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

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Typography Poster, available for purchase on TpT

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.

First Day Activities: Get-to-Know-You Activity & Room Scavenger Hunt

Happy back to school season! I am currently feeling that special kind of tired which is end-of-the-first-week-back-at-school-tired. I’m trying out a few different activities this year, including my first breakout escape room game which I purchased from Teachers Pay Teachers.

The typical boring first day routine for me goes: icebreaker, syllabus, procedures, homework/regular teaching. I definitely wanted to change things up this year, but I needed to plan appropriately. For one, my sophomores don’t usually need a normal icebreaker activity. We only have about 50 sophomores so they already know each other, but I need to get to know them.

I came up with an introductory activity that takes about 10 minutes, which lets me get to know them in a not-too-cheesy way.

First of all, I made sure to have lots of pieces of construction paper on hand, as well as many markers. I asked students to draw a large circle in the center of their paper, then a vertical line above and below that circle, as well as a horizontal line to the left and the right.

On a powerpoint, I put the following instructions:

In the top left square: Write a list of strengths that you bring to class. These could be subject-related (i.e. I’m a fast reader) or personality-related (i.e. I’m fairly organized).
In the top right square: Write a list of weaknesses that you bring to class. Again, these could be subject-related (i.e. I really struggle with poetry) or personality-related (i.e. I’m a huge procrastinator).
In the bottom left square: What kind of learner are you?
Visual: You learn through pictures and spatial images
Auditory: You learn through lectures and audiobooks or podcasts
Kinesthetic: You learn through activities and physical      movement
Musical: You learn through songs and music
Artistic: You learn through doodling and sketching
Logical: You tend to learn by applying logic and reason
In the bottom right square: What are some goals you have for this year? These could be English-related or more personal. Try to make your goals specific and measurable.
In the middle circle: Write your name and surround it with images and/or words describing your personality and personal favorites.

As I said, this activity only took about 10 minutes and the students enjoyed it overall. It gave them the option to work together but it wasn’t required. When the students finished we posted them on the whiteboard, but I made sure to take them down at the end of each class. I looked them over to learn about each student and will retain them to reference later when making groups.

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The other activity that I introduced this week was a scavenger hunt guiding students through the procedures and resources in my classroom. It took a lot of prep work but I made sure to keep it organized so it would be all ready for me for the future.

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When students walked into class I asked them to organize themselves in six groups. Before they began, I emphasized the following directions (printed on the front of each envelope):

  1. Read the directions carefully.  
  2. THIS IS NOT A RACE. Points are given for accuracy, and some tasks are worth more than others. If I see you spending too long on a task that isn’t worth it, I will move you along.  
  3. Complete the tasks as a group. Try to work to get everyone involved, and under no circumstances should you split up.
  4. Do not ask other students for help. If you are stumped, ask me and I will help you along.  
  5. Have fun! 

Each task led them to a different resource or routine in my classroom.img_9268.jpg

Task 1: On a sheet of paper, students had to write the classroom number of various teachers common on their schedules. Astute students were able to locate the school fire escape map located in by the door to answer the questions. They then had to submit the sheet into our class’ homework bin (which they also had to find on their own).

Task 2: Students had to find out homework posted on Schoology and write it in a planner or digital calendar program. Then they had to show it to me to get credit.

Task 3: This one was the longest. Students had to write a works cited for three resources stowed in my room: a copy of Animal Farm, the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, and a magazine article about our local area. Students were not allowed to look up citations online (especially on EasyBib!). Instead, they learned that I have MLA formatting and citation styles on my wall all the time. Hello, Credible Hulk! Once again, the works cited had to be submitted to the homework bin. img_9005.jpg

Task 4: We are a Christian school, so we have a class verse posted in my room and we start each day in prayer. For this task students had to pick a topic for prayer (I have a cup of them written on popsicle sticks) and pray as a small group. Then they had to memorize the class verse and recite to me without error.

Task 5: In this task, students had to find the absent folder, where extra handouts are stored for each class. In that folder I had hidden brightly colored paper. The group had to take out 3 sheets of paper and staple them together, then three-hole punch them. On the first page, they had to write the Word of the Week. On the second page, they had to write the day’s learning target. On the third page, they had to write the two schools I attended for my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees (this was mostly to remind students that I kind of know what I’m doing in our classroom). Once again, this was turned into the homework bin.

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Task 6: The final task asked students to examine our syllabus. They had to write various information from our syllabus, including the books we read over the year, the five rules of the classroom, and my email address (with my name spelled correctly!).

Overall, this task took about an hour to complete all the way through, so it was a great way to use our block period. After everyone was finished we went through the correct answers together. The activity introduced students to the classroom procedures and helped me correct some common mistakes they make throughout the year, such as turning homework in the wrong spot, not knowing where to access extra materials, or resorting to EasyBib instead of using simple classroom resources to create a citation. Plus, I didn’t have to spend a half an hour giving a boring tour of my classroom!

I don’t have this resource as a downloadable item on TpT because it is so highly customizable to my classroom, but please feel free to adapt and use it in your own teaching!

Reflections and Insights From the 2018 AP Lit Reading

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Last week I spent seven days in Kansas City grading 1325 essays in a giant room that was too cold and filled with over a thousand tired educators. And it was an amazingly wonderful experience.

This is my fifth time scoring AP Lit essays, but I’ve had to miss a few years in the past due to pregnancies and international student trips. While it wasn’t my first year scoring, it was my first year on the prose passage, notoriously known among my students as my least favorite question. Even though I moaned (and groaned and whined) when I saw the big “QUESTION 2” next to my name, the experience was worth it, as I have now scored all three AP Lit questions and feel much more well-rounded in my instruction of AP Lit (going on year 13 now!).

In the interest of being concise, here are some takeaways from this past year’s scoring, plus some that I’ve learned over the years at the scoring table.

  1. This is a big one. CollegeBoard officially announced that they are doing away with the Poetry Compare/Contrast question. In context, the poetry question (Question 1) occasionally takes the form of a compare/contrast question rather than an analysis of a single poem. They haven’t used that format in several years, leading teachers to ask each year if they were ever going to go back to the Compare/Contrast format. This year they officially announced that they are discontinuing that type of essay prompt. I will continue to teach this strategy in my class as I find it valuable, but I’m relieved that I can tell my students with certainty which kind of question they can anticipate for the often-dreaded poetry essay.
  2. CollegeBoard has also hinted that previous questions from the past could be used again in a particular form. While the wording may change, higher-ups reminded teachers this year that many valuable themes were touched on in previous years (even back to the 80’s and 90’s), and some of those themes could be re-visited in future questions. My takeaway for you is that if you aren’t studying previous years open-ended questions in your AP classes, you absolutely need to do so next year. These questions make excellent writing prompts for on-demand essays or larger writing assignments, and they are invaluable for preparing students for question 3.
  3. Students need more help understanding diction and syntax. In my years at the poetry table, I learned quickly that the average AP Lit student does not know how to analyze diction. The sentence, “This poem utilizes diction” is essentially saying, “This poem uses words” (groundbreaking!). But this year in the prose question, I learned that the same is true of syntax. To say that a passage uses syntax is saying that it uses words…that are arranged in a certain way (scandalous!). When teaching these words in your classes, make sure you provide strong examples of how to write about diction and syntax properly, and teach students when it is worth analyzing these terms in the first place.
  4. Too many students feel crippled by the suggested titles in Question 3. Even though the prompt tells students that they can write about any title “of literary merit,” too many students feel obligated to use a title from the list. I even saw essays where students wrote, “I didn’t read any of these books. Sorry!” as their entire response. Please remind students that they do not need to feel obligated to choose from the list. This year’s suggested list of titles included Frankenstein, which Question 3 readers told me was the overwhelmingly popular choice. One ventured to say that she believed 20% of the essays for question 3 were about Frankenstein. This means that a well-written essay that is not about Frankenstein is automatically a welcome sight in the eyes of the reader, who is undoubtedly getting tired of that text (sorry, Mary Shelley). Sometimes thinking outside the box is a good strategy.
  5. Students don’t have to write about a “classic,” but they probably should. There is an ongoing debate on what kinds of books students should write about for Question 3’s open-ended question. Some say that any book (or essay, short story, or even movie) should be given a fair chance, but other readers are more old-school and are undoubtedly biased towards literary classics or newer texts that have won awards (such as the Pulitzer). When it comes to making this decision, I tell students that it is dealer’s choice. More and more readers are being brought in every year and being trained to look at the question in an unbiased way, but it is still a gamble in the end.
  6. Urge students away from writing about books in a series. Similar to choosing an oddball book, there is also an argument about analyzing books in a series, such as The Lord of the Rings series. In my year at Question 3 we had a prompt about a deceptive character and I read an excellent essay analyzing Snape from the Harry Potter series. While the essay was quite good (I believe it earned a 7), it could not possibly get to a 9, because who could properly analyze the entirety of Snape’s deceptiveness in 2 hours, let alone 2 days? The problem with analyzing a series is that there is almost always too much material to sift through, unless you analyze a fringe character.
  7. Poetry needs to be studied in an ongoing way, not as a unit. In my first years as an AP teacher, I taught two poetry units, one called “Intro to Poetry” and the second called “Advanced Poetry.” In each unit we studied poems and wrote about them, both in shortened and long paper formats. And despite my hard work, year after year my students reported feeling least confident about the poetry essay. Furthermore, my end-of-year surveys told me that they needed more work in poetry. Finally I buckled down over a summer and re-read Perinne’s Sound and Sense, as well as several AP Lit blogs, and picked a poem for every week of the year. And every week we studied that poem in class. This was done in addition to our two stand-alone poetry units. Since I’ve made that change my students have felt much more confident for Question 1, and I’ve seen an overall improvement in how they analyze poetry in writing.
  8. Lastly, please know that you AP and English teachers are appreciated. About 50% of the AP readers are college professors, and I worried in my first year at the reading that all I would hear was how we high school teachers didn’t do enough to prepare students for college-level writing. Instead, quite the opposite was true. Everyone was incredibly kind to me, and each year they ask high school teachers to stand and be recognized for our work and sacrifices in high school classrooms. More importantly, each day the readers are reminded that the essays we encounter “belong to some teacher’s student, and some parent’s child.” The leaders remind us that essays scored on day 6 deserve just as much fresh attention as those scored on day 1. Frequent breaks are allowed and plenty of free coffee and snacks are given out to keep us focused. We do everything we can to honor your hard work and give each student’s essay a fair shot.

This year’s reading was incredibly fun, as it was my first year scoring since our subject moved to Kansas City. Here are a few pictures from the trip (taken from outside the scoring room, as there are strict regulations on taking photos around official essays or scoring materials).

This is a rare plea for readership, but please pass this information on to any AP Lit teacher you know, as this information is very valuable for year-long planning. Many AP teachers have no idea how the essays they teach are even scored, which I believe is incredibly unfair. I love to share the information that I am permitted to pass on!

Final news: I’ve created a professional Instagram at aplitandmore, so please follow me for updates on TpT products, my professional life, and the inside track on future TpT sales and discounts!