In Praise of the Pregnant Pause

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I sat before my AP Literature class and asked a question about the poem we had just read. It wasn’t a tough question: “What is the first thing you notice?”  I want students to react to a poem as an opening move. I don’t want to get weighed down in devices or the “deeper meaning” before we simply discuss what we notice first. I want them to consider their initial reactions before we dig deeper.

“What is the first thing you notice?” I asked, again.

My thirty students responded with collective silence. Some kids looked at me, some looked at their shoes, and some pretended to search for meaning on the ceiling.  

Silence. KEEP READING

The Things They Carried: Lesson Ideas

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The Things They Carry by Tim O’Brien has become a favorite in my AP Literature classroom. O’Brien’s journalistic style allows students to delve into theme and literary analysis without being weighed down with heavy diction and ornate syntax, but this is by no means a lightweight book. The stories and reality of war bring the depth.

Lesson Ideas:

Anticipation Activity:

I ask students to write down twelve things that they anticipate they will take to college. These should include a mix of tangible items such as their phone, blanket, and favorite coffee mug with intangible items such as their mother’s love and memories from high school. Students cut these items into strips and turn them face down on their desk. I randomly choose six items from each student’s desk. Students then write for five to ten minutes on their feelings of what was taken, how life will be without those things, what was left, and general observations. Students are then prepped for a conversation on the randomness of war, the effects of war, and personal sacrifices the war required of soldiers the same age as many of my students. Some students are surprised to learn that losing some things can be good but most have negative effects; some students.KEEP READING

Five Books to Jump Start 2017

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With so many books and so little time to read, our AP Lit Help team offers reviews of their favorite professional reads from last year. Happy reading and learning in 2017!

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Writing with Mentors – How to Reach Every Writer in the Room, Using Current, Engaging Mentor Texts by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell                                                                                                                                                   Review by Jori Krulder

Writing with Mentors is one of those books with ideas so straightforward and obviously useful that you ask yourself “Why didn’t I think of this years ago?” It is based on the simple premise that the best way to create engaged and independent writers is by teaching them to find and use current texts as models for writing. Students read and analyze the text and use what they learn to write their own texts. In addition to providing step-by-step ways to build units of study tailored to the needs of your students, this book offers several resources for finding the real world texts that will help students to see the possibilities out there when it comes to writing. Once I learn the process for finding a mentor text to fit the needs and interests in my classroom and using it to guide students in creating their own writing, I was given limitless possibilities for instruction. And once students learn the process, they’re also able to apply it to future writing endeavors. This book empowers both students and teachers with one of the most important gifts of learning: independence.

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Who’s Doing the Work? By Jan Burkins                                                                                                                                       Review by Elizabeth Metheny

I read Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris’ new book, Who’s Doing the Work?, at the start of this school year. It was a perfect shot-in-the-arm to help me reflect upon my role in student learning. I’ve taught high school English for ten years and have worked with all skill levels from struggling freshmen to Advanced Placement seniors. As I read through the book I saw myself in many of their examples. When students struggle, teachers often feel responsible to do more. Check! When teachers define, scaffold, or summarize for students, the student becomes dependent upon the teacher. Check! When students are assigned a complex text, they rarely use the strategies teachers have taught them. Check!  Burkins and Yaris argue that reading and English Language Arts teachers must take a step back and allow their students to grapple with material. Additionally, they explain how teachers can make easy adjustments to facilitate authentic learning and how those adjustments can help students become more independent and capable of transferring their learning.

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Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning by John Hattie                                                       Review by Roy F. Smith

What started out as required reading for a professional development session, John Hattie’s book Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning turned out to be an essential addition to my professional library.  Hattie’s work is grounded in data and effectively argues for a visible “practice of teaching.”  While most teachers work to assist their students in becoming more knowledgeable, Hattie focuses on those teachers who are “expert teachers” in their disciplines.  Hattie argues that these expert teachers are not only content experts, but they are also “passionate and inspired teachers.” Visible Learning leads teachers and administrators to an understanding of the strategies and techniques these knowledgeable and passionate teachers practice every day.  Hattie’s work is not a “theory only” lecture. The heart of his book develops the key stages of the expert teacher’s daily lessons. He delineates a framework that includes chapters on preparing lessons, starting lessons, the flow of lessons, feedback, and the end of the lesson.  Evaluating expert teachers’ strategies to make learning “visible” for all students, and putting these strategies under rigorous scientific measures, helps all teachers practice these strategies in their own classrooms.  Hattie sums up his book’s goal when he claims that “My point is that teachers’ beliefs and commitments are the greatest influence on student achievement over which we have some control – and this book outlines those beliefs and commitments.”      

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In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom by Kelly Gallagher                         Review by Susan Barber

Seeing Kelly Gallagher’s name with “the best interest of students” on a book left me no choice but to buy, and this book did not disappoint. Gallagher honestly reviews Common Core standards and argues that teachers need to stay true to teaching reading and writing rather than a set of standards. This book provides practical and theoretical content, old and new ideas, and teacher and student insight. In a world where many educators seem to either be highly outspoken against the standards or all in with them, Gallagher walks the line between the two putting best practices and students at the forefront of the book rather than engaging in an argument about standards, the current state of education, or the despair of literacy in today’s society. Some of the book is common sense which in my opinion is what is missing from many of today’s classrooms. Other parts of the book fights for student choice and engagement pushing educators to stay current with research and continue to grow as an educator.  My copy is already earmarked and worn from use already, and I have no doubt yours will be as well.

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The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark                                                                                                                       Review by Susan Barber             

I read a lot. I grade a lot. I confer a lot. So when I find a book with lessons ready to roll out in my classes, I have found a gem. The Art of X-Ray Reading is a gem. From Fitzgerald to Shakespeare to Homer to Joyce to Morrison, Clark provides a lesson for a section of a text focusing on close reading. Do not confuse the term “close reading” here with a fad of filling out a worksheet on a passage but rather a serious study of a section. Students wade through syntax, determine diction and connotation, and tie the small to the big picture of the work. Clark turns the texts into mentor texts for writing and labs for teaching reading skills. His lessons are meaty, thorough, and engaging. Though only providing lessons for twenty-five works, teachers apply the principles of these lessons to any and every work taught in their classrooms. 

Best Lesson Series (Concept 1e)

I would be amiss if I failed to remind you of the Talks with Teachers book The Best Lesson Series: Literature written by teachers for teachers. If you have not read this, you are missing out!

What was the best professional book you read last year?

Character Complexity

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In an ever-continuing effort to guide my students in reading deeply and finding meaning in a text, I wanted to do something different near the beginning of Brave New World to help students see the complexity of the characters. When I read chapter four of Brave New World (for the 100th time), I knew this was the perfect place to try a new idea because Benard Marx and Helmholtz Watson are sized up (no pun intended) in Section 2. I love teaching foils because comparing characters (or settings, symbols, themes, or any comparison for that matter) is one of the easiest ways for students to notice differences and find an entry point to draw conclusions about the meaning of the work as a whole. KEEP READING

Texts not Terms

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This conversation happens frequently in my classroom; I’m guessing it happens in your classrooms as well. 

Student: “What do you want us to annotate the text for?”

Teacher: “Meaning.”

Student: “Yes, but should we mark similes, personification, themes, or what exactly?”

Teacher: “Sure – if you think they’re important and add to the meaning, mark it.”

Student: “Ughhhh.”

And so it goes. (I just finished Slaughterhouse Five; humor me). KEEP READING

Dylan Composes His Way into Literary Discussions Like a Rolling Stone

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One of my first lessons in AP or any senior level literature class revolves around the question of what exactly constitutes literature. Because I wanted to change things up this year, I have not done this lesson and am glad because now I am going to teach Bob Dylan.

Question 3 calls for students to answer a prompt using a novel or play that is a work of “literary merit.” Each year students ask if they can write on Harry Potter, The Fault in Our Stars, or The Cat in the Hat for the exam; (surprisingly none of my students have written on the latter to date). While I could direct students to a list of what I believe to be appropriate criteria for literary merit, I prefer to let students wrestle with the difficulty of literary merit before I offer my thoughts.KEEP READING

Mudbound, Skype, and Hillary Jordan

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No More Guessing on Author Intent in Mudbound – Susan Barber

After falling in love with the novel Mudbound last summer, I decided to make it this year’s summer reading. Mudbound has so many great teaching points from point of view, narrative perspective, characterization, symbolism, and themes that one could spend months uncovering the layers of meaning. Oh, and did I mention the story is high interest?  Students came to class on  day one anxiously awaiting discussion; they enjoyed the novel so much there were few complaints about having summer work.
KEEP READING

Bridging the Gap between AP Language and Literature

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I became an English teacher largely because I love literature. Most of us would consider ourselves “readers” and have a love for words that led us to this career. That’s why I was really surprised when I loved AP Language so much.  There was no poetry, very little fiction, just nonfiction works (articles, essays, speeches, letters) to synthesize, analyze, and argue.  AP Language gets down the building blocks of why and how an author uses words to achieve his purpose. From my first introduction to the course, I found myself analyzing every sermon, televised speech, and opinion column for its use of rhetoric. … KEEP READING

Thoughts from an AP Reader: “Juggler” Question 1

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Writing a timed essay for the AP exam on “Juggler” by Richard Wilbur was much like juggling; students had to manage a prompt asking them to analyze the juggler and the speaker’s attitude toward the juggler while considering poetic devices Wilbur detail the juggler and the speaker. Trevor Packer from College Board posted on Twitter last week that students “continue to find analyzing poetry more difficult than prose” in regard to this year’s AP Lit exam; writing about poetry may be the biggest challenge for students in AP Lit. After reading approximately 1,200 students essays, here are my observations and takeaways from this year’s reading.

What Students Did Well:

  • Taking advantage of multiple entry points in the poem
  • Addressing both literal and figurative meanings
  • Identifying poetic devices

Even though I definitely scored more lower level essays than higher level, I was surprised at what students were able to accomplish in approximately 40 minutes. Essays scoring a 4 often offered good thoughts about the poem but failed to go deep or back up ideas with textual support. I came away encouraged that AP teachers are teaching students to find the point of the poem they connect to or identify with and enter the poem there. KEEP READING

Thoughts from an AP Lit Reader: Question 2

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The College Board dotingly refers to their first-time readers as acorns and even distinguishes us with an acorn on our name badge.  “The Reading,” as it is so fondly referred to, is a surprisingly pleasant professional development opportunity that involves reading 1.2 million essays in a collaborative effort with colleagues from all over the country and even the world.

When the Chief Reader report comes out it will be a valuable resource for all teachers. According to College Board, sadly only 11% of teachers who access the exam questions take advantage of the material provided by the question leaders.  This will use much more sophisticated vocabulary likely including words such as penultimate and ubiquitous. In the meantime, here are my observations as a first-time reader on Question 2 that are designed to be helpful for implementation into the AP Literature classroom.  KEEP READING

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