Monday, June 16, 2014

Creating Choice and Authenticity in the AP Lit Classroom

I began the North Star of Texas National Writing Project summer institute with a burning question in mind: how can I incorporate a writing workshop model into an AP Literature classroom? Abhorrent to a test-prep approach to teaching, though fully aware of my responsibilities to enable students to succeed on the high-stakes AP exam that marks the culmination of the course, I endeavor to teach the necessary skills and facilitate students' acquisition of knowledge in a way that feels authentic despite the standardized testing parameters. This is a tall order.

Students need to know what to expect on the AP examination. There is nothing like it in the world of daily reading and writing. For those of you who are not familiar with the structure, students read 4-5 passages, a combination of prose and poetry, and complete 55 high-level multiple choice questions within an hour. Next, they write 3 essays in 2 hours based on poetry, prose, and the "open-ended" prompt for which they must identify the best novel, novella, or play on which to base their response. This is a grueling test that demands intense concentration, reading and writing stamina, combined logic and creativity, and speed. The only way for students to prepare for such a taxing exam is to practice with released exams, including multiple-choice questions and strategies and essay passages and prompts. Of course, they also need to read enough novels, novellas, and plays so they have a wide repertoire from which to draw for that open-ended essay.

However, all test prep and no play makes Jack a dull boy. I'm not sure this is the place for a reference to The Shining, so I'll try again: If teachers primarily focus on test-preparation, students will suffer from lack of engagement, lack of authenticity of the reading and writing experience, and perhaps most importantly - the real reasons behind reading and writing, which include learning and communicating about the human experience. 

So, how do educators offer the necessary information about the exam while keeping daily classroom activities more authentic? As many experts before me have said (such as: Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and my friend and mentor Amy Rasmussen), the answer lies in choice. As much as possible, students should choose what they read, how they respond in writing, and what their inquires are. Let's use my experience in my summer institute as an example. Able to choose my own inquiry, I feel more inclined to research and learn as much as I can. I feel free to weigh different viewpoints and deduce my own meaning. I feel free to change my mind, explore, and relate what I learn to my own unique situation and goals. In short, I am engaged, excited about learning, and motivated. Isn't that what we want from our students?

Do I have all the answers to my inquiry yet? No, but I have quite a few that I'm keeping under my belt, for now, until I have tried them in the classroom. Meanwhile, here are some ideas that I have compiled from educators more wise and experienced than me, along with several I already employ, that students can expect to experience in my classroom:
  • Blogs for a variety of writing, from creative pieces to responses to texts, videos, etc. (thanks, Amy Rasmussen!)
  • Original pieces modeled on mentor texts (teaching AP Lit. through creative writing is a new goal I'm working on - thanks, Matt de la Pena!)
  • Daily writing in notebooks - the new twist will be me sharing what I write with my students (thanks, Penny Kittle!)
  • Facilitating a more natural discussion of poetry vs. TPCASTT or another formulaic approach - let the students identify author's craft in a more authentic way
  • Writing poetry as a primary way to understand and explore poetry and sharing my poetry - sharing my own work has always scared me, but with new understanding of how important this is to students, I have moved from anxiety to exhilaration about sharing my writing
  • More opportunities to self-select texts of literary merit - in my experience, students are more likely to write about a text they chose on the AP exam anyway. I have already allowed some choice, but I will expand opportunities for choice this year. 
I haven't written my inquiry-based research essay for the summer institute yet, and I'm sure I will generate many more ideas as I do, but I am already excited for the possibilities that await next year as I let go of the fear of teaching enough test prep to meet standards and trust that by really teaching the literature, they will still get there, but have more fun and authentic experiences along the way. 


  1. I so totally <3 this.
    For real.
    Yours is the grown-up version of my emotion-laden inquiry.
    I so appreciate your thinking/delivery/communication process.

    I'm thankful for this Summer Institute that we are having this opportunity to connect as both colleagues and friends since we don't have that luxury during the school year. I feel like I've found another ally/resource/friend just around the corner.

    1. Whitney, it is I who am thankful. Who knew such an amazing friend, colleague, and resource for ideas and inspiration was just down the hall? I value our friendship and the chance we have to work together through the institute. I can't wait to see where our inquiry journey takes us! Joint book????

  2. You go girl! You are an inspiration to me, just as Amy is to you. As an elementary teacher I can't imagine trying to teach all of the curriculum that is required in AP classes and still have students who love AP English. I have a daughter who just finished her junior year and absolutely loved her teacher this year. Courtney would have done anything for her (unlike the Pre-AP teacher from the year before - but that's another story). I know that teachers make a huge difference in AP classrooms. It sounds like you are on your way to being one of those!