AP Skill Spotlight: Contrasts

One of the six featured skills in Poetry Unit 1 of the AP Lit CED is STR 3.D: the function of contrasts. This skill seems difficult and hard to approach, but it’s actually one of the most widely applicable skills in the whole CED.

Teaching contrasts with the “odd couple” archetype

Contrast is a difficult skill because it doesn’t seem like a skill. It’s like repetition or literal meanings of words, kids know they’re there, but don’t know what they’re supposed to say about them.

To introduce concepts, I love applying movies and television. Ask students to name friendships or couples from pop culture that showcase the idiom “opposites attract.” Some of my favorites from modern shows are Nick and Schmidt from New Girl, David and Patrick from Schitt’s Creek, or Mindy and Danny from The Mindy Project. The pairing of two opposites often creates something beautiful and humorous, and it can even be seen in relationships within students’ own families.

I’ve got three clips you can choose from to demonstrate the idea of an “odd couple,” or opposites attracting. I have no idea why but all of my favorites are all-male relationships. The first is from New Girl:

Nick and Schmidt are best friends but complete opposites. Nick, a law school dropout, has been bartending for years while he figures out his life. Schmidt is focused on his career and channels organization into everything, even his fitness regime.

The second is from my absolute favorite show, Schitt’s Creek:

David is dramatic and neurotic, but his boyfriend Patrick is even-tempered and simple. The two match each other perfectly, as demonstrated in this clip. (I’d show only the first clip, there is strong lhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LeYkEK9rY8&ab_channel=XTimeGoesByanguage in the second one).

And finally, the original Odd Couple, Oscar and Felix!

After Felix’s wife leaves him he moves into his friend Oscar’s house. Felix is a fastidious neat freak and Oscar is an easy-going slob. The idea of opposites attracting takes a while with these two, as they drive each other crazy most of the time.

Ask your class, how are the two characters opposites? And yet, how do they function well, despite their drastic differences? These differences are called contrasts, and when we study them we learn more about a text or concept.

Focus Poem & Questions

If I had to select one poem to use in approaching contrasts, I’d pick Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.” This poem is simple and many will have read it before in junior high or ninth grade, so returning to it makes it more approachable.

Questions for Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice”

  1. What is this poem about?
  2. What two images does the speaker use to drive the poem?
  3. Name some connotations of fire. Of ice?
  4. In line 3, the word “desire” is used in connection with fire. And in line 6, the word “hate” is suddenly used as a placeholder for ice. Here’s where we study another contrast. What is changed by referring to desire as “fire?” What about hate as “ice?”
  5. Can you find any shifts in this poem, be it in structure, tone, meaning, imagery, or something else?

Teacher’s Guide

Literally, this poem is about the end of the world. Broadly, many apply this poem to the destructive forces of science or of hate. The two central images are fire and ice, polar opposites and a great example of a central contrast driving the poem. Fire, when combined with desire, often connotes feelings of uncontrolled passion. Ice and hate means cold calculation; phrases such as “cold-blooded” or “cold-hearted” often crop up. Studying the similarities and differences between these central concepts is another form of contrast. Finally, contrast can also arise from shifts in tone, setting, structure, imagery, or almost anything else. Ask students what shifts they notice and if they can derive any meanings or claims from them.

Poem Suggestions

Here are some other poems that can help you teach contrasts. Thanks to the Facebook community for helping with suggestions:

Looking for more AP Lit poems? This blog post lists my 10 favorites!
  • “pity this busy monster, manunkind” by e. e. cummings
  • “I Ask My Mother to Sing” by Li-Young Lee
  • “Prelude” by William Wordsworth (use excerpt from 1992 exam)
  • “For Julia in the Deep Water” by John Morris
  • “Kitchenette Building” by Gwendolyn Brooks
  • “Coal” by Audre Lorde
  • “Oxygen” by Mary Oliver
  • “Teeth” by Phil Kaye
  • “February 12, 1963” by Jacqueline Woodson
  • “Weight of Sweetness” by Li Young Lee
  • “On the Subway” by Sharon Olds
  • “Green Chile” by Jimmy Santiago Baca
  • “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • “the drone” by Clint Smith
  • “Digging” by Seamus Heaney
  • “Musee des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden
  • “Heroics” by Julia Alvarez
  • “Complaint of the El Rio Grande” by Richard Blanco
  • “The Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed
  • “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa
  • “Her Kind” by Anne Sexton
  • Sonnet 129 or Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare
  • “The Harbor” by Carl Sandburg

Is Hamlet Overrated?

How to make teaching Shakespeare fun
Still struggling with making Shakespeare fun? This blog post gives tips on making Shakespeare engaging and interesting to even reluctant readers!

Over the years, I’ve taught Hamlet over a dozen times and to several different levels of learners. In my first AP Lit teaching position I taught it since it was already in the curriculum. I loved its complexity and discussion potential, but I easily tired of what I perceived was Hamlet’s whiny personality.

When I moved schools in 2010, Hamlet was in my Shakespearean Lit curriculum and Macbeth was our AP Lit Shakespeare text. Since then, Hamlet has moved into AP Lit, and back out of it again. Today, it lives in my Shakespeare course. My Shakespearean text in AP Lit is King Lear (for right now), and that’s only if we have time for it.

I’ve wavered back and forth on my opinions on Hamlet. It seems like it hit its AP Lit hey day from 1994-2000. In that time, it was a fixture on suggested titles for Q3. In my time as an AP reader, Hamlet was so frequently analyzed (and abused) that I began to roll my eyes at it. However, when done well, essays on Hamlet can be some of the highest-scoring in the bunch. Here are the benefits and alternatives to teaching Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Hamlet Unit Bundle on TpT
Hamlet Unit Bundle, available on TpT!

Note: In this post I share some links to Hamlet resources from my TpT store. All of these resources are included in my Hamlet bundle (they are not included in my AP Lit Full Course bundle, unfortunately). If you’re considering teaching Hamlet, this resource is geared for any level, not just AP!

The Benefits of Teaching Hamlet

Depictions of Grief

When I first began teaching Hamlet was overly dramatic, whining about his father’s death to avoid doing anything of purpose. Since then, I’ve really come around on our favorite Dane. Part of that transformation stemmed from witnessing my own father’s reaction to his mother’s death.

My grandmother passed away from cancer in 2005. She was preceded in death only a month earlier by my grandfather, who died from a massive heart attack while my grandma was in the shower. His death was so shocking and unexpected that our wounds were still raw when my grandma followed him only a month later, ironically on my 21st birthday. Several years later, I noticed my father grew irritated and moody at mentions of my grandma, my grandpa, or anyone else in his family. Relationships with his siblings grew more strained until they were officially estranged. I mentioned once to my other grandmother that he never seemed to get over his mother’s death. She responded, “Why doesn’t he just get over it? People die, you know!”

Hamlet: A Study of Grief
This free resource allows students to analyze Hamlet’s progression through the five stages of grief.

I’ve since watched my husband’s family grieve over the loss of my father-in-law, and in 2014 I lost my beloved grandfather, the man to whom I owe my love of story-telling. Grief is a universal feeling, however, everyone grieves differently. Some, like Gertrude, throw themselves into new adventures or even relationships. Others, like both Hamlet and my dad, need to feel that grief longer than others. And both are completely acceptable.

One of my favorite activities to pair with Hamlet is a discussion of the five stages of grief. In this free resource on TpT, students can track Hamlet’s progression through the five stages, and even discuss other Hamlet characters’ grief as well.

Range of Interpretations & Performances

Another benefit to teaching Hamlet is the rich variety of teaching possibilities it includes. It seems like almost every scene has multiple perceived meanings. Every line touches on at least one theme. There are so many quotes! So many big moments! And then, there’s the performances!

If you search for Hamlet on IMDB, you’ll find over 50 results. More than 50 performances you could share with your students. I like to show a variety of Hamlet interpretations to my students and let them pick a favorite. My three favorite to show in class are:

To be or Not to be Comparison Chart
This chart helps students track the different variations
of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech.
  • Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet starring Kenneth Branagh, 1996. Pure in dialogue, this movie skips no scenes or even lines, resulting in a very long film (over 4 hours!). It’s still rich in interpretation, however, moving the action to an updated baroque palace and making some bold choices in Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship.
  • Franco Zefferelli’s Hamlet starring Mel Gibson, 1990. While I don’t believe the acting in this one is very strong, it’s setting appears to be in medieval Denmark as the play depicts. Hamlet’s soliloquy from the castle’s catacombs is also useful for explaining themes for struggling readers.
  • Gregory Doran’s Hamlet starring David Tennant, 2009. Tennant’s t-shirt wearing Hamlet is a bit more zany and approachable with teenagers. Its modern setting helps students see the relevancy with this play, and its play-within-a-play scene is truly fun.

When we get to “To Be or Not to Be,” I show the same speech from all three of these performances (plus sometimes Benedict Cumberbatch’s, if I can access it!). Students take notes on the subtle differences in setting, props, movement, inflection, and other decisions. The repetition and variations allow them to fully appreciate this powerful speech, and the complex feelings behind Hamlet as he contemplates suicide.

Psychological Analysis

It’s not hard for students to grasp that Hamlet is struggling with depression. Other than “to be or not to be,” Hamlet’s battle with self-doubt and uncertainty is present in every scene. However, Hamlet is not the only one experiencing mental health issues.

Hamlet Act IV Scaffolded Lesson
This scaffolded lesson guides students in a study of
Ophelia’s lines to Laertes, right before she kills herself.

Can we talk about Ophelia for a moment? Poor Ophelia, who is constantly steered around by the men in her life? She slept with Hamlet because he asked her to (note, that’s my own personal inference). Then, she dumped Hamlet because her father and brother told her to. But if that’s not enough, her father then uses her as bait to see if Hamlet is truly mad. This results in the infamous “Get thee to a nunnery!” line. Ophelia must feel so conflicted and anxious, yet she has no one to talk to. Remember, she dumped Hamlet and Laertes is off at school. By the time Laertes returns, Polonius is dead, Hamlet is a wanted man, and Ophelia has become completely unhinged. If there isn’t enough material to analyze Hamlet psychologically, students will certainly find plenty to discuss with Ophelia.

One activity you can do to study Ophelia in depth is a deep dive in her final conversation with Laertes in Act IV. If you’re teaching Hamlet, this resource, as well as other scaffolded activities, are available in my Hamlet bundle on TpT.

Alternatives to Teaching Hamlet

While Hamlet is excellent and arguably Shakespeare’s greatest play, it comes with drawbacks. For one, it’s Shakespeare’s longest play. Secondly, it isn’t easy. In fact, it’s quite hard. Increased difficulty usually means more time, so it won’t be one you can tackle in two weeks. Finally, Shakespeare’s plays come with the inevitable language barrier, which will lead to increased confusion. A strong teacher will need good strategies to break down these language barriers.

If you’re looking for some alternatives to Hamlet that are still by the bard, consider these excellent texts:

Othello

Othello and Desdemona painting

Despite my love for Hamlet, Othello is my all-time favorite Shakespeare play. I wish Hamlet explored Claudius’ villainy and motives deeper, but we’re left to explore those mostly through inferences and his single soliloquy in Act III. Conversely, Othello gives us one of literature’s most masterful villains. My students delight in tracking Iago’s manipulations, calling him the ultimate puppet-master by the play’s end. Pair that with Othello’s own self-doubt and uncertainty due to his new marriage and his race, and you get a rigorous and engaging Shakespearean play.

King Lear

King Lear movie poster

The only play that I consider “harder” than Hamlet is King Lear. While Hamlet has more subtext, Lear has subtext plus a bunch of extra characters. The plot lines alone can spin your head. Furthermore, Lear shares conflicts like madness, rights of kingship, parents vs. children, political plotting with Hamlet. But it also has issues like sibling rivalry, loyalty vs. betrayal, and a classic love triangle to complicate matters. I recommend viewing Richard Eyre’s King Lear (on Amazon Prime) if studying Lear. This film is masterful.

Macbeth

Macbeth movie poster

This is a great choice if a) you’re crunched for time, or b) your students have little exposure to Shakespeare. Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, so it won’t take nearly the time that Hamlet will. Furthermore, its central theme of the corrupting influence of power is approachable and relevant with students. Although it may seem simple at the start, Macbeth is still rich in complexity and interpretation, making it an excellent addition to AP Lit. I highly recommend pairing it with Rupert Goold’s film starring Patrick Steward. This version is set in the Soviet Union with Macbeth resembling Joseph Stalin. It’s brilliant!

Twelfth Night

She's the Man movie poster

Why do we always overlook comedies? While my favorite Shakespearean comedy is Much Ado About Nothing, I don’t find it quite as complex as Twelfth Night when it comes to literary analysis. Twelfth Night brings a convoluted plot (hello secret identities), multiple love triangles, plus a fascinating depiction of orders of class in Shakespeare’s time. Of all the comedies, this is one considered the most “AP-worthy.” Plus, it gives you an excuse to show clips from She’s the Man, something my students love.

Conclusion

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In short, I don’t have a finite answer to the initial question. I think that answer depends on your students’ exposure to Shakespeare and their educational background. Hamlet is certainly not one size fits all, so while one class may adore it another may hate it. Another thing to consider is that the 2020-2021 school year has been filled with unknowns and a great deal of global tragedy. There is no shame in abandoning Hamlet, which discusses depression and suicide at length, for something lighter like a comedy. Or, in a different approach, it could be a great time to study Othello, Shakespeare’s only play with a black protagonist.

You Responded: Gatekeeping, Representation, and Inclusivity in AP

I first began this series on representation, and inclusivity in AP Lit in early July. Our country was going through a civil rights movement I had never experienced before, at least not in my own lifetime and in my own hometown. I spent a good amount of time silently reading and reflecting, until a follower on Instagram messaged me. Although I’ve never met this person, I’ll never forget the conversation.

She said: Reading and teaching the great works of Black authors is a step. Using your voice & platform to speak against anti-racist practice is another.
I replied: I never feel informed or qualified enough to speak up–how do you know when to listen versus when to speak?
She said: When you feel courageous.

This shook me.

I looked back at my 14 year career as an AP Lit teacher at private schools in the midwest and felt like I wasn’t qualified to speak up. My student population doesn’t vary much in race or socio-economic class. Furthermore, I’ve made a career out of doling out advice to AP teachers. Sometimes, we take for granted that our students are often “the best of the best.”

But then, I thought about what it meant to be brave. To be brave meant calling out institutions like the College Board for establishing years of gatekeeping in AP classes. It also meant exposing my own shortfalls in offering diverse voices in my reading material, and sharing the research I was conducting on a nightly basis. Finally, one thing I did feel qualified in doing was sharing strategies to reduce student workload and meet the needs of all students in AP classes, not just “the best of the best.”

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I’ve come to the end of my series, which I’ll recap next week (and offer myself a much needed week off as I approach the start of a new school year). But when I sat down to brainstorm this 6-week series, one thing I knew I wanted to do was share the ideas, strategies, and opinions of other AP teachers facing the same issues. Over the course of 6 weeks I’ve surveyed almost 75 people and will share my findings here. Some contributed enough to say that they struggle with these issues, which gave me hope. I no longer feel like a someone who has to have all the answers. Instead, I am a veteran teacher seeking answers among my peers, among published works, and among those in the education field internationally.

I’m listing the questions I asked in my survey verbatim below. I’ll quote some of the most helpful or profound answers, then bullet point additional thoughts and trends. All answers were recorded anonymously.

Question 1 – What kind of admission policy does your school or district have for taking AP classes? Check all that apply.

Question 1

The results were:

  • Minimum GPA requirement – 4%
  • Entrance exam – 2%
  • Minimum test score requirement – 6%
  • A prerequisite course (such as AP Lang) – 15%
  • Teacher recommendation – 36%
  • My school has no prerequisite – 62%
  • Other (these responses included administrator, guidance counselor, or parent requests or overrides) – 15%

Reflection

These responses surprised me in a good way. I expected there to be systems of gatekeeping in place in almost every school, but it sounds like that is phasing out. While there are still complaints about systems where all students must take AP Lit, it feels like the antiquated system of keeping curious learners out of the class is going.

Quote on gatekeeping

By the way, if you’re unfamiliar with the concept of gatekeeping, I encourage you to do some research about it. Simply defined, gatekeeping refers to the act of choosing who can access certain materials, services, or information. It is present in healthcare, psychology, journalism, economics, and many other spheres. This includes education. When people refer to gatekeeping in education, they are discussing systems like entrance exams, minimum GPAs, teacher recommendations, and other requirements designed to keep certain students out of a particular class or educational experience.

Question 2 – What strategies do you use to reach reluctant or low-level readers?

User answers:

I make sure to check in with the student individually every day. Sometimes a social check-in, other times during an assignment, and other times to go over the feedback I’ve given on their assignments. I also say things like “you’re going to love this story/character/etc.”

Question 2

I try to find what they are interested in. Sometimes, they need non-fiction. I had one kid who finally dove into manga and then got really into reading. You just have to show them all the possibilities.

Just try to get them excited about reading, peer pressure in a class with rigorous expectations. I can work with kids who are “lower” if they have work ethic and willingness to work.

Finding books etc that intrigue them, sometimes reading aloud passages to get them “hooked”- seating arrangements that are based on collaboration and doing lots of discussion based activities, incorporating art and artistic projects.

I begin by helping them find the right reading material. Then, I continuously rework my lessons in order to make them more collaborative and engaging. When all my best intentions are realized, my students read because they’re excited to be a part of the conversation and community we’ve created in our classroom.

I try to pick highly engaging text. I do a lot of I do, we do, you do. And I use film clips.

I read a number of pieces aloud and incorporate class discussion. I believe even my strong readers can benefit from hearing a piece, allowing them, as well as their lower peers, to better recognize tone and detail they may miss in independent reading.

Other responses and trends:

12 Engaging and Rigorous Books for Reluctant Readers
Check out this blog post for titles to engage your reluctant readers!
  • By far, the most frequent and emphatic answer to this question was student choice. This could be through independent reading or even books in the curriculum, teachers indicated that student choice equals student buy-in, thus more engagement.
  • Many indicated group activities such as partner sharing and jigsawing activities to help engage and assist lower-level students.
  • Teachers mentioned using scaffolded assignments and graphic organizers rather than constant writing assignments to gauge understanding.
  • Many teachers mentioned using audio recordings or teacher read-alouds to model proper reading and engage students.

Question 3 – What tips and strategies do you have for keeping the workload manageable for slower readers, busy students, and the learning disabled?

User answers:

Question 3

I think teachers themselves have to have a growth mindset. And we need to look at what we want all learners to gain from being in our class.

Less is more. I don’t need to teach 5 novels throughout the year. I can teach skills with fewer texts and go deeper.

All assignments are planned to include time in class to complete all work for average ability students, so nothing needs to be done outside of class time. The students with LDS work with an inclusion teacher and have their assignments modified to suit their learning needs.

I make all audio that’s available in the public domain available for my students. I also make most of the homework reading only and spend class time doing discussions, activities, etc.

Do work that is appropriate for their level. They are not in competition with the person next to them. Their goal is to improve- not to one-up the person beside them.

We do must work in class. Reading is the only homework I generally assign. We do analysis efficiently using graphic organizers and collaboration rather than a long, tedious list of questions to answer. I look for big picture analysis strategies that apply to almost anything and focus on those rather than learning all the literary terms.

A calendar for each text with built in time to catch up. I also put in the syllabus due dates are flexible if we have an honest, open discussion before the day something is due.

Other responses and trends:

  • Common answers revolved around constant communication, such as weekly meetings, regularly posted reading schedules, office hours, and emails home when a student is falling behind.
  • Many teachers rely on group work with specialized pairings (struggling student with stronger, mentor student) to help foundering students
  • Several indicated giving no homework other than reading, or completing all reading during class time.
  • Some said they simply ask students to practice time management skills and use calendars to indicate due dates.
  • Other were much more hands-on, devoting times before school, during lunch, after school, and even on Saturdays for struggling students.

Question 4 – How do you establish rigor and uphold a strong work ethic while also maintaining an inclusive classroom for multiple learning levels?

User answers:

Question 4

Rigor is about being at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy, not about work load or work “difficulty.” I can provide rigor without overwhelming students who are also taking three or four other honors/AP classes. I spend the first quarter chunking writing into very short, manageable assignments that are quick to grade for me and doable for the students. I can turn these around immediately and give feedback to students who are struggling. Because I can see where students are with these minute skills, I can schedule quick in-class conferences and get in front of issues with students who are lagging behind.

The standards are still expected but I might work more one-on-one with a small group of students or a single student on a skill. I use conferencing for all students to meet them where they are and push them forward.

A lot of assignments are projects, so students are challenged to think independently, creatively, and to create original content. The various levels of learners generally rise to those challenges. Modified rubrics are applied when necessary according to the level of learner.

I track individual progress so that students get rigor appropriate for them. Students compare their work to their own previous work, not a peer’s grade, to see improvements for themselves.

I expect each student to work to the best of their ability, whatever that may be. Conferencing is an important element of helping all students succeed.

Have clear expectations, build relationships with students, and ask critical questions, and give a variety of writing assignments and have many class discussions.

Other responses and trends:

  • While there were many strong answers, this was the most skipped question in my survey. Furthermore, several commented that they struggle with this the most, or that COVID-related changes, such as virtual instruction or the lack of group work, would hinder this more than anything else. In short, teachers seemed to be the most frustrated in answering this question.
  • Many teachers cited methods like scaffolding, conferencing, and revisions to help students reach goals. Many also emphasized the importance of individual goals rather than group goals.
  • Some answers indicated a more classic model, where students are expected to advocate for themselves. Teachers follow any IEPs, but other than that no modifications or conferences were done.
  • More, however, indicated making modifications and spending lots of time in conferences to help struggling students.
  • I got very few answers referencing particular learning styles, which I found surprising.

Question 5 – What suggestions, strategies, or ideas do you have to increase representation of all students in AP Lit? This includes diversity in race, religion, socioeconomic class, gender, sexuality, and more.*

*Due to a user error in creating the survey, question 5 was omitted for the first half of those taking the survey.

User answers:

Give them choice reading, do book talks with them, offer a class library, ask kids for suggestions on books, podcasts, IG accounts that they like and let them share. Expand GENRES for lit classes. Graphic novels (like Persepolis), novels in verse (like A Long Way Down), collections of short stories from diverse voices.

Question 5

I vary my choices of poetry and short stories from recent publications, such as The New Yorker, and I offer three choice texts from a list that includes many writers and works.

Seeing themselves in the texts they read and in the way we value the stories that are told. Using critical theory to recognize power relationships. Connecting texts to current events and putting value in both the struggles and the joy of these lives.

The more welcoming and interesting the content is the more students want to take the course. The more willing the teacher is to use grading and discussion as a measurement of success and a source for praise the more confident the students are about staying in the class.

This is a systemic problem. Students take AP Lit at my school senior year, so by then they have been told for their entire school career where they belong. I try to make sure my students and prospective students know that anyone can take the course. I also try to include works to be more inclusive of the under represented.

Boot the canon and be open to contemporary texts; let students collaborate; emphasize community rather than competition; allow students to be experts in their own cultures.

I teach in a very conservative school that restricts the diversity of the texts we read; however, I try to get students to examine the material from multiple perspectives through our discussions. They pay attention to whose voices we are not hearing. I am also going to try to use the Living Poets resources to add more voices in a “less threatening way.”

Using texts that are representative. You can still have rigor without using dead, white guys as the text.

Other responses and trends:

  • Once again, student choice was a popular response for this question.
  • Many teachers expressed frustration with the canon or their district’s selected text, but supplement their curriculum with diverse voices and perspectives through poetry, short fiction, and classroom libraries.
  • Respondents emphasized the need to discuss all literature the context it was written and in the context of our current way of life. Text pairing and aligning it with current events were suggested ideas.
  • Others suggested using critical lenses or other literary theories to help students gain critical thinking skills as they examine their school’s texts.
  • Several suggested that this issue needs to be addressed earlier, putting more representative works (particularly in sexuality and race) in the hands of middle school and elementary students.

Reflection

As I look back on the responses in this survey, I’m heartened by the overwhelming desire expressed by AP teachers who want to teach all students and want to improve our levels of representation. However, there were outliers who expressed views that AP is for select students only. Some said that differentiation and scaffolding were unneeded in an advanced class. Others even expressed views that diversity and inclusivity were not important concerns for teachers of AP Lit. While I find these expressions disappointing, I believe they reflect an outdated view of the College Board and the Advanced Placement program. Overall, it feels like most of us want to reach all students without watering down a strong academic program.

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