Teach. Read. Live.

Your Questions Answered: Even More FAQs About Teaching AP Lit

Happy back to school season! As always, with the start of a new season in life, I begin to set my focus for the upcoming school year and reevaluate how I have been spending my time and where I’ve been focusing my energy. Obviously, that time and energy has not been focused here on this blog, but I want it to. I want to write more for myself, to help myself reflect on and think about every aspect in life, and I want to help others, too! So, here we go.

For this post, I’ve teamed up with another AP Lit teacher, Gina Kortuem from AP Lit and More, to provide two different perspectives for teachers new to AP Lit. We know you probably feel intense pressure to meet high standards and to produce high-scoring students and feel lost in the amount of academic freedom give combined with the lack of curricular structure and no standardized reading list. We asked new AP Lit teachers for some burning questions they had as they readied for the new school year, and we actually got so many that we created two blog posts to answer them all!

Head over to Gina’s blog for Part 1 of this series: Your Questions Answered: FAQs About Teaching AP Lit. If you’ve already read hers and didn’t find your question answered, keep reading!

Q: Where do you start with all the planning? I keep getting so stressed out feeling like I need to cover it all!

Gina: It can be overwhelming to start and also very tempting to compare yourself against experienced AP teachers. I’d suggest to turn to the College Board’s AP Lit course description and standards first, to see the outcomes you need to meet. Brainstorm some texts and activities you’d love to do, and then research what others are doing to fill in the gaps. You may also consider how you want to move through texts and units. Some teachers like a thematic approach, others by genre or literary movement. (By the way, the College Board has said all of these are acceptable, so there is no one right way!) Also, you should probably accept the fact that you’ll never cover it all. That’s the universal truth of teaching any AP course: There’s never enough time to cover it all.

Ashlee: It is absolutely overwhelming, and I still stress out about planning for AP Lit! I think if you backwards plan, then you should be fine. Like Gina, I started by looking at the course description and “standards” for the course and then compared them to our state standards and the standards I had to meet for dual enrollment. Then, I planned out the types of writing summatives I wanted to hit (overall literary analysis, character analysis, thematic analysis, poetry analysis, argumentative, and research). The college for dual enrollment specified a number of book quizzes and tests, so I also included those. Next I made a list of all of my teacher dream texts, made sure I hit every literary period through at least one text (poem, play, essay, or novel), and then compared my dream list to all of the books/texts on the released Q3s, and then narrowed my selections down to have some overlap in themes and ideas. I gave that curriculum a solid three years of refinement before finally feeling confident to make some changes. The course and state standards are changing a little bit, and we have gotten rid of dual enrollment, so I’ll be going through a similar process with the new standards next week.

Q: What do I do about Sparknotes, Schmoop, and other online reading substitutes?

Gina: I start the year by addressing the elephant in the room and acknowledging the existence of these sites. I tell them that they are acceptable for review, but never as a substitution for reading. Next, I find a system to check for consistent reading. For me, I use quizzes, usually at least once a week. I also check their written reflections for close reading. ind a good way to check reading. In the end, I don’t feel it’s something worth worrying about. In English classes, there will always be students who skip or skim the readings. If it is a majority of your students, you have a classroom management issue to deal with. If it’s just a few, don’t let it define you and teach to the ones who are doing the reading.

Ashlee: Teach your kids how to use them! I agree with Gina that you should acknowledge their existence and their helpfulness in clarifying and adding to the understanding of a text and as a way to review books and characters, but they should never substitute the actual reading. I use and make the kids use the Cliff’s Notes character maps, and we study and compare them to what we read, but I honestly don’t worry about them much. If you’re having kids analyze author’s craft and the purpose behind the diction and syntax, making them answer the why question, then the kids who rely on literature guides will struggle big time, whether it’s on a quiz or in a discussion. I don’t do weekly quizzes unless I feel like a majority of the class isn’t reading, and I try to make them obvious for kids who read and less obvious for kids who didn’t (I’ll give the answer and they give me the question, I’ll name a symbol and they have to tell me how it relates to the reading, I’ll print out the Sparknotes summary and tell them to show me what was left out, etc.). I’ve also been know to add the following to my timed writes when kids are relying too heavily on these kinds of sites: “Because ________ is analyzed for you on the Internet, you may not write on anything of the following in your essay (or you will receive no higher than a 3).” That said, I focus my attention less on catching kids who don’t read and more on those who do read because I’m not going to waste time on those who waste their own time instead of using it to be prepared for class. It becomes really obvious who’s read and who hasn’t through Socratics and online discussions in our LMS (they just echo something another kid said instead of adding or questioning).

Q: What is the best way to help students improve depth of writing?

Gina: The most obvious answer is to write more often, but we all know that some students will keep producing the same depth of writing no matter how often you have them practice. To push them to new depths, I think it’s best for them to read samples of strong essays. My students read sample 7-9 essays released from College Board, and I sometimes ask lower performing students to read a peer’s essay who scored highest. It may be necessary to workshop portions of the writing process during class time, or even to work one-on-one with struggling students.

Ashlee: Absolutely use the strong samples from the College Board website! Have kids read and analyze them for author craft, have them score them and justify the scores, and have them write about what the author did well and what they could improve. I’ve even had kids take a 5 or 6 essay and revise it to be a 7-9! Use the samples early and often, and have kids keep a practice notebook. Make them write more than you can possibly grade, and let them choose the essay they submit for scoring. Teach editing and revision, teach planning, and time them often. As far as feedback goes, I’ve only started asking questions as feedback: how can you add depth to the argument in your thesis? Could you add an insight into the meaning of the work here? You’re onto something with this topic, but how could you turn it into a theme statement? What is the author actually saying about this topic? Is there a metaphor you could incorporate here that might add voice, depth, and meaning to your own writing? How can you address the complexity of the character? Think about what’s said, what’s implied, and what’s left out… how can you consider the juxtaposition or polarity between these two things? It’s worked wonders on my kids’ writing, and it never hurts their feelings. Lastly, teach peer editing and develop a system or two for this. Make your kids schedule time to conference with you. Grade in front of them or record yourself reading and thinking about the essay. Incorporate mini-lessons on analysis AND on creative writing. The creative writing element is what tends to elevate the score as long as they answer the prompt and analyze appropriate text evidence.

Q: Do you allow corrections and make-up work?

Gina: I accept late work but rarely do make-up work or corrections. However, I never let a test prep assignment sink a student’s grade. I curve timed writings so that the lowest score is an 80% and our multiple choice practice is either heavily curved or ungraded. I do this to emphasize practice and growth. Also, I think the exam and all of its elements are anxiety-inducing, so I don’t want our test prep activities to add to that anxiety. Our regular assignments (tests, quizzes, written reflections, take-home essays, etc.) are not curved or weighted.

Ashlee: It depends on the purpose of the assignment. On timed write summatives? Not usually and even less second semester. On polished essays? Of course! I don’t accept any late work without a sympathy pass (a 2 day extension on any assignment other than the summer assignment, the final essay, and the final exam). They get two sympathy passes a semester, and they can earn more by reading extra independent books, participating in our local or school library reading challenges, joining a battle of the books team, going way above and beyond an assignment’s scope, or getting a perfect score on a timed write.

Q: Should I put practice tests and on-demand essays in the gradebook?

Gina: I curve my timed writings so that the lowest score cannot get less than a 80%, with the exception of any incomplete essays. I believe if a student gave me 40 minutes of their best effort, they shouldn’t be penalized with a score that will sink their grade. As for my practice tests, I used to grade them on a heavy curve, but last year I experimented with doing them ungraded. That opened up discussion more and took away a lot of the test anxiety, so I believe I’ll continue doing that.

Ashlee: I don’t put practice multiple choice tests in the gradebook, but I do put some timed writes in. I weight them differently first semester than I do second, and I balance them out with other assessments. We do a mock exam the first few weeks, and I do put that in the gradebook—out of 5 formative points, but they all flip out and try really hard when I tell them it’s a grade! The spring mock exam is their final exam grade, per my school’s policy, but again, I weight it evenly with a course reflection.

Q: How are you dealing with the new rubric? Do you feel it changes things drastically?

Ashlee: There’s a new rubric?! JUST KIDDING. I’m excited about it, and I plan to teach kids the 0-9 system and the new 1-6 system. I’ll probably give them both grades for this year because I don’t understand the new scoring yet, but I still feel confident grading with the holistic rubric and want to see where the kids are at the beginning, middle, and end of the year. I grade everything else we do in the class on an analytic rubric, so it’s not much of a change for me.

Gina: I really like the new rubric. I struggled with grading holistically and it was only because of my experience with the AP Reading that I got used to using it. However, I always felt like it was hard to give focused feedback when I used the old rubric in my class. I intend to use the new rubric to score all timed writings in my class, but I will also explain the old holistic version at the start of the year when I introduce the class and the exam changes. I look forward to getting more training and updates on using the new rubric as school starts up again this fall. 

Q: How do I handle mature content?

Ashlee: I let parents know that this is a college course, and I only use texts that frequently appear on the exam and are district approved. If a parent really pushed it, I’d give an alternate text because I think it’s easy to do in Lit, but I would explain how much the kid will miss out on, how the kid will be entering the real, adult world within a year, and how I’d want my own kid to experience the mature content in a controlled classroom environment with a trusting adult instead of in real life or an instance where they had no one to turn to. I’ve had one parent issue with The Handmaid’s Tale, and the kid ended up reading the book and loving it. I had more issues on mature content in texts when I taught lower grades, but I’ve never had a parent refuse a text after a thoughtful discussion from me (and I’ll let a kid skip a few pages or a chapter if they want to).

Gina: I’m in a tighter spot because I work in a parochial school. I am allowed more freedom because it’s AP Lit, but sadly there are certain texts I just can’t teach in class anymore. Beloved, for example, is one of my favorite AP Lit books to teach, but because of its raw content I just can’t find a way to make it work in my current school. The way I handle mature content is to include these books in my suggested reading list (for summer reading and an independent reading assignment), but I mark any books with mature content with an asterisk. Next to asterisk, I write the following, “Books marked with an asterisk require signed permission from your parents to read them, as they contain questionable material. I feel that literary merit is still present despite this material, so I still endorse the books. However, your parents do have a right to know what you are reading and you should discuss your choice with them.” Since I’ve done this, I had hardly any issues with students’ parents and mature content. When it does happen, I need to know I can defend the text in the face of my school’s mission statement, which is why I stay away from any really “mature” books. The few conflicts I’ve had have been solved through a simple dialogue with the concerned parent.

Q: How do you help students develop a strong writing voice in academic writing?

Ashlee: Mini-lessons, models, and feedback. You can also have kids write in first person or an informal tone and then have them edit to 3rd person and academic. Sometimes the academic language throws them off from incorporating some of those more creative aspects of writing. Also, focus on writer’s craft as you read all year. They’ll pick up some great ideas just from that!

Gina: Ashlee nailed it. I give minilessons through essay rehashes, which we do after each timed writing. During those short lessons we focus on small things that can help writing and finding voice, especially thesis statements, organization, literary elements, and language sophistication. As for modeling, the sample essays on College Board are absolutely priceless. I often tell my students that if they want to write well, they need to read good writing. Lastly, focused feedback can help students learn when to take risks and when to rein it in with their writing. My students always remember enthusiastic praise better than constructive criticism, so any time someone blew me away with something they’ve written I make sure to let them know, and I usually try to share it with the rest of the class as well.

Q: How do you balance long novels/plays with poems and short fiction?

Ashlee: I typically devote one to two days a week for novel discussion and the rest of the time we’re working on poetry and short fiction or excerpts from the novel for close reading. Typically the short pieces will connect thematically but not always! Sometimes it’s nice to take a thematic break every now and then or choose something that might connect in less obvious ways and have the kids do the thinking about how they connect. There are several ways you could structure the course that could help: 1) organize your units thematically and include several poems and short pieces paired with a longer text; 2) organize your units chronologically and choose several poems and short pieces from that literary period; or 3) organize your year by genre. The new College Board Course Description includes an optional yearly plan following this layout. I don’t plan to switch up much of what I’ve been doing because my scores have been well above the national and state averages, but if I was just starting it, I might give it a try! I don’t think you can go wrong with any of these choices as long as you include poetry, short stories, drama, and novels!

Gina: When I first started teaching AP Lit I taught everything in separate units. Poetry was a standalone unit and I mostly stuck with novels and plays for the rest of the year. Since then, it seems like each year I pare down the “long fiction” and move more toward the short fiction model. I still encourage independent reading so the wonderful novels and plays aren’t neglected, but I think the short fiction approach keeps students more engaged and exposes them to more types of literature. I’ve also started teaching poetry every week in addition to two standalone poetry units so it becomes more natural for my students to read. 

Q: How do you choose what past prompts to give? Are there some to stay away from? Or ones that are harder and are suggested to be used in the spring? What are the “go to” prompts (thinking of Lang’s Pink Flamingo, Cat Bill, libraries, etc.)?

Gina: I don’t think there are any go-to prompts, or many to stay away from. I also choose applicable prompts, but I mostly stick to prompts that I understand the best. I’ve scored the exam four times and I always make sure to workshop those prompts in class, since I’ve read so many different essays on those topics. There are also just some prompts and texts that you actually wish you would have gotten to analyze, so I make sure to include those. Finally, make sure you’re including a range of prompts, including some of the hard ones.

Ashlee: I choose prompts that apply to texts we’ve read, that I write myself based on past prompts, and that focus on theme or character… I don’t avoid any prompts, and I try to choose Q1 and Q2 prompts that I actually enjoy reading. As far as “go to” prompts, The Juggler, Peregrine Pickle, evil Plants, and the landlady/toilet prompt from last year have all gotten some buzz.

Q: How do you avoid teaching to the test?

Ashlee: I teach literary analysis and critical thinking, but the test is every single one of my students’ end goal, and some local colleges will give 6 credits for a 4 or 5, so I don’t avoid teaching to the test… I just don’t actively and purposely teach to the test every day. Are you supposed to avoid teaching to the test? I think in some aspects, you should teach to this test.

Want to see even more questions answered? Head over to Gina’s blog to read the rest! If we missed anything, feel free to ask your question in the comments below.

Gina Kortuem has a Masters in education from Bethel University and is going into her 14th year of teaching AP English Lit. She works in a parochial K-12 school in St. Paul, MN where she teaches AP Lit, Brit Lit, Shakespearean Lit, and the sophomore English 10 classes. In addition to teaching the class she has worked as an AP Reader five times and has scored for each essay type. She teaches full time and also runs the Teachers Pay Teachers store AP Lit & More.

Ashlee Tripp is a high school English teacher in Douglas County School District, just south of Denver, CO. She has an MAT English and BA in psychology with a focus in neuroscience. She currently teaches AP Lit (seniors), College Composition I and II (juniors and seniors), and Young Adult Literature elective (juniors and seniors). This is her fourth year teaching AP Lit, but she’s been teaching for a decade, two years at the college level and eight years at the high school level. In all of her spare time she enjoys reading every genre of literature and writing for her blog (okay, she actually reads more than she writes, but she’s hoping to change that this year). You can purchase AP Lit and other teaching resources from her TpT store if she can ever get her life together and actually upload something. She’s working on it.

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