Tag Archives: literary canon

#3TTWorkshop — Making Workshop Work in AP English Part 2

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post — a conversation between Amy, AP Language teacher, and Jackie, new AP Literature teacher

Do you think it’s important that students read classic literature in an AP class?

Amy:  In an AP Literature class, yes. In classes leading up to AP Literature, yes, in sound bites and shorter texts. However, balance is key. Do we give students some say in what they read for our classes — not just what they may choose to read on their own? Are our students reading and growing as readers? Do we approach the text with the goal to help them do so, or do we approach the text and teach the book instead of the reader?

In a conversation the other day, one teacher said she likes to use classic literature because the conversations around the complexity help even her struggling students learn. Of course, that is probably true, but learn what? Those conversations will not help those students become better readers. The only way to become a better read is to read. If students are not reading the books we choose, we have to be okay with that. We have to admit that perhaps our goals for that specific unit, and that novel, are different than choosing the book because we know all students will read it. We have to decide we are okay will students not reading. I wrote a pretty long post about this whole debate here.

Jackie:  In AP Literature, yes, my students must read classic literature.  Because the AP Literature test Jackieclassroomboysis centered on the canon of “higher literary merit” books, I do teach set texts like Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and Othello, but I stress from the beginning that in this course we are continuing to develop our reading lives as both academics and hobbyists.  Fortunately, many of my students arrive at my door with a passion for reading, but as I saw at the beginning of the year, far too many of them haven’t read a book for enjoyment since their freshman year.  Their lives become too busy and the first thing that seems to go is reading.

In turn, while I teach multiple whole class texts to fulfill the needs of the test, I also make space for independent reading.  The vast majority of my AP Literature students are seniors, and I know that this is their last English class before they move onto college.  In turn, my greatest goal beyond providing them with the necessary skills for deep critical thinking, is to reinvigorate their passion for literature and love of books.  

Where does teaching writing fit into your AP curriculum?

Amy:  I tell my students:  Ours is primarily a writing class. Before we even get settled in, students know they will write a lot — in all kinds of different modes and to a vast audience they build themselves. When I first changed my approach to teaching, I began with writer’s workshop. I’d heard Penny Kittle present, giving ideas from Write Beside Them, and that book became my curriculum guide. Today, I urge teachers who are thinking of shaking up their teaching, to take the first wobbly step into writer’s workshop. Depending on your book shelves and your library, it might be easier. Of course, it depends on your own confidence, too. If a teacher isn’t comfortable teaching writing, it’s probably because she hasn’t practiced being a writer herself. That has to be step number one. Write. Write beside your students so they see you struggle. Read articles and books on writing by writers. I’ve been reading the works of Donald Murray, a suggestion given to me personally by Penny Kittle. Murray’s books have enriched so many aspects of my writing life — and my teaching life. Try Learning by Teaching, and you will know exactly what I mean.

Jackie: It’s funny that you say your class is primarily a writing class; for me, AP Literature is primarily a reading class.  At the beginning of the year, I challenged my students to read 25 books…and I don’t just mean books of higher literary merit.  I wanted students to fall in love with reading again, which can be quite tricky when it comes to a class centered on analyzing books.  Even today during a mid-year progress presentation, a student talked about how he initially felt guilty picking up a YA book, but how this book helped him fall in love with reading again.  As you said, I too practice my craft alongside my students, only this year, it’s all about reading beside my students, which I do every year, but it’s fun to analyze many of the pieces for the first time with my students.  I don’t hold back when it comes to admitting my own questions about a text.  Learning beside my students makes the social process of the workshop model that much more authentic.  

Amy: Besides teaching my students to write arguments, since that is what the AP exam is all about, I also teach my students to write everything. We start with narrative, move into information, determine the difference between persuasive and argument, and practice research and synthesis as we go. My students write on their blog, usually about topics they read about in the news, although I’m going to try to mix this up in the spring and open their topics up to ones they find in their independent reading.

Diego and Tia deep into discussion around revisions.

Diego and Tia deep into discussion around revisions.

Blog writing is practice writing. I read as many posts as I can get to, and I try to leave feedback that helps the writer grown. The whole process starts out rough. Students think they they can pour out their thoughts on the page and then publish without doing much revision. We talk about this. We talk about audience, purpose, form. We even explore what Bloggers do to appeal to their audiences, and we try to build a readership (although I need to do a better job and take more time on this.) The whole point is to expand the classroom — to give my readers a reason to write that is other than Mrs. Rasmussen said so. Does every student buy in? No, but I get many more students to buy in to becoming writers, and many of them ask me if they can write on their blogs more than I require.

Of course, we also move through process papers, using mentor texts, studying the moves of writer’s, mirroring and modeling his or her craft, practicing revision and revision and revision before finally publishing. This year we’re writing about four of these essays a 9 weeks, which isn’t as much as I would like, but it’s a good amount for my writer’s this year.

Jackie: I am building from the bottom up this year.  With the help of a phenomenal mentor, Sheridan Steelman, I am learning how to marry the workshop classroom with the traditional AP Literature curriculum.  AP Lit is all about recognizing the beauty of language and the craft moves an author makes as they frame an idea or concept.  I’m that weird teacher that is so moved and excited by my students recognition of beauty in a piece that I jump out of my chair and cheer.  It’s okay though, I’m surrounded by word nerds!

During the first half of the year has involved analyzing writers’ craft to gain a better sense of the author’s goals and purpose.  We do write plenty of analysis essays, some being short timed pieces while others are lengthy explorations of deeper themes.  We also co-write papers in small groups, which forces students to rely on one another as they tackle the writing process.  Next semester I look forward to exploring more creative writing outlets as students mirror some of the craft within their independent novels.

Above all, my favorite writing my students do is the writing in their critical reading notebooks.  I love thumbing through the raw reactions to students’ YA literature and personal reading novels as well as the the pages of scribbled notes on characters and connections from their novels of higher literary merit.  
Join the conversation. What ideas do you have for a balance of choice and required in an AP English class? How do you manage the writing?

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#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.

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