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.

The Hidden Power of the AP Open Question

One of the most common questions asked among new and veteran AP Lit teachers alike is, “What titles should I teach?” It is not an easy question to answer, as the list of titles listed on the AP Lit exam numbers over 400 now. Plus there are other considerations, such as length, authorship, genre, diversity, difficulty, and many more. When considering a change in titles, one overlooked tool is the history of the exam itself, namely in Question 3: The Open Question.

A free download of this list is available on TpT, since it’s getting hard to find online!

The first way to use Question 3 is by studying the questions. For example, I noticed over in 2016 that many of the questions being used for the Open Essay were geared toward gothic novels. I switched from reading just Frankenstein to studying gothic novels in a book club unit, just in time for the the 2018 exam, which was geared perfectly for gothic novels. In fact, Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Picture of Dorian Gray were all suggested titles to study. After that, I began looking closer at the types of questions included on Q3 and making adjustments as needed. A document with all of the open questions can be downloaded for free from my Teachers Pay Teachers store here.

Another way to study the Open Question is to examine the titles included in the suggestions. Remember that students aren’t required to choose from that list, so I don’t suggest requiring them to do so. However, the list does inform AP Lit readers the types of titles that the College Board is reading…and recommending. I recently studied suggestions from the 2019 exam and there were three new titles never mentioned on an AP Lit exam before. They were:

  • The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Now I’ve got some titles to add to my never-ending “To-Read” list! This list also emphasizes some of the most popular and treasured titles among the College Board. The titles that have been listed more than ten times are:

This compiled list of AP Lit titles is also a free download from TpT!
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Antigone by Sophocles
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Billy Budd by Herman Melville
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevski
  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller
  • Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
  • The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  • King Lear by William Shakespeare
  • Light in August by William Faulkner
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • Native Son by Richard Wright
  • Othello by William Shakespeare
  • A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
  • Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  • Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  • A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  • A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

While AP Lit teachers do not need to choose from this list, these could be looked to as reliable choices. The whole list of AP Lit titles from the Open Question can be downloaded for free from Teachers Pay Teachers here.

One last way I study the Open Question is by looking at what titles are “trending.” I use this term to describe titles that have been included on the exam in just the past 10 years. Titles such as Don Quixote, The Bluest Eye, and The Mill on the Floss were suggested for the first time in over ten years. The most suggested titles in the last ten years are:

  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • King Lear by William Shakespeare
  • The Odyssey by Homer
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Studying trending titles can be enlightening in finding popularity among more recent works. For example, Oryx and Crake was only published in 2003, and yet it’s been suggested on the exam four times already. If one were looking for a strong modern contender, that would be an excellent choice. A document listing “trending” titles is available on my TpT store as well, but is not available online anywhere else! Click here to access it!

I hope this helps explain how studying former exams, particularly the Open Question, can help you make course decisions. Please feel free to download the resources linked here. They are available for free! They are linked below for your convenience.

AP Lit Open Response Titles List

Open Response Question Prompts for AP Lit

AP Lit “Trending” List

Everything You Need to Know About the New AP Lit Guidelines

As you may have heard, the AP English Literature course is getting a bit of a redesign this summer, becoming effective in Fall of 2019. For the full report released by the College Board, click here. For the remix version, keep reading!

Many AP Lit teachers are already starting to panic about the new changes because frankly, changes are scary. But based on my reading and some discussion with other AP Lit teachers, I think these changes are positive overall and nothing to be scared of. 

Here are the main things to know: 

The biggest change is that the AP Lit essay rubric is changing to an analytical, itemized rubric similar to those used on the AP US History and AP European History exams. The actual scoring guidelines have not been released yet, but the writing prompts are more specific in what students need to write about. More information will be provided at the AP Reading this summer and will be sent out to AP Lit teachers as well. 

AP English Literature seems to be embracing different forms of fiction, perhaps even moving away from the old-fashioned “literary merit” model of years past. Instead, the course description breaks the literature down into three categories:

Much of the new changes to the AP exam are supported by an abundance of new resources being supplied by College Board on their new AP Classroom webpage. The webpage is advertised below:

Because of the new emphasis on “short fiction,” AP teachers are already talking about adding more short fiction, such as excerpts from novels or short stories, and eliminating some longer works. This builds on Senior VP of CollegeBoard Trevor Packer’s tweet last summer hinting that this was the new direction of AP Lit. (I discussed this tweet and its ramifications in a blog post last year as well!)

If you are feeling overwhelmed still, that’s perfectly natural. I too had a small moment of hyperventilation when I worried I had to eliminate all novels from my curriculum and add short stories instead. However, after reading further, and talking to some level-headed AP Lit teachers, here are my personal take-aways:

  • These are guidelines. No changes are necessary to your AP Lit courses, except maybe tweaking your on-demand essay rubrics eventually. 
  • CollegeBoard will be releasing more practice questions and resources to help new and struggling AP teachers starting in the fall. 
  • CollegeBoard may start allowing analysis of shorter prose works, even short stories, on Question 3, which overall means more modern and realistic reading material and student expectations. 

Because of a student trip to Italy this June, I am unable to attend the AP Lit scoring in Salt Lake City. However, I have some friends who are sending me the materials as soon as they get them, and rest assured I am setting aside some time this summer to develop TpT resources based on the new writing expectations. If you have any additional questions for me, or suggestions for future resources, please email me at aplitandmore@gmail.com. Finally, I encourage you to check out the new course description (linked above) and sign up for the AP Classroom resource

Drama Circles: One Awesome Solution to the Post-Exam Slump

One of the most common questions I see before the AP Lit exam is not about test prep, but about what teachers should do with their students on the exam days are over. It is more than a valid question. For months, a good AP teacher cultivates an environment of exploration and rigorous learning. To abandon all work once the exam is over seems wrong, and depending on your school calendar, can be a huge waste of student time. But at the same time, upperclassmen often face burnout after their AP exams and it can be hard to get them to continue the rigorous work that comes with AP-level classes.

Like many teachers, I was faced with the dilemma with filling class time with purposeful activities that didn’t push the kids past their breaking point.

The best activity I have found is a book club unit analyzing plays from the AP reading list. 

The focus for this activity is on reading and discussion, and the summative assignment is a simple presentation to the rest of the class. Overall, my students find it entertaining, enlightening, and a learning activity that is not too intense for those waning days of May.

Unit Design & Procedure

Step 1: Group Up – If student reading choice was the only factor, this activity could result in too many small groups of 2 or even 1, which won’t work for this unit. Instead, I ask students to get into groups of 3-5 before they choose a play. To add to the more relaxed atmosphere of the unit, I allow them to form their own groups, a strategy I would not normally use during the regular school year.

Step 2: Choose a Play – Once they are in groups, they will need to select a play to read. There are two parameters for this: 1) it must be AP-level; 2) no one in the group can have read it already. There are many plays on the AP Lit reading list, but some of my favorites for this unit include:

  • Oedipus the King by Sophocles
  • Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
  • An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen
  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
  • Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  • Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
  • Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
  • 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams
  • Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco
  • A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  • Fences by August Wilson
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard
  • The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance

I usually type up descriptions of some of my favorites, or provide students with time to look online for descriptions of each. Goodreads.com is a great resource for this.

Step 3: Form a Plan – To cultivate a student-led design, I ask students to form their own reading plan. Ideally the plays should be read aloud in class and should take about 1 to 1 1/2 weeks to finish. I also ask students to give themselves roles or titles, such as:

  • President: Someone to keep the group on task and lead discussions
  • Vice President: Someone to fill in for any absent group members
  • Secretary: Someone to take notes and submit daily attendance
  • Presentation Preparer: Someone with a computer open turning notes into a final PowerPoint or preparing a presentation for the final assessment

Step 4: Assign Formative Assessments – To keep this a learning activity (instead of an approaching summer free-for-all), make sure there are assessments in place both for group discussions and individual close reading. I usually grade discussions as I would a Socratic Seminar and assign individual students reading journals or written reflections 2-3 times a week.

Step 5: Design a Summative Assessment – The students need a final grade to aim for, and I’ve had good luck with a group presentation. I ask each group to give a plot premise and overview of the main characters. They then have to summarize some of the main themes and plot events they analyzed during group discussions. Finally, each student should provide a review of the play, including what they liked and didn’t like about each play. These presentations are usually paired with a dramatic recreation of a scene or two from the play, as well as why the scene is significant.

Here’s one group presenting a scene for their group project.

This is just one idea for filling the 2-3 weeks after the AP Lit exam, but I have had excellent luck in my own personal experience. I’d love to hear more, what activities do you use after the AP Lit exam?

Looking for more literature circle ideas? Check out my Gothic Novel Unit for AP Lit. It gives you everything you need to guide students through 5 different gothic novels, including six different rubrics for scoring!

Q3 Study Guides: A Meaningful AP Test Prep Assignment

When April rolls around my AP Lit students begin preparing for the exam, a process which looks different for each teacher. Many students get the most anxiety when it comes to the free response question, an open-ended prompt asking students to analyze any novel or play. I’ve found success in having each student prepare a study guide for five different texts.

Preparation

First of all, students should reflect back on all of the books they have read in preparation for the AP Lit exam, both in class and outside of it. This includes both novels and plays, as well as some memoirs, short stories, essays, epics, and other kinds of texts. Each student needs to create a list of five titles to know, inside and out. Here are some of the rules I implement for choosing titles:

  1. They must include at least one Shakespearean play.
    1. They must include at least one play (which may be by Shakespeare)
    1. They must include at least one gothic novel.
    1. They must attempt to include at least two diverse authors, meaning women and minorities.
    1. No author should be repeated more than twice.
    1. Use titles on the range of accessibility, aiming for more obscure books if possible.
This is a PowerPoint side I show in class to explain the concept of accessibility.

The range of accessibility is a continuum that I designed showing how some works are considered “too accessible” by some readers, meaning that they may be too short, too simple, or frankly too popular. Wonderful but accessible books include To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and Animal Farm. Students should avoid having titles that all rank low on the continuum and try to put at least one more obscure title on their list. This doesn’t mean a student can’t write about To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a wonderful novel and contains strong symbols and themes. They should just avoid having multiple titles that are low on the continuum. The same goes likewise for having too many titles from a similar time period or genre.

Here are some examples of one-side title lists, either too simple or too similar. Encourage students to vary their choices and choose a range of accessible to obscure texts.

While it is impossible to hit all of these categories, encourage students to choose title combinations that are:

  • Written by both male and female authors
  • Representing world literature, or works from outside of America or Great Britain
  • Including works by minority authors, including writers of color and Native American authors
  • representing plays, especially those not taught in 9th or 10th grade
  • A mixture of short and longer texts
  • A balance of old and newer books, including classics and those published in just the past 10 years.
Here is an example of a strong list of titles for an AP Lit Exam study guide. As you can see, it is intentionally diverse in several ways.

The Assignment

Once students have chosen their titles, I give them a week or two to prepare their study guides. These study guides need to include the following for each title:

  1. The title, author, and year published
  2. The setting (both time and place)*
  3. A list of characters*
  4. A short plot summary*
  5. An overview of themes and symbols, each explained in several sentences

*If time is a factor, or students are being crushed under a weight of other work right before AP exams, I sometimes allow these items to be taken from an online study website such as SparkNotes or Shmoop. I’d prefer their themes and symbols be written in their own words, but the rest of the information is really for short review right before the exam. If it speeds up the preparation process this is an accommodation that can be made.

In my classes, the study guides are due the Monday of our AP Exam week. I look them over and score them quickly, returning them to the students so they can review them. I also make sure that the week of the exam they have no homework from me. I only ask that they read over their five study guides for 5-10 minutes each day, especially right before they go to bed. They usually bring them to school on the day of the AP Exam as well, cramming from them right before the doors open.

Benefits

This study guide assignment has several benefits:

  • It clears up a common problem, when students have to write about a book they’ve read before, but they have forgotten character names or important plot events. By engraining these five stories into their heads, they are readily able to write about them at the drop of a hat.
  • In the five years of doing this assignment, only once has a student had to write about a book that was not on their study guide. Therefore, it takes away much of the panic that students can feel going into Question 3 when they are unsure of what to write.
  • It adds a formative grade into my gradebook during exam time, showing assessment for a practical and meaningful assignment that is not busywork.

Looking for more AP Lit test prep materials? Check out my Two Week Test Prep Unit, or my Two Week Test Prep + Multiple Choice and On-Demand Resource Bundle!