Teaching AP Literature: Maiden Voyage

It’s difficult to wrap my mind around the reality that I’m just months away from finishing out my first year teaching AP English Literature and Composition. This new part of my teaching load was daunting at first, considering I knew nothing about the AP program and that I had never before had the opportunity to put together an honors, let alone an AP course. I knew I was up to the challenge, having always been a person who demanded academic rigor of myself. Still, I knew that this would entail a lot of work… especially considering that, for the first time, I’d be working with students who are all academically very pretentious. Deep down, I had to question whether I would be able to convince them of my knowledgeability and credibility. I knew I couldn’t really “fake” my way through this, not even a little, because students who expect a lot of themselves expect even more of their teachers. My fears were not quickly assuaged; for the first two months of the course, my students regarded me in mostly silence–a silence I had absolutely no way of comprehending. “They hate me,” I thought to myself on a routine basis. Then: “Maybe they’re scared of me? Or scared to fail?” Or sometimes: “God, I hope they don’t think I’m an idiot who’s just faking my way through this.”

Luckily for us all, I have been investing a good percentage of my life since last June studying, preparing, reading, experimenting, and evolving in order to be worthy of my position as an “expert” teacher of literature, and my students now do speak to me, smile at me warmly, and laugh at my (usually stupid) jokes. [Example, for discussion of Richard Wright’s Native Son: This man’s criminality stems from BIGGER influences than just his own independent choices… Um… no pun intended.] And, they are learning. They are making progress in their writing that I can visibly see. They tell me that they feel “enlightened” by what they’ve learned this year, and recently played a role in electing me as the commencement speaker for their graduating class. To my shock, awe, and happiness, I must be doing something right!

Don’t get me wrong–I am still very much the novice when it comes to teaching AP. Just look at a list of commonly cited texts of the essay portion of the exam, and it’s very difficult not to feel overwhelmed by the amount of canonical literature one hasn’t read and hasn’t taught. It seems I’ve already got a list a mile long when it comes to things that I’ll be doing a little differently next year. But for the most part, it’s been a great success. Granted, the students’ scores on the exam in May will be a more accurate measure of that success in a quantitative sense, but I am proud of what these students have been able to accomplish no matter what number they pull on the actual test. I am looking forward to building upon this first success, and eventually becoming a master AP Lit teacher… someday!

Since I learned a lot by doing, I’d like to share the outline of my course for those who are interested either to adopt aspects of it into their own AP plans, or those who’d like to offer new ideas that I (or anyone) could incorporate into this initial frame.  I found syllabi that were posted online to be another great help in the initial formation of my course, so I’ll make my own available as well.

Ms. H’s AP Literature Voyage Log

Summer syllabus: AP English Literature and Composition Summer Syllabus (PDF)

School year syllabus: AP English Literature and Composition Syllabus 11-12

My basic approach/primary goals for students

*Thorough exposure to great literature: Over two semesters, students read twelve novels/plays and dozens of poems and supplementary readings from a wide range of time periods and authors.

* I took a chronological and philosophical approach, organizing units by time period but also by the mindset of the time. When needed, I filled in gaps in students’ history knowledge (like more intimate details of the French Revolution or a deeper analysis of colonialism/racism in America than textbooks provide). I made sure that students could understand the unique historical terms, literary period, and worldview under which each story was formed. This really helped their analyses become more sophisticated, rather than repeating tired aphorisms gleaned from simplified impressions of history.

*Nearly every day, students define and apply a new literary term. From “foil” to “colloquialism” to “ballad meter” to “deus ex machina,” they need to be able to wield these terms in writing and identify them on the multiple choice section. I also focus on teaching the many words that can be used to describe tone, like “elegiac” or “pedantic.”

*Close reading, close reading, close reading… we come back to this often–learning and practicing how to truly interpret language, identify the effects of language choices, and using that information to support a well-crafted thesis. [Click on this link for a Powerpoint fashioned to introduce the concept: Writing-about-literature]

*We take, dissect, and question practice multiple choice exams, in an effort to learn what to expect and how the questioning process seems to operate.

*Constant writing. Ask my students, and you will find that they write quite a bit. There are eleven formal essays in all, each of which I spend copious time commenting on. I identify and explain moments of success, problematic sections, and give a final remark along with the grade at the end. It’s worth the entire day that it takes to grade a full class’ worth, because the students respond and enhance their writing as a result. Revision is expected and encouraged.

*Much academic discussion is required, as a full class, with smaller groups, and with me. Students annotate their texts in preparation, and are pushed daily to make comments (spoken and in writing) which, in the words of the AP course description, are “insightful” and “acknowledge complexity.” My students have come an extremely long way in this category, and it’s the one that I’m most proud of. They truly have gone from making banal, insipid generalizations to impressing me on a daily basis with the kinds of things that they observe and characterize. [Click this link for my presentation on insight/complexity: developing-insight2]

 

Fellow AP instructors, I have a new respect for what you do. Congrats on all the work you’ve done, and that which you’ll continue to do. Academic rigor is something sorely needed in American schools, and it’s truly a gift to have a group of students who embrace that opportunity with open arms. Best of luck on the exam. *Fingers crossed for a class full of threes, fours, and fives*

 

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