How do you balance teaching the workshop model with also teaching to a test?
Amy: First of all, teaching to a test is not good practice. We know that. I know we want to prepare students to take and pass the AP exam, but if we structure our classes around test prep, we are doing a disservice to our students. We provide the only 11th or 12th grade English classes our students will take — we have a responsibility to help them understand how language (and literature) works, how it moves the world, how it relates to our lives. And we have a responsibility to help every student advance as readers and writers — no matter where they are in their abilities when they come to us. If we do these things we are doing our jobs, if not, we are not. Test prep does not help with either of these responsibilities. As a matter of fact, it can inhibit it.
Jackie: I am a first year AP Literature teacher, so I still have the underlying anxiety that comes with teaching my first class of AP students. I love these students–they are kind, passionate, mature, and motivated. They work tirelessly to succeed and they have a passion for literature and thirst for knowledge unmatched by any of the students I’ve taught in the past. In turn, I want to do everything in my power to provide them with the steps to succeed, but I have found, as the year goes on, that I cannot simply focus on the test. In the beginning, I felt like every assignment I designed began with the thought, how will this help them on the exam?! Once I shoved aside my anxieties and found my stride, I focused less on their testing success and more on what I truly wanted them to walk away with at the end of the year. I am blessed with the gift of teaching students the individual pleasure of reading paired with the social process of dissecting intricate texts.
How do you balance whole class novels with independent reading in AP classes?
Amy: My students and I do not read any whole class novels. It’s not that I am against them. It is that I have not found a book that I think will work to move all of my students. Wait, that’s not quite true. When I read David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, I thought “Here is a book that would make for a whole class read.” The book is an argument, and within each chapter is an argument that supports the overall one. That would be a good book for all AP Language students. Have I used it as a whole class read yet? No, but if I can find the funds to buy enough copies, someday I will.
Jackie: Unlike Amy, I do teach whole class novels. Last year I experimented with teaching no whole class novels in my junior-level Advanced Composition course. The experience had its pros and cons, but I found that I missed the common experience of reading a sustained text together. It wasn’t something I wanted to do everyday in my classes, but one of the reasons I loved studying English in graduate school was to gain the communal opportunity of cracking apart texts and sharing perspectives. In AP Literature I reinforce the concept that literary analysis isn’t a competition; it is instead a social experience that requires us to open up to our peers in pursuit of greater knowledge and understanding.
While I teach whole class novels, I do not believe AP Literature classrooms must revolve around them. Instead, AP Lit classes should have a smattering of diverse novels and plays with a large focus on poetry, short stories, and even excerpts.
My AP students just finished Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, a 580 page episodic novel that is the most used novel on the test. It is brilliant in so many ways, relevant and valuable. It discusses issues of race and police brutality that eerily parallel issues we face today. For many, it is also the first whole class novel on race my students read that was actually written by a black man (they read To Kill A Mockingbird their freshman year and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn their sophomore year). I choose the novel because it is invaluable, but I also acknowledge that it is LONG. If I taught lengthy canonical texts constantly, my students would hate me. I would hate me.
Amy: We read a ton of short text together; discuss them, analyze them, write about them. We enjoy many rich reading experiences together — all centered around short texts. I’ve heard a lot of noise lately around the argument for a literary canon so students enjoy shared experiences versus independent reading and the lack thereof, and I think the dichotomy is wrong. Can we only have shared experiences around whole class reading? No. It’s not that those of us who advocate for choice reading do not facilitate rich reading experiences and discussions with our students as whole classes, it’s that we choose to do so with shorter texts rather than full-length novels — or we choose to do so with themes instead of one book.
My experiences with too many students not reading longer texts I pulled from the canon — and the length of time it took to complete a unit — made me choose to let the novel go. Too many students faked their way through the classic literature I forced them to read my first few years teaching. (They brag about it later on Facebook.) And by offering choice, whether it be self-selected reading or book clubs, I have better chances of advancing all of my readers, not just the few who commit to doing all the reading.
We have a lot to say, so join us tomorrow for part two of this discussion. And as always, please join the conversation in the comments.