Tag Archives: choice reading in AP English

AP English and Choice Reading

Last week Lisa inspired me with a post she called Books Can’t Be Bullied. Her last line:

“Let’s produce millions of resilient readers, hungry for truth, who will open books and listen, because a book is always ready to talk, and frankly, we could all stand to listen a lot more than we do.”

Then, a friend and colleague of mine wrote a post on her blog about the importance of choice in her AP Literature class, a topic near and dear to my own AP English heart. (I’ve written about choice in AP and how I feel about AP test scores quite a lot.)

And I knew I would share Amber’s testament to readers-writers workshop in AP English. She builds resilient readers, hungry for the truth, who open books and listen.

In this world of fake news and clickbait sharing, we might all want to evaluate how we can provide more opportunities for our students, at every level, to take more ownership of their learning and grow as resilient readers who are hungry for the truth.

Let’s stop saying choice does not work in AP English. It does. And it’s the students’ voices that prove it the most.

Here’s an excerpt from Amber’s post. I especially love the student comments:

. . .

I am currently in my fifth year of teaching AP Lit., and I feel confident that the feedback I have received supports the idea that choice and Advanced Placement courses are not mutually exclusive; in fact, choice might just be essential to our students’ future as readers. Not only have my AP scores supported this (I taught the class of 2013 using full-class novels which were chosen based on how many times they were referenced on the AP exam as well as the desire to cover all of the major literary eras, and my AP scores have increased, and have remained above national averages, since I began to offer students some choice in which texts they read), but my students have also provided positive feedback about how the ability to choose what they read has provided them with more incentive to thoroughly read and explore their texts.

I should probably note that the reason I felt compelled to write this post is because recently, I heard several well-meaning, experienced teachers express genuine concern that the classics “are not being taught anymore” and that “we should make students read them because if we don’t, they won’t ever choose to read them on their own.” Yes, that’s right – I clearly heard the words “make them read…” – because yeah, that works.

Here are a few snippets from students:

  • “Being able to pick our own book to read made the class even better, because we got to choose something to read that would fit our own styles instead of being forced to read something we may not like.” –Tiffany
  • “The book I enjoyed the most…are all the ones I chose to read. I had been wanting to read 1984 for a while and I got the chance. It was so interesting to me because my favorite books to read are dystopias. I liked The Picture of Dorian Gray because it’s different form what I’m used to reading. I like the fact that it was controversial. The Nightingale just had me feeling all kinds of emotions. It was hard to put it down because it was full of suspense. Although I loved 1984, Animal Farm was not for me. I was excited to read it, but it let me down. I don’t think it was the book itself, just the fact that it was assigned with a lot of work. Also, that we had assigned chapters every week, so I couldn’t read it and enjoy it at my own pace.” -Isela
  • “By you giving us freedom, we’ve been able to produce more creative ideas and products. You have definitely helped me prepare just a little bit more for college. Thank you!” –Kara
  • “I suppose I should designate Beowulf as my least favorite book that I had been assigned to read in the duration of my high school years.  I did not despise it entirely; it simply was not very appealing.  In addition, I never completed it.  With only a handful of chapters left, it is one of the few books I have not at least forced myself to finish.  Thus, it will always be a sore spot on my conscious. For my final remarks (at least my final mandated remarks, but I am not making any promises), I would like to state that I prioritized this class over my others even though from the grading perspective this made the least amount of sense.  I honestly felt the need to learn and not just merely make last minute memorizations.”  –Allison
  • “The book I liked best that I read for the class was Les Miserables because I liked it the best and because it was so long I cracked and got the audio book, and I enjoyed having the book read to me as I followed along even though it was a 12 1/2 hour audiobook. My all time least favorite book from my high school Englishes was Bless Me Ultima. It was plainly a boring book and the more I tried to read it the less I was interested in it. I didn’t even end up reading it, honestly. I just sat in class and listened to everyone else’s discussions and from that I got the general gist of the story and such.” –Clancy


Read Amber’s full post Choosing Readers Over Texts with the whole of her students comments. You’ll get it.

What are you thinking? Please let me know in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.


#FridayReads & Becoming (Twitter) Literary Critics

I am beat. My students are beat. I know you know exactly how that feels.

In an effort to lighten the mood but keep the idea of books and reading alive, my students and I had a little fun with Donald Trump. Now, it doesn’t matter what you think of the man or his politics, his tweets make pretty good mentor texts.

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I’m not the only one to think so — actually, I got the idea from someone Buzzfeed. Some clever writer put together a list of tweets, written as if Mr. Trump critiqued literature. Brilliant.

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So to have a little end-of-year fun, I asked my students to consider Trump’s sentence structure, and then write their own reviews based on the most recent books they’d read. Really, my only requirements:  a clear tone, but they didn’t have to be mean, and correct spelling and punctuation.

Here’s a few for your reading pleasure. Of course, the review makes the most sense if you are familiar with the books students refer to — I get that not everyone is as versed in YA like they might be the canon.

(Side Note:  To those who say students will never move beyond YA or ‘easy’ reading when it’s all about choice. Um, wrong again.)

What kind of end-of-year fun with books and reading — or anything else– have you had with your students? Please share in the comments.

Mini-lesson Monday: Personal Reading Challenges

If you’ve ever taught juniors, you probably know my struggle. The third quarter of every year, students hit some kind of mountain of a speed bump. I think they are tired, overwhelmed, a little undone.

Junior year is hard for many of my readers. It’s the first time most have taken an AP class, and some are taking two or three. Competing with APUSH is something I’ve become accustomed to —students choose to do their history homework over English every year. Textbook reading for history looks like homework while the reading I need students to do, reading books that fill their heads with knowledge and stories and vocabulary and empathy does not.

When we hit the wall this spring, I asked a group of my students to help me design a plan to get our reading lives re-energized. They kept it simple:

  1. We should create personal reading challenges.
  2. You should talk to us more about what we are reading.
  3. We should talk to each other more about what we are reading.

This lesson shows how we created our challenges. The more talk part? That was a reminder to up my game with conference and to remember to schedule time for more talk around books.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels, students will assess their reading lives so far this year, predict how many books they can read this spring, and design a personal challenge that will help them continue to grow as readers.

Lesson:  I projected this question on the board at the beginning of class and asked students to write for five minutes in response:  Think about your reading growth and improvement this year. Can you honestly say you are better now than you when you walked in the classroom in the fall?


I then asked students to talk to one another about their responses. And then we talked as a group about how we can up our reading game. I explained that a few of their peers had suggested that everyone craft their own reading challenge, and I showed them mine.

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Then, I gave everyone a notecard, and they went to work. Here’s a sampling of some of my students’ personal reading challenges for the end of the year. I think they’ve decided we are playing bingo. (An interesting idea for the beginning of next year, too.)

Read a book that makes your brain hurt. That’s my favorite!

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Follow up:  I’ve met with more students the past week than I had in the three weeks prior to creating these challenge cards. I appreciate my students reminding me — and wanting me to talk to them more about their reading. The cards serve as excellent talking points for our conferences.

We can never talk to our students one-on-one enough! I know that is true, and I know we get caught up in a million other things that consumes our conferring time. I am recommitted. I want my students to leave me with a sure knowledge that they’ve advances as critical and thoughtful readers who know how to choose books they enjoy and books that challenge their thinking and their abilities. Since students came up with the idea for this little challenge, they have shown much more interest in it than other challenges I’ve created in the past. A good reminder for me. Now, I see kids standing at the books shelves, and when I ask what they are looking for or if I can help them find a book, more often than not, they tell me they need to find a book on their challenge card.


Choice as the Keystone in Secondary English Classes

Shana and I were privileged to present a session during #TheEdCollabGathering on Saturday. If you joined us live, thank you! If you’d like to see our session, here it is. If you have questions we did not answer, leave them in the comments. We’ll do our best to answer.

Choice as the Keystone in Secondary English Classes

A big thank you to @iChrisLehman and the EdCollab Community.

The Winds of Change Smell Like Books

Everywhere I look, I see books. bookshelf

Open in the hands of students.

Shared at the hands of teachers.

I’m dreaming about books. Like the pursuit of the one that got away, I am chasing after unopened books in my sleep. Waking in a state of minor panic – When WILL I have time to read all of these books?  I need a prep period just to read. I need an extra hour in the day. I need a sabbatical.

In the days since TTT came to share their wisdom and enthusiasm with the English Department at Franklin High School, literary excitement is wafting through our hallways and it’s all about books, books, and more books.

Students are buzzing about books.

As I walked through the commons a few days ago, I saw one of my AP Language students, Maddie, reading during her free block. I smiled and walked on. Then, I stopped, turned around, and went back to talk with her.

It was the best move of my day.

Sitting on the table next to Maddie was a copy of A Monster Calls (Since I sobbed over this book and poured myself into sharing it  with students in a book talk a few weeks back,  I’ve acquired six copies for my classroom and not seen one of those copies in days. Kids are handing them off in the hallway. Meeting for coffee to discuss. Making their parents read it. It’s beautiful) and in her hands The Girl on the Train. I asked her how it was going. “Ugh! Mrs. Dennis! I can’t read fast enough. I need to meet my reading goal and finish this book so I can start A Monster Calls.”

I almost hugged her.
I hugged her.
Maybe a second longer than was necessary, but I think we had a moment.

Only a few weeks earlier, before I had recommitted to book talks every day and conferring with kids about their independent reading, we had talked in class about how independent reading was going. Maddie had shared that while she likes to read, she wasn’t making time for it. She had been enthused earlier in the year, when getting time to read in class was something new and different, but hadn’t kept up with the expectation to read 2 hours per week.

I was reminded that Penny Kittle says teachers sharing their passion for books is contagious. In this area, I needed to do better.

While I was giving time to read, sharing lists of books to choose from, and piling books on the shelves, I had let my own passion for texts slip away into the haze of curriculum redesign, semester exams, and lesson planning. In essence, I was asking students to make reading matter without me. Not cool.

So, I grabbed a copy of Stiff, by Mary Roach and got reading.

Of course, I couldn’t put it down. Of course, I wanted to tell my kids all about it. So,  I shared my passion in a book talk, we ended up chatting about the use of humor in nonfiction, and my students were reminded that we are a community that makes time for what matters. READbooks

Reading matters.

And our commitment to that as teachers needs to be visible and constant if we are to have any hope in keeping kids enthusiastically discussing what they are reading and reaching for more.

My colleagues are buzzing about books.

I’ve been wonderfully lucky to work with brilliant and passionate English teachers for each of the thirteen years I’ve been in the classroom. In the past two years, I’ve even been lucky enough to be their department leader and do my best in recent weeks to facilitate our move toward workshop.

While we all share the very traditional love of To Kill a MockingbirdPride and Prejudice, and The Great Gatsby, our passion for reading runs so much deeper. In workshop, it’s our responsibility (and pleasure!) to get kids reading all manner of texts. Not just glancing in the direction of a book, but digesting it.

In short, we know that to get a majority of our students excited about reading, their teachers need to be readers.

Tickled to share a passage, can’t wait to see what you think too, ask a million questions, highlight in multiple colors, adorkable readers. The classics have a role in this, but so do countless other styles, genres, and soon-to-be classics.

Our district has blessed us with a huge surge in classroom library materials in preparation for our shift to workshop instruction. This puts dozens of books in the hands of teachers who are now chatting about Patrick Ness in the hallway between classes, feverishly searching for texts that are suddenly in high demand (Anyone have a copy of Columbine? They are ALL checked out! How about The Nightingale? I’ve got a wait list. With six names on it. For a book)and frequenting Thriftbooks.com to compare how much money they have saved to add even more titles to their libraries.

When in doubt, promote. We enlisted the help of some art students and had a poster made to show how super cool it is to read. A nicer group of people, you will never meet, but this poster says read, or else.

Reading Poster (1)

The students think it’s a riot…and have asked on more than one occasion which books we are reading in the picture.

Mission accomplished.

So, as the wind ushers in both spring and a journey with workshop, let the books come raining down as well. The more I see, the more I want to read. And the more I want to read, the more excited I get to prove to kids that we can all be readers.

How do you keep the beautiful buzz that surrounds books going in your classroom? Please share your ideas in the comments. 




A Question about Equity

I have this idea stuck in my head, and it keeps spinning like the record player my sister broke when I was 11.

When we think about equity in an English class, what comes to mind?

I hope fairness, impartiality, “justice in the way people are treated,” says Webster.

But what does equity look like? What does it look like every day in an English class?

Too many days I spend too much time with my students who do not do the assignments than those who do. Is that equitable?

Too many days I find the time to talk to the talkative students about their lives outside of class, but I rarely take the time to talk to the quiet kids who have a gentle grace, pay attention, complete assignments. Is that equitable?

A week or so ago I conducted a training, and one of the teachers asked something like this:  “Do you still have students who do not read, or do not move forward, in your workshop pedagogy?”


Will I keep encouraging, pushing, pulling, doing everything I — and my extensive network of workshop teachers –can possibly think of to help that student want to read and grow in her literacy skills?

Of course.

But let’s be real. I offer choice reading in my classroom. I offer choice of writing topics on every writing assignment (except timed writings when we specifically practice for the AP English exam.)

I’m going to have to allow the student choice when it comes to actually reading.

I can tell you this though:  More students read and grow and become avid readers than ever did when I chose all the books, all the prompts, all the everything.

And this brings me to the real question spinning in my head:  What does equity look like when it comes to instruction in an English class?

Choose one:

a. A teacher chooses six books for her students to read in a given school year, all books shining with literary merit. She teaches in a school where the majority of her students live in poverty. The children come from diverse homes where they face some struggles, but they seem eager to learn. She believes that since the more affluent school across town requires its students to read these six lofty books, she must require her students to read them. (Maybe her administrator even told her she has to teach these books– she’s just doing what she’s told.) This teacher wants her students to have the same rich literary experiences with these books she had in high school. She wants them to think about literature and analyze the language. She want them to grow in cultural literacy. All good goals. But probably, more than anything, she wants them to be on equal footing with the students across town. She wants them to have the same advantages and the same knowledge about the world’s great books.

b. A teacher allows her students to self-select the books they read. She models the moves of a reader. She talks about rich literature, what makes a compelling story, hboys readingow characters and plot lines develop and how they mirror their lives. She challenges students to consume pages, develop stamina, and grow in fluency. She gives them opportunities to read more and read harder because she knows the value of reading in building confidence and competency. She introduces different genres, authors, themes. She surrounds them with shelves weighed down by high-interest books and gives them time to read in class. To this teacher, it is not about the book — or the six books of lofty literary merit — it is about the reader. Readers who read 12 books in a year instead of just six. This teacher knows if she makes a reader she can make a life.  And the skills gained through reading extensively transfer to their writing and permeate like energetic friends into the reading they must do in other classes.

I am going to go with b.

Equity is not in the books we require students to read in English classes. Equity is in the skills and the fluency and the stamina students need to read those books if they chooses to read them.

Too many students in high school read below grade level. The only way to help them read better is to read more. Six books (and I’ll question if he really reads them) is not enough. So much research helps us understand this. Donalyn Miller collected a lot of it for easy access here. And Penny Kittle cites scores of it in the bibliography of Book Love.

I met with a reader today. I asked her about the reading she did as a sophomore in her Pre-AP class. “Did you read last year?” I asked.

“Uh, no, not really,” she said. “I only read two books last year. But I only remember one.”

Two books.


And before you jump all over me, I know there is option c. Yes, we can have a mix of both, but I will hold my ground:  If we are not advancing readers and writers, we are doing it wrong.


#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.

7 Reasons to Stop Asking about AP Test Scores

The question took me by surprise.

I’d just spent an hour or so sharing how I facilitate readers and writers workshop in my AP English Language classroom. I’d shared a video that showed my students testifying to how much they like having a choice in the books they read and why they feel like they will learn through choice reading this year. I’d shared a mini-lesson on how I teach skills using the books students choose to read, even when they are reading 30 different texts. I’d answered a variety of questions asked by pre-service teachers in Dr. Leavell-Carter’s master’s class at the University of North Texas and started to pack my things.

“What about your AP scores, did they go up?” one young woman asked, “I mean, I just think that would be a double benefit,” she said with a smile.

They say there are no bad questions, but I’ll go to the mat arguing that this is one we really need to stop asking.

I answered as honest as I could: “No. . .well, yes, when I began facilitating writer’s workshop, my scores increased double digits, but I don’t put much stock in AP scores, any standardized test scores, really, there are so many variables, you know; the students and their abilities differ from year to year, and since I’ve only taught in Title I schools where open enrollment is an invitation for all students to take AP classes with no prerequisites or even any preparation for the rigorous coursework, it’s difficult to prepare all students all the time at the same level of learning…”

Then I kicked myself all the way home. Why was I trying to justify my test scores? I’ve written about this before. I have much better proof that workshop works than any kind of testing data:

  1. Many of my students read more during the nine months they spend in my class than they do in

    from Joseph’s reading self-evaluation

    all of the 10 years of school they’ve had prior to coming to me.

  2. Almost all of my students read more books the year they spend with me than they read the year before.
  3. Many students read their first book cover to cover their junior year in my AP English class.
  4. Most students move into complex reading on their own because choice not only gets students reading; it gets them reading critically.
  5. Students tell me every year, “Thank you for allowing me to love reading again.”
  6. My readers learn to see themselves, and to see beyond themselves, by participating in book clubs with peers in non-threatening conversations about literature.
  7. My writers take ownership of their writing and compose beautifully and skillfully crafted texts.

There is no test that measures what my student come to appreciate as readers or what they come to realize as writers.

Sure, I want my students who choose to take the AP exam to do well, but I do not believe it shows what they come to understand about language. (And after scoring essays in Kansas City in June, I believe that even less.) Sure, I’ll keep encouraging my students to take the exam, but I believe most of them will benefit from taking freshman comp in college — even if they read and write well enough to score a 5. At least one English professor agrees with me:

“AP-credits are not always an accurate gauge of student learning. High AP scores in chemistry, for example, may indicate that students understand the basic concepts, but that doesn’t mean they know what to do at a laboratory bench.” (Bobby Fong, college dean and English professor).

I say what’s true for chemistry is also true for English. That doesn’t mean they know what to do when writing an essay for graduate school or a blog post for their employer or reading a report for their business or a decree in a divorce settlement.

Let’s focus on the skills our students need to be successful in the lives that lay before them.

For me, readers and writers workshop helps me do that.


©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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