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

A Book Tasting: A Valuable Lesson for Your AP Lit Readers

In my AP Lit class we do independent reading each semester. The students get to choose a book off an extensive list of titles, which can sometimes be overwhelming. Despite my emphasis on student choice, many of my students in the past have chosen haphazardly or without thinking, leading to disappointment or abandoned reading later on in the semester. For that reason, I reexamined my introduction to the unit and changed it a up a little bit. The result was our very first Book Tasting, which was a huge success! This activity can be done for any grade in middle or high school, as long as there is student choice and an organized reading list. Here’s how you can put on a book tasting in your own class.

Set Up

For this lesson, you will need the following:

  • A list of titles that students can choose from, organized logically (I choose by date), printed out for them to keep
  • A copy of each book
  • Short plot summaries or plot premises (such as what would be on the back of a book jacket), printed and posted next to the book
  • Space in your room for conferencing and quiet reading
  • Instructions, printed out or displayed on a PowerPoint
  • Post-Its
  • Book Review sheets – On these sheets, students had to indicate the title, author, and year published. Then they had to indicate what kind of book review they completed (see below). Finally they had to write 3-5 sentences explaining their opinion on this book and whether they might read it or not. My book review sheets are a free download!
  • Optional: One-Pagers or Student Reviews – Before I did this activity, I assigned my students to create a short book review, or a one-pager if they were more visual learners, for the book they read for summer reading, which was off of the same reading list. I placed the book review next to my prepared written summary. The students enjoyed hearing feedback from people other than the teacher.
Some student reviews

Display your books, either on a shelf or on tables. Place your written summaries next to each book, then a Post-It on each summary. If you like you can organize the books by genre or date. Mine were ordered chronologically by date of publication.

Procedure

As students walked in to class, I handed out the written instructions and explained briefly the purpose behind the activity. I had spent the day before explaining the project behind these novels since I wanted this day to be purely focused on finding the right book. Before they could begin browsing, I asked each student to go around and indicate which books they had read. They did this by writing their name on the Post-it note next to the book. This only took a minute or two.

The goal of the day was to review seven different books. In order to complete a review, they had to “sample” or “taste” them. There were three different ways to “sample” a book:

  • Book Review – Students read the printed premise, and any corresponding student book reviews.
  • Reading – Students read the first 5-10 pages of the book.
  • Interview – On the post-it next to the book, they could find a student who had read that book. In one of our conferencing areas, they paired off or got into small groups and spent some time learning about the book. The student who read it was asked to give concise and honest feedback on the book, as well as supplying their own version of a plot premise. The student completing the review took notes on their review sheet.

I also made it mandatory that they read the back cover or jacket of the book for each book review, as well as the first paragraph of each novel.

Completing these book reviews took about an hour. Asking students to complete seven reviews quickly proved too ambitious and I lowered it to five, which was much more manageable. Since our block periods are an hour and half long, this left the last half hour for quiet reading time. Most students were cemented and confident with their choice after an hour of browsing and a half an hour of reading.

Reflection

Other than needing to reduce the number of book reviews I required, this was a perfect lesson. My students reported that they enjoyed the time to browse and appreciated the different styles of “tasting” they were able to do. And now that the semester is over, I also noticed that fewer students abandoned their books or reported disliking them. This means the lesson really did meet my goal of helping students make more informed choices in their independent reading.

To access the book review files just click here for the free file. This resource is not available through Teachers Pay Teachers, only for my blog readers! For AP Lit teachers interested in learning more about the independent reading project my students are doing in these pictures, all of the materials are for sale through my Teachers Pay Teachers store. Click here to learn more.