Drama Circles: A Post-AP Exam Unit

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

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

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

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

Unit Design & Procedure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP Lit Prose – Making Connections to Literature and Film

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

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

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

Lesson 1: Diction

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

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

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

Sally Albright, When Harry Met Sally

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

Lesson 2: Syntax

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

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

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

Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

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

Lesson 3: Point of View

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

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

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

Narrator, “The Tell-Tale Heart”

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

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

Lesson 4: Tone & Other Elements

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

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

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

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

JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

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

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

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!