Category Archives: Amber Counts

Vindication of Choice in the AP Classroom

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.

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Carpe Disputationem

Before introducing metaphysical poetry to my AP Literature students, I often take a page out of the fictional Professor Keating’s book. My students and I take a little “field trip” to the front of the school, where photographs of students dating back to the first graduating class of 1901 line the foyer. I ask my students to write down their observations. When we return to class, I ask them to share. They often cite racial homogeny right off the bat. Our student population is incredibly diverse, and they cannot imagine an exclusively white school. A discussion about desegregation of schools inevitably follows, as does a conversation about the surprising number of females in the early graduating classes. We also talk about the devastation the World Wars had on the young men in those faded photographs. How many of them survived? They wonder: how did our graduating class grow from 6 to approximately 1100?

After what never fails to be a rich conversation, and the students’ realization that they have walked past those photos everyday without ever looking at them (a life lesson in itself), we watch the film clip from Dead Poets Society in which Keating, played by Robin Williams, engages his students in a similar activity. He explores the concept of “carpe diem” and mortality. Following this clip, I invite my students to write their response to carpe diem. They might write about what it means to them, whether they embrace this philosophy, or any other thoughts or feelings that the saying evokes.

CarpeDiemAfter a few minutes of writing, I ask for volunteers to share their thoughts. In a recent discussion, some students found the idea of carpe diem “frivolous” and thought that people should always stay focused on future goals. To them, “living for today” was short-sighted and irresponsible. This makes sense for teens who are driven to go to the right college and earn the right degree to live a “good” life. Other students said that since none of us are guaranteed a future and we’re “all going to die,” we should do something today: something of value, something productive. Such responses received a great deal of agreement, though students realized that “value” and “productive” are relative, subjective terms. One student wisely noted that we should remember that while we’re trying to live our best lives, others are as well. They discussed the complexities of when the lives of people with different goals intersect. Ultimately, my students saw how their seemingly disparate ideas actually overlapped a great deal, and they separated carpe diem from the trite YOLO idea that many of them initially equated as the same concept.

After a 20-30 minute discussion of carpe diem, my students not only understood the concept, but they also understood their relationship to the aphorism as well as its universal appeal. Onward to metaphysical poetry analysis!

I shared this teaching anecdote to underscore the importance of setting up and maintaining a safe workshop environment in which students expect to read, write, think, share, and work together to construct meaning. My students fearlessly followed me, willing to discuss observations even when issues such as race were broached. I could have presented them with the definition of “carpe diem” or asked them to draw on prior knowledge as a quick basis for launching into the unit of study, but by giving them the space and opportunity to explore the concept, they built a stronger foundation of understanding that will ultimately translate into better reading, writing, and thinking. We make choices everyday about when to lecture and when to facilitate; when possible, we must “seize” the opportunity to trust our students to delve deep beneath surface-level understandings and reach true depths of meaning.

The Battle of the Canon

I recently found myself entrenched on a familiar battlefield. After making what I thought was an innocuous statement about needing more texts that my AP Literature students would enjoy reading that would also represent “literary merit,” and noting some contemporary texts that would meet these criteria, another teacher began to lecture me on the necessity of requiring students to read canonical British literature.

Her unyielding tirade provided some insight into what it must feel like to be a student in that class – in which choice is something the teacher makes, books are taught (not students), and the teacher is the sole purveyor of knowledge.

Before I continue, let me say that I truly believe that this teacher truly believes that she is doing what is best for her students. Her primary argument, in fact, was that we are doing our students a disservice if we do not expect them to read “hard texts.”

To her, rigor means old. She explained that if students are not struggling to decode classic books such as Beowulf or Cantebury Tales, they are not being challenged enough. She said that any book they read that’s not canon is a waste of their time.

But herein lies the rub: many students from different English classes eat lunch in my classroom, and I listen to their honest conversations about school. I watch as they use Sparknotes to fill out question packets on classic texts. When the focus is on a specific book, and the assessments are designed to elicit responses about the plot, students do not have much incentive to read the book. Thus, they find answers they need online and wait for the teacher to tell them what they should have learned from the text.

While I held back from sharing such observations, I did agree that students benefit from reading challenging texts. MRIs have recorded all of the brilliant ways the brain lights up with activity when reading the works of Shakespeare! However, I offered the suggestion that students need not read full novels as a whole class to receive this benefit. I often pull excerpts from classic texts to analyze in class so that the focus is on the writing craft and on ourselves as readers. We explore passages in depth to build reader confidence, look for literary devices and discuss their functions, and connect to theme. I provide them with incentive to read other than “because it’s tradition,” and – more importantly – I encourage them to find their own reasons for connecting to texts.

Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 9.10.07 PMAmy Rasmussen and I have engaged in numerous conversations about the magic that happens when students choose the books they read for our AP English classes. Sure, students will often choose a contemporary text if given the chance because it’s easier for them to read and it seems more relevant to them. What’s wrong with that? Books like The Kite Runner and Never Let Me Go have been referenced by the College Board on the AP Literature and Composition exam®, so why do some teachers still cling to the classics as if nothing written after the turn of the 20th century has merit?

My students regularly start with more contemporary books like The Help or The Road and then choose, for various reasons, to explore books from the canon. Often, they have built confidence due to the work we do together in class with shorter texts and from their own choice reading, and they feel comfortable taking on a challenge. Sometimes, they decide that they want to read books they’ve always heard about. I currently have students who have chosen to read Wuthering Heights, Oliver Twist, and Les Miserables on their own. When we have book talks and the students begin speaking with excitement about the books they’re reading, you better believe that others will want to read these books, too. I’ve seen it happen for several years in a row; students read more canonical texts due to choice than they ever would if the books were strictly assigned.

Many of us speak and write about the benefits of a workshop classroom, and the idea of choice in reading has been explored by leaders in education such as Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. So why are some teachers so afraid to let go of their perceived control? What do they think will happen if a student walks out of high school without reading Beowulf? I would rather see my students leave my classroom having read several books they chose to read than having faked their way through a list of classics, and based on the honest feedback I get from my students, they prefer it this way, too.

I left the battle of the canon feeling that we had reached a stalemate. Until I can convince nonbelievers of the benefits of choice in the AP classroom, I will continue to provide a safe space for any students to come in and talk about books, even as some Sparknote and Google their way through the classics.

 

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

Conferring with Students Proves Difficult to Implement, Even for the Most Determined

My professional goal this year centered on conferring with students about their reading and writing on a more regular basis and keeping track of those conversations in order to track progress, pose questions, and offer valuable feedback. Based on a tip offered by Kelly Gallagher at the NTCTELA conference (2017), I created a notebook with a 2-page spread for each student in order to record notes from these conversations.

RWNotebookOn the left-hand side, I pasted in a notebook card that students filled out on the first day of class with information about their favorite genre(s) of books, their favorite book, their least favorite book, one writing strength, and an aspect of their writing which they wanted to improve. Below this card, I kept a record of reading conferences with the student. Here, I not only kept a list of what books students read, but I also jotted down notes during our conversations about the text.

The best method I have found for finding out how much my students actually read, understand, or like specific texts is to talk to them about their reading and ask thought-provoking follow-up questions. By recording notes about these conversations, I am better able to tailor instruction for all students – based on common observations or questions – and recommend books for future reading that I think they’ll enjoy and that will match the level of rigor they require.

On the right-hand side of the notebook, I recorded essay scores as well as some feedback about what students need to work on in their writing such as: use of passive voice, crafting a strong thesis statement, and providing evidence to support assertions. This allows me to track student progress toward improvement of writing skills. For instance, I love it when I can record additional comments such as “she successfully wrote in the literary present tense this time” or “his poetry shows insight and creativity.”

Conference and feedback notes also allow me to see when a student fails to make progress. How many times do teachers write the same feedback on successive essays, and where is the student’s incentive to change that practice unless they are one of the rare few who are intrinsically motivated? When we speak one-on-one with students and note the recurrence of these habits, they are more likely to address them.

So – I had a plan. I implemented that plan. But things did not exactly go according to plan.

I encountered several difficulties that prevented me – and more importantly, my students – from reaping all the benefits that our discussions and resulting data collection could offer. Below, I have listed some of the problems I encountered, their causes, and the potential solutions I plan to try this semester:

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Though these difficulties left me feeling extremely frustrated at times, I do still deeply believe in conferring with students. Our students need, desire, and deserve the individual attention and feedback that reading and writing conversations provide.

Please comment with suggestions about how you have successfully conferred with students and tracked important ideas from that discourse. Let’s help each other find new ways to build relationships with as students as they build confidence in their writing and a real love of reading that extends beyond our classrooms.

 

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

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