12 Engaging and Rigorous Books for Reluctant Readers

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

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

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

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

Consider Rigor + Engagement

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

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

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com)

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

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

Engagement

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

Rigor

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

Drawbacks

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

Room by Emma Donaghue

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

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com)

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: Room

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

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

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

Engagement

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

Rigor

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

Drawbacks

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

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

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

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com)

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: Born a Crime

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

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

Engagement

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

Rigor

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

Drawbacks

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

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

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

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

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

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

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

Engagement:

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

Rigor:

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

Drawbacks:

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

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

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

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: Salvage the Bones

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

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

Engagement:

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

Rigor:

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

Drawbacks:

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

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Wells

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

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: The Glass Castle

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

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

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

Engagement:

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

Rigor:

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

Drawbacks:

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

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

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

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

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

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

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

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

Engagement:

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

Rigor:

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

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

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

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

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

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

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

Engagement:

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

Rigor:

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

Drawbacks:

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

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

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

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

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

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

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

Engagement:

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

Rigor:

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

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: The Underground Railroad

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

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

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

Engagement:

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

Rigor:

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

Drawbacks:

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

Misery by Stephen King

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

Synopsis (from Amazon):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: Misery

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

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

Engagement:

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

Rigor:

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

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

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

Synopsis (from Goodreads.com):

Engaging and Rigorous Titles for AP Lit: The Metamorphosis

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

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

Engagement:

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

Rigor:

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

Further Reading

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

The First Few Weeks: Differentiation & Work Ethic

This article is the third in a blog series focused on inclusivity in AP English Literature. This week’s installment will focus on differentiation your instruction to reach all levels of learners in AP Lit. In high achieving schools, AP classes are often reserved for only top level learners. However, this system of gatekeeping is not in the best interest of education. Not all top learners belong in AP English Lit, and many who aren’t “top level” can thrive in the class. Therefore, my policy is: if you are willing to do the work, you belong in the class.

These ideas are especially for teachers who don’t have prerequisites, entrance exams, or other structures in place to limit AP students. While all are welcome in AP classes, it can be difficult to advance the students who are already strong writers while simultaneously reaching students who are less enthusiastic about the class. These strategies will engage both your voracious and reluctant readers, as well as improving students’ writing at all levels.

First Day Activity – Active Reading, Discussion, and Critical Thinking

I’ve already devoted an entire blog post to my first day lesson, which you can read about for full details. The main goal of my first day is to demonstrate three of the main four skills of AP Lit as I see them: close reading, Socratic discussion, and critical thinking. The only skill we don’t hit immediately is writing, and that is only because writing is SUCH A BIG SKILL that it needs multiple days of its own. This lesson gives tips on annotating to improve their close reading, helps them move beyond “I agree” and “I noticed” discussion strategies, and learn to think critically about texts that they read. To see the full details of my first day lesson you can read this full blog post.

My AP Lit First Day Lesson
This blog post details my first day of class in AP Lit, where I focus on active reading, discussion, and critical thinking.

Using How to Read Literature Like a Professor to Analyze Television & Film

Most readers know that I like to begin the year with Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. I prefer to read it in class, if time allows, but many prefer to use the book as summer reading. I love this book because he explains the basics of literary analysis, connecting things from fiction to real life with concrete examples and identifying patterns.

In my experience with HTRLLAP, most students find the book very intimidating. While the lessons inside are still useful, Foster’s text can make students feel underprepared or ill-equipped for literary analysis, especially when it comes to writing. In order to combat this, I like to take Foster’s lessons beyond his examples. I often piggyback off his examples using young adult texts, titles that are common in grades 8-10, and even television and film.

Example

Here’s an example. I had a student one year who kept saying he was the “dumbest kid in class.” Of course he wasn’t, but he felt that way. He had never read any of the titles mentioned in the text and, frankly, Foster was losing him. However, in class one day I related Foster’s chapter on “marked characters” and asked them to identify examples not from literature, but from television shows. Suddenly this student came alive with ideas from Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Lost, and other shows. Over the next few days he kept running into class telling me other ideas from HTRLLAP that he noticed in television shows. Eventually he became so engrossed in the process that his family asked him to watch tv in a different room, as they grew tired of his constant interruptions of literary analysis.

Now obviously I had to coerce this student to begin applying these principles to literature, as I didn’t want him writing an essay on a television show for the AP exam. But the strategy of applying HTRLLAP to film, television, and even songs makes Foster’s lessons easier for all students to understand. They then have a firm foundation that they can take with them as we begin literary analysis of short fiction and novels.

Picking Poetry – the Riddle Factor

Like most of the AP teachers I know, I usually try to introduce poetry as early as I can. For the last few years my first poem has been “Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath. I choose this poem because it’s a riddle, and a fairly difficult one at that. I read the poem aloud for them, tell them it’s a riddle, and then set them free to guess. When one student finally guesses that it’s a riddle for pregnancy, we break the poem down image by image, line by line, compounding the difficult “clues” for Plath’s poem.

I love this lesson because my students usually approach poetry with groans and dread. They never “get it,” the teacher finds more in the poem than the author meant (debatable), poems are boring, etc. However, Plath’s poem is short, inviting, and provocative. This lesson tells students that not all poems have to be dry or boring, and it invites them to explore more throughout the year.

While students should explore a range of poems, styles, and authors, I like to pick simpler or more narrative poems for differentiation and scaffolding in AP Lit. Along with “Metaphors,” here are some other introductory poems I choose:

  • “The Black Walnut Tree” by Mary Oliver
  • “Out, Out–” by Robert Frost
  • “The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall
  • “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes
  • “My Father and the Fig Tree” by Naomi Shihab Nye
  • “Lot’s Wife” by Anna Akhmatova

Student Achievement Structured Around Goals

SMART Goals - Differentiation in AP Lit

One thing that has never changed in all my years of teaching AP Lit is the use of student-designed goals. I did this from day 1 and I still do it each year. After we go through the expectations of the course, I ask students to create three goals for themselves. I require them to use SMART goals, a system you are probably familiar with. If not, SMART goals (see graphic) help students set goals that they can measure along the journey, not just at the end of the year. To help students form SMART goals we usually have to address perceived weaknesses. If I have reluctant readers in the group, sometimes they make a goal to simply finish every book.

Examples of strong SMART goals are:

  • Read every assigned reading on time.
  • Use all of my allotted writing time, not finish early and turn it in as-is.
  • Select one book over 500 pages for independent reading and read every single page.
  • Write down my comments before sharing them in each discussion.

Examples of weak SMART goals are:

  • Earn a 5 on the AP Lit exam (not measurable or timely, as scores come out mid-July).
  • Try hard (not specific or measurable).
  • Ace every test (probably not very realistic or attainable).

We also implement goal-setting after each timed writing and PPC multiple choice exam. I created trackers for students to record their score, what they need to improve on, and what goals they should set to improve on their next assessment. The idea is to use this data and these goals each quarter to help students measure their progress towards their SMART goals and their overall growth in writing, active reading, and critical thinking.

Student tracking data and setting goals
After each Performance Progress Check on AP Classroom, my students fill out their score data and set goals for their next PPC. We have another tracker that we use after each timed writing. Both are FREE downloads from my TpT store.

Strategies for Scaffolding Writing

When it comes to differentiation in AP Lit, writing is by far the hardest variable to scaffold. Here are some strategies I use in the first few weeks to learn my students’ abilities and help move them down the path towards strong analysis.

Gradual Timed Writing Practice

As many AP Lit teachers do, I assign my students to read a novel for summer reading. Our assessment for our summer reading is a timed writing. I give students released prompts from the actual exam, or create my own modeled after those questions if the perfect prompt isn’t available. Instead of limiting them to 40 minutes I allow the whole class period, but that is the only additional help I offer.

When it comes to reading the essays, I score them according to the criteria of the rubric, offering as much feedback as possible. However, I do not write a score on the finished essays. The next day, I pass back the essays with my feedback. I put students into small groups (grouped with a mixture of high, medium, and low scores) and let them share highs and lows of their own essays. Following our small group discussions we return to a whole class. Together, we brainstorm some things we learned from our first timed writing as a whole class.

The most important part of this process is allowing students to rewrite their essays. This is the only time I allow a revision, but it is so important. This allows students who misread the prompt or wrote full summaries to start from scratch. It likewise offers mid- and high-scoring students an equal chance to sharpen their analysis. I score this essay again and log these scores in as final.

Always Remember: APE

Probably the most common writing misstep I see in the first few weeks is students’ reliance on summary rather than analysis. Even after we discuss the difference between summary and analysis, I’ve found that students often revert due to adrenaline, confusion, or simply being at a loss of what to say. It’s frustrating for all of us. Students know they aren’t supposed to summarize, they know the difference between analysis and summary, and yet they still do it all the time. One tool I’ve created to combat summary is based on APE, which stands for Assert Prove Explain.

I did not coin this acronym, it has in fact been around for a while. I did, however, create a handout and bookmark to help students remember this strategy as they ease into analytical writing. Remember, not all of your AP students have taken an advanced placement course before. So while some understand what we mean by balancing analysis with textual support, many don’t have the tools to do this quickly. Therefore, teaching students to assert, prove, and explain helps them get into the rhythm of analysis. Once they get the hang of analysis supported by proper textual support, then you can begin to work on creating a true line of reasoning, growing complexity, stronger literary elements, and sophisticated writing voice.

Summary Versus Analysis

Line of Reasoning mapping
This was our model essay. I didn’t do this activity in the beginning of the year because I HADN’T THOUGHT OF IT YET. I certainly will in the future!
Highlighting for Analysis - Differentiation in AP Lit
This was a student’s essay. This was one of my top writers but even she struggled with balancing textual support (the red) with analysis (the yellow).

The war against summary is not easily won. It’s even more frustrating when students don’t realize they’re summarizing.

Last year I tried a more hands-on approach to help students identify their own summary. At the end of our timed writing rehash, I distributed a high-scoring released essay from the College Board. Then, I asked students to use markers, highlighters, or different color pens to mark the following in a text:

  • Mark the thesis in green. Mark references to the thesis or the continued line of reasoning in green as well.
  • Label all textual support in red.
  • Identify the student’s analysis (the “so what”) in yellow.
  • (Sometimes I have them identify all references to literary techniques in a fourth color, but this may be better saved until later in the school year).

The class marked up their sample essays and we debriefed it as a whole group for a moment. After that, I asked students to do the same process on their own essays. Before I even asked them to do this, many students were already realizing their mistakes. Many groaned as they marked long portions in red with nary a yellow in sight. This exercise proved so helpful that I hung the sample essay in our room for students to access.

Work Ethic

As I finish this up, I’m realize that I may come off as a very accommodating teacher. God forbid, the word “easy” may even be used. I do want to clarify a major foundation of my teaching strategy. While I do not require that my students have a high GPA, there is one trait they must possess.

In order to succeed in my class, my students better have grit.

This is another important foundational component of the first few weeks. If my students come to class unprepared, I make it very clear that I cannot help them. I’ve had plenty of super-smart students attempt to coast through AP Lit. And yes, these students are often very strong writers and get great scores on their standardized tests. However, in my 14 years of teaching AP Lit I’ve learned this about these kids: the way they write in September is the way they’ll write in May. These students will exit with a strong GPA and equally high standardized test scores, but they won’t grow.

Growth Over Scores

Just this last year I had a student take my course, telling me he’d drop it after just the first day. He told me he was too dumb and too lazy, to which I argued that he certainly was not. Somehow I convinced him to stay, but we had to have the same conversation at our semester break. This student had been putting in great work, but was still doubting himself. This doubt compounded when he saw that he often scored lower than his classmates. Once again, I convinced him to stick with it. His spirits were especially low during our distance learning months, so much so that I even FaceTimed him to help him register for the test.

When I finally got my scores last week, I had some very high scores, none of which were very surprising. But I literally did a happy dance when I saw that my doubtful student earned a 3. That score meant more to me than all of the others. Not only did he develop in his reading and writing, this student learned that hard work yields growth and success.

Inclusivity in AP Lit

To conclude, this is a basic overview of some of the strategies I use for differentiation in AP Lit. I try to use our first month to cultivate an atmosphere of hard work and inclusivity. I recently developed three norms to describe our class:

  1. Everyone is welcome.
  2. Everyone’s voice is worthy.
  3. Everyone tries.

To read my previous posts on the topic of inclusivity in AP English Lit, check these out:

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

Non-white Authors to Diversify Your AP Lit Curriculum

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

Before you read this, it’s important to know something: this is not a post about the canon. Or, maybe it is. What I mean is, this is not a discussion of books being “AP-worthy” because they’re in the literary canon. Frankly, I’m sick of the canon and all it represents. I’m not going to advocate reading books just because they are part of an elite and nebulous club of mostly-white authors. Conversely, this is the first in a six week blog post series about inclusivity in AP English Literature. This week’s focus: pairing your students with engaging books that will work for AP learners. Let’s begin…

What do we mean when we say AP-worthy?

Most AP English Literature teachers are avid readers. As we read, we are constantly asking ourselves, “Is this a book I want to share with my students?” If we really like it, it becomes, “Is this a book I want to teach in class?” But the real question we’re always asking is, “Is this AP-worthy?”

Determining a book’s “worthiness” of being in an AP English Literature class is a messy, convoluted process. The teacher must consider the book’s:

  • Rigor/Complexity – This one is easy. I love a Mary Higgins Clark book now and then, but I know my girl’s not complex.
  • Length – Sadly, we’re racing against a clock. Invisible Man is a fantastic book to teach, but it takes approximately 5-6 weeks to study it as a class. That’s a big consideration.
  • Intended Audience – By this I mean we want books written for an adult reader but with issues that students can relate to as well.
  • Relevant social issues – I think this is the number one reason that 19th century literature is fading away. It’s hard to get my students to empathize with poor Elizabeth Bennet who’s being pressured to find a husband. That’s not a very relatable issue today.
  • Readability – Another reason that the classics are losing traction is that the Lexile level of those books is very high, while our students’ median reading level is gradually declining. You want to challenge your students, but you also want them to be able to understand it without you.
  • Controversial content – These rules vary by school or district. Many AP Lit teachers are free to choose their content without question, but many others must answer to administrators, school boards, or parents frequently.
  • Appropriateness – By this I don’t mean questionable content, but psychological content or potential for triggers. For example, I wouldn’t recommend Sapphire’s Push to just anyone, especially if I learned the intended reader had a history of sexual trauma.

…and that’s just a start. Personally, I feel like I have a fairly strong reading habit. I read fast, and I try to get through 20-25 new books a year. But in comparison to the books that are used on the AP Lit exam, or even worse, the books that are discussed on the AP Lit Facebook pages, I can never keep up.

It took a long time to learn this lesson, but I’m learning that there will be no way to read all the books. I read what I can when I can, and I pray that heaven has a library. But that’s not the point of this blog post.

4 Quick Questions: Is this book AP-worthy?

I believe you can determine if a book has a place in your AP Lit classroom or the hands of your students by asking 4 quick questions. If you can answer “yes” to all four questions, I believe the book is “AP worthy.” You can even teach it if you’re able to find the time and materials, but if not, you can allow it into your independent reading library.

Disclaimer 1: These are not published rules or endorsed by College Board. They are the questions I ask myself before I teach or endorse a book as being “AP-worthy,” learned from 15 years of teaching experience in AP English Literature.

Disclaimer 2: I do not have prerequisites or entrance exams in my AP Lit class, and I thoroughly believe that any willing student belongs in my AP Lit class. If they’re willing to work hard and listen to feedback, I would love to teach them. Because my class is focused on inclusiveness, I sometimes get students who are reluctant readers, English language learners, or that read far below grade level. I use these 4 quick questions to decide if a high-interest, “non-classic” book will work for them in particular.

Question #1 – Is it written for an adult audience?

Before you attack me, I am not saying that young adult books cannot be used in an AP Lit classroom. In fact, The Hate U Give is rapidly becoming a staple in AP Lit classes, which is wonderful! But the difference between The Hate U Give and Diary of a Wimpy Kid is that THUG can be enjoyed by young adults and adults, while Wimpy Kid is really meant just for kids. (Believe it or not, I had a smart aleck ask me to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid just last year, so that is why I’m using it as an example).

To determine if the book passes this test, ask yourself if the book presents adult problems in an approachable way for young readers, or kid problems that adults don’t really face. Here are some that come to mind:

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

Adult Problems for Younger Readers

  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
  • Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Kid Problems for Young Readers

  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maude Montgomery
  • One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus
  • Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
  • Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

This one may be the hardest to determine, so follow your gut. I also don’t usually allow a student to read a book that is significantly below their reading level. If I know they can handle more complex material, I push them to do so.

Question #2 – Is it a Stand-Alone Novel?

This one breaks a lot of hearts, but I don’t consider works that are a part of a series to be AP-worthy. And it is not because they are not good enough, or rigorous enough, or readable. If you know me personally you know that I have a great many Harry Potter decorations in my office, so I’ve got nothing but love for many works in a series. Here’s why I don’t allow them: it becomes impossible to analyze a topic thoroughly when it’s a work in a series.

Example:

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

In 2016, I scored for Q3 (the open question) on the AP Lit exam. That year’s prompt was about a character who deceives others and it was a joy to grade. I got one essay that discussed Severus Snape and my heart did a little cartwheel. I mean come on, analyzing Severus Snape as a character who deceives? And analyzing the effect of this deception? I could have read a whole book on that topic…and that was the problem with it. To analyze Snape’s deception would have taken a whole book to do it properly! Consider, it took J.K. Rowling 7 books to fully lay out that character. How can one student do the question justice in only 40 minutes?

Therefore, I always veto works in a series.* When students fight me, I explain the Snape example and they understand. It’s not the depth that’s the problem with works in a series, it’s the width. There’s simply too much material to cover in a short time frame.

*I thought of one exception! There are some novels that originate a series that comes later, but can be studied as a standalone work. One that comes to mind is Fredrik Backman’s Bear Town. I’d allow a student to analyze Bear Town in an essay, but not its sequel Us Against You, because it relies on plot and character information from both novels to work.

Question #3 – Does it Pass the 2009 Test?

This needs some explanation. I’m not sure what was going on with the College Board in 2009, but the open questions it produced that year were broad. And I mean, laughably broad. Here was the 2009 open question:

A symbol is an object, action, or event that represents something or that creates a range of associations beyond itself. In literary works a symbol can express an idea, clarify meaning, or enlarge literal meaning. Select a novel or play and, focusing on one symbol, write an essay analyzing how that symbol functions in the work and what it reveals about the characters or themes of the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot.

Basically, students had to analyze a symbol. When you think about it, almost every book has a symbol, or at least one that you could argue. (This doesn’t have to be a BIG SYMBOL, like Gatsby’s green light or Paul D’s red tobacco tin heart. User-argued symbols count!) The purpose behind this test is to look for rigor. If a symbol is not evident in a book at all, it may not be rigorous enough to teach complexity to AP Lit students.

Question #4 – Does it Pass the other 2009 Test?

If you thought the 2009 question was too simple, it gets worse. Check out the Form B question for the same year:

Many works of literature deal with political or social issues. Choose a novel or play that focuses on a political or social issue. Then write an essay in which you analyze how the author uses literary elements to explore this issue and explain how the issue contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot.

Oh, brother.

In other words, the 2009 Form B question asks, does the book focus on relevant political or social issues? Notice that I threw the word “relevant” in there, since I also firmly believe that some books that were “classics” need to be relieved because their “cultural context” has drastically changed (I’m looking at you, Huck Finn). This question is used to determine if the student will learn anything relevant about their life and society during the reading. If a book with a symbol has rigor, then a book with a strong political or social issue has relevance.

The tiny flaw in my system…

Now, one caveat I’ve realized that to answer all four of these questions, there’s a good chance you’ll need to have read it yourself. Obviously if the book just won the Pulitzer (hello, Nickel Boys!) you can allow it, but there may be other books that you’ve just never heard of. This presents a tough problem: do you deny a book simply because you haven’t had time to read it? I used to say yes, but now I say no. I either read it myself or I turn to my community of AP teachers on Facebook and get the answers to these questions. If I haven’t read it, someone there has, 100% of the time.

Let me sum up

There you have it, those are my 4 quick questions to determine a novel’s place in your classroom. To recap, here they are:

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

Before I close, I want to throw in one final suggestion: try to let your students read what they want to read. So your student wants to use their independent reading time to read a short, contemporary text and you’d rather they read a gothic novel. Hey, guess what? They’re still reading. And please, if a student comes to you begging to read a book for class, be wary about shutting them down. Of course there are exceptions (I actually had someone ask about Fifty Shades of Gray once), but it’s still dangerous behavior. When a kid has passion for a book, please don’t kill it.

I’ve used this strategy to include some nonconventional texts in my AP Lit class over the years, some of which have gone on to be our most popular and meaningful works. They may not be referenced on the AP Lit exam, but they passed my test with flying colors and my students loved them. These include Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, Room by Emma Donoghue, Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, and even Andy Weir’s The Martian.

What criteria do you consider when determining if a text is “AP-worthy?” What do you think of my “4 quick questions” strategy? Let me know in the comments! To learn more about independent reading my AP Lit classroom, check out this blog post, and to look for resources for your favorite novels and plays check out my TpT store.

Tips and Advice from the 2020 AP Lit Online Scoring

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Confession: I did not participate in the 2020 AP Lit Scoring. It was a combination of screen fatigue, lack of childcare, and skepticism towards my ability to learn the new online scoring methods. Now that the reading has ended I am happy I abstained, simply because I know I would never have gotten through the allotted 5 hour work day requirement.

That being said, I still want to be a vessel of help for AP Lit teachers, especially those new to the game. For that reason I’ve interviewed several people who did participate in the scoring who can give you some focused feedback on the writing process and the new rubric. Please use their tips going forward in your own classroom, sharing with your students as needed. Make sure you read to the end, where I share a few other nuggets of wisdom I got from the readers on Facebook.

The Interviewees:

Susan – 18 years in education, 8 years teaching AP Lit, 5 years as an AP Reader, 2020 Pilot Reading participant.

Donna – 17 years in education, 16 years teaching AP Lit, 11 years of AP Reading, 3 years as a table leader, 1 year on the selection team.

Eric – 15 years in education, 7 years teaching AP Lit, 6 years of AP Reading, 2020 Pilot Reading participant.

Angela – 14 years teaching AP Lit, first year reader.

Sarah – 19 years in education, 12 years teaching AP Lit, first year reader.

Dionne – 22 years in education, 11 years teaching AP Lit, 2nd year reading.

Q1: What advice do you have regarding the thesis point?

Susan:

ANSWER THE PROMPT. I’m amazed at how many students do say why a character or relationship or whatever the prompt specifies is complex but rather just lists a couple of devices the author uses and starts writing. Strong essays answer the prompt up front then spend the rest of the essay defending that answer. 

Eric:

In general, I’d say about 90-95% of the essays I read received the point.  A significant number of them didn’t place the thesis at the beginning of the essay, which is not a requirement, but the development of the argument can be much harder to follow if the thesis comes at the end. I would strongly encourage students to try to place their thesis in the first paragraph for their own benefit. If the student isn’t sure what their thesis is, I tell them to leave 1-2 blank lines and go back at the end.  Essays that did not receive the thesis point generally were wildly off topic or simply restated the prompt without ever presenting any further information about the devices or techniques used in the prompt.

Donna:

Students should be sure that their thesis goes beyond merely restating the prompt or parroting the words in the prompt. It needs to expand beyond a list of devices and answer the HOW by connecting author’s choices to a bigger idea about the character or setting.

Angela:

Move beyond the prompt to an assertion. Make a claim, make an assertion. Answer the prompt. It seems to have become cliché to say that. Listing devices and techniques does not constitute as a thesis statement. Too many turn the prompt question to a statement listing devices and do not answer the prompt with an assertion.

Sarah:

The essays with a clearly written thesis in the intro, either as a stand alone intro or incorporated into a broader paragraph tended to be the higher scoring essays.  However, I was diligent about accepting a thesis as long as it was somewhere in the essay.  Many students, however, wrote what they thought was a clear thesis but did not actually address the prompt.  For example, “The author used imagery, characterization , and tone to describe the relationship between Maggie and Tom.”  No mention of what relationship or how it is a COMPLEX relationship.

helpful feedback from 2020 AP Lit Reading for teachers
The AP Lit Scoring 2020

Q2: What advice do you have on the line of reasoning points?

Dionne:

I taught my kids to ‘come full circle every paragraph.’ Tie in their explanations and proof with their main idea and assertion from the thesis statement.

Angela:

Connections: Move from one point that connects to another point. Think about connections and flow. Now, this may be quite hard to accomplish in 45 minutes- Practice, practice, practice. This will reveal the line of reasoning.

Eric:

In general, essays that scored 4 points on evidence and commentary discussed two (or more) literary techniques/devices and that discussion was part of a larger, developed argument (LINE OF REASONING) that connected to the thesis without difficulty.  Essays that scored 3 in this category generally focused on one device/technique or left out key elements or evidence, but still offered good analysis that supported the LINE OF REASONING.  Papers that scored 2 would use specific and relevant evidence from the text but often left out any analysis: mentioning that there was a use of onomatopoeia in the passage without explaining the purpose or effect of that use (with little more support) would often fall in the range of a 2.  Essays that scored a 1 would make casual reference to the text and/or literary techniques/devices without much analysis, or would engage in mostly plot summary with little analysis. 

Susan:

Make sure each topic sentence and commentary supports and ties back to the thesis. 

Donna:

Be sure that the elements discussed in the line of reasoning are ones that can be explained fully and that can connect back to the character’s complexity and WHY the author chose to include them. For example, many students chose point of view as a literary device yet did not really address how it impacted the portrayal of the character’s complexity. Simply mentioning it is not sufficient to develop the argument. Choose the devices that you can use to build the most meaningful argument (Other choices that yielded weak results were alliteration and onomatopoeia.) Often, essays lacked supportive details to sustain an argument about the character.

helpful feedback from 2020 AP Lit Reading for teachers
The AP Lit Scoring 2020

Q3: For students who scored well in the line of reasoning, what were the best strategies?

Donna:

Addressing the nuances and details in the passage instead of just the obvious tended to “deepen” the line of reasoning.The better essays were those that could discuss elements like irony, sarcasm, and humor in a way that supported the character’s complexity. These essays went beyond the obvious literary elements and showed the student’s ability to think critically about a character whom they just met.

Susan:

Students consistently showed a progression of ideas or how points built upon or extended prior points as opposed to stating the same argument over and over. 

Sarah:

The students who organized their essay chronologically were the easiest to score. There were some who organized by devices, which was effective if they actually saw how the author uses the devises to illustrate the relationship’s complexity (and say what they think the complexity actually is, because so many just used the word complex without ever saying what they see as the complexity).

Eric:

Students whose lines of reasoning (arguments) were the most coherent had a clear thesis and connected the author’s use of literary devices/techniques to that thesis. Students need to analyze and not just identify the techniques/devices: mentioning that there is a humorous tone will not be enough-a good essay discusses specific examples of humor (diction, imagery, details) and explains how they create that tone. To get 4/4, the student needed to analyze two or more devices.

Dionne:

The really good papers didn’t just list what techniques they saw and why, they went into how those techniques came back to the main idea.

helpful feedback from 2020 AP Lit Reading for teachers
The AP Lit Scoring 2020

Q4: What advice do you have on the complexity point?

Sarah:

This was by far the biggest glaring issue that came out of my scoring is that so, so many of the students did not see any complexity in the passage.  Many just repeated in various ways that the siblings were loving, kind, etc.  They missed all the subtleties or just completely misread the relationship. They either do not have enough practice with 19th century texts and their language and customs, or the students just haven’t had enough practice writing thesis that articulate explicitly these subtleties. The ones who did get it wrote beautiful essays tying in the Victorian norms of gender, but those were so few and far between.  The middle ones saw that there was something beneath the surface and tried to discuss that dynamic, but maybe didn’t quite get the depth. 

Susan:

Students who were able to analyze their interpretation within a broader context throughout the essay typically earned the sophistication point. I think this is the easiest way to earn the sophistication point. 

Dionne:

In class I hit this hard, and after seeing the essays my kids wrote, I know I need to keep hitting it hard. I explain this as “opposing adjectives.” I use the example that my son, who is 10, finished elementary school. On one hand, I am so excited for him to start middle school this coming year! But, at the same time, he’s my baby boy – it kind of breaks my heart that he’s growing up. THAT is complexity. I am both happy and sad. So, I use that as an example and I ask my kids to address that constantly throughout the year. Many of the papers I saw were NOT addressing the complexity.

Angela:

“Complex” it is an abstract word that must be made concrete for the reader. What is it about the character that is complex, (different parts that can be connected)?  Be very specific and connect one point to the other in character study.

Donna:

Students should delve beneath the surface. For example, if the author provided physical descriptions of a character, then determine WHY the author would do so. What do those physical descriptions have to do with the character’s internal psychological conflict or conflict with the world at large? Students should ask themselves…what makes this character complex? These are not one-dimensional, flat characters. Seek to identify what is confusing or unpredictable in the passage and then tie that to the character’s persona. Consider the interaction (or lack thereof) with the setting or with other characters. What does this reveal?

Eric:

The most common avenue for getting the sophistication point that I saw was to analyze in the broader social context. Students who did this often used tools from other course, most notably psychology, to offer a psychoanalytic framework to analyze the character. To get the point, this analysis needs to be pervasive and run throughout the essay.  A casually passed-off reference to psychology isn’t sufficient for the sophistication point. The other avenues of the point were less common, most notably the “alternative interpretations” aspect. Identifying or exploring tensions in the passage was more common. The fourth avenue, being “stylistically vivid and persuasive throughout the essay”, is a higher bar than it may seem to be.  I think many classroom teachers will want to give their students this point because they are generally strong writers, but essays that receive the sophistication point need to be truly breathtaking in their prose

helpful feedback from 2020 AP Lit Reading for teachers
The AP Lit Scoring 2020

Q5: What other advice do you have for students writing their essays?

Eric:

Take time to read and annotate the passage before you write.  Have a plan (pre-write or outline) before you begin.  Develop a thesis and muster evidence to support that thesis.  If you are not sure what your thesis is, leave 1-2 blank lines and go back as soon as you can figure it out.

Donna:

Every essay is an argument. Take a position about the character (or setting or whatever the focus of the prompt is). Then PROVE your argument with support from the passage that you lay out in a logical manner. Planning ahead is essential. Row B of the rubric is the “pot of gold”—use it as an opportunity to create and sustain a supportable argument.

Dionne:

When I first begin to teach the Q2, I have my students break down the prompts into the minute questions and we talk about how many questions they have to answer. After reading 2 years in a row, my plan is to have them address the question of the prompt first – write out a list of evidence for their relationship and how it is complex. THEN go back and look for the literary elements. Again, the more sophisticated essays did not list and apply the literary elements; instead, they discussed the relationship and merely tied in the literary elements as they appeared. Those essays were much more smooth, their ideas and transitions having solid ground.

Sarah:

Do not worry about listing the devices you plan to discuss, instead address the complexity (i.e. a shift) and tie to a deeper theme.  

Angela:

Study character complexity–make it a standard in character development analysis. Make it real for them. This practice helps with narrative writing and college essay writing. Exercises where the students do character analysis on people they know and/or themselves are beneficial.

Susan:

This is not just a writing test; it’s a thinking test. Take your time reading, thinking about, and outline the passage before jumping into writing. 

helpful feedback from 2020 AP Lit Reading for teachers
The AP Lit Scoring 2020

Q6: What advice do you have for AP Lit teachers preparing to teach their students this fall?

Susan:

Every year when I start stressing about all I need to cover during the year, I remind myself that if my students are reading and writing on a consistent basis, they are moving forward. This year will probably be crazier than most so I’m keeping my plans simple; less is more. 

Donna:

I know that some teachers choose to set aside the rubric for later in the year, but I think it’s important for students to understand the expectations of the rubric early on. The sooner they can provide a solid thesis, the sooner they will be able to “design” a line of reasoning. It benefits students if they can see the elements of the rubric fall into place earlier rather than later. Teaching and giving students feedback on their thesis statements early in the year will help them to deepen them through continued practice. Teach students to look for the nuances in a passage. Those understated details or images often reveal the most telling aspects of a character or setting. They should not be glossed over or ignored.

Eric:

1) Be flexible.  So much is unknown, so have some broad plans ready, but be ready also to change them if you have to switch to a new method of instruction. 2) Don’t teach to the test, specifically.  Work on skills that the will help students do well on the AP test, but are also useful for the transition to college.  Writing, in general, is always a high value skill.  Discussion (whether in person or online) is crucial.  The ability to analyze a text, image, film, or speech is endlessly fruitful. 3) Be kind to yourself. Don’t expect to be perfect. It takes several years before you can really comfortably teach any class competently, and to do it expertly takes more than that. 4) Take time for yourself.  Don’t spend every waking hour grading, planning, working. If you can’t give yourself a break, you will risk burning out.

Dionne:

Begin early with small repetition. You want the students to resort to rote memory in terms of how to begin with a solid thesis. Widen your horizons however possible. I try to ensure there is a wide variety of time periods as well as cultures represented. And practice. Overwrite. Have them do 2-3 timed writings, then go through a workshop together in class, then choose their most successful essay to hand in for a score. And, I know I am alone in this, but DO NOT give full grades for the timed writings. This is practice and the kids panic over it. There is no need to make their timed writings a quiz grade. Reduce the panic and they’ll focus on the practice.

Angela:

Show them the difference between paraphrase versus analysis. Guiding students to recognizing and pondering juxtapositions is time well spent. Conflict often reveals some elements of complexity. Literary devices were named and listed- too often generalizations were made on the effect. Tone is not “used.” It is not a device or tool that the author uses. Tone is created. The question should be, how is the tone created?

Sarah:

From day one introduce the word “complexity” with the texts you are reading. Reinforce complexity throughout by focusing on how authors use devices to shift the narrative (in a poem, in a short story, in a novel).  Tie this into assignments from the beginning: read the poem/ chapter/ passage, locate at least one shift in tone, ID the tone before the shift and after the shift, what causes the shift, etc. And continue to sprinkle in the 19th and 18th century text passages (for example A Doll House would be a good one to discuss gender). But I think even taking Clint Smith’s poetry or Natasha Trethewey can yield the same practice if the teacher really pushes the close reading and identifying shifts/complexity. 

helpful feedback from 2020 AP Lit Reading for teachers
The AP Lit Scoring 2020

Q7: How did you find the 2020 AP Lit scoring process since it was online?

Susan:

Scoring online was fine – slightly stressful since we were implementing a new rubric and didn’t have the ability to talk face to face about it. I read so much slower – almost half less than I would at the in-person reading. Part of this had to do with the new rubric and not being fully confident applying it, part was probably due to focus issues from working online, and part was because I was working in isolation. Unlike many readers I’ve spoken with, while communication was frustrating at times, I would score online again (but definitely prefer in person). 

Angela:

The online scoring process went well technically since they had system checks in place. Our table leader was accessible through chat, email, and we had their phone number. Aids and tools in reading responses were accessible as well. For me, it all went smoothly. The only issue I had was on Monday. I was told it was because they had more raters online than anticipated so they were received odd error codes. It was remedied quickly though.

Donna:

Readers were given a lot of feedback on their scoring—probably more than is feasible in a physical setting. Also, essays were guaranteed two readers and in many cases, three readers. My process of ”internalizing” (learning to apply) the rubric and assessing student writing was equally as meaningful as it would have been in Salt Lake City. Of course, I missed seeing old friends and meeting new ones in person but given the circumstances, I am grateful to have been a part of this year’s Reading and will definitely participate again if invited.

Sarah:

This was my first time as a Reader, so I do not have the in-person experience with which to compare.  But overall, it was a smooth process.  The hardest part for me was just sitting in a my house alone for five days staring at the computer screen.  Also, because I am a mom to twin 9-year-olds, I had help keeping them all week and the first weekend while I scored. 

Eric:

My personal experience with the “distributed Reading” was generally good.  My reading pace was considerably slower than at the in-person Reading. Part of this was adjusting to the new rubric, although I had graded Q1 essays using the new rubric at the 2020 Pilot Reading.  Another reason for the slower pace was technological- I found it harder to read essays on my computer screen.  Part of it was situational: I was at home, surrounded by distractions.  And part of it was at the advice of my Table Leader, who recommended a slower pace after the first day.  We were told to work between 5-8 hours per day, so I settled in at around 5.5 per day. My only complaint about the Reading was the lack of feedback and information in the training.  We were not really given a clear explanation about the “star system” that measured our performance.

Dionne:

I went into this knowing there was a rush to determine how best to handle things. And that there was no “good” way to do it completely (as we see now with our schools trying to determine how to open in the fall). I did find it much harder than I anticipated. This is a result of the domino effect of the new changes not being ready on time in the fall. With the new rubric, no one to really talk it through with or get multiple explanations from table mates, etc., I found it isolating, frustrating, and I truly began to doubt abilities. I started with 100% calibration, and then Sunday, nothing I did was correct and I got shut out and had to recalibrate. If I had been sitting with my own peers, I would have had the checks and balances, verbal explanations, visual references, etc.

Additional tips from the online reading (gathered from Facebook)

Complexity

  • Above all, complexity was the topic most discussed. Define it, practice it, perfect it.
  • Establish the text’s complexity before listing literary devices or elements.
  • Complexity means more than one. It can be found all over, especially when it’s subtle. Even a conflicted character is complex.

Thesis

  • Analysis of complexity, relationships, or other tasks from the prompt are more important than literary devices.
  • Thesis and line of reasoning go hand in hand. Connect the two and you’ll have a strong essay.
  • You need to respond to the prompt. Restating the prompt is not a thesis.

Approaching Your Essay

  • Do not jump around in your analysis of the text. Organize your essay chronologically.
  • Don’t organize your essay by literary element.
  • Each paragraph needs at least one example. Examples should be direct quotes, not paraphrases.

Analysis

  • The bottom line to analysis is “so what.” Always answer the “so what” to move further into complexity.
  • “Paraphrasing a quote is not analysis.”
  • To score in the 3-4 range of the middle row, you need to answer more than HOW? You need to answer SO WHAT?
  • While the complexity point is desired, it should be the least important in instruction. Focus on Rows A and B first.

Things to Avoid

  • Avoid sentences that begin with “this shows that…”
  • Avoid analyzing imagery unless you’re actually talking about an image.
  • Never mention diction without an adjective in front. A TEXT OBVIOUSLY HAS DICTION.
  • Try to avoid “used.” Ex: The author used ____ to show…

Misc.

  • Don’t write unless you have something to say. Better to spend a few minute brainstorming than write useless or baseless sentences while you’re getting to your point.
  • Practice caution when analyzing diction and imagery, which are often thrown around and not properly analyzed. Pair them with “so what.”

For more feedback and reflections on the 2020 AP Lit Scoring, check out Susan Barber’s blog posts on the site AP Lit Help. You can access Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Or, if interested in making a comparison, you can read my own reflections on the 2018 AP Scoring.

Independent Reading Strategies for AP Lit

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.

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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

  1. 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.
  2. Students were given 30 minutes per week to get comfortable and read their book.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

For lists of suggested titles plus other independent reading strategies for AP Lit, check out my Independent Reading Project, which can be used for both the semester-long strategy or the weekly independent reading strategy. The lists of released titles from the AP Lit exam and released questions from the AP Lit exam can be downloaded from my TpT store for free.