Why Should I Study the AP Lit Open Response Titles?

One of the most common questions asked among new and veteran AP Lit teachers alike is, “What titles should I teach?” It is not an easy question to answer, as the list of titles listed on the AP Lit exam numbers over 400 now. Plus there are other considerations, such as length, authorship, genre, diversity, difficulty, and many more. When considering a change in titles, one overlooked tool is the history of the exam itself, namely in Question 3: The Open Question.

A free download of this list is available on TpT, since it’s getting hard to find online!

The first way to use Question 3 is by studying the questions. For example, I noticed over in 2016 that many of the questions being used for the Open Essay were geared toward gothic novels. I switched from reading just Frankenstein to studying gothic novels in a book club unit, just in time for the the 2018 exam, which was geared perfectly for gothic novels. In fact, Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Picture of Dorian Gray were all suggested titles to study. After that, I began looking closer at the types of questions included on Q3 and making adjustments as needed. A document with all of the open questions can be downloaded for free from my Teachers Pay Teachers store here.

Another way to study the Open Question is to examine the titles included in the suggestions. Remember that students aren’t required to choose from that list, so I don’t suggest requiring them to do so. However, the list does inform AP Lit readers the types of titles that the College Board is reading…and recommending. I recently studied suggestions from the 2019 exam and there were three new titles never mentioned on an AP Lit exam before. They were:

  • The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Now I’ve got some titles to add to my never-ending “To-Read” list! This list also emphasizes some of the most popular and treasured titles among the College Board. The titles that have been listed more than ten times are:

This compiled list of AP Lit titles is also a free download from TpT!
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Antigone by Sophocles
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Billy Budd by Herman Melville
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevski
  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller
  • Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
  • The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  • King Lear by William Shakespeare
  • Light in August by William Faulkner
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • Native Son by Richard Wright
  • Othello by William Shakespeare
  • A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
  • Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  • Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  • A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  • A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

While AP Lit teachers do not need to choose from this list, these could be looked to as reliable choices. The whole list of AP Lit titles from the Open Question can be downloaded for free from Teachers Pay Teachers here.

One last way I study the Open Question is by looking at what titles are “trending.” I use this term to describe titles that have been included on the exam in just the past 10 years. Titles such as Don Quixote, The Bluest Eye, and The Mill on the Floss were suggested for the first time in over ten years. The most suggested titles in the last ten years are:

  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • King Lear by William Shakespeare
  • The Odyssey by Homer
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Studying trending titles can be enlightening in finding popularity among more recent works. For example, Oryx and Crake was only published in 2003, and yet it’s been suggested on the exam four times already. If one were looking for a strong modern contender, that would be an excellent choice. A document listing “trending” titles is available on my TpT store as well, but is not available online anywhere else! Click here to access it!

I hope this helps explain how studying former exams, particularly the Open Question, can help you make course decisions. Please feel free to download the resources linked here. They are available for free! They are linked below for your convenience.

AP Lit Open Response Titles List

Open Response Question Prompts for AP Lit

AP Lit “Trending” List

Understanding the New CollegeBoard Guidelines for AP English Lit

As you may have heard, the AP English Literature course is getting a bit of a redesign this summer, becoming effective in Fall of 2019. For the full report released by the College Board, click here. For the remix version, keep reading!

Many AP Lit teachers are already starting to panic about the new changes because frankly, changes are scary. But based on my reading and some discussion with other AP Lit teachers, I think these changes are positive overall and nothing to be scared of. 

Here are the main things to know: 

The biggest change is that the AP Lit essay rubric is changing to an analytical, itemized rubric similar to those used on the AP US History and AP European History exams. The actual scoring guidelines have not been released yet, but the writing prompts are more specific in what students need to write about. More information will be provided at the AP Reading this summer and will be sent out to AP Lit teachers as well. 

AP English Literature seems to be embracing different forms of fiction, perhaps even moving away from the old-fashioned “literary merit” model of years past. Instead, the course description breaks the literature down into three categories:

Much of the new changes to the AP exam are supported by an abundance of new resources being supplied by College Board on their new AP Classroom webpage. The webpage is advertised below:

Because of the new emphasis on “short fiction,” AP teachers are already talking about adding more short fiction, such as excerpts from novels or short stories, and eliminating some longer works. This builds on Senior VP of CollegeBoard Trevor Packer’s tweet last summer hinting that this was the new direction of AP Lit. (I discussed this tweet and its ramifications in a blog post last year as well!)

If you are feeling overwhelmed still, that’s perfectly natural. I too had a small moment of hyperventilation when I worried I had to eliminate all novels from my curriculum and add short stories instead. However, after reading further, and talking to some level-headed AP Lit teachers, here are my personal take-aways:

  • These are guidelines. No changes are necessary to your AP Lit courses, except maybe tweaking your on-demand essay rubrics eventually. 
  • CollegeBoard will be releasing more practice questions and resources to help new and struggling AP teachers starting in the fall. 
  • CollegeBoard may start allowing analysis of shorter prose works, even short stories, on Question 3, which overall means more modern and realistic reading material and student expectations. 

Because of a student trip to Italy this June, I am unable to attend the AP Lit scoring in Salt Lake City. However, I have some friends who are sending me the materials as soon as they get them, and rest assured I am setting aside some time this summer to develop TpT resources based on the new writing expectations. If you have any additional questions for me, or suggestions for future resources, please email me at aplitandmore@gmail.com. Finally, I encourage you to check out the new course description (linked above) and sign up for the AP Classroom resource

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