An Acorn Becomes a Sapling

This coming school year will mark my 10th year of teaching AP Lit., and for quite a few years now, each time I would attend a conference or talk to another like-minded AP colleague, I would hear the same thing over and over: you HAVE to go to the AP Reading.  I quickly decided these people were crazy.  Wait, you want me to volunteer to give up my first week of summer vacation to go and grade essays for 7 days?  So many things sounded more appealing.  You know, things like gouging my eyes out with forks or walking barefoot over broken glass.

Eventually, my friends began to assure me that it wasn’t cruel and unusual punishment and was actually a wonderful opportunity and even, dare I say, fun. And after talking last year with 3 first time readers who raved about the experience and a lot of encouragement,  I was finally convinced and decided to take the leap and apply last fall. After the application process, I received what seemed like 100 follow up emails asking me to provide them yet another piece of information and telling me that I had been accepted to be a reader, but they were not sure if I would have a spot this year.  Once I FINALLY got the official acceptance notice that I would be reading this year, I was fully drinking the Kool-Aid myself and feeling like this was going to be the time of my life.

My thoughts remained upbeat and excited about the reading until a few days beforehand.  Then, the panic began to set in.  All of the original doubts and reasons for not applying in years past came rushing back.  There’s no way I was smart enough, or capable enough, or had enough stamina to make it through this reading.  As I boarded my plane in Detroit, I was literally nauseous with fear and anxiety.  When I checked in and found out I was reading for Q3, I felt excited but also nervous.  There is no way I’ll know all that literature. I’m going to have to give every essay away and then I’ll be fired.  These were the thoughts flooding my brain as my stomach continued to churn.  This nausea pretty much stayed with me my entire first day of reading. Thankfully, I was lucky enough the have THE BEST table leader ever, who was nothing but encouraging and never once made me question or doubt myself.  (Thank goodness, because I’m not sure if my self-doubt could have gotten any higher).  I graded at a snail’s pace, trying to be 100% accurate, and I strained my eyes (unsuccessfully) to see if her backreading produced the same scores as mine and continued that day and the next with shaky hands and a stomach full of butterflies.

After some time though, I began to gain a little more confidence and even a little more speed.  I began to realize that I did, in fact, know what I was doing.  I actually did know most of the literature.  I could somehow maintain the stamina of grading for 7 ½ hours a day. And yes, those rubrics I had been using for the past 10 years were familiar, and I hadn’t been doing it wrong this entire time.  And then I really started to enjoy all the awesome opportunities this was affording me. I was able to understand, better than ever before, the true inner workings of the essay portion of the test and the way in which it was graded.  I had the opportunity to collaborate with AP Lit. teachers from around the country. I could see firsthand some of the mistakes and also the successes of the essays.  And perhaps most importantly, I figured that going back to my students after the grading would give me some serious “street cred” when I told them what they should do when writing their essays.

Although there were many advantages of attending the reading, the best thing overall was connecting with the amazing group of educators from around the country that I am privileged to call my PLC and my friends.  Had it not been for this group encouraging me, I never would have applied, and I certainly wouldn’t have had as rich of an experience once there.  These relationships that have formed and this shared camaraderie have truly transformed me and continue to make me a better teacher each day.  This is not something that is a benefit for the week; rather, it is something that will continue to benefit my entire career.

So, as you read this, if you are one of those people thinking you could never do it (or perhaps would never want to), I want to assure you that you can.  I want to encourage you to take that leap and allow yourself to have the amazing and rich experience I did.  And I hope that next year, I’ll see you at the reading as an acorn, when I have become a sapling.


Writer’s note: “An acorn” is how the CollegeBoard (and others) refer to the new readers and is denoted by having an acorn on their nametag, while returning readers do not.


Sarah Soper has been teaching English for 12 years at Northwest High School in Jackson, MI and has been teaching AP Lit. for 8 of those.  She has a love for both classics like Shakespeare and modern young adult literature.  When she’s not teaching or grading essays, she’s busy being a wife and mommy, reading, working out, and attending Michigan football games. 

3 thoughts on “An Acorn Becomes a Sapling

  1. I’m thinking I need to overcome my reluctance of reading a bajillion essays and apply. Your reflection helped nudge me closer to applying.

  2. Mrs. Soper,
    Now that you have had this experience, would you not agree that a more detailed reporting from the College Board would definitely help AP Lit Teachers adjust instruction and focus? What I mean is that I should receive something like this report each year:

    Open Response Scores by Student and by Assessment

    Name Poetry Prose Open
    Sam Student 5 7 8

    Clearly, then, if the preponderance of my students’ lowest scores were in the Poetry Essay Assessment, then I need to “microanalyze” the prompt to see what I may have missed. Since the wording of the prompts do not radically change, I could ascertain, for example, that students may not have written well about structural devices or perhaps I need to give more practice in ascertaining shifts in tone.

    The current system only offers me the number of students falling into the quadrants of percentiles as far as writing is concerned. If the College Board is truly concerned about the decline in the number of students earning a 3 or better on the AP Lit exam, it must give us teachers in the trenches the tools to adjust our instruction to fit the requirements of the assessment.

    • Yes, I agree that more information would be helpful for AP teachers in order to help them improve their weaknesses with instruction. Many teachers have brought this up to the Collegeboard. While at the reading, I attended the Colllegeboard open forum and Brandon Abdon did say they are working on a way to give teachers more feedback. Here’s hoping!

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