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.

This Bookshelf Hack Will Eliminate Content Challenges

As an AP Lit teacher in a parochial school, I’ve constantly had to walk the tightrope between books that are rigorous and books that are “parent-approved.” It’s no secret that most of the books published in the past 40 years contain some element of strong language, violence, drug abuse, or sexual activity. There are also so many wonderful books that have some or even all of these elements that are great reads for AP Lit students. When making a book list or recommending a title to a student for independent reading, I usually have to know that student’s parents before I can recommend some of my more “colorful” titles.

For those who don’t have to worry about parental concerns, there are still some books that are dark or disturbing enough to trigger some students. Despite the freedom we have as advanced literature teachers, I believe some element of sensitivity is needed when recommending a book to a teenager. Recommending a book is like arranging a setup, so it’s important to ask yourself, is this a book that will hurt this student or a relationship in that student’s life? Or am I recommending a title that could deepen their empathy, widen their view into the world, and strengthen their feelings of kindness and humanity?

Once you think about it, recommending a book to a student is a pretty big responsibility.

In the fall of last year, I tried a new strategy that completely erased all parental concerns for the entire school year and helped me get to know my students’ comfort levels in reading during the first few weeks. It also increased my students’ interests in independent reading. Here’s what you need to get started:

  • A roll of masking tape or washi tape
  • A permanent marker
  • A classroom library (even small collections are great for a start!)
Here’s my current classroom library, labeled in my simple 1-2-3 system to make book selection easier.

Next, go through and label each book with a 1, 2, or 3 by putting a small strip of tape on the spine. Here’s a breakdown of what each number means:

1 – Little to no objectionable material. Some infrequent uses of “TV-level cursing” (words you can say on television) or mild acts of violence may be used. (examples: Pride and Prejudice, Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, etc.)

2 – Infrequent objectionable material, which may include frequent “TV-level cursing,”  infrequent stronger curse words, plot events relating to sexual activity (but not graphic portrayals), and some strong acts of violence (examples: Brave New World, The Road, 1984)

3 – Objectionable material, which may include regular use of stronger curse words, plot events relating to sexual activity which may be graphic or violent, and several strong acts of violence (examples: Beloved, Atonement, The Things They Carried)

In the first week of the school year, I send an email home to my AP Lit students’ families, explaining the 1-2-3 system. However, I also use this as an opportunity to explain why 2- and 3- level titles are worth reading, despite having a strong religious or moral stance against some of the content within. In my first year of doing this, all but one family gave me the okay for their child to read 3-level books at my discretion.

That discretion is important; it’s a tool that AP and other advanced literature teachers should practice before doling out any title. For example, my student who loves animals more than humans would perhaps not do well with a title that contains animal abuse. And a child that you know struggles with an eating disorder should stay away from a narrative that has an unhealthy relationship with food. And obviously, students who have shared with you a struggle with an abusive relationship should avoid reading about a similar relationship, unless they particularly request this.

I only endorse books that I myself have read, so if I have to go to bat for a book I’m fully informed.

Obviously these details will not be apparent in the first few weeks of school (and sometimes not even in the final few weeks), but I’ve learned that students open up in surprising ways when they’re asking for a book recommendation. This is a special gift bestowed unto few people, but particularly English teachers.

We can take measures to respect this special relationship and endorse titles that are rigorous and even provocative, as long as we know our students can handle it.

Implementation of this system shows a respect for both higher literature and the emotional development of your students. It also keeps parents informed, which is an added bonus. I can attest that I did not have a single challenge from an AP parent all year, and several came forward to appreciate this approach in particular.

If you’re interested in implementing this system you can access my AP Lit parent email here, just copy and change the text to match your own voice or decisions in the classroom. And to learn more about my independent reading strategies in AP Lit you can explore some of my other blog posts on the topic, or get a jump-start by purchasing my Independent Novel Project on TpT.

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.