This is my fifth year to teach AP English Language and Composition. Every year I can pretty much predict during the first grading period which students will pass the AP exam with a qualifying score. See, my campus practices true open enrollment: any student that wants to challenge herself with PreAP or AP classes may. We have no prerequisites. Any student that demonstrates a strong work ethic, attends tutorials, and tries hard can pass my class, but she may not pass the AP exam in the spring– if she is not already a reader.
It’s a lack of reading skills that gets students every time. The multiple choice portion of the test is a killer with four to five passages and usually 55 questions, which must be answered in 1 hour. I can teach test-taking skills that will help my students do better on this part of the exam, but if a teen is not already a reader when he comes to me, I can rarely help him learn the vocabulary and critical reading skills needed to score at least 50% of the questions correctly (the minimum goal for the mc portion of the test). I’m a pretty good teacher, but the AP exam is difficult, and my magic wand only has so much power.
Many of my students do not come from homes with reading role models. Their parents are hard working immigrants who do not have funds to invest in books. Quite simply, most do not identify themselves as readers. Of course, there’s the few. The students who had an older sibling or a teacher or a librarian (or sometimes a parent) push books into eager hands. These are the students I predict will find success on the AP test come May.
For four years I’ve tried to figure this out: If it’s the readers who can pass the exam, how can I get more students to be readers? It should be simple.
I tried the classic route. It simple didn’t work. I used to assigned six novels, all the best-loved American literature; and just this summer in a brief Facebook exchange, a former student confirmed what I already knew. She said, “I loved the class, but I didn’t read one book.”
She was not the only one, and my feeble attempts year after year to get students to read, and their feeble attempts year after year to pass my assessments, proved that the classic route was not taking my students on the road they needed to go. They still weren’t readers.
I assert that most high school students do not read the assigned texts, especially classic novels that they can read about online–learning just enough to join a class discussion, write an essay, or pass a test. They might learn the gist of the novel, maybe even get the jokes alluded to in pop culture, but they are not reading.
And that is what I want: I want to foster readers.
Yesterday I sent out a tweet:
I’m spending grant $. Please, what are the hottest reads in your HS English class library? Thanks for sharing titles.
Many people responded with several titles i didn’t know, and my shopping list got longer. But I also got this response:
@AmyRass My Juniors are reading: Huck Finn, Moby Dick, Scarlet Letter, The Road, Gatsby, Things They Carried, Other Wes Moore, Catcher
I responded with this:
@xxxxxx Thanks for sharing. Great books. Are they reading those titles as free choice? If so—impressive.
And the answer was this:
@AmyRass They are chosen from a list we gave them. I also am fortunate to teach some very bright students.
Hmmm. I wish I could poll those students. I’d bet my farm, if I had one, that very few are actually reading those books. To roughly quote Don Graves: “Choice without [a kind selection] is no choice at all.”
I do things differently. I’ve abandoned the whole class novel like I allow my students to abandon books, (although I know there are some cases when reading the same text can lead to useful instruction. Don’t hate.) My students read during the first 10 minutes of every class. I talk about books as often as I can. I add new books to my shelves that I know students will read. (I bought three copies of Allegiant this afternoon because I know Ashley, Kathryn, Sierra, Adrian, and Diego are waiting. There will be a clamor in the morning.)
Is it hard to devote 10 minutes of a 50 minute class period to reading? Yeah, at first–when the traditionalists tried to drag me back to the dark side. Then I had my students blog about their reading lives over the last seven weeks. So many of them wrote about how they’ve read more books in seven weeks than they read the whole of their sophomore year. Three, four, five books. Already.
I am glad they are reading YA literature. I know it doesn’t have higher-level vocabulary. I know that it doesn’t have sophisticated syntax. I also know that my students like it; they are reading after all.
This quarter I will push students into harder texts. Just yesterday, I put a stack of memoir, historical fiction, non-fiction, and classics on every table, and I talked books. I challenged students to add to their What To Read Next list, and I gave descriptions of characters and hints at plots. I’d like students to read a sampling of different genres–try a graphic novel or a NY Times Bestseller–because so many teens don’t know what they like–yet. If they don’t meet the challenge? It’ll be okay, as long as students keep reading.
Today Yulissa asked for Cut. Luis asked for Unwholly. Esmeralda read A Child Called ‘It’ in 24 hours and went straight to A Man Called Dave when she walked in the door. Anthony started reading The Lord of the Flies, and Stephany asked for an award winner, so I gave her a stack of six to sort through–all had Printz or National Award or Pulitzer emblems. Tomorrow will be similar. We’re nine weeks into the year, and reading’s become routine.
I may not be able to give all my students the skills they need to master the AP Lang exam, but I am giving them the time they need to plant the seeds of those skills. They’ll sprout and take root and begin to grow, and maybe, just maybe, my students will have the stamina they need to succeed in college, and, maybe that stamina will help them succeed in life.
That’s more important than an AP exam anyway.
I’d love to know the reading habits of the AP English students on your campus. Are they (fake) reading? or really reading?