How Analyzing Film Can Actually Strengthen Your AP Prose Lessons

I have been teaching AP Lit for almost 15 years, and the test prep has always been a difficult process. For years my students felt stressed about the open question, so I created the Independent Novel Project. Then, they felt overwhelmed and underprepared for the poetry question, so I created weekly poem lessons and two intensive poetry units. This leaves just the prose question. I didn’t know why, but my students felt unprepared and baffled by the prose question, always forgetting the meaning of syntax and the purpose of diction. I drilled them by adding more novels and plays, but nothing seemed to help.

Then, last year I had the “fortunate misfortune” of scoring the prose question for the 2018 AP Lit exam, which explored Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance. Although I had to read more about Zenobia than one human being ever should, I did learn that writing for the prose prompt takes more than just regular analysis skills. Literary elements used in prose are powerful but often overlooked, and it takes a keen eye to pick out just the right details for written analysis.

With this in mind, I created a weeklong prose unit that explored the most common literary terms mentioned on past AP Lit prose questions. To make it interesting, I connected the skills in my notes to popular characters from literature and films. This resource is for sale on Teachers Pay Teachers, but I will share a few of my favorite lessons from this resource here.

Lesson 1: Diction

One subset of diction is dialogue, and you can learn a lot about a character from dialogue. In this lesson, I take quotes from famous movie characters (well, they’re famous from my time, so I also like to look at it as introducing classic characters to these young bucks) and we analyze what their spoken lines say about them. Take Sally.

Sally Albright is one of my favorite characters, and she comes from my favorite romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally. In my notes, I record Sally’s lunch order:

But I’d like the pie heated, and I don’t want the ice cream on top, I want it on the side. And I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it. If not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it’s real. If it’s out of a can, then nothing.

Sally Albright, When Harry Met Sally

I ask the students, what do Sally’s lines tell us about her character? First, it reinforces Harry’s assertion that she is “high maintenance.” Her defense is that ”she knows what she wants.” Sally is picky, but only because she hates being let down. By being assertive with what she wants, she hopes to spare anyone disappointment later. We continue this discussion with several other characters, and eventually students learn that every line of dialogue serves a purpose, and it is usually to further the plot or, in this case, to build character.

Lesson 2: Syntax

Syntax is one of the most difficult literary elements to teach, since it really just means how words are arranged. My students argue that you can make a case out of any syntactical arrangement, so how do we know if that is what the author intended? I remind them that author intent is not really the point. The AP exam rubric asks for a persuasive answer, so if they can support their assertion with textual evidence, it doesn’t matter if the author approves of it.

In this lesson, I took famous quotes from different novels and explored different syntactical arrangements, including a midsentence break, beginning and ending with significant words, choppy sentence structure, and parallelism. To demonstrate parallelism, I included lines from one of America’s most beloved novels, To Kill a Mockingbird. In it, Atticus says,

People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.

Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

In this quote, the words are arranged to deliberately reuse the word “for” at the end of each phrase. This is parallelism, a form of repetition. Since the original word ended with “look for,” the change to the word “listen” in front of “for” puts more emphasis on that word. Atticus is giving wisdom to his children, and Atticus is a man who listens more than he speaks. The meaning behind this wisdom would not be lost on his children, but Harper Lee employs parallelism to make sure it isn’t lost on us.

Lesson 3: Point of View

Most students understand how to identify the point of view of a textual excerpt, thanks to classic short story lessons. However, AP readers expect a more advanced knowledge base, which includes knowledge of an unreliable narrator, 2nd person point of view, and stream-of-consciousness narration.

There was no better author of unreliable narrator than Edgar Allan Poe. In his classic short story “A Tell-Tale Heart,” we see the thoughts of a madman as he hears the beating heart of the man he just killed. Poe writes,

Yet the sound increased—and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath—and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly—more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men—but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!—this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!

Narrator, “The Tell-Tale Heart”

These lines convince the reader that the heartbeat is not real, but is only heard in the mind of the narrator. Until this point, the reader isn’t sure if this is a supernatural thriller or a psychological thriller. Here, he proves his unreliability, and we shift to enjoying watching him unravel.

While these points of view may seem alien to readers, most of them are easier to understand in film. Shutter Island, Fight Club, Atonement, and Gone Girl are all popular films (and books, by the way) that employ an unreliable narrator. Most students have seen one of these, and relating this lesson to these films will help solidify the information.

Lesson 4: Tone & Other Elements

Tone is another tricky element. While students won’t have a hard time understanding it, analyzing tone is a different story. My students struggle with labeling tone, and figuring out how to incorporate it into a literary analysis.

To illustrate tone in my lesson, I picked three popular books-turned-movies that featured a prominent death. I presented a quote which depicted this death and asked students to analyze the tone.

This was a questionable move, but I included the death of Fred Weasley. And I’ll be honest here, I wept while writing these slides. Spoilers aside, the words accompanying Fred’s death are some of the most heartbreakingly ironic words in literature. They say:

And Percy was shaking his brother, and Ron was kneeling beside them, and Fred’s eyes stared without seeing, the ghost of his last laugh still etched upon his face.

JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

After we all dry our eyes, students must analyze the tone of these words. First of all, heartbreaking is accurate, as the author emphasizes that Fred is surrounded by his brothers at his death, including his own twin. Furthermore, Fred was a jokester in life, and by discussing the ghost of a laugh on his face she adds a tone of cruelty to the words, emphasizing Fred’s undeserved death.

These are just single slides from lessons designed to take a full hour, and they don’t mention the annotation and writing activities, but I hope they give a little clarification on how to make prose instruction more interesting and meaningful for your AP Lit students. To access my AP Lit Prose materials click on any of the headings for individual lessons, or click here for the full weeklong unit.

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!