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 is 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.
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?