Drama Circles: A Post-AP Exam Unit

One of the most common questions I see before the AP Lit exam is not about test prep, but about what teachers should do with their students on the exam days are over. It is more than a valid question. For months, a good AP teacher cultivates an environment of exploration and rigorous learning. To abandon all work once the exam is over seems wrong, and depending on your school calendar, can be a huge waste of student time. But at the same time, upperclassmen often face burnout after their AP exams and it can be hard to get them to continue the rigorous work that comes with AP-level classes.

Like many teachers, I was faced with the dilemma with filling class time with purposeful activities that didn’t push the kids past their breaking point.

The best activity I have found is a book club unit analyzing plays from the AP reading list. 

The focus for this activity is on reading and discussion, and the summative assignment is a simple presentation to the rest of the class. Overall, my students find it entertaining, enlightening, and a learning activity that is not too intense for those waning days of May.

Unit Design & Procedure

Step 1: Group Up – If student reading choice was the only factor, this activity could result in too many small groups of 2 or even 1, which won’t work for this unit. Instead, I ask students to get into groups of 3-5 before they choose a play. To add to the more relaxed atmosphere of the unit, I allow them to form their own groups, a strategy I would not normally use during the regular school year.

Step 2: Choose a Play – Once they are in groups, they will need to select a play to read. There are two parameters for this: 1) it must be AP-level; 2) no one in the group can have read it already. There are many plays on the AP Lit reading list, but some of my favorites for this unit include:

  • Oedipus the King by Sophocles
  • Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
  • An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen
  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
  • Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  • Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
  • Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
  • 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams
  • Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco
  • A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  • Fences by August Wilson
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard
  • The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance

I usually type up descriptions of some of my favorites, or provide students with time to look online for descriptions of each. Goodreads.com is a great resource for this.

Step 3: Form a Plan – To cultivate a student-led design, I ask students to form their own reading plan. Ideally the plays should be read aloud in class and should take about 1 to 1 1/2 weeks to finish. I also ask students to give themselves roles or titles, such as:

  • President: Someone to keep the group on task and lead discussions
  • Vice President: Someone to fill in for any absent group members
  • Secretary: Someone to take notes and submit daily attendance
  • Presentation Preparer: Someone with a computer open turning notes into a final PowerPoint or preparing a presentation for the final assessment

Step 4: Assign Formative Assessments – To keep this a learning activity (instead of an approaching summer free-for-all), make sure there are assessments in place both for group discussions and individual close reading. I usually grade discussions as I would a Socratic Seminar and assign individual students reading journals or written reflections 2-3 times a week.

Step 5: Design a Summative Assessment – The students need a final grade to aim for, and I’ve had good luck with a group presentation. I ask each group to give a plot premise and overview of the main characters. They then have to summarize some of the main themes and plot events they analyzed during group discussions. Finally, each student should provide a review of the play, including what they liked and didn’t like about each play. These presentations are usually paired with a dramatic recreation of a scene or two from the play, as well as why the scene is significant.

Here’s one group presenting a scene for their group project.

This is just one idea for filling the 2-3 weeks after the AP Lit exam, but I have had excellent luck in my own personal experience. I’d love to hear more, what activities do you use after the AP Lit exam?

Looking for more literature circle ideas? Check out my Gothic Novel Unit for AP Lit. It gives you everything you need to guide students through 5 different gothic novels, including six different rubrics for scoring!

AP Lit Prose – Making Connections to Literature and Film

I have been teaching AP Lit for almost 15 years, and the test prep has always been a difficult process. For years my students felt stressed about the open question, so I created the Independent Novel Project. Then, they felt overwhelmed and underprepared for the poetry question, so I created weekly poem lessons and two intensive poetry units. This leaves just the prose question. I didn’t know why, but my students felt unprepared and baffled by the prose question, always forgetting the meaning of syntax and the purpose of diction. I drilled them by adding more novels and plays, but nothing seemed to help.

Then, last year I had the “fortunate misfortune” of scoring the prose question for the 2018 AP Lit exam, which explored Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance. Although I had to read more about Zenobia than one human being ever should, I did learn that writing for the prose prompt takes more than just regular analysis skills. Literary elements used in prose are powerful but often overlooked, and it takes a keen eye to pick out just the right details for written analysis.

With this in mind, I created a weeklong prose unit that explored the most common literary terms mentioned on past AP Lit prose questions. To make it interesting, I connected the skills in my notes to popular characters from literature and films. This resource is for sale on Teachers Pay Teachers, but I will share a few of my favorite lessons from this resource here.

Lesson 1: Diction

One subset of diction is dialogue, and you can learn a lot about a character from dialogue. In this lesson, I take quotes from famous movie characters (well, they’re famous from my time, so I also like to look at it as introducing classic characters to these young bucks) and we analyze what their spoken lines say about them. Take Sally.

Sally Albright is one of my favorite characters, and she comes from my favorite romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally. In my notes, I record Sally’s lunch order:

But I’d like the pie heated, and I don’t want the ice cream on top, I want it on the side. And I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it. If not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it’s real. If it’s out of a can, then nothing.

Sally Albright, When Harry Met Sally

I ask the students, what do Sally’s lines tell us about her character? First, it reinforces Harry’s assertion that she is “high maintenance.” Her defense is that ”she knows what she wants.” Sally is picky, but only because she hates being let down. By being assertive with what she wants, she hopes to spare anyone disappointment later. We continue this discussion with several other characters, and eventually students learn that every line of dialogue serves a purpose, and it is usually to further the plot or, in this case, to build character.

Lesson 2: Syntax

Syntax is one of the most difficult literary elements to teach, since it really just means how words are arranged. My students argue that you can make a case out of any syntactical arrangement, so how do we know if that is what the author intended? I remind them that author intent is not really the point. The AP exam rubric asks for a persuasive answer, so if they can support their assertion with textual evidence, it doesn’t matter if the author approves of it.

In this lesson, I took famous quotes from different novels and explored different syntactical arrangements, including a midsentence break, beginning and ending with significant words, choppy sentence structure, and parallelism. To demonstrate parallelism, I included lines from one of America’s most beloved novels, To Kill a Mockingbird. In it, Atticus says,

People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.

Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

In this quote, the words are arranged to deliberately reuse the word “for” at the end of each phrase. This is parallelism, a form of repetition. Since the original word ended with “look for,” the change to the word “listen” in front of “for” puts more emphasis on that word. Atticus is giving wisdom to his children, and Atticus is a man who listens more than he speaks. The meaning behind this wisdom would not be lost on his children, but Harper Lee employs parallelism to make sure it isn’t lost on us.

Lesson 3: Point of View

Most students understand how to identify the point of view of a textual excerpt, thanks to classic short story lessons. However, AP readers expect a more advanced knowledge base, which includes knowledge of an unreliable narrator, 2nd person point of view, and stream-of-consciousness narration.

There was no better author of unreliable narrator than Edgar Allan Poe. In his classic short story “A Tell-Tale Heart,” we see the thoughts of a madman as he hears the beating heart of the man he just killed. Poe writes,

Yet the sound increased—and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath—and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly—more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men—but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!—this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!

Narrator, “The Tell-Tale Heart”

These lines convince the reader that the heartbeat is not real, but is only heard in the mind of the narrator. Until this point, the reader isn’t sure if this is a supernatural thriller or a psychological thriller. Here, he proves his unreliability, and we shift to enjoying watching him unravel.

While these points of view may seem alien to readers, most of them are easier to understand in film. Shutter Island, Fight Club, Atonement, and Gone Girl are all popular films (and books, by the way) that employ an unreliable narrator. Most students have seen one of these, and relating this lesson to these films will help solidify the information.

Lesson 4: Tone & Other Elements

Tone is another tricky element. While students won’t have a hard time understanding it, analyzing tone is a different story. My students struggle with labeling tone, and figuring out how to incorporate it into a literary analysis.

To illustrate tone in my lesson, I picked three popular books-turned-movies that featured a prominent death. I presented a quote which depicted this death and asked students to analyze the tone.

This was a questionable move, but I included the death of Fred Weasley. And I’ll be honest here, I wept while writing these slides. Spoilers aside, the words accompanying Fred’s death are some of the most heartbreakingly ironic words in literature. They say:

And Percy was shaking his brother, and Ron was kneeling beside them, and Fred’s eyes stared without seeing, the ghost of his last laugh still etched upon his face.

JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

After we all dry our eyes, students must analyze the tone of these words. First of all, heartbreaking is accurate, as the author emphasizes that Fred is surrounded by his brothers at his death, including his own twin. Furthermore, Fred was a jokester in life, and by discussing the ghost of a laugh on his face she adds a tone of cruelty to the words, emphasizing Fred’s undeserved death.

These are just single slides from lessons designed to take a full hour, and they don’t mention the annotation and writing activities, but I hope they give a little clarification on how to make prose instruction more interesting and meaningful for your AP Lit students. To access my AP Lit Prose materials click on any of the headings for individual lessons, or click here for the full weeklong unit.

AP Lit Exam Prep: Question 3 Study Guides

When April rolls around my AP Lit students begin preparing for the exam, a process which looks different for each teacher. Many students get the most anxiety when it comes to the free response question, an open-ended prompt asking students to analyze any novel or play. I’ve found success in having each student prepare a study guide for five different texts.

Preparation

First of all, students should reflect back on all of the books they have read in preparation for the AP Lit exam, both in class and outside of it. This includes both novels and plays, as well as some memoirs, short stories, essays, epics, and other kinds of texts. Each student needs to create a list of five titles to know, inside and out. Here are some of the rules I implement for choosing titles:

  1. They must include at least one Shakespearean play.
    1. They must include at least one play (which may be by Shakespeare)
    1. They must include at least one gothic novel.
    1. They must attempt to include at least two diverse authors, meaning women and minorities.
    1. No author should be repeated more than twice.
    1. Use titles on the range of accessibility, aiming for more obscure books if possible.
This is a PowerPoint side I show in class to explain the concept of accessibility.

The range of accessibility is a continuum that I designed showing how some works are considered “too accessible” by some readers, meaning that they may be too short, too simple, or frankly too popular. Wonderful but accessible books include To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and Animal Farm. Students should avoid having titles that all rank low on the continuum and try to put at least one more obscure title on their list. This doesn’t mean a student can’t write about To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a wonderful novel and contains strong symbols and themes. They should just avoid having multiple titles that are low on the continuum. The same goes likewise for having too many titles from a similar time period or genre.

Here are some examples of one-side title lists, either too simple or too similar. Encourage students to vary their choices and choose a range of accessible to obscure texts.

While it is impossible to hit all of these categories, encourage students to choose title combinations that are:

  • Written by both male and female authors
  • Representing world literature, or works from outside of America or Great Britain
  • Including works by minority authors, including writers of color and Native American authors
  • representing plays, especially those not taught in 9th or 10th grade
  • A mixture of short and longer texts
  • A balance of old and newer books, including classics and those published in just the past 10 years.
Here is an example of a strong list of titles for an AP Lit Exam study guide. As you can see, it is intentionally diverse in several ways.

The Assignment

Once students have chosen their titles, I give them a week or two to prepare their study guides. These study guides need to include the following for each title:

  1. The title, author, and year published
  2. The setting (both time and place)*
  3. A list of characters*
  4. A short plot summary*
  5. An overview of themes and symbols, each explained in several sentences

*If time is a factor, or students are being crushed under a weight of other work right before AP exams, I sometimes allow these items to be taken from an online study website such as SparkNotes or Shmoop. I’d prefer their themes and symbols be written in their own words, but the rest of the information is really for short review right before the exam. If it speeds up the preparation process this is an accommodation that can be made.

In my classes, the study guides are due the Monday of our AP Exam week. I look them over and score them quickly, returning them to the students so they can review them. I also make sure that the week of the exam they have no homework from me. I only ask that they read over their five study guides for 5-10 minutes each day, especially right before they go to bed. They usually bring them to school on the day of the AP Exam as well, cramming from them right before the doors open.

Benefits

This study guide assignment has several benefits:

  • It clears up a common problem, when students have to write about a book they’ve read before, but they have forgotten character names or important plot events. By engraining these five stories into their heads, they are readily able to write about them at the drop of a hat.
  • In the five years of doing this assignment, only once has a student had to write about a book that was not on their study guide. Therefore, it takes away much of the panic that students can feel going into Question 3 when they are unsure of what to write.
  • It adds a formative grade into my gradebook during exam time, showing assessment for a practical and meaningful assignment that is not busywork.

Looking for more AP Lit test prep materials? Check out my Two Week Test Prep Unit, or my Two Week Test Prep + Multiple Choice and On-Demand Resource Bundle!

A Book Tasting

In my AP Lit class we do independent reading each semester. The students get to choose a book off an extensive list of titles, which can sometimes be overwhelming. Despite my emphasis on student choice, many of my students in the past have chosen haphazardly or without thinking, leading to disappointment or abandoned reading later on in the semester. For that reason, I reexamined my introduction to the unit and changed it a up a little bit. The result was our very first Book Tasting, which was a huge success! This activity can be done for any grade in middle or high school, as long as there is student choice and an organized reading list. Here’s how you can put on a book tasting in your own class.

Set Up

For this lesson, you will need the following:

  • A list of titles that students can choose from, organized logically (I choose by date), printed out for them to keep
  • A copy of each book
  • Short plot summaries or plot premises (such as what would be on the back of a book jacket), printed and posted next to the book
  • Space in your room for conferencing and quiet reading
  • Instructions, printed out or displayed on a PowerPoint
  • Post-Its
  • Book Review sheets – On these sheets, students had to indicate the title, author, and year published. Then they had to indicate what kind of book review they completed (see below). Finally they had to write 3-5 sentences explaining their opinion on this book and whether they might read it or not. My book review sheets are a free download!
  • Optional: One-Pagers or Student Reviews – Before I did this activity, I assigned my students to create a One-Pager for the book they read for summer reading, which was off of the same reading list. I placed the One-Pager next to my prepared written summary. The students enjoyed hearing feedback from people other than the teacher.
Some student reviews or One-Pagers

Display your books, either on a shelf or on tables. Place your written summaries next to each book, then a Post-It on each summary. If you like you can organize the books by genre or date. Mine were ordered chronologically by date of publication.

Procedure

As students walked in to class, I handed out the written instructions and explained briefly the purpose behind the activity. I had spent the day before explaining the project behind these novels since I wanted this day to be purely focused on finding the right book. Before they could begin browsing, I asked each student to go around and indicate which books they had read. They did this by writing their name on the Post-it note next to the book. This only took a minute or two.

The goal of the day was to review seven different books. In order to complete a review, they had to “sample” or “taste” them. There were three different ways to “sample” a book:

  • Book Review – Students read the printed premise, and any corresponding student One-Pagers.
  • Reading – Students read the first 5-10 pages of the book.
  • Interview – On the post-it next to the book, they could find a student who had read that book. In one of our conferencing areas, they paired off or got into small groups and spent some time learning about the book. The student who read it was asked to give concise and honest feedback on the book, as well as supplying their own version of a plot premise. The student completing the review took notes on their review sheet.

I also made it mandatory that they read the back cover or jacket of the book for each book review, as well as the first paragraph of each novel.

Completing these book reviews took about an hour. Asking students to complete seven reviews quickly proved too ambitious and I lowered it to five, which was much more manageable. Since our block periods are an hour and half long, this left the last half hour for quiet reading time. Most students were cemented and confident with their choice after an hour of browsing and a half an hour of reading.

Reflection

Other than needing to reduce the number of book reviews I required, this was a perfect lesson. My students reported that they enjoyed the time to browse and appreciated the different styles of “tasting” they were able to do. And now that the semester is over, I also noticed that fewer students abandoned their books or reported disliking them. This means the lesson really did meet my goal of helping students make more informed choices in their independent reading.

To access the book review files just click here for the free file. This resource is not available through Teachers Pay Teachers, only for my blog readers! For AP Lit teachers interested in learning more about the independent reading project my students are doing in these pictures, all of the materials are for sale through my Teachers Pay Teachers store. Click here to learn more.

Why Teach Frankenstein?

My first year in the teaching field was also my first year teaching AP Lit. Being a new teacher, I relied on a lot of trial-by-basis lessons and also made use of most of what the previous teacher had left behind for me. While I did eventually survive that first year (by some miracle), I buckled down in the summer months and made necessary changes to my AP curriculum.

And the very first thing I did was added Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley’s gothic classic has always been one of my favorite books to teach to AP Lit students. Not only do I personally enjoy it, but I love watching my students approach the text and react to the novel’s two polarizing main characters and the horrific actions that both commit.

If you’re considering adding Frankenstein to your curriculum, or even just to your reading list, here are some benefits I can point out for you:

Gothic Novel – If you go back and look at the open question prompts over the past few years (free list here!), you can see that many of the questions apply to gothic novels and Byronic heroes. In fact, there were four gothic titles suggested in the 2018 question alone. Gothic novels are loved by literature teachers and professors because they balance suspense, characterization, and descriptive imagery in an accessible, but not-too-easy, combination. While there are many gothic novels that are absolutely wonderful, Frankenstein seems the most exciting to most teenagers because of their prior knowledge of the story based on Hollywood interpretations. Which leads me to my next point…

Complexity – This novel may seem easy because they have made so many movies about it, but it is startlingly complex. To start with, the book has three narrators, organized in a frame narration. Secondly, there is no clear villain. In fact, debates over who is responsible for the death of William can get pretty heated in my classroom. Another complicated factor is the diction, which is elevated and somewhat archaic. AP Lit students absolutely must be exposed to language like this in preparation for the exam. While it can be a struggle, the complexity of this novel helps prepare them for the AP Lit exam and its language better than many modern texts. Click here for a Frankenstein AP Lit style multiple choice assessment, with a detailed answer key!

“When falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness?” 

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus, “Zeus and Ganymede (Theft of Fire)” by Christian Griepenkerl (1878) .

Allusions – One thing my AP Lit students struggle with in older texts is identifying allusions. While I often have to point them out, Frankenstein helps them find meaning and purpose behind allusions in order that they may start finding them on their own. There are two prevalent allusions in Frankenstein (among others). The first is indicated in Shelley’s subtitle, calling Frankenstein “The Modern Prometheus.” There are actually several myths about Prometheus that connect to Frankenstein. In Hesiod’s version, Prometheus stole fire from Zeus, who had retracted the gift of fire from mankind after some displeasing sacrifices. Prometheus stole the fire back and dispensed it among humans, resulting in Pandora’s creation, and we all know how that ended. In a later variation of Hesiod’s myth and another by Plato, Prometheus used fire to bestow life on clay figures, resulting in the birth of mankind.
The other central allusion is to John Milton’s Paradise List, which contains more direct references. When the creature learns the English language, one of his three texts is Paradise Lost. As he reads, the creature relates to Adam for being the first of his kind. However, he also empathizes with Satan, wondering why he was abandoned by his creator and set at enmity from him. These two allusions not only reference older, historical texts, but leave enough room for interpretation and debate among AP Lit students.

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…” 

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
“The Fall of Satan” by Gustave Doré, (1866)

Prior Knowledge – So many students come in on our first day of Frankenstein with an attitude that they already know the story. I like to put them in their place (you know, who doesn’t like a power trip?) by giving them an introductory quiz. This quiz points out that there is no Igor, that the bride of Frankenstein was not a real thing, and that nowhere in the text does it say the creature fears fire more than anything. In fact, most don’t even know that Frankenstein is the name of the creator rather than the monster! This little activity piques their interest and opens doors for real and true Frankenstein knowledge to enter in. If you’re interested in this introductory quiz, I have it for sale on my TpT store for only $1.00.

Modern Connections – One last benefit of Frankenstein is the plethora of ethical and scientific debates that stem from the text. Was it wrong for Victor to try and defeat death? When it comes to the creature, is he murderous because of nature or nurture? When does medical research cross the boundaries of ethics? Is it wrong to attempt to create a more perfect creature, such as what is being done with gene therapy?

Frankenstein is not only the first creation story to use scientific experimentation as its method, but it also presents a framework for narratively examining the morality and ethics of the experiment and experimenter.

Audrey Shafer, Stanford Medicine

Audrey Shafer discusses the ongoing debates going on in the minds of researchers in the scientific and medical fields, constantly at war between beating time and obeying the rules of ethics. To read more about her take on Frankenstein from the point of view of a doctor, click here for the article. But whether or not your students pre-med or future philosophy majors, most cannot resist the bait to discuss what Victor could have done if he had continued with his experiment, and what the ramifications of those actions might have been.

For these reasons and many others, I absolutely adore teaching Frankenstein to my AP Lit students. The text is relevant, challenging, relatable, and interesting. Furthermore, College Board’s recent writing prompts rely heavily on the gothic style, so a gothic novel is an absolute must in current AP reading lists. I highly suggest you add Frankenstein or a gothic book like it to your AP Lit curriculum if you teach the course. If Frankenstein is off the menu for whatever reason, I’m also fond of the following gothic titles:

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (this one is a novella, but could be a good option if there is no time to add a longer text)
  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

If you like thinking outside the box, these modern texts contain many similarities to gothic novels and could be great suggestions for hesitant or struggling readers:

  • The Shining by Stephen King
  • The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (a personal favorite!)
  • ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  • In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
  • The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

If you are looking to add Frankenstein to your curriculum but need AP-level resources in a hurry, I sell several standalone products in my TpT store, including Guided Reading Notes, quizzes, a Socratic seminar, a unit test, and a full unit bundle with all of these and more. See below for a full list!

I have also created a Gothic Novel book club resource, which focuses on group discussion activities and pushing students toward literary self-discovery. Click here to learn more!

TpT Products referenced:
AP Lit Frankenstein Unit Bundle
AP Lit Frankenstein Socratic Seminar
AP Lit Frankenstein Introductory Quiz
AP Lit Frankenstein Unit Test
AP Lit Frankenstein Guided Reading Notes
AP Lit Frankenstein Multiple Choice Quiz
AP Lit Open Response Title List (FREE)