Every May, my panic that I have not taught my students enough for the AP® Literature exam, pride and concern as I send my “little ducklings” to fly alone into the exam room, and eager anticipation of the memes flooding Twitter from the East coast testers (which I never, ever re-tweet), is quickly followed by the nervous energy of my students as they visit my classroom after the test.
Of course, human nature dictates that they want to relive every moment and consult with their peers about how they answered different questions, but my duty to the College Board prompts me to remind them not to discuss specifics about the exam itself. Instead, I urge them to talk through their feelings and reflect on what they might feel good about, such as writing 3 complete essays. Each year offers its unique triumphs and hair-pulling challenges. “The Juggler” poem a couple years back stumped even my most adept analyzers, but they did have fun crafting juggling metaphors for the remainder of their senior year. Thus, I have come to anticipate the perplexed reactions to one or more of the essay prompts on the exam. A safe question I often ask to avoid specific test-discussion is: what book did you choose to write about for the Q3 essay?
While I’ve learned that it is difficult to gauge how students actually performed on the exam based on their immediate self-assessment, I know that over-confidence – “it was easy” – is almost as bad as total pessimism – “I only wrote 2 of the 3 essays and the multiple choice was killer.” But that one question about book choice tells me a lot. It tells me about their overall confidence level, sense of preparedness, and even what level of enjoyment they experienced during the test. Yes, enjoyment. As my course moved away from a model in which I assign specific texts (so we can experience them together) and toward choice (so students can shape their own experiences, with support), my students have increasingly come back talking excitedly about which book they wrote about on the exam.
This year, because my students brought friends from different, more traditional, AP® classes with them to eat lunch in my room after the exam, I could hear the difference in the way they spoke about the books they referenced on that Q3 essay. My students said things like: “I thought I was going to write about Wuthering Heights because it fits so many prompts, but when I read the prompt, it screamed The Handmaid’s Tale to me. I’m so psyched that I got to write about that!” Another student enthusiastically described how he wrote the “best essay [he’s] ever written, and it was about Frankenstein.” Students went on to discuss the variety of books they wrote about, from The Art of Racing in the Rain to Les Miserables. Students from the other class sullenly and universally explained how they wrote about Beowulf because it was the text they had “been taught” the most thoroughly and therefore “knew the best.”
And there it was. A vindication of choice in the AP classroom. Scores will not be made available for a couple of months, so maybe all those passionless (and I’m going to guess, formulaic) essays about Beowulf will be strongly written and score higher, but what about the passion for reading? My students chose to read those rich texts, and when push came to shove during the exam, they chose to write about them because they saw the value in the book – not because someone told them of the book’s value.
Choice continues to be a source of contention in many English departments, but I cannot understand why. Choice does not mean that students cannot read from the canon. In fact, my students always choose both canonical and contemporary works “with merit” through the course. Teachers can set parameters for choice by offering text sets that connect by literary era, theme, heroic journeys, archetypes, and so on. Choice can be applied to shorter text selections instead of novels. So much has been written on why choice works by bigger fish in the English sea than me, so I will just leave you with this: my students were joyous when they spoke about writing the 3rd essay on a mentally exhausting, hand-cramping exam, and it is because they chose what to read and experienced the autonomy of deciding which of their books they felt they could write their best essay on. Since my goal is to create readers and writers, I could not ask for better evidence that choice helps them toward this goal.