My AP Lit First Day Lesson

As I prepared my AP Lit first day lesson for this year, I knew that I needed to try something different from years past. For one, I’ve been learning so much from fellow teachers and I wanted to try something both engaging but rigorous. Secondly, I wanted to clearly indicate the expectations for the course on the first day. In the end, I think the lesson was both a clear indication of the work we do, as well as an invitation to grow in analysis.

Overall, I designed this lesson to demonstrate my three expectations for AP Lit students throughout the year.

  1. Read actively
  2. Demonstrate understanding
  3. Think critically

Note: I’ve added some notes and strategies to take this lesson from an in-class activity to a digital one. Read through, paying particular attention to the “But what if I’m digital?” headings for some online teaching ideas.

Step 1 – Active Reading

Annotation Handout
My AP Lit First Day Lesson – This handout is a free download!

To start off the class, I passed out a handout on annotation that I created (found for free here). This handout explains the benefits to annotation. These benefits include increased active reading, less re-reading later, and stronger connections between the prompt and the text. Then I passed out a printed copy of David M. Wright’s article, “Why Read Literature.” I like this article because it is clearly organized, but it is not too simple. For example, it uses allusions, strong vocabulary, and makes strong, even arguable claims. I gave students about 10 minutes to read and annotate the text (using this time to take attendance and circulate to look for annotation styles). This exercise showed the students what I expect when I require active reading.

Check out this post if you’re looking to garner active reading skills through independent reading in AP Lit.

But what if I’m digital?

To show close reading, students can annotate on a digital annotation too or you could change your requirements to note-taking instead of annotation. I prefer asking to see note-taking, so students can handwrite or type and no one needs to download or print anything. If you do require annotation, these apps or programs can help you out:

  • Noteability (ideal for ipads)
  • Highlight and comment features in Google Doc, Word 365, or other online word processing sites
  • Kami
  • Hypothesis (Chrome extension)
  • Perusall
  • Glose
  • Edji
  • DocentEDU

Step 2 – Demonstration of Understanding

Why Read Literature Handout
AP Lit First Day Lesson – This handout is a free download!

Next, I distributed my “Why Read Literature” One Pager and handout (also free, found here!) Using some samples from previous assignments, I explained the concept of a one-pager, a demonstration of learning through images, words, symbols, and other visual images. While one-pagers are a great opportunity to showcase artistic abilities, drawing talent is not required. (Here’s a great article that explains the benefits of using one-pagers in the classroom) I asked the students to fill the white space with Wright’s three criteria for a Great Book, as well as the six benefits to reading literature. Filling out the one-pager can take anywhere from 10-30 minutes to fully complete. I stopped them at 20. To shorten this time, you could ask students to partner up and complete the assignment together. This one-pager shows my students what I expect when I ask them to demonstrate understanding.

But what if I’m digital?

If I were going digital I would still assign students to show their understanding, I would just ask that they use a sheet of paper from home. If that is unavailable students could create an infographic, poster, or digital file to show their main understandings. Here are some platforms students can use to show understanding in creative ways:

  • Canva
  • Flipgrid
  • Adobespark
  • TikTok
  • Notability
  • Padlet
  • Glogster

Step 3 – Critical Thinking

Finally, when the one-pagers were done, I asked students to look at the question on the bottom of the handout. It asks them if they agree with the article or not. If yes, why? If no, why not. As expected, I heard overwhelming yeses. Without my help, the discussion fell flat after about one minute. When prodded for more, several students gave longer answers. And, as expected once again, each answer began with, “I like how he…” or “I like that he…” I let this continue for a few more minutes, then I told them what I needed to hear when I ask them to think critically.

Pushing Critical Thinking: Expand & Scrutinize

I told my students they need to go beyond agreeing with the author. If you agree, you need to expand with your own reason.

One student brought up that they liked Wright’s discussion of how Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed the mindset of America in favor of abolishing slavery, supporting the point that literature can change a culture. Using this example, I asked them what other pieces of literature they could think of that, when read, changed a society’s mindset or opinion of an issue. Suddenly, students were alive with ideas. Titles like The Diary of Anne Frank, The Communist Manifesto, and recent articles discussing the “white savior” concept of To Kill a Mockingbird were all brought up. This, I explained, was strong critical thinking in support of a text. They agreed, but also demonstrated how the text applied to their own worldview and literary exposure.

Next, I challenged them to find something to criticize. They weren’t expecting this. I think many students get an article or text and consider it “holy” since the teacher passed it out. It wasn’t until I told them I did not agree with everything in the article that they even considered it. However, it didn’t take long for one student to take the bait. He suggested that perhaps not all great literature has be written in elevated language, as Wright suggests. This led to a great conversation, naming other “Great Books” with lower reading levels from their own experience. In the end, my students learned what it means to think critically about a text.

But what if I’m digital?

This activity can still continue online in a live discussion (such as Zoom) or through an online forum. In fact, I would use this first “discussion” opportunity as a stepping stone towards building norms for your classroom and creating netiquette rules. For example, if few participate, you’ll need to find ways to bolster participation through daily points or exit slips. If too many dominate the discussion, message them privately and ask them to listen as well as they speak. And if discussion moves off-topic or gets out of hand, set some ground rules on decorum and netiquette. There are some great letters and templates online for such rules and norms.


This lesson took about 45 minutes in total to complete. Furthermore, it met our learning target to understand the three expectations of AP Lit: read actively (through annotation), demonstrate understanding (through our one-pager), and think critically (through in-class discussion).

The handouts featured in this post are available for free in my Teachers Pay Teachers store. I suggest pairing this lesson with an overview of AP Lit and its required skills, another free resource.

For more lessons and details of how I run my AP Lit class, check out this day-by-day diary of the 2019-2020 school year.