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.
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.
As I prepared my lessons for AP Lit this year, I knew that I needed to try something different from years past. For one, I’ve been learning so much from fellow high school teachers, both online and in person, and I wanted to try something more engaging but also more rigorous. Secondly, I wanted to clearly indicate the expectations for the course on the first day, to avoid any confusion later on. In the end, I think the lesson was both a clear indication of the work we do, as well as an invitation to work together to grow in analysis.
Overall, this lesson was designed to demonstrate my three expectations for AP Lit students throughout the year.
To start off the class, I passed out a handout on annotation that I created (found for free on my TpT store). This handout explains the benefits to annotation, including increased active reading, less re-reading later, and stronger connections between the prompt and the text. Then I passed out a printed copy of David M. Wright’s article, “Why Read Literature.” I like this article because it is clearly organized, but it is not too simple. For example, it uses allusions, strong vocabulary, and makes strong, even arguable claims. I gave students about 10 minutes to read and annotate the text (using this time to take attendance and circulate to look for annotation styles). This exercise showed the students what I expect when I require active reading.
Next, I distributed my “Why Read Literature” One Pager and handout (also free, found here!) Using some samples from previous assignments, I explained the concept of a one-pager, a demonstration of learning through images, words, symbols, and other visual images. While one-pagers are a great opportunity to showcase artistic abilities, drawing talent is not required. (Here’s a great article that explains the benefits of using one-pagers in the classroom, as well as how to involve non-artsy students) Students were asked to fill the white space with Wright’s three criteria for a Great Book, as well as the six benefits to reading literature. Filling out the one-pager can take anywhere from 10-30 minutes to fully complete. I stopped them at 20. To shorten this time, you could ask students to partner up and complete the assignment together. This one-pager shows my students what I expect when I ask them to demonstrate understanding.
Finally, when the one-pagers were done (or almost done, some were allowed to finish up during the discussion), I asked students to look at the question on the bottom of the handout. It asks them if they agree with the article or not. If yes, why? If no, why not. As expected, I heard overwhelming yeses. Without my help, the discussion fell flat after about one minute. When prodded for more, several students gave longer answers. And, as expected once again, each answer began with, “I like how he…” or “I like that he…” I let this continue for a few more minutes, then I told them what I needed to hear when I ask them to think critically.
I told my students they need to go beyond agreeing with the author. If you agree, you need to expand with your own reason.
For example, one student brought up that they liked Wright’s example of how Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed the mindset of America in favor of abolishing slavery, supporting the point that literature can change a culture. Using this example, I asked them what other pieces of literature they could think of that, when read, changed a society’s mindset or opinion of an issue. Suddenly, students were alive with ideas. Titles like The Diary of Anne Frank, The Communist Manifesto, and recent articles discussing the “white savior” concept of To Kill a Mockingbird were all brought up. This, I explained, was strong critical thinking in support of a text. They agreed, but also demonstrated how the text applied to their own worldview and literary exposure.
Next, I challenged them to find something to criticize. They weren’t expecting this. I think many students get an article or text and consider it “holy” since the teacher passed it out. It wasn’t until I told them that there was a facet of the “Why Read Literature” article that I myself disagreed with that they even considered it. However, it didn’t take long for one student to take the bait. He suggested that perhaps not all great literature has be written in elevated language, as Wright suggests. This led to a great conversation where more and more students agreed, naming other “Great Books” with lower reading levels from their own experience. In the end, my students learned what it means to think critically about a text.
This lesson took about 45 minutes in total to complete, and met our learning target to understand the three expectations of AP Lit: read actively (through annotation), demonstrate understanding (through our one-pager), and think critically (through in-class discussion).
It’s the end of July and teachers are preparing to move back into their classrooms. A good portion of these teachers are first timers, which could mean several things. Some are bright-eyed twenty-two-year-old grads, eager to step into their first job. Some are new to the teaching field after making a career shift. And others have been teaching for years but are approaching a new grade level or subject for the first time. Teachers who are new to AP Lit often feel intense pressure to meet high standards and produce high-scoring students in their first year. Furthermore, there are countless ways to structure an AP Lit class and no standardized reading list, so many new teachers feel completely lost.
For this post I’ve teamed up with another AP Lit teacher, Ashlee Tripp, to provide two different perspectives. We asked new AP Lit teachers for some burning questions they had as they readied for the new school year, and we actually got so many that we created two blog posts to answer them all! I’ll cover half of them here, and make sure you click here to access the other half of the material on Ashlee’s blog!
Q: How many books do I teach, and which ones?
Gina: These are the top two questions I see in the AP Lit Facebook groups. I think the number of texts we teach, an achievement that used to be competed about among AP Lit teachers, is becoming arbitrary. A teacher could teach 15 books but if her students never write then what’s the point? I say, teach as many books as it takes to do it well. For the upcoming school year, I’ll be teaching six texts (two plays, two novels, a novella, and How to Read Literature Like a Professor). I did eliminate two from last year’s list to make room for short fiction units. As for which books to pick, the College Board answer would be to find books that are complex, diverse, and engaging. However, I think it’s equally important to teach books you love. Students can sense when you’re teaching a book because you have to, making them less likely to read it. I would encourage new AP Lit teachers to stick to some “safe” texts, but don’t be afraid to take risks. If there’s a new book that you think would be perfect for AP Lit but you don’t know if it’s “AP approved,” take a leap and try it out! And also, don’t forget to let us know how it went! AP Lit teachers are always looking for books to add to our must-read list.
Ashlee: I think you have 3 camps on this—those who read more than 10, those who read 5-10, and those who read 3-4, and you just have to decide which camp you would excel in as a teacher! I give a summer survey, and consistently over 80% of my kids identify themselves as readers. It just makes sense to me to push my kids to read a wide range of texts. I constantly get e-mails from graduates thanking me for making them read more because it helps them manage the reading load of college. We’ll be doing nine novels (three choice, two book club, and four whole class) and two plays this upcoming year. That’s cutting three books from last year to include even more poetry and short fiction than I have ever done! My first year teaching AP Lit, we did all whole class reading chronologically: Oedipus Rex, Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, King Lear, Paradise Lost, Candide, Frankenstein, Crime and Punishment, Heart of Darkness, The Handmaid’s Tale, and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Last year, I let the kids choose their whole class texts; out of a list of ten, they chose eight, had one book club, and three choice books. This year, I’m still thinking about it, but there have been major curriculum changes in our lower grade levels, so I’ll be adjusting for that and the new standards. As of now, I’m thinking we’ll move thematically and do dystopian book clubs (previously summer reading) followed by a whole class read of 1984, a Shakespeare play (I’ll probably let them choose), Frankenstein, The Great Gatsby, Invisible Man, The Importance of Being Earnest, and a Contemporary option in book clubs. I may end up cutting Invisible Man in favor of something shorter depending on how the year is going, but I like to have them read a longer text if time allows. My kids have never had a year where they took the exam and didn’t have at least five of the texts we read listed for Q3 (though I don’t think it’s that big of a deal if you don’t cover the listed books).
Q: How much do my students’ scores matter?
Gina: It depends on your school and your administrator. Most administrators will look at your scores and possibly discuss them, but from a data standpoint. I think you should always look at your scores and learn from them, but never define your teaching ability or your students by their scores. Keep them tucked away in a file or file cabinet, make any necessary changes to the following year, and move on.
Ashlee: My admin looks at our AP scores, but I don’t think they matter as much as we sometimes think they do. My principal sends congratulatory texts to anyone over the national averages in July, and we get our essay exams back, but that’s about it. I think it depends on your school and your state. I use the scores to plan and set goals for the following year… last year I wanted to improve Q2 responses and multiple choice averages, and we drastically improved on each because I was more intentional on planning for those things! I also let kids talk me into doing a poetry standalone unit instead of weekly poems last year, and our Q1 responses went down by 0.2 points. Never again! LOL Just remember you can always do more poetry, and poems are short and sweet and oh so complex.
Q: How much of my time should be devoted to test prep?
Gina: The answer to this question depends on how much of your course is driven by the exam. If your test double duties as a dual enrollment or Brit Lit course, the exam may not be the best assessment for the work you do. But if you teach the AP Lit course at your school and the exam is the ultimate end goal for the course, I’d recommend at least 20% of class time be spent on test-prep activities and assessments. My class is strictly an AP class so we do multiple choice practice tests at least every quarter and timed writings each month. With the new AP Classroom resources being posted, I am hoping to do shorter multiple choice activities each week if possible. My literature units are also driven by the new AP Lit standards and many of our activities are filled with close reading and analysis activities. Some of my units, like my prose analysis unit and my test prep unit, are purely driven by the exam, but could apply to SAT and ACT preparation as well.
Ashlee: We spend April specifically on test prep, but I do go over the format of the exam and the expectations at the beginning of the year, and the kids do a mock exam in August, in December, and again in April. Otherwise, we’re just a college-level English class, and I treat it as such. If you’re teaching your kids how to think critically as they read and write, then you’re preparing them for the test the entire year.
Q: How often should students practice timed writing?
Gina: My students complete a timed writing about every two weeks. I’d actually like to do it weekly but I can’t handle the grading load. One way to incorporate more on-demand writing is to scale it down. Sometimes I just ask students to produce a thesis statement or a short outline for a text we’re studying. I give them a few minutes and we share in class. This only takes about 10 minutes in total, rather than spending an entire class period on a timed essay.
Ashlee: I do a full timed write about as often as Gina, maybe a little less. And we do tons of thesis statements, outlines, paragraphs or discussions of released prompts throughout the year. I’d rather get through more texts than spend an entire class period every week doing a full essay. That said, they read, write, and discuss at least one text every single day in class.
Q: Can I see a sample syllabus?
We got so many requests for this! I recently moved from a written syllabus to a visual one, and Ashlee has explored this as well. The links to all four examples are included below:
Ashlee – Written Syllabus Remember, these syllabi are designed for in-class use. These are not submitted to College Board and are not to be confused with the AP Audit, which is standard-driven and much more intensive!
Q: What does a typical class period look like?
Gina: My lessons vary depending on what we’re studying and what day of the week it is. Our school is on a modified block, so once a week I get them for a block period. On these days we start with a vocabulary quiz and a poem study. This takes up about half of the class period, so most of my classes are structured to last about 45 minutes. I’m not nearly as structured as Ashlee, and my lessons vary by what we are reading. Sometimes we spend almost an entire period in small and whole group discussion, other times we move from lecture to discussion to independent reading. I’m usually pretty amped up to start each lesson so I prefer to begin with bell-ringers or introductory activities and conclude lessons with independent reading.
Ashlee: I wish I was more structured! I’d love to model my class after Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days, but that’s still goals for me. I do start with 10 minutes of reading every day, and then from there it depends on the day! I use the same strategies in AP that I use in all of my classes: learning stations, gallery walks, Socratic seminars/discussions, think pair share, silent discussions, speed dating, circles, etc. I have 50-minute classes three days a week and an 80-minute block once a week. Ideally? It would probably look something like this (though it doesn’t always): 10 min. free reading 10-15 min. text study/mini-lesson (longer on block days) 20-25 min. writing/discussing/practicing (longer on block days) 5 min. sharing/closure
Q: How do you vary your teaching patterns to avoid monotony, but encompass recurrent practice of the same skills?
Gina: I pick different summative assessments for each long fiction unit we complete. They vary between a test, Socratic Seminar, long essay, project, and more. Each one has a timed writing, but everything else varies. I have also begun pairing literature lessons with mini-lessons on certain skills or materials pertaining to the text. For example, in Frankenstein we explore Paradise Lost and foils, whereas in Things Fall Apart we study proverbs and folk tales. Honestly, every unit seems pretty different in my AP class! The things that do become a routine are our weekly vocab quizzes and poem studies. Those are ever present, no matter what unit we’re in.
Ashlee: One way is through the volume of texts we read and study, but I also try to change up how we’re interacting with a text from day to day, how we’re responding, how we’re learning… and I’m always trying new strategies and adjusting!
Q: What’s the best wine to pair with essays?
Gina: I’m not an avid wine drinker, so I’m going to defer to a fellow Facebook member for my answer. She said: Persuasive Essays: Merlot or rosé Narrative Essays: Sauvignon blanc or pinot noir Expository Essays: Chardonnay or cabernet
Ashlee: Where’s the moscato? Actually, Hemingway said to write drunk and edit sober, so I don’t tend to pair grading essays with wine. Maybe that’s why I despise grading so much!
Want to see more questions answered? Head over to Ashlee’s blog to read the rest!
Gina Kortuem has a Masters in education from Bethel University and is going into her 14th year of teaching AP English Lit. She works in a parochial K-12 school in St. Paul, MN where she teaches AP Lit, Brit Lit, Shakespearean Lit, and the sophomore English 10 classes. In addition to teaching the class she has worked as an AP Reader five times and has scored for each essay type. She teaches full time and also runs the Teachers Pay Teachers store AP Lit & More.
Ashlee Tripp is a high school English teacher in Douglas County School District, just south of Denver, CO. She has an MAT English and BA in psychology with a focus in neuroscience. She currently teaches AP Lit (seniors), College Composition I and II (juniors and seniors), and Young Adult Literature elective (juniors and seniors). This is her fourth year teaching AP Lit, but she’s been teaching for a decade, two years at the college level and eight years at the high school level. In all of her spare time she enjoys reading every genre of literature and writing for her blog. You can find her blog, Life’s a Tripp, at http://www.ashleetripp.com and purchase AP Lit and other teaching resources from her TpT store that she recently started.
As you may have heard, the AP English Literature course is getting a bit of a redesign this summer, becoming effective in Fall of 2019. For the full report released by the College Board, click here. For the remix version, keep reading!
Many AP Lit teachers are already starting to panic about the new changes because frankly, changes are scary. But based on my reading and some discussion with other AP Lit teachers, I think these changes are positive overall and nothing to be scared of.
Here are the main things to know:
The biggest change is that the AP Lit essay rubric is changing to an analytical, itemized rubric similar to those used on the AP US History and AP European History exams. The actual scoring guidelines have not been released yet, but the writing prompts are more specific in what students need to write about. More information will be provided at the AP Reading this summer and will be sent out to AP Lit teachers as well.
AP English Literature seems to be embracing different forms of fiction, perhaps even moving away from the old-fashioned “literary merit” model of years past. Instead, the course description breaks the literature down into three categories:
Much of the new changes to the AP exam are supported by an abundance of new resources being supplied by College Board on their new AP Classroom webpage. The webpage is advertised below:
Because of the new emphasis on “short fiction,” AP teachers are already talking about adding more short fiction, such as excerpts from novels or short stories, and eliminating some longer works. This builds on Senior VP of CollegeBoard Trevor Packer’s tweet last summer hinting that this was the new direction of AP Lit. (I discussed this tweet and its ramifications in a blog post last year as well!)
If you are feeling overwhelmed still, that’s perfectly natural. I too had a small moment of hyperventilation when I worried I had to eliminate all novels from my curriculum and add short stories instead. However, after reading further, and talking to some level-headed AP Lit teachers, here are my personal take-aways:
These are guidelines. No changes are necessary to your AP Lit courses, except maybe tweaking your on-demand essay rubrics eventually.
CollegeBoard will be releasing more practice questions and resources to help new and struggling AP teachers starting in the fall.
CollegeBoard may start allowing analysis of shorter prose works, even short stories, on Question 3, which overall means more modern and realistic reading material and student expectations.
Because of a student trip to Italy this June, I am unable to attend the AP Lit scoring in Salt Lake City. However, I have some friends who are sending me the materials as soon as they get them, and rest assured I am setting aside some time this summer to develop TpT resources based on the new writing expectations. If you have any additional questions for me, or suggestions for future resources, please email me at email@example.com. Finally, I encourage you to check out the new course description (linked above) and sign up for the AP Classroom resource.