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!

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)

My 10 Favorite Poems to Teach in AP Lit

As a teacher of AP Lit, you can’t avoid teaching poetry. And to be a successful teacher of AP Lit, you shouldn’t try to. Of course there are “classics” and particular forms you have to teach, like a lot of long-dead white guys who wrote sonnets, but the writers at CollegeBoard (who create the AP exams) appreciate both modern and classic writers of poetry. The key is to mix old with new, to find culturally diverse and universally advanced poems that will expose students to a variety of different poem types, but also keep them interested. This is a list of some of my favorite poems to teach to AP Lit students:

“Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath

This short poem is unexpectedly witty and a little dark, and it usually disarms students as they read it. As the first line indicates, the nine-line poem functions as a riddle for pregnancy, with references to various images to items that are treasured for what they carry rather than what they are (old houses, watermelons, elephants). Plath’s overall message is that while pregnancy is miraculous, mothers are allowed to be somewhat resentful of their treatment as a vessel rather than as a person. As a mother of three, I can attest that this feeling is surprisingly accurate and I enjoy teaching it from my own perspective. 

“Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shelley’s treatise against pride and hubris is just as relevant today as when it was published 200 years ago. The allusion to Ramses II usually intrigues high school students who, in my experience, have shown to have a general curiosity toward Egyptian history. I also introduce this poem by playing a reading by Bryan Cranston taken from Breaking Bad. Like Walter White’s efforts to provide for his family beyond his inevitable death, Ramses erected monuments of himself in an effort to demonstrate his power and live forever. I also love showing how the meter and form starts off as a Shakespearean sonnet, but falls away from this form, in an effort to show the breaking down of classic poetry styles. 

“Lot’s Wife” by Anna Akhmatova

If you don’t know anything about Anna Akhmatova, take a break and go read up on her. I can wait. Seriously, she is so awesome. This poem takes the story of Lot from Genesis 19 and expounds on Lot’s poor wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt for looking backward as her hometown of Sodom and Gomorrah burned. The bible hails her as an example of God’s punishment when we disobey or lose trust in him. Akhmatova provides context for Lot’s wife and questions if she deserves the reputation given to her in single bible verse. I’ve found the comparison between the biblical text to this poem fodder for excellent conversation, particularly with young women. 

“I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” is a personal favorite but it is often taught in 9th or 10th grades. This poem builds on most students’ working knowledge of Hughes and his reputation for representing the plight of black artists in the early 20th century. “I, Too, Sing America” has a more comparative style, showcasing the unfair treatment of African Americans in Hughes’ time of composition. What makes the poem so masterful is that the tone is not of complaining, but instead is confident and triumphant. The speaker proclaims that while he does not have the rights he deserves, “Tomorrow, I will be at the table when company comes.”

“Oxygen” by Mary Oliver

This is literally my favorite poem. Ever. Everything about it is so perfect. It’s beautifully simplistic and cyclical, but also has advanced poetic elements within. The ongoing image of things that feed on air is easy to relate to. The central lines, “It is your life, which is so close to my own that I would not know where to drop the knife of separation. And what does this have to do with love, except everything?” provide a beautiful image of modern romance and companionship, and I can’t help but get a little misty-eyed every time I teach it. It truly is a beautiful poem. 

“The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché

Forché’s poem is radically different from most of the poems I teach in AP Lit. For one, it doesn’t look like a poem, as it’s meant to resemble prose. Secondly, it contains a strong expletive. There are ways to get this lesson wrong if the incident is not researched properly, but it has the potential to be an extremely sobering and serous lesson. Forché’s poem is shocking  as it describes the dictator spilling a bag of human ears, even picking one up and gesturing with it. What’s even more shocking is that the events described are completely true. Trust me, you simply must teach this poem.

“The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall and “American History” by Michael S. Harper

One way to change up a poetry lesson is to do a poetry comparison study. Up until recently, AP Lit exam questions sometimes asked students to write essays about two poems written on a similar topic or theme. Even though that practice has been discontinued, it is still a valuable skill for AP Lit students. One of my favorite comparison studies is the treatment of the Birmingham church bombings of 1963. This hate crime united African Americans in a fight for civil rights, eventually leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These poems provide different treatments of this act of terror, with Harper’s relating it to acts of the Revolutionary War, while Randall’s is more sentimental and songlike. Ample opportunities for historical analysis and discussion are found in these two poems.  

Out, Out–” by Robert Frost

Robert Frost is typically remembered for his nature poems, but this longer poem titled after Macbeth’s final soliloquy has always been my favorite of Frost’s. I typically guide my students through a narrative analysis of the story told in the poem, then follow up with a more historical analysis. The context and background of World War I is not coincidental, and most believe that the poem’s unfortunate boy represents all young soldiers who were sacrificed in the war efforts. The poem has plenty of advanced poetic elements, as an added bonus. 

“Digging” by Seamus Heaney

It was hard to pick a favorite Seamus poem, but the autobiographical and geographical analysis opportunities of “Digging” make it my favorite to teach. Heaney is a favorite with CollegeBoard and most of the world, especially in his native Ireland. Heaney pays homage to his beautiful Irish home and the generations of laborers who worked before him in the Irish peat. “Digging” is both simple and complex, and students find themselves easing into advanced poetry analysis quite easily. Runners up for Heaney’s poems are “Midterm Break” and “Scaffolding,” if you want to include more poems from this Irish master. 

“Warning” by Jenny Joseph

In the spring my AP students tend to show a veil of weariness and fatigue, as well as signs of spring fever. When I see this we take a break from complicated and complex poem studies and spend some time with a more witty and simplistic poem. Jenny Joseph’s charming poem about growing old and “wearing purple” is humorous and relatable, but is not without its thematic applications. We usually have an interesting discussion about what students look forward to doing once they are “old” that they couldn’t get away with now. My students are also intrigued by the fact that Joseph’s poem inspired the Red Hat Society, which can now boast over 70,000 members. 

There are many other wonderful poems that make up my AP curriculum but these are just a few of my favorites. Honorable mentions include Li Young Lee’s “A Story,” Robert Penn Warren’s “True Love,” Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song,” William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say,” and Countee Cullen’s “Incident.” What are your favorite advanced poems to teach? 

The links included in this post are to some of the lessons I’ve created for my Teachers Pay Teachers store. If you’re interested in adding these poems to your curriculum, I’m working on creating resources for all of my AP poems and will continue to link to them as I create them. You can also buy a growing bundle of all of my AP Lit poem studies by clicking here

CollegeBoard Versus Common Core: Is Informational Text Instruction Killing Literature Analysis? And Would Reading Fewer Books Actually Help?

Yesterday I read a tweet that made me gasp so loud my husband came running. When I read the aforementioned tweet, he was markedly less excited, but even he (a non-teacher) understood its implications.

Trevor Packer, College Board’s senior vice president for Advanced Placement Program and Instruction, began a series of tweets informing educators on the performance results of each AP exam. When he got to AP Lit, he didn’t pull any punches.

Packer’s first tweet said: “The 2018 AP English Literature scores: 5: 5.6%; 4: 14.6%; 3: 27.2%; 2: 36.1%; 1: 16.5%. This is bad news: after last year’s record low, this is a further significant decline in student performance, the lowest proportion of AP Lit scores of 3,4,5 ever, I believe.”

Ouch. Several teachers replied their sassy retorts, all beautifully worded of course, but that one didn’t hurt my feelings. Getting students to read anything, let alone a classic piece of literature is like trying to convince them to delete SnapChat, so I’m not surprised the scores declined a little. But more on that later.

It was Packer’s second tweet that made me gasp.

“What’s the reason for the continued drop in AP English Lit scores? Exam difficulty = constant; teaching ability has not declined; participation did not grow. A hypothesis: has increased focus on non-fiction texts in earlier years reduced student readiness for literary analysis?”

When my husband came running, I read the tweet, then said, “I think the College Board just challenged the Common Core!”

Now I’m aware that taking shots at the Common Core is no new development. People have been insulting it since its inception, and it hasn’t really slowed down much. But this was an international testing service pointing fingers at the standards in the Common Core for actually lowering test scores.

It certainly isn’t a new concept, just from a different voice. English teachers have been expressing their dismay at losing face-time with literature ever since CCSS began its enforcement. Several Twitter users agreed with Packer, saying:

“I said the same thing to my department! I truly believe that the non fiction focus has left the students with the inability to deeply read these pieces not to mention lacking the basic knowledge of terms.” @sonnimarie

“More and more nonfiction in earlier grades’ state testing is increasing focus on that area; lit analysis is becoming seen as a ‘luxury’ skill to teach. AP English Lit needs a pipeline in each school to function successfully for students en-masse.” @JasonProff

“This is exactly what I was thinking. Schools focus so much on non-fiction and argumentative writing now, including in elementary, that our students are lacking the ability to see things abstractly or layered with meaning.” @maestraJOLLY

“It was told to me years ago that it used to be 70% fiction, 30% nonfiction in most ELA classes. Now, it’s flipped. Shakespeare doesn’t matter. Novels are read as a class. Poems are cute little activities. But manuals, articles, maps, etc…those are Bible.” @theteachingcurc

Several educators agreed with him, noting that Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction reading, called informational text in their language, was designed to speak to a student’s entire school day, not just their time in ELA. When it was rolled out, many districts and administrators (and textbook companies) interpreted this to mean that ELA teachers must teach no more than 50% fiction and the rest should be devoted to studying informational text, starting a growing trend of analyzing nonfiction texts. While this movement has resulted in some great lesson plans, (and high scores for AP English Language students), it has also significantly cut into the time devoted to teach fictional texts, aka literature and poetry. Apparently CCSS has had a lot of confusion and backlash over this miscommunication, since they have a portion of their website devoted to explaining themselves more clearly:

Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 10.09.20 PM
Taken from the Common Core’s FAQ page

Not all of Packer’s readers agreed with him–casting blame on other trends they’ve seen. Some blamed the lack of reading in today’s students, saying:

“I think these results shed some light on the issue. Kids are reading less overall, which affects their reading stamina, prior knowledge, and desire to dig into a work of literature.” @MeganPank

“If an athlete doesn’t practice free throws, he/she will probably go 2 for 6 in a game. If an actress doesn’t practice her lines, she probably won’t remember them for the play. If a student never reads anything…you can probably finish this statement.” @theteachingcurc

Others claimed that a lack of motivation interferes with these tests, especially since the AP tests occur in the first two weeks of May (I myself can attest to the partial truth of this, since our seniors had to come back after their finals to finish AP testing. Some even missed graduation practice for an exam):

“Speaking from my high school’s perspective: AP Lit is offered as a senior class…so senioritis and a blatant disregard for the course should be considered at least a minor factor for low scores.” @StefanLuts

Others blamed the rising trend in dual enrollment, where high school students can take college courses through their local school and earn college credit. This earns them more guaranteed credits, as opposed to AP tests which are score-based, and still dependent on the acceptance policies at each university.

“Dual enrollment opportunities have to have decreased the number of capable kids taking AP. College credit is easier to get that way, sadly.” @coopercoach

While Packer’s incriminating remarks against CCSS made some waves, I was equally intrigued by a tweet that followed it.

“Part of the issue w/ AP Eng Lit performance: the exam only has one question focused on a novel/play, but much class time is spent on long texts rather than close reading/analysis of short fiction/poetry. Top advice: reduce the # of novels/plays; focus on frequent short analyses.”

Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 10.12.50 PM
Trevor Packer’s series of tweets about the 2018 AP Lit results–and their implications

Yes. The VP of CollegeBoard actually advocated for fewer books in AP Lit. As can be expected, there was the expected outrage:

“By all means, let’s read fewer books. After all, reducing the number of books students have read prior to taking AP Lit has worked so well. *sarcasm*” @gmfunk

“I have to disagree with you here. Students can still be taught close reading skills AND full length tests. The MC and prose passage FRQ are chosen from full texts. Teachers can use full texts to teach test skills and still value the literary experience.” @TeachAPE

“Man, that sounds like a TERRIBLE idea. Are you seriously advocating for deemphasizing significant works? And that’s a better plan than revisiting the exam? Wow. Just, wow.” @mtownsel

I’ve given myself several days to think it over and have formed my final opinion: I agree with Trevor Packer.

Put down your torches and lower your pitchforks, I’m not going to stop teaching novels and plays. But I think I understand Mr. Packer’s advice here. In the days back before Twitter (yes, I taught AP Lit back then, cringe) and when AP testing was still growing, AP Lit teachers heavily emphasized classics. Most syllabi contained the same kinds of books, all at least fifty years old, and almost all written by white men. Some of these oldies-but-goodies include:

Crime and Punishment
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (430 pages)
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (968 pages)
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (368 pages)
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1488 pages)
Tess of d”Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (592 pages)
Moby Dick by Herman Melville (544 pages)
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (848 pages)
Absolam! Absolam! by William Faulkner (which also contains the longest sentence in literature at a whopping 1288 words!) (378 pages)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (464 pages)
(I’ve used Amazon’s top-selling paperback versions to compile page numbers, to attempt an equal approach to all titles)

Seeing a trend here? Now mind you, there are other books on that list that were shorter and/or by female or minority authors. But these classic behemoths have held on somehow and still remain on many AP Lit teachers’ reading lists. And it’s not that these books are bad, not at all. But they are long. And, yes, I’ll say it, sometimes they are needlessly long. I mean, my goodness, Dickens and Hugo were paid by the word! You don’t think they got a little verbose in hopes for a higher payday?

We obviously need to be reading novels and plays. But when forming a reading list, my game plan is to diversify my options and cover as many novels and plays as I reasonably can.

I still teach a long book by a white guy (All the King’s Men) and another longer book (Frankenstein). But the rest of my novels are shorter, being less than 250 pages long. They are also more diverse, both in writers and time period (Things Fall Apart and Beloved). I even teach a novella (The Metamorphosis), so scandalous! Let’s not forget the plays, which include A Raisin in the Sun, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Shakespeare’s King Lear and Twelfth Night. Add to that over 60 different poems plus two individual novels (which is where you can encourage your stronger readers to take on the longer texts), and I feel my students are fairly prepared by the time they get to the AP exam. Would classical AP teachers consider them “well-read”? Probably not. But each year, they have many different titles to choose from when the dreaded open question rolls around. And I don’t assign more than 30 pages of reading each night, allowing time for other homework, after-school jobs, extra-curricular activities, and sometimes even a social life.

This is turning out to be longer than I expected, so I’ll try to sum up. Trevor Packer isn’t necessarily saying we should teach fewer books. He’s just asking if we could, and still get decent test scores. If I tried to teach 20 “classic” novels to my AP students I’d burn out (and frankly, I’d be bored). Furthermore, my students wouldn’t read them. Instead I’ve chosen a handful of diverse texts, which I love, and I teach them enthusiastically. When you make a book sound so exciting it’s harder for a student to ignore the readings; they want to know what they are missing! Since my AP scores haven’t come out yet I may change my tune by next week, but this strategy has worked in my favor over the past 10 years, so I feel like I’m on pretty solid ground.

Please subscribe to my email list or follow my blog for further notifications on future blog posts. If you’re interested in any of my teaching materials for the novels listed, please visit my TpT store for more information. If you teach AP Lit and do not currently incorporate an independent reading project, I’d strongly encourage you to begin using one immediately. I have a model for sale on TpT, called an Independent Novel Project, for a discounted price right now.

Reflections & Insights From the 2018 AP Lit Reading

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Last week I spent seven days in Kansas City grading 1325 essays in a giant room that was too cold and filled with over a thousand tired educators. And it was an amazingly wonderful experience.

This is my fifth time scoring AP Lit essays, but I’ve had to miss a few years in the past due to pregnancies and international student trips. While it wasn’t my first year scoring, it was my first year on the prose passage, notoriously known among my students as my least favorite question. Even though I moaned (and groaned and whined) when I saw the big “QUESTION 2” next to my name, the experience was worth it, as I have now scored all three AP Lit questions and feel much more well-rounded in my instruction of AP Lit (going on year 13 now!).

In the interest of being concise, here are some takeaways from this past year’s scoring, plus some that I’ve learned over the years at the scoring table.

  1. This is a big one. CollegeBoard officially announced that they are doing away with the Poetry Compare/Contrast question. In context, the poetry question (Question 1) occasionally takes the form of a compare/contrast question rather than an analysis of a single poem. They haven’t used that format in several years, leading teachers to ask each year if they were ever going to go back to the Compare/Contrast format. This year they officially announced that they are discontinuing that type of essay prompt. I will continue to teach this strategy in my class as I find it valuable, but I’m relieved that I can tell my students with certainty which kind of question they can anticipate for the often-dreaded poetry essay.
  2. CollegeBoard has also hinted that previous questions from the past could be used again in a particular form. While the wording may change, higher-ups reminded teachers this year that many valuable themes were touched on in previous years (even back to the 80’s and 90’s), and some of those themes could be re-visited in future questions. My takeaway for you is that if you aren’t studying previous years open-ended questions in your AP classes, you absolutely need to do so next year. These questions make excellent writing prompts for on-demand essays or larger writing assignments, and they are invaluable for preparing students for question 3.
  3. Students need more help understanding diction and syntax. In my years at the poetry table, I learned quickly that the average AP Lit student does not know how to analyze diction. The sentence, “This poem utilizes diction” is essentially saying, “This poem uses words” (groundbreaking!). But this year in the prose question, I learned that the same is true of syntax. To say that a passage uses syntax is saying that it uses words…that are arranged in a certain way (scandalous!). When teaching these words in your classes, make sure you provide strong examples of how to write about diction and syntax properly, and teach students when it is worth analyzing these terms in the first place.
  4. Too many students feel crippled by the suggested titles in Question 3. Even though the prompt tells students that they can write about any title “of literary merit,” too many students feel obligated to use a title from the list. I even saw essays where students wrote, “I didn’t read any of these books. Sorry!” as their entire response. Please remind students that they do not need to feel obligated to choose from the list. This year’s suggested list of titles included Frankenstein, which Question 3 readers told me was the overwhelmingly popular choice. One ventured to say that she believed 20% of the essays for question 3 were about Frankenstein. This means that a well-written essay that is not about Frankenstein is automatically a welcome sight in the eyes of the reader, who is undoubtedly getting tired of that text (sorry, Mary Shelley). Sometimes thinking outside the box is a good strategy.
  5. Students don’t have to write about a “classic,” but they probably should. There is an ongoing debate on what kinds of books students should write about for Question 3’s open-ended question. Some say that any book (or essay, short story, or even movie) should be given a fair chance, but other readers are more old-school and are undoubtedly biased towards literary classics or newer texts that have won awards (such as the Pulitzer). When it comes to making this decision, I tell students that it is dealer’s choice. More and more readers are being brought in every year and being trained to look at the question in an unbiased way, but it is still a gamble in the end.
  6. Urge students away from writing about books in a series. Similar to choosing an oddball book, there is also an argument about analyzing books in a series, such as The Lord of the Rings series. In my year at Question 3 we had a prompt about a deceptive character and I read an excellent essay analyzing Snape from the Harry Potter series. While the essay was quite good (I believe it earned a 7), it could not possibly get to a 9, because who could properly analyze the entirety of Snape’s deceptiveness in 2 hours, let alone 2 days? The problem with analyzing a series is that there is almost always too much material to sift through, unless you analyze a fringe character.
  7. Poetry needs to be studied in an ongoing way, not as a unit. In my first years as an AP teacher, I taught two poetry units, one called “Intro to Poetry” and the second called “Advanced Poetry.” In each unit we studied poems and wrote about them, both in shortened and long paper formats. And despite my hard work, year after year my students reported feeling least confident about the poetry essay. Furthermore, my end-of-year surveys told me that they needed more work in poetry. Finally I buckled down over a summer and re-read Perinne’s Sound and Sense, as well as several AP Lit blogs, and picked a poem for every week of the year. And every week we studied that poem in class. This was done in addition to our two stand-alone poetry units. Since I’ve made that change my students have felt much more confident for Question 1, and I’ve seen an overall improvement in how they analyze poetry in writing.
  8. Lastly, please know that you AP and English teachers are appreciated. About 50% of the AP readers are college professors, and I worried in my first year at the reading that all I would hear was how we high school teachers didn’t do enough to prepare students for college-level writing. Instead, quite the opposite was true. Everyone was incredibly kind to me, and each year they ask high school teachers to stand and be recognized for our work and sacrifices in high school classrooms. More importantly, each day the readers are reminded that the essays we encounter “belong to some teacher’s student, and some parent’s child.” The leaders remind us that essays scored on day 6 deserve just as much fresh attention as those scored on day 1. Frequent breaks are allowed and plenty of free coffee and snacks are given out to keep us focused. We do everything we can to honor your hard work and give each student’s essay a fair shot.

This year’s reading was incredibly fun, as it was my first year scoring since our subject moved to Kansas City. Here are a few pictures from the trip (taken from outside the scoring room, as there are strict regulations on taking photos around official essays or scoring materials).

This is a rare plea for readership, but please pass this information on to any AP Lit teacher you know, as this information is very valuable for year-long planning. Many AP teachers have no idea how the essays they teach are even scored, which I believe is incredibly unfair. I love to share the information that I am permitted to pass on!

Final news: I’ve created a professional Instagram at aplitandmore, so please follow me for updates on TpT products, my professional life, and the inside track on future TpT sales and discounts!