Independent Reading Strategies for AP Lit

Whether you’re a newbie or a veteran to AP Lit instruction, the biggest question always lies in what titles to teach. Unfortunately, an AP Lit teacher cannot just teach books all year long (as much as we want to), as poetry and writing need equal time and instruction. With the new CED’s emphasis on short fiction being factored in, there is even less time to teach in-class novels and plays. Because of this, many of us integrate independent reading requirements in our classes.

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Over the years I’ve attempted a few independent reading strategies to my various classes. It began with suggested reading, which, unsurprisingly, almost no one completed. I knew that this strategy wasn’t working, but I was green and in over my head in so many areas that independent reading seemed like the least of my worries.

After four years at one school, I moved to a different state with my husband to be closer to family. I was hired at my current school in a unique part-time position. Although my pay was drastically decreased, this posting was a blessing in disguise, as the only class I had to prep for was AP Lit. This extra time allowed me to make improvements to my AP curriculum that I hadn’t had time for yet, and one of the things I developed was what I called the INP, the independent novel project. My students were expected to read one novel per semester independently, and compose a 3-4 page paper on a prompt as the end assessment. This prompt was selected during a one-on-one meeting that we set up when each student finished reading. We chose from released Q3 prompts for our paper topics and I used a custom rubric for scoring.

This project began to lost its luster in the past couple of years, as I noticed fewer and fewer of my students practicing strong time management skills. Too many of them put off reading their novels (or simply read SparkNotes instead) and scrapped their paper together at the very last minute. I was also reconsidering the use of a long paper as the project’s summative assessment, as the AP Lit exam made use of on-demand writing only.

I was disappointed with my students’ use of time, but I also wasn’t considering how to give them that time back.

This summer, I approached my independent reading strategy with a fresh perspective. I had been reading about different teachers doing genius hours and “Starbucks modes” in their classrooms, which inspired me. However, I was also apprehensive. How could I consider giving up precious classroom time for independent reading, when I was already feeling like I’d never get it all done?

In the end, I took the risk. I laid out our new independent reading strategy, which was as follows:

2019 Independent Reading Strategy

  1. Each student had to read a novel or play off of an approved list, compiled from former AP Lit exams and my own personal reading. They were expected to read one title per quarter, increasing our independent reading quota from 2 to 4 books.
  2. Students were given 30 minutes per week to get comfortable and read their book.
  3. When students completed their independent read, they composed a Q3 (open question style) timed writing, which I had them type for the sake of time. I permitted these to be written at home and even with their books if necessary, but restricted them at a 40 minute time limit. The prompts were selected from released AP Lit tests for each title uniquely, so students weren’t aware of their particular prompt until they began the assignment.
  4. I required students to pick from some parameters in certain quarters. For example, in Quarter 2 they had to pick a “classic text” (composed before 1900) or a play. In Quarter 3 they had to pick a contemporary text, meaning it had to be written in the past 40 years.
  5. In exchange for quiet and respectful use of time, students were given permission to access my Keurig coffeemaker, a prized possession in my classroom. Students kept personalized mugs and their favorite K-cup flavors stashed away until our independent reading time rolled around. Surprisingly, this was by far their favorite part of the activity.

As I look back on the end of the year, I’m happy to report that our new independent reading strategy is a vast improvement over our former ways. I’ve always told my students that if they want to be a better writer, they need to be a better reader. By prioritizing reading during class time, students are learning that reading is really that important. I’ve also been surprised and impressed that my students are using their independent reading time wisely, and so far this year no one has forgotten their books on independent reading days.

For lists of suggested titles plus other independent reading strategies for AP Lit, check out my Independent Reading Project, which can be used for both the semester-long strategy or the weekly independent reading strategy. The lists of released titles from the AP Lit exam and released questions from the AP Lit exam can be downloaded from my TpT store for free.

Reclaiming Your Time – How I Stick to a 40 Hour Workweek

This school year marks my 14th straight year teaching of AP English Literature. While I’ve learned quite a few strategies in that time, when I first started out in the profession I demonstrated all of typical first year teacher traits:

  • I was usually only planned one day ahead (if that).
  • I took grading home every single night.
  • My weekends were consumed with prepping, planning, and grading.
  • I often stayed late, sometimes not seeing the light of day except for weekends.
  • My self-care was terrible.
  • I was overloaded with extra-curriculars, including coaching and directing school plays.

I’m sure many first year (and even 14th year teachers) can commiserate with a few of these. But here’s what’s wrong with the teaching profession: we fully accept that burnout is part of the job, when it shouldn’t be. Veteran teachers (myself included) see our fellow educators flailing and we say, “It’s okay, we’ve all been there,” then walk away. Instead, we ought to offer a lifeline, not doing the work for them, but teaching them how to work smarter. That’s what I’m going to try to do.

This is not meant to be judgmental or preachy. These are simply some things I’ve learned over the course of my career that have taught me how to use my time wisely. I can now say with confidence in my 14th year that I stick to a 40 hour work week. (I do work more than 40 hours each week, but the extra time is on TpT work, so I don’t consider that as part of my school-paid work week). So, with all that being said, here are my tips to reclaim your time as a teacher while still remaining a good teacher:

Use your prep time to prep

I am an outgoing, extraverted person who loves a good gabfest. I’ve been guilty of blowing off an entire prep period to chat with a fellow teacher, and while it leaves me feeling fulfilled as a person, it often makes me feel stressed afterwards. One of the biggest tips I can offer is to use your prep hour(s) to prep. “Prep work” may include lesson planning, making copies, or grading. I really struggle with grading at school but I struggle even more with grading at home, so sometimes I force myself to close my door and get a stack of tests done before I can talk to a teacher friend.

Work during your assigned work hours

Another thing I see newer or burned out teachers do is come late or leave early, choosing instead to take work home to grade. When I first got hired at my current school I had a 7th hour prep. I often left during 7th hour, went home to nap (I was pregnant most of the school year), and worked on school stuff from 7-10 each night. Although I was able to keep up, I resented the work because it robbed me of my evenings with my husband. It can be tempting to work on your schedule, saying “I work better at night,” or “I need to go to the coffee shop to get this done.” However, successful teachers have learned to arrive on time, work during that time, and stay until the work day ends. By forcing yourself to get it all done at school during school, you’ll gradually remove the need to work at night and on the weekends.

Portion out big grading tasks daily

As an English teacher, I’m aware that there are times when it cannot all get done during work. This especially applies to grading papers. As the only sophomore English teacher at my school I get flooded with paper grading 3-4 times a year when research papers and giant poetry portfolios get submitted. I used to procrastinate until the weekend, then take my giant stack of grading to a coffee shop and kill a whole Saturday. Not only would this destroy my weekend (and my mood), but I usually lost focus as the day wore on, giving less attention to the later papers, resulting in uneven and unfair grading. After years of teaching, I’ve found a strategy for approaching that giant grading stack. When the flood comes in, I force myself to grade a certain number each day, rather than grading a giant stack weeks later. For example, for my 70 sophomores I make myself grade 10 papers per day. I try to get these done during one of my prep hours or after school. If I get all 10 done, I don’t have to bring them home. If I don’t, then it’s homework. I do this each school day for 7 days. Even if I don’t bring them home for the weekend, I still get the entire grade’s papers back to them by the following week, which is considered decent turnaround time among English teachers.

Write everything down the first time

I learned this lesson when preparing for my first maternity leave and it has probably been the biggest time-saver for me. I was facing only 6 weeks of leave but it still took me months to prepare notes for my sub since I had to write everything down. When I found myself doing it again for my second kid, I vowed to write these things down as I taught them, eliminating the need to explain every single detail to a sub (be it short-term or long-term). The biggest time saver has been in creating guided reading notes. When I teach a book or unit for the first time, I create very detailed PowerPoint notes to help guide my lessons. These do not need to be used as a lecture, but they create a baseline for what needs to be taught each day. I then post these notes on our online learning platform (we use Schoology) for any students who need to access them later. When I need to teach the book the following year, all of my lessons and notes are right there waiting for me. I just adjust them to meet my needs and I’m off! The amount of time this saves is incalculable. Instead of spending an hour reading the chapter, taking notes, then preparing a lesson, I simply review my notes from before and I’m ready to teach, all in under 5 minutes. Bottom line: Find a way to write down what you work on as you work on it, then save it. This is one of the best ways to work smarter, not harder, as a teacher.

To learn more about how guided reading notes can save you time and exactly what they look like, check out my previous post about them here.

Reflect on teaching materials before you put them away

Another way to work smarter not harder is to take a few minutes to reflect on a lesson before you put it away for the year. For example, for years I found myself facing the same problem when I taught Hamlet. Even though I was following a structured unit plan, I always ended up needing at least one extra week to fit it all in, throwing off my schedule for the following weeks. As I put the materials away one year, I quickly grabbed a post-it and placed it on top of my Hamlet folder, saying, “Need more time for soliloquies, adjust unit plan for one extra week!” Lo and behold, next-year-me took out Hamlet, saw the post-it, and finally adjusted the unit plan to teach it right. My memory is terrible, so I guarantee I would have gone on to make that same mistake year after year had I not took a moment to reflect on my shortcomings.

Use the experts

I only learned this lesson recently, but you don’t need to feel like you have to create everything. I got hired with almost no teaching materials to go off of, and when I switched to my new school I got even less. It has always been the norm for me to create things from scratch, and luckily I’m fairly good at it. However, there are times when I just don’t have the ability, energy, or time to create something from scratch. This is exactly why Teachers Pay Teachers exists. Being a TpT author, I felt like a hypocrite buying materials from the site when I created them myself, so even though I sold on the site I never bought from there for my first two years. It wasn’t until I saw very established TpT sellers posting the materials they had bought from other sellers on Instagram that I realized it is okay to get help. I started buying materials for my Brit Lit class and my sophomores and was so grateful for the time it saved me. Sure I still needed to customize most things, but the effort it saved me in coming up with ideas was incalculable. Overall, here is my point: Feel free to create and start from scratch, but do not feel like you have to. Even better, with TpT School Access you can now buy these amazing resources with school funds, saving you from spending your own money (because, honestly, that’s how it ought to be).

Learn to say no or let go

This last one is the hardest for most of us, myself included, and I’m sure you have heard it before. However, it remains true that you cannot pour from an empty cup. If you’re burning out, you cannot continue and expect to feel better. A change is required. According to Psychology Today, these are the common signs of burnout in the workplace:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion, including insomnia, increased illness, decreased appetite, anxiety, and physical symptoms such as chest pain or headaches.
  • Feelings of cynicism and detachment, including pessimism, isolation, and overall lack of enjoyment.
  • Ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment, including feelings of apathy, irritability, and a lack of productivity.

I struggled terribly last year, coping mostly with feelings of cynicism and detachment due to a difficult work environment. I did take a step back and consider leaving my school, and even my profession. I interviewed at my alma mater, revised my resume, and seriously considered working on TpT full time. In the end, I decided that I loved my school, my students, and my co-workers enough to make some necessary changes. I made changes to my social life and my outlook. However, I also had to say no to a few things that I loved. One the hardest decisions was closing down our school’s writing center, which I had worked for a year and a half to bring up to a thriving status. Unfortunately, budget constraints made it impossible to make this a paid position. I told my principal that without compensation I would close the program down, which I ultimately had to do. I’m sad that such a strong program had to end, but I still feel it was the right decision for my mental health and overall self-care.

I hope that these tips help you reclaim some of your own time whether you’re a first year teacher or in your 40th year. Following these strategies has allowed me to spend more time with my family and even create a side business that now doubles my teaching salary. If you have any more tips for self-care or saving time in the teaching profession I’d love to hear them!

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links that earn me a small commission, at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products that I personally use and love, or think my readers will find useful.

My AP Lit First Day Lesson

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

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

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

To start off the class, I passed out a handout on annotation that I created (found for free on my TpT store). This handout explains the benefits to annotation, including 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.

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, as well as how to involve non-artsy students) Students were asked 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.

Finally, when the one-pagers were done (or almost done, some were allowed to finish up during the discussion), 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.

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

For example, one student brought up that they liked Wright’s example 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 that there was a facet of the “Why Read Literature” article that I myself disagreed with 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 where more and more students agreed, 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.

This lesson took about 45 minutes in total to complete, and 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, also found for free in my store.

Your Questions Answered: FAQs About Teaching AP Lit

It’s the end of July and teachers are preparing to move back into their classrooms. A good portion of these teachers are first timers, which could mean several things. Some are bright-eyed twenty-two-year-old grads, eager to step into their first job. Some are new to the teaching field after making a career shift. And others have been teaching for years but are approaching a new grade level or subject for the first time. Teachers who are new to AP Lit often feel intense pressure to meet high standards and produce high-scoring students in their first year. Furthermore, there are countless ways to structure an AP Lit class and no standardized reading list, so many new teachers feel completely lost.

For this post I’ve teamed up with another AP Lit teacher, Ashlee Tripp, to provide two different perspectives. We asked new AP Lit teachers for some burning questions they had as they readied for the new school year, and we actually got so many that we created two blog posts to answer them all! I’ll cover half of them here, and make sure you click here to access the other half of the material on Ashlee’s blog!

Q: How many books do I teach, and which ones?

This blog post provides answers to common questions about teaching AP Lit from two experienced AP teachers.

Gina: These are the top two questions I see in the AP Lit Facebook groups. I think the number of texts we teach, an achievement that used to be competed about among AP Lit teachers, is becoming arbitrary. A teacher could teach 15 books but if her students never write then what’s the point? I say, teach as many books as it takes to do it well. For the upcoming school year, I’ll be teaching six texts (two plays, two novels, a novella, and How to Read Literature Like a Professor). I did eliminate two from last year’s list to make room for short fiction units. As for which books to pick, the College Board answer would be to find books that are complex, diverse, and engaging. However, I think it’s equally important to teach books you love. Students can sense when you’re teaching a book because you have to, making them less likely to read it. I would encourage new AP Lit teachers to stick to some “safe” texts, but don’t be afraid to take risks. If there’s a new book that you think would be perfect for AP Lit but you don’t know if it’s “AP approved,” take a leap and try it out! And also, don’t forget to let us know how it went! AP Lit teachers are always looking for books to add to our must-read list.

Ashlee: I think you have 3 camps on this—those who read more than 10, those who read 5-10, and those who read 3-4, and you just have to decide which camp you would excel in as a teacher! I give a summer survey, and consistently over 80% of my kids identify themselves as readers. It just makes sense to me to push my kids to read a wide range of texts. I constantly get e-mails from graduates thanking me for making them read more because it helps them manage the reading load of college. We’ll be doing nine novels (three choice, two book club, and four whole class) and two plays this upcoming year. That’s cutting three books from last year to include even more poetry and short fiction than I have ever done! My first year teaching AP Lit, we did all whole class reading chronologically: Oedipus Rex, Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, King Lear, Paradise Lost, Candide, Frankenstein, Crime and Punishment, Heart of Darkness, The Handmaid’s Tale, and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Last year, I let the kids choose their whole class texts; out of a list of ten, they chose eight, had one book club, and three choice books. This year, I’m still thinking about it, but there have been major curriculum changes in our lower grade levels, so I’ll be adjusting for that and the new standards. As of now, I’m thinking we’ll move thematically and do dystopian book clubs (previously summer reading) followed by a whole class read of 1984, a Shakespeare play (I’ll probably let them choose), Frankenstein, The Great Gatsby, Invisible Man, The Importance of Being Earnest, and a Contemporary option in book clubs. I may end up cutting Invisible Man in favor of something shorter depending on how the year is going, but I like to have them read a longer text if time allows. My kids have never had a year where they took the exam and didn’t have at least five of the texts we read listed for Q3 (though I don’t think it’s that big of a deal if you don’t cover the listed books).

Q: How much do my students’ scores matter?

Gina: It depends on your school and your administrator. Most administrators will look at your scores and possibly discuss them, but from a data standpoint. I think you should always look at your scores and learn from them, but never define your teaching ability or your students by their scores. Keep them tucked away in a file or file cabinet, make any necessary changes to the following year, and move on. 

Ashlee: My admin looks at our AP scores, but I don’t think they matter as much as we sometimes think they do. My principal sends congratulatory texts to anyone over the national averages in July, and we get our essay exams back, but that’s about it. I think it depends on your school and your state. I use the scores to plan and set goals for the following year… last year I wanted to improve Q2 responses and multiple choice averages, and we drastically improved on each because I was more intentional on planning for those things! I also let kids talk me into doing a poetry standalone unit instead of weekly poems last year, and our Q1 responses went down by 0.2 points. Never again! LOL Just remember you can always do more poetry, and poems are short and sweet and oh so complex.

Q: How much of my time should be devoted to test prep?

Gina: The answer to this question depends on how much of your course is driven by the exam. If your test double duties as a dual enrollment or Brit Lit course, the exam may not be the best assessment for the work you do. But if you teach the AP Lit course at your school and the exam is the ultimate end goal for the course, I’d recommend at least 20% of class time be spent on test-prep activities and assessments. My class is strictly an AP class so we do multiple choice practice tests at least every quarter and timed writings each month. With the new AP Classroom resources being posted, I am hoping to do shorter multiple choice activities each week if possible. My literature units are also driven by the new AP Lit standards and many of our activities are filled with close reading and analysis activities. Some of my units, like my prose analysis unit and my test prep unit, are purely driven by the exam, but could apply to SAT and ACT preparation as well.

Ashlee: We spend April specifically on test prep, but I do go over the format of the exam and the expectations at the beginning of the year, and the kids do a mock exam in August, in December, and again in April. Otherwise, we’re just a college-level English class, and I treat it as such. If you’re teaching your kids how to think critically as they read and write, then you’re preparing them for the test the entire year.

Q: How often should students practice timed writing?

Gina: My students complete a timed writing about every two weeks. I’d actually like to do it weekly but I can’t handle the grading load. One way to incorporate more on-demand writing is to scale it down. Sometimes I just ask students to produce a thesis statement or a short outline for a text we’re studying. I give them a few minutes and we share in class. This only takes about 10 minutes in total, rather than spending an entire class period on a timed essay.

Ashlee: I do a full timed write about as often as Gina, maybe a little less. And we do tons of thesis statements, outlines, paragraphs or discussions of released prompts throughout the year. I’d rather get through more texts than spend an entire class period every week doing a full essay. That said, they read, write, and discuss at least one text every single day in class. 

Q: Can I see a sample syllabus?

Here’s an example of the first page of my visual syllabus, a version I switched to last year.

We got so many requests for this! I recently moved from a written syllabus to a visual one, and Ashlee has explored this as well. The links to all four examples are included below:

Q: What does a typical class period look like?

Gina: My lessons vary depending on what we’re studying and what day of the week it is. Our school is on a modified block, so once a week I get them for a block period. On these days we start with a vocabulary quiz and a poem study. This takes up about half of the class period, so most of my classes are structured to last about 45 minutes. I’m not nearly as structured as Ashlee, and my lessons vary by what we are reading. Sometimes we spend almost an entire period in small and whole group discussion, other times we move from lecture to discussion to independent reading. I’m usually pretty amped up to start each lesson so I prefer to begin with bell-ringers or introductory activities and conclude lessons with independent reading. 

Ashlee: I wish I was more structured! I’d love to model my class after Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days, but that’s still goals for me. I do start with 10 minutes of reading every day, and then from there it depends on the day! I use the same strategies in AP that I use in all of my classes: learning stations, gallery walks, Socratic seminars/discussions, think pair share, silent discussions, speed dating, circles, etc. I have 50-minute classes three days a week and an 80-minute block once a week. Ideally? It would probably look something like this (though it doesn’t always):
10 min. free reading 
10-15 min. text study/mini-lesson (longer on block days)
20-25 min. writing/discussing/practicing (longer on block days)
5 min. sharing/closure

Q: How do you vary your teaching patterns to avoid monotony, but encompass recurrent practice of the same skills?

Gina: I pick different summative assessments for each long fiction unit we complete. They vary between a test, Socratic Seminar, long essay, project, and more. Each one has a timed writing, but everything else varies. I have also begun pairing literature lessons with mini-lessons on certain skills or materials pertaining to the text. For example, in Frankenstein we explore Paradise Lost and foils, whereas in Things Fall Apart we study proverbs and folk tales. Honestly, every unit seems pretty different in my AP class! The things that do become a routine are our weekly vocab quizzes and poem studies. Those are ever present, no matter what unit we’re in. 

Ashlee: One way is through the volume of texts we read and study, but I also try to change up how we’re interacting with a text from day to day, how we’re responding, how we’re learning… and I’m always trying new strategies and adjusting! 

Q: What’s the best wine to pair with essays?

Gina: I’m not an avid wine drinker, so I’m going to defer to a fellow Facebook member for my answer. She said:
Persuasive Essays: Merlot or rosé
Narrative Essays: Sauvignon blanc or pinot noir
Expository Essays: Chardonnay or cabernet

Ashlee: Where’s the moscato? Actually, Hemingway said to write drunk and edit sober, so I don’t tend to pair grading essays with wine. Maybe that’s why I despise grading so much!

Want to see more questions answered? Head over to Ashlee’s blog to read the rest!

Gina Kortuem has a Masters in education from Bethel University and is going into her 14th year of teaching AP English Lit. She works in a parochial K-12 school in St. Paul, MN where she teaches AP Lit, Brit Lit, Shakespearean Lit, and the sophomore English 10 classes. In addition to teaching the class she has worked as an AP Reader five times and has scored for each essay type. She teaches full time and also runs the Teachers Pay Teachers store AP Lit & More.

Ashlee Tripp is a high school English teacher in Douglas County School District, just south of Denver, CO. She has an MAT English and BA in psychology with a focus in neuroscience. She currently teaches AP Lit (seniors), College Composition I and II (juniors and seniors), and Young Adult Literature elective (juniors and seniors). This is her fourth year teaching AP Lit, but she’s been teaching for a decade, two years at the college level and eight years at the high school level. In all of her spare time she enjoys reading every genre of literature and writing for her blog. You can find her blog, Life’s a Tripp, at http://www.ashleetripp.com and purchase AP Lit and other teaching resources from her TpT store that she recently started.


4 Ways Teachers Misuse “How to Read Literature Like a Professor”

You’ve probably heard of Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor and may already use it in your classroom. Foster’s text, while not originally written for classroom use, has become a staple for many AP Lit teachers. Foster puzzles over this phenomenon in the preface of the book’s second edition, saying he is flattered by the new audience but did not anticipate the book being a tool for teachers.

Because How to Read Literature Like a Professor (henceforth called HTRLLAP for the sake of my sanity) is neither textbook or novel, AP teachers have integrated it into their classes in many different ways. I’ve been teaching it for a few years and have deduced some excellent strategies for incorporating HTRLLAP into the AP classroom. Furthermore, I’ve learned four consistent ways to effectively kill HTRLLAP’s joy and knowledge. Here are four ways that AP teachers misuse Foster’s text:

#1 Assign it as summer reading

This one is going to ruffle some feathers, but I think the worst mistake AP teachers make when using HTRLLAP is assigning it for summer reading. That being said, I totally understand the reasons behind doing it. Foster’s book is not exactly short, and a universal truth among AP Lit teachers is that we are always running out of class time. However, exporting it to summer reading introduces a new set of problems:

  • Some kids will not read it
  • Many kids will not fully grasp all of the book’s meaning
  • Some information may be forgotten in the summer months
  • Chapters blend together, making individual lessons hard to remember
  • SOME KIDS WILL NOT READ IT

That first one seemed so obvious I felt it needed mentioning again. Personally, I find HTRLLAP too valuable to let students rush it, skim it, or skip it altogether. Instead, I devote the first three weeks of AP Lit to studying the book, usually 3-4 chapters at a time. Each day the students take a short quiz on the reading, then we go over notes and breakout texts from each chapter (available for purchase from my Teachers Pay Teachers store, see below). By including it in the school year my students learn that the book is important. In fact, we treat it as our textbook, referencing it often enough that some students buy their own copy so they can annotate the text permanently. For these reasons and more, I cannot allow Foster’s text to be doomed to die on the summer reading list.

#2 Confine it to the page

Another common crime committed by AP Lit teachers is to simply discuss HTRLLAP as it is, when I believe teachers should model intertextuality skills and connect Foster’s lessons to their own favorite books. Foster does an amazing job of this in his book, which is one of the reasons people love reading it. He throws in allusions as well as Master Shakespeare, and clearly he has done his reading homework before writing the book. However, not many teenagers have read Lolita, “Sonny’s Blues,” or Dubliners in their spare time. To say it frankly, some of Foster’s textual references are too highbrow for teenagers.

To combat this, I move HTRLLAP beyond Foster’s text and connect it to novels and plays that I know my students have read before coming to my class. To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, and Animal Farm are popular choices in my lessons. Another thing I love to do is use Foster’s lessons to analyze film and television. Some of my students were more insightful in their analysis of Breaking Bad and Inception than any other text we read throughout the year. See below for some examples of the connections to television and film I make in my notes:

©AP Lit & More, 2019
©AP Lit & More, 2019
©AP Lit & More, 2019
©AP Lit & More, 2019

One of my favorite memories was of a student running into my classroom and joyfully telling me that his family wouldn’t watch television with him anymore–because he couldn’t stop analyzing the shows. He was using Foster’s methods to make predictions and spoiling the endings of live television! I was so proud!

Foster’s appeal grows when modeled and expanded. I urge you as a teacher to model understanding of Foster’s lessons with books, plays, movies, songs, television shows, and other references from your experience. By showing them that you can make these connections with HTRLLAP, they’ll begin to make their own.

#3 Use the One-and-Done Approach

You can access these posters in my TpT store

Probably the most common crime against HTRLLAP is analyzing it as the beautiful resource that it is–and then abandoning it on a shelf for the rest of the year. In my use of the text, we study it at the beginning of the year for a reason. The students are told to use each of Foster’s lessons (there is one per chapter) to guide them throughout the year. At the end of the unit, I give students smaller versions of a classroom poster I designed, showing each of Foster’s chapter lessons on one document. My students look to this poster throughout the year and use the handout to study for the AP Lit exam.

Just last year, we were discussing a detail from All the King’s Men when all of a sudden a student shouted out, “He’s going South!” The rest of the class was puzzled for a moment, until another kid lit up and responded, “He’s going to run amok!” The poster reminded them of one of Foster’s chapter lessons, and all at once the class was making predictions as a group. I almost cried.

For more details on this poster see the links at the bottom of this blog post!

#4 Skip the Writing Assignment

The final misuse of HTRLLAP is skipping Foster’s last chapter, which contains a short discussion of Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party.” I understand the motive to skip it, since Mansfield’s story is 1) long, and 2) hard. However, Foster included it in his text for a reason. AP Lit students need to practice close reading paired with analytical writing.

In my classroom, I ask students to read “The Garden Party” only, without the commentary afterwards. They come in to class ready to discuss it and we spend 20 minutes drafting an on-demand essay analyzing the story. They partner up and share their insights, and then we return to HTRLLAP. Together we read the rest of Foster’s text and his insightful take on Mansfield’s short story. My students usually have a dramatic reaction to his chapter, and it is always one of despair and anger. I have yet to have any student make the connection to hell that Foster makes in his book. However, this exercise is not designed to break their spirits. It is to show how a story can be interpreted in varying ways, and how looking for patterns can yield such interesting results. I follow this lesson with our first prose timed writing of the year (I prefer the 2009 prose question based on Ann Petry’s The Street). Overall, consistently pairing HTRLLAP with writing trains students to read closely, looking for patterns and predictions like Foster trains them in his book.

If you already use How to Read Literature Like a Professor in your AP classroom, I commend you for finding such a rich resource for your students. I hope this blog has convinced you to use it purposefully in order to make the book more than just a book but a valuable resource in your AP students’ toolbox.

If you are looking to add How to Read Literature Like a Professor to your AP Lit curriculum (or your own lessons need an overhaul), I have a ready-made unit available on my Teachers Pay Teachers store. This resource has recently been modified to match the College Board’s new course description and hits several of their essential skills. I actually count this unit as a short fiction unit in my own course planning. You can purchase my How to Read Literature Like a Professor bundle here, or the typography posters alone here.