I’ve now been teaching online for a full month, due to COVID-19 closures in my state. Because of our spring break schedule we were able to make the switch to distance learning fairly quickly. Since then, I’ve tried (and failed at) several different strategies for teaching my sophomores and AP Lit students. Here are some strategies I’ve found that work, and a few that totally bombed.
Disclaimer: My school requires mandatory conferences (similar to Zoom meetings) twice weekly as our “classes.” These conferences are at a set time and are required to last at least 15 minutes, with the option to last up to an hour. Our students are asked to attend and to submit homework, but late penalties are not being enforced. I’m just explaining this since many other schools are on different systems, so experiences may fluctuate based on teacher expectations.
What Worked – Discussion Posts
With traditional classes, I often rely on a lot of introductory Q & A or mini-discussions to engage students and introduce the concept of the lesson. Now that I’m online, I’m lucky if my students (who attend) have even turned on their mics. Because of technology capabilities, I’m usually the only one capable of talking in a standard class. After the first week of dead air, I switched tactics and posted short questions to our online discussion board before and after classes. I keep most of these discussion posts optional and ungraded, but my students are still participating. Although it’s not the same, it’s shown me that my students are still learning and staying (mostly) engaged. In fact, I’ll sometimes mention them in the next day’s lesson and that will illicit a response from a student who may have otherwise remained silent during our conference time.
What Didn’t Work – Required Discussion Post Responses
Another thing I’ve tried is requiring students to read each other’s discussion posts and to comment on them. I remember doing this often in online classes for my masters, so I figured it would be a great way mimic a classroom discussion. NOPE. Not only are my students not quite ready for the critical thinking demanded from this exercise, it’s really hard to make them care. Get ready for a lot of “I agree with you, great point with…” x 25 with this strategy. I quickly abandoned it, relying simply on the initial discussion post and leaving it there.
What Worked – Optional Viewing Parties
As I transitioned to our new distance learning unit on heroes with my sophomores, I realized that I needed to integrate many movie clips. There were some lessons, such as our day studying superheroes, where I had six different movie clips to show. This put me in a difficult spot, since I wanted my students to have the option of watching the movie, but I knew others needed to keep their lessons short (like my student who spends each day watching her 1-year-old brother while her mom works). I decided to show the first clip as an attention-getter to the whole class, then move on to teach the material and assign the homework. After I finished, I invited students to stay for a “viewing party” for the remainder of the clips. It turns out half of the class stayed each time, while others signed off. I did the same when we were reading The Crucible. I offered a viewing party during my office hours for anyone who wanted to watch the movie, and again several students tuned in. I feel like this strategy is respectful of students’ time but also offers expansion or relational activities for students who need it.
What Didn’t Work – Classic Discussions
Once my AP Lit classes moved online, I tried so hard to replicate our normal AP Lit classes. The hardest day for me was the day I realized this was impossible. No matter what I did, I simply could not get my students to participate in a class discussion on our online platform. I chalk this failure up to several factors:
Low morale due to school closures (especially with my seniors)
Difficulty in being heard with various mic and tech issues
The struggle to be heard over others in a limited online setting
Fear of being wrong, sounding stupid, not doing the reading, etc. (typical reasons you’d see in a traditional classroom)
What Worked – Pre-Assigning Analytical Questions
After too many attempts at discussions during class I finally stopped and re-assessed what I needed. I needed to know 1) that my students were paying attention, 2) that they did the reading, and 3) that they were participating in analysis. Before our next class, I broke our lesson up into chunks and assigned 1 short question for each student. I asked the students to read over the upcoming lesson and texts and prepare an answer that they would “teach” to their peers during the lesson. The results were extraordinary! My students were poised and ready to share and we had no more awkward dead air as I waited for someone to speak up. I asked them for feedback at the end of the lesson and we all agreed: this was the best strategy for AP Lit class going forward.
These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned with the transition to online teaching. Please reach out and share any more lessons you’ve learned during this time, as I’d love to hear them!
As I’m writing this, I’m getting bombarded with communication regarding COVID-19. Teachers that I follow virtually and some that I know personally were just notified that their classes are being moved to online-only, and some have been given almost no time to prepare. In general, teachers in America are freaking out. And for good reason. We’ve been focusing on building relationships through engaging, face-to-face classroom instruction, and suddenly almost all of those descriptors have been taken away. Folks, we’re converting to online teaching.
The good news for us is that this is only temporary. We must find a way to adapt and carry on. However, most of us don’t have the luxury of a two-week vacation and instead are told to carry on our classroom instruction…via the internet.
Well I spent some time brainstorming and a little bit of time researching and I’ve come up with an acronym to keep in mind when transitioning to temporary online instruction. Tell yourself to look for GAPS:
You are likely feeling frustrated or frightened of a sudden change in workspace, but remember that most of your students probably feel the same way. As you design due dates and determine what your students will do with their time at home, consider their abilities when working at home. Ask yourself: will all my students have access to these materials?* Will my students be juggling other stressors in their life related to this emergency? How much other homework is being given in other classes? Above all, if a student is struggling with the transition to online, make yourself available and be gracious in helping them cope with this change. Consider having “office hours” and hosting a Google Hangout once a week so students can chat with you if they have questions.
*Note: Do not require students to continue to work online unless your school mandates this. Not all schools or families are equipped for this setup!
Along with graciousness, make sure you remain flexible as you and your students transition to an online learning environment. Don’t be surprised if your plan fails, technology doesn’t work (warning: it won’t always work), or communication isn’t clear. Plan for confusion, and be ready to roll with it as needed.
The best way to go forward in this new territory is with an organized plan. This does not mean you have to have all elements planned, troubleshooted, and prepared before day 1. However, you should aim to be planned at least one day ahead. Also, make sure you preview all materials you require your students to complete, view, or take, and consider what you will do if any of these plans need adjusting.
To avoid complications or miscommunication, it is important to be as specific as possible when transitioning to online learning. Be clear on what you require versus what is supplementary. Specify what you need completed before an assessment, and when an assessment is due. Finally, explain how you are available for help and the best way for students to reach you. Clear communication and guidelines will only save time for both you and your students.
Now that you’ve got the right mindset to approach this new change, it’s time to prepare your materials. Rather than start from scratch, look for ways to work smarter, not harder. Rely on materials that are already posted online for your lessons, supplementary materials, or even for assessments. See my list at the bottom of this article for several resources you can access to assisting you in online teaching. As you organize materials to post to your students, sort them into categories. I’ve taken my materials on How to Read Literature Like a Professor and divided them out so you can see how this translates to high school ELA.
This refers to the material you want done before students take any assessments, participate in discussions, or post any assignments. This would also exclude the lesson materials themselves. Assigned readings or homework are the most common criterial for pre-lesson work. It is very important to be clear on what needs to be done before they progress, and that it students must do it before anything else. Example: Students must: – read chapters 1-3 of How to Read Literature Like a Professor
Here is where you include materials you have created or cultivated to assist in student learning. Consider, what do they need to meet this lesson’s objective? If you are able, post your own materials here. This would include handouts, lecture notes, or even a video you’ve created of your content. To save time, consider posting online materials that teach the same content. Example: Students must: – review the guided reading notes correlating with How to Read Literature Like a Professor chapters 1-3
When posting supplementary materials, consider your most at-risk or high-needs students. What extra help would they need to meet your lesson’s objective? Remember that while you want all students to see it, these resources are ultimately optional. If you need students to do it, move it to the online lesson. While it can be easy to eliminate supplementary materials, you can integrate them to engage your students with a simple media clip. See my related post on integrating media to engage your students. Example: Students can: – watch the video “The Beauty of the Dinner Scene” on YouTube (correlating with chap 2)
This is an optional element, but most teachers (and students!) find themselves missing the interpersonal aspect of the classroom once the learning moves online. If you can, incorporate a discussion forum or other method where students can still see, read, or hear from one another. Example: Students must: – Post to the discussion forum online and answer the following question: Provide an example of a “vampire” archetype from a book, movie, or short story. Explain how this character fits the archetype as Foster describes in chapter 1.
Demonstration of Understanding
If you’ve been mandated to move learning online, this is the required part. Basically, this is the grade. What assessments will your students take to show demonstration of learning? In keeping with the GAPS tip, consider providing several options for demonstration of learning. See below: Example: Students must: – Complete one of the following assessments: 1) Quiz on chapters 1-3 (this quiz can only be attempted once and is timed!) 2) Write a literary analysis of a text that aligns with chapter 3 of How to Read Literature Like a Professor (see corresponding rubric) 3) Create a visual guide for “spotting a vampire” aligning with chapter 2 of How to Read Literature Like a Professor (see corresponding rubric).
I hope this article helped you learn how to approach the new paradigm that is online teaching. I’d love to hear additional tips from those with more experience or perspectives. To conclude, here are some parting tips as you approach this new teaching design:
Parting Tips on Converting to Online Teaching
Pick a learning platform you can use if your school doesn’t have one. Canvas, Moodle, and Google Classroom are all free and very popular among teachers. If these are too complicated, consider simply starting a blog and posting to that. Students would only need a website instead of any joining code.
Break big assignments or big-point assessments into numbered steps.
Don’t feel like you have have everything done before students begin work. Approach this experience like a first year teacher – stay organized, and be at least one day ahead.
At the same time, remember that even though you’re at home, you’re still teaching and it’s still work. Don’t expect to get everything done in just one hour. Think of this way: your students are required to use their at-home time on school work and you want them to meet all of your expectations. They deserve the same from you.
Allow yourself to use lesson materials and assessments that already exist. Websites like Teachers Pay Teachers, Turnitin.com, Khan Academy, and so many more already offer learning resources for instruction and assessments that can save you hours of time, and many of them are available for free!
Resources to Assist in Converting to Online Teaching:
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.
Today I ventured into new territory with my AP Literature students: online practice testing. This feature is called the Personal Progress Check and it’s available on AP Classroom, a site released in 2019. Until today I’ve resisted online assessments in favor of pencil and paper, mostly because I’ve found it too hard to avoid cheating. However, with College Board rolling out their new AP Classroom feature, I decided to give it a shot. I began by assigning a multiple choice progress check. Overall, although the website takes some exploring to fully understand, I found the process useful in terms of the data it provided.
*Disclaimer: The College Board does not recommend using the assessments on AP classroom for any kind of grade. In fact, if teachers use these assessments for any kind of recorded formative or summative grade, they can risk their class’ status as an AP class. Instead of assessing skills for your gradebook, use these tools to prepare your students for the AP Exam.
Step 1 – Prepare Yourself for AP Classroom
Before even beginning to introduce AP Classroom to your students, I suggest spending some time navigating the site yourself. In my attempt to fully understand it, I ended up creating a fake student’s name and registering myself in my class. Big mistake, as I believe I also ended up registering for the AP Lit exam in May!). But between my blunder and your time exploring, you should be able to understand its features.
To get to AP Classroom you’ll need to log into AP Planner first, which is a web page run by College Board. Use your College Board login info here, which you should have already from a course audit. If you are a first-year teacher or one who has not ever used College Board, you should be able to create your own login information. However, I would suggest letting your AP Coordinator know that you did this just to be safe.
Another thing to talk to your AP Coordinator about is getting your AP Classroom code. Chances are, he or she has set up your course for you. If they have, simply get your code (it should be 6 random letters) and enter it to claim your class. If they haven’t, or you have no AP Coordinator, you can create your own class. Once you do, a code will be provided. You’ll need this later to enroll your students.
AP Classroom View
Once you’ve logged in, you’ll be shown a home page with important dates for AP teachers and coordinators. Scroll down a little and click AP Classroom (on the right). Fun fact, if you look to the top right you’ll see a button that says Student View. I did not know this when I created my phony student page, but it shows you what a sample AP Classroom looks like to students. Click around and explore the features of the site, but maybe avoid assigning a unit until you’re sure you are ready. I’ve heard of people having a hard time “unassigning” a unit.
If you’re unfamiliar with the site, you’ll want to learn about the different Personal Progress Checks, or PPCs, that you can assign students to track their progress. You can assign PPCs in multiple choice form (MCQs) or free response questions (FRQs). AP Classroom also has a growing list of questions in a Question Bank which can be targeted towards specific skills. However, some of those questions are still under construction. If you’re a newbie or still easing into this online testing thing, I’d keep your eye on those but don’t touch them for now. The PPCs are great to use as-is and shouldn’t need customization.
Step 2 – Prepare Your Students for AP Classroom
Walk them through
On a day before you give your first Personal Progress Check, walk your students through registering with AP Classroom. When I did this, many of my students already had a login with College Board due to previous AP tests (the login link is the same as the teachers’). However, some did not, and more had forgotten their credentials. Give them at least 5 minutes to register with College Board, and make sure they save their credentials to their computer (and even write them down) so the process can be quick the next time.
Distribute your code
Once registered, all they need to use AP Classroom is your course code, available on your teacher page. Their login screen will look similar to the teacher’s screen. Again, ask them to scroll down and click on AP Classroom. When I did this, I had not yet assigned any Personal Progress Checks to my students. However, they were still able to navigate the different tabs and see where units would show up once they were assigned. I made sure that each student not only logged in, but clicked on AP Classroom, found the tab that said Units to see the different Personal Progress Checks that were currently locked. Altogether, this registration process took us about 10 minutes. I’d budget for longer time with a bigger group, as some other classes experienced wifi issues.
I want to emphasize again the importance of doing this step on a day before you intend to assign it. Many teachers lost a full day because they ran into technical difficulties, or a student fell behind because of login issues. I did this two days before I needed it to be cautious and it led to a pain-free PPC during our scheduled time.
Step 3 – Assign & Take the Personal Progress Check
Assign your Personal Progress Check (PPC)
Once your students are registered with AP Classroom, you can assign your first Personal Progress Check. Simply log in to AP Classroom and click on the tab that says Progress Checks. Select your unit and question type and click Assign. A box will show up. Make sure you check each class that you want to take the PPC. You can also toggle Unlock the assessment now (or do it later if you want), as well as give a time limit, a due date, and whether or not you want students to see their results. I’m indifferent on time limits, but I strongly suggest you allow students to see their results. They won’t be able to see them until you mark the assignment complete, and the data they collect from their scores will be useful later.
You can assign the PPC to be completed outside of class or provide time in class. I gave students time during our block period and they all finished in 30 minutes. I highly recommend printing out the passages for our MCQ so students can annotate the text. Printed passages also make it easier to refer back to the text when discussing it later. You may not want to, but I chose to take the assessment with the students by reading the questions from the Preview button. We spend at least 30 minutes of every Thursday doing independent reading, so as they read I looked over the data.
Step 4 – Study the Data Yourself
Once my students were finished and off to independent reading, I logged into AP Classroom and marked the Personal Progress Check as complete. This populated the student data so I could see it. First of all, you see an overview of your class’ performance (see below). You can also click on your individual students to see how each student fared.
I clicked on View Results to the right of the colored bar and I was able to see my students’ individual scores on each question. It only took a few minutes to sort my students into three groups based on their weakest standard. I then accessed the questions listed below each skill on the new AP Lit CED, selecting one central question for my student groups to review. These questions are paired with the essential skill on my AP Lit Task Cards, for sale in my TpT store. You can see how we used them in the pictures below.
Step 5 – Guide the Students Through Data Study and Goal-Setting
I placed students in groups based on their data and we reflected on weak spots in the assessment. I asked each group to reflect on the question included in their standard’s task card and apply it to one of the texts from the PPC. These group discussions helped students compare their interpretations of the text and the questions with their peers in order to look at them in a different light. Finally, students returned to their data sheets and created goals for their next PPC. The forms are being stored in my classroom for them to access anytime.
My Assessment of the Personal Progress Check Process
Overall, I felt very pleased with the overall assessment process of AP Classroom. I’ve always struggled with multiple choice practice tests in my own classes because I wasn’t able to provide much for feedback or ideas to build off in our lessons. While I have separate issues with AP Classroom (like their horrid question bank), I like how the Personal Progress Check brings each question back to a focused skill and that those skills are easy to track.
I plan on using these forms and the PPC data to gauge our progress at the semester break. If certain skills are testing lower than others I can adjust my lessons to strengthen these weaknesses for the second half of the year. I also pair these with my AP Lit task cards when we need to zero in on a particular skill.
One Year Later
Obviously the 2020 school year did not end up the way anyone expected. This system is still in place and AP Classroom and Personal Progress Checks remain a useful tool for all AP teachers. To hear feedback and teaching strategies from participants in the 2020 AP Lit Online scoring, check out this post.
Looking for more help with AP Lit? Join my email list for weekly articles, resources, and strategies about AP Lit and get a free resource on writing tips when you sign up! I’ve been teaching AP English Literature for my entire teaching career (on year 14 as I write this) and have read for the exam 5 times. If you’re interested in getting more help, I have a Teachers Pay Teachers store with hundreds of AP Lit resources, many of which are free!
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:
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
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.