Tag Archives: AP Literature

#3TTWorkshop — Making Workshop Work in AP English

#3TTWorkshop Meme



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.  

Created by Jackie's student. Doesn't it embody the essence of AP Lit?

Created by Jackie’s student. Doesn’t it embody the essence of AP Lit?

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.

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Fabian reading to his table mates. He’s so involved in the story of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close he could not wait for our book club discussions.

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.


Okay, I Will Share My AP Testing Data

A new friend asked me if I would share any AP testing data that I’ve gathered since embracing Readers and Writers Workshop. I had to think about it since I rarely think about it. I do appreciate the question though because it led to this post.

I need to tell you right up front:  While I appreciate the AP exam as a high-stakes test, I do not lay a lot of value on testing data for many reasons.

So many factors figure into how a group of students tests each year, and looking at figures from one year to the next, and trying to compare numbers with different groups of students has never made sense to me. The only real valid data is the growth I measure from the fall when students walk into my door until they leave me in the spring. However, I can tell you that the first year I implemented Readers and Writers Workshop and gave up whole class novels in favor of encouraging students to read books of their choice and taught skills with short, sophisticated, complex texts, my students’ scores were 12% higher than my students’ scores the year before.

The best I can do to respond to your question is to quote Stephen Krashen in the article “Free Reading:”  “. . .research strongly suggests that free reading is the source of our reading prowess and much of our vocabulary and spelling development, as well as our ability to understand sophisticated phrases and write coherent prose. The secret of its effectiveness is simple: children become better readers by reading.”

And…  “Research has . . .shown that SSR is at least as effective as conventional teaching methods in helping children acquire those aspects of reading that are measured by standardized tests, and pleasure reading provides a great deal that these tests don’t measure.”

The first two years I taught AP, I tried to do it like I learned at my APSI. I assigned the traditional novels taught in American literature: The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Awakening, The Grapes of Wrath — because the other AP teacher on my campus did. I can tell you, my students did not read. They even told me later that they didn’t — lots of joking about that on Facebook a few years after they left me. They knew how to play the fake-reading game perfectly.

I know Krashen’s research centers on much younger grades than our students in AP English; however, reading is reading, and students gain skills by doing it — skills that improve their lives far beyond those tested on one day in May as they sit for the AP English exam.

My students just wrote end-of-year reading evaluations on their blogs. Here’s a few of the highlights about reading this year in their own words. This is the kind of data I value:

“Being apart of a reading community has benefited me deeply within my entire life. Even though I didn’t read as much as I wanted to, the reading that I did do was very beneficial. Reading helped me expand my vocabulary a lot. Sometimes when I would speak to my mom I would use a word that I learned from the book I was reading and she would just look at me like she didn’t know who I was. Reading also helped me become a better writer. So many different books that I read helped me use different structures, understand how to use rhetorical devices, and use my upper level vocabulary.”  DeDe, currently reading Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

“Being part of a reading community as a student opened my mind how others thought of the book we were currently reading together. Occasionally, I’m an ostrich that’s always in the ground; thoughts to myself, ideas to myself, and the “this is what this means” mentality. I’ve slowly learned how to use the point of view of others by implementing it into my own work. In addition, this year’s English class did not feel like a burden compared to previous years. The freedom of choice we were given provided us with the decision to pick a book we enjoyed.” Doreen, currently reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

“I believe the place I need to improve as a reader is being able to find the hidden meanings or putting everything together in order for me to understand a book. Sometimes without me noticing I just read to read and I forget what I read and have to read the paragraph or page again in order for me to understand it. I need to read and take everything under consideration and understand what it is that I’m reading and at the end put it back together. Maybe my problem is that I try to read too fast.” Johnny, currently reading The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith

“Being part of a reading community benefited me because I always felt like I needed to be reading a book. It felt splendid being a part of something, especially something I would of never thought I would be a part of.  I understood the importance of reading. The more you read, the better writer you will become. I realized what genre of books I liked and which ones I didn’t. Most importantly I explored a different variety of books and read a minimum of 12 books. Something I had never done before. Usually I would read a minimum of 3 books every year.” Lizbeth, currently reading Playing Dead byJulia Heaberlin

“My journey began with Escape From Camp 14. I moved through different genres and difficulty levels thereafter: Anna and the French kiss, Allegiant, High School Bites, The Glass Castle, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Where’d You Go Bernadettte, The Art of Secrets, The Hot Zone, Little Bee, The Joy Luck Club, Down the Rabbit Hole, Room, Incendiary, The Wright 3, and most recently, Y. During this time, I abandoned The Kite Runner, The Thirteenth Tale, Ready Player One, Saving Fish From Drowning, Telegraph Avenue, and Station Eleven.   Even I find it odd, that out of the entire list, I enjoyed The Joy Luck Club more than any other. I say this because I’m not the patient type- I like constant action, fueled excitement. The Joy Luck Club almost counters that expectation, and if I had to describe it, I might even consider calling it boring.” Nawoon, currently choosing — just abandoned Station Eleven

This evaluation by Jasmine is too good to not share the whole of it. And this one by Shaniqua.

I just need to share one more thing, a little gift I got today as I read student reading evaluations. I know most teachers get these at one time or another.

It is the thing that keeps us going.

Laura wrote:

“I still need to improve on not judging a book by it’s cover. For us to GROW as people, we must get out of our COMFORT ZONE and pick up a shattered book because it needs someone to appreciate it’s language. As much as reading conference were sometimes nerve wrecking for me, they helped me get a second opinion on my progress in class as a human and not merely as a student. I can never thank Mrs. Rasmussen enough for dedicating chunks of her life to her students. Positivity in a world were criticism is many people’s issue is so rare and pure. She truly cares about each of us and sees past our struggles and attitudes and tries her best to help us understand it’s okay to have emotions and display them for others to see.  I’ve learned it’s more important to turn our conflicts into beautiful gifts instead of becoming a bitter person.”

Don’t you think that is better than any testing data?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015


Reel Reading for Real Readers: Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

Oh, man. I love and hate this book. You have to read it. Then we need to talk about it. It’s that kind of story, a hauntingly beautiful coming of age story.

Here’s the book trailer:

And a NY Times review


I would love to hear what titles are keeping you up lately. Please share.

Student Choice in AP English–It’s Working

Our Compass Shifts 2-1My friend Matt is leaving teaching. I’ll miss him. I started teaching a year before he did, and we’ve kind of grown up as educators together. But with him leaving, I’m thinking–maybe I can get his AP Literature classes. That idea’s sinking in, and we aren’t even done with January.

AP Language has been my sweet spot for a lot of years now, and I don’t want to give it up–I’m a little possessive, but I would love a split with Lang and Lit.

I know, I might be crazy. The prep. The workload. The grading.

Although I have heard of other teachers doing it– just not at my school. We have 6 of AP English teachers, but we all have a split with some other English prep. (Right now I have my own vertical alignment with PreAP English I and II.)

Here’s the thing:  I’ve done readers/writers workshop in AP Language for several years now, and the format fosters confident readers, accomplished writers, AND higher exam scores. Mine jumped 12% the first year I trusted a whole move to workshop and student choice. I know readers/writers workshop will work with AP Lit. I know it.

So, I am planting seeds.

Today I spent hours compiling lists of award-winning books. I should have been planning a presentation I’m doing Monday or grading timed writing essays from Wednesday or tidying my classroom. I couldn’t seem to help myself once I got reading these lists of compelling titles. These are the complex and richly written books I want weighing down my classroom shelves and the minds of my advanced students. I already have a lot. (I made a list of those, too.) I shop thrift stores and bargain bins, and as long as I know the titles I’m looking for, I often strike gold. Gold Pulitzer stickers anyway. I found Tinkers by Paul Harding not too long ago.

Every day my students read during the first 10 minutes of class. I quickly take attendance and then try to talk quietly to a few kids each day about their reading. I use passages from books for mini-lessons– grammar and analysis, and I model what a reader’s life looks like. Not many of my colleagues do this.

I sat in a department meeting with Matt and others this week. We listened to advice on lessons that would get our students prepared for their end-of-course exams, and the topic of independent reading came up. Matt shrugged, defeated, and said, talking about his AP seniors and his on-level sophomores: “My students won’t read. They just won’t.”  Without question, I know why.

He isn’t doing workshop.

But Tess is. She’s doing it with her G/T sophomores and surprising herself with the results. Her guest post will run on Monday.

We have to get students reading. We want to get them reading, don’t we? If we want, not just to develop critical readers so they can pass a test, but if we really want to instill empathy and compassion and knowledge into kids’ heads and hearts, we have to get them reading. Allowing them free choice, drowning them in book choices, and giving them time–time to read, well, that’s what’s making mine into READERS.

When a Student Tells You What to Teach: Sweet

I mentioned before that I gave a Pulitzer Prize winning novel to one of my AP English students recently. He gave it back to me three days later.

“Did you read it?” I asked.

“Well, I tried,” he said. “There’s just too much description. I couldn’t get into it.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I don’t know exactly, but it’s the kind of book you should pull passages out of and teach with,” he said.

Okay, then.

I still haven’t read the novel Tinkers by Paul Harding, but I did take a look to see what Levi meant. (He’s a bright young man–taking both AP Lit and Lang his junior year.)

Just read the first page. You’ll see what I did.

Yes, I can teach some skills with this. It’s beautiful, and now I’m reading it– on the lookout for mentor slices that engage and inspire great reading and writing.

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Part II. In an AP Class, Shouldn’t It Be about the Reading?

Angels sang to me again today. This doesn’t really happen too often, but when it comes to awesome adventures with students and books, the choir starts belting out in fff.

Based on the feedback to my post on Wednesday, I know many of my peers feel the same way as I do about AP students and reading–or not reading–as the case may be. I appreciate the comments and the emails and the encouragement. (I gave a student the Pulitzer Prize Winner Tinkers today, and another one asked for a copy of The Great Gatsby with no prompting from me whatsoever. I know I am doing something right here.)

I’m pretty much the advocate for independent reading on my campus. I talk about it every chance I get: slip it into a conversation here, there, and everywhere. Sometimes the words work their way into another teacher’s thinking, and Hallelujah! the angels bust out in song.

Read this email I got from my friend, Tess Mueggenborg. She teaches our gifted and talented Globesophomores in a special humanities course, which combines AP World History and Honors English II, and AP Literature. She and I share a lot–some things curriculum related, other things not. When we first worked together six years ago, it was as a team teaching the G/T course: me English/her history. I can tell you this:  Tess loves classic literature–some of which I’d never heard of. Gilgamesh, Horus the Hawk. Sigh.

For the past few years Tess’s heart’s been changing (I say that tongue in cheek because her heart is shiny gold), and she’s allowed for much more student choice in all her English classes. This fall she asked for funds to create a World Literature library of contemporary and complex books for her advanced students. Our ELA coordinator granted the request, and. . .

Read this. You’ll hear the choir.


Thought you might like to hear (and read) what’s going on with the new novels in World Experience … Last Friday, we had a day of “book speed dating.”  The students had about 60 seconds with each novel, and if the book interested them, they put a sticky note with their name on the back cover.  Then we divvied up the books, which proved to be arduous but entertaining.  Some of these kids were REALLY passionate about which book they ended up with! Today, they had their first assignment (other than “start reading!”) – a blog post.  Here are the questions I posed:

By now, you should be 1/4 to 1/3 through your novel (if not more!).  Based on what you’ve read thus far, answer the following questions on your blog.

1. How many pages are in your novel?  How many have you read?

2. Who is the protagonist (main character) of your novel?  What is the main conflict this person faces?  What are some possible outcomes that you foresee for this person?  (In other words: guess the ending.)

3. In a well-developed paragraph (with text evidence), respond: so far, what do you like about your novel?  What do you not like about your novel?  Why? Explain.

4. Based on what you’ve read thus far, would you recommend this book to someone else?  Why?  Explain.

5. Pick ONE quote that has stood out to you from the novel.  Give the quote, then explain: what made this quote stand out to you?  How does this quote relate to the whole novel?

And here are the links to several of their blogs:

Chris is reading Transatlantic: http://keyboardandseafood.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/transatlantic-novels-assignment-part-1/

Neha is reading The Namesake: http://neha614.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/assignment-for-1024-the-namesake-part-1/

Nico is reading All the Names: http://nicolasrequena28.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/novels-response-1024/

Rafael is reading Enrique’s Journey: http://parrarafael872.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/enriques-journey-part-1/

Angelica is reading Girl in Translationhttp://perezangelica477.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/novels-part-1/

Aaliyah is reading The Secret Life of Bees: http://aaliyahgonzalez.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/novels-part-1/

Overall, I’m really pleased with the results I’m seeing thus far!  Many of the students aren’t as far into their books as I had hoped they would be, but they all seem genuinely interested to keep reading.  I’m definitely getting more traction with these novels than I have with the literature I’ve done in the past for this unit (“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” plus Islamic and Chinese poetry).  Next week, I’ll start having them tie the cultural content of their novel to the things they’ve learned about World History thus far.  I’m VERY curious to see how that goes!


I ran down to Tess’ room the first chance I got. I was too excited to respond in an email. The books Tess filled her shelves with are rich and diverse. Here’s her list: World Literature Library

As I left her room, one comment made me smile:  “I’d still be using the classic lit, if the students would read them.”

And that’s my point: In an AP Class, Shouldn’t It Be about the Reading?

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