is an insect. The book’s existential themes complicate the rigor of this novella.

Further Reading

As always, I’m constantly reading and exploring new texts to add to my AP Lit classroom library. I love having suggestions of engaging and rigorous titles to suggest to my students. To learn how I use independent reading in class check out this blog post, or this resource on Teachers Pay Teachers for ready-made resources. To see how I build engagement and rigor in the first few weeks of AP Lit, check out this blog post!

4 Quick Questions to Determine if a Book is “AP-Worthy”

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:

4 Quick Questions to Determine if a Book is "AP-Worthy"
4 Quick Questions: Some young adult books, like The Hate U Give, are still excellent for literary analysis because of their adult conflicts.

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.

Example:

4 Quick Questions to Determine if a Book is "AP-Worthy"
4 Quick Questions: The “Snape” example
proves why works in a series don’t work
well for Q3 essays.

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.

Oh, brother.

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:

4 Quick Questions to Determine if a Book is "AP-Worthy"

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.