Taking the Mystery Out of Question 3

Thanks to Sarah Soper and Melissa Smith for sharing their thoughts from the AP Lit reading this year on Question 3. The prompt can be found here at AP Central.

Reflections by Sarah Soper:

When my students came back from the AP test this year (and of course waited the 2 days until we could discuss it), I was really excited when I heard Q3’s topic.  A character of an unusual or mysterious origin; it sounded interesting and something accessible to students, so when I found out I had Q3 at the reading, I was excited to see what they had produced.

The first thing I realized was when we initially looked at the prompt that day was that students need to make the prompt work for them.  We discussed at our table what “unusual or mysterious” could be taken as and also what it meant by “origin.”  We soon saw the prompt being used in various formats.  Everything from the obviously mysterious (the ghost in Beloved) to the extremely unusual (the monster in Frankenstein) to the more subtle origin such as difference of culture (Amir in The Kite Runner).  As a teacher, I need to make clear to my students that most prompts can be taken in a variety of ways, as long as they explain it clearly, and they need to highlight their strengths with their choice. In addition, they also need to make sure they choose a character that they have ENOUGH to write about. The character doesn’t have to be the protagonist, but writing an entire essay on Boo Radley when we hardly know anything about him may not be the easiest task.

Another thing that soon became apparent as I worked through the essays was that many students didn’t understand the phrase “the meaning of the work as a whole” means THEME. So many students would actually use that exact phrasing but discuss how it affected the plot, or they would just leave out that part completely.  In order to score in the mid to upper range, it is essential that the students not only discuss a theme, but that they articulate it clearly and do so throughout the entirety of the essay.  In other words, it can’t only be in the thesis statement or at the end; it needs to be woven throughout the essay and related back to the character in the prompt.

After reading essay after essay after essay (yes, it deserves to be repeated at least 3 times), we readers began to comment on how important student voice is in the essays. There were students, and probably classes, who tended to have more of a formulaic approach to the prompt. While this may work for some students and be exactly what they need, these just didn’t have the student voice in them that others did.  Students who were able to show their personality in their writing generally tended to score higher, and I realized this is something I need to put more focus on as a teacher.

And finally, along the same lines of showing personality, it was refreshing to read essays that weren’t on the same book that everyone else was writing about (cough, cough, Frankenstein).  When you get a folder of essays, they generally tend to come from the same class or school, so it’s likely that the students have mostly read the same things and therefore, tend to write using the same 1 or 2 texts. As a reader getting essays on the same books over and over, the ones that were different definitely stand out.  So how do I, as a teacher, prevent this from happening with my own students?  One thing I’m going to focus on is continuing my AP choice reading in order to combat this and to give students more options and books they truly WANT to write about.  Another idea, that I got from speaking to a fellow AP Lit. teacher at my table, is to perhaps not always gravitate to the normal classic canonical works as a class read, but choose something different.  Obviously, budgets and resources may not lend itself to this option, but it’s certainly something that has gotten me thinking.  

Melissa Smith’s Reflections:

As an acorn, or first year AP Reader, I was blown away by the efficiency AP Exam scoring. Essays moved fluidly from reader to reader with accuracy and speed. Each essay is scored at least once, some twice with a back-read from the Table Leader or Question Leader. College Board has this down to a science.

I quickly learned that students write on the same books. Frankenstein and The Great Gatsby were the two most popular choices for this year’s prompt. Followed by Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Brave New World. Seeing essays written on books that were unique from the usual selections was refreshing. The usual titles are all great books–I’m not saying don’t teach them–but a little variety with some lesser-taught books might give your students an edge in offering the readers a break from the same old story.

Length matters. I don’t think I scored a single essay that was under a page and a half (front and half of the back) higher than a 4. They just weren’t long enough to go into any kind of detail in textual evidence or really explain how the origins affected the character, other characters, and overall meaning. However, in regards to length, I also read plenty of 4-page essays that were all plot summary. They just retold the story–so they got a 3. Or maybe a 4 if they had a hint of a theme in there somewhere. Make sure if you go into plot that you are doing so only because it supports what the prompt is asking and illustrates the overall meaning that is the basis for your argument.

Essays that scored a 5 were usually formulaic in answering the prompt. They had a simple introductory paragraph, followed by a body paragraph about the first leg of the prompt – explaining the character’s mysterious and/or unique origins and how they affect him/her, then a paragraph on the next part of the prompt – the effect of the origins on other characters, and finally a paragraph on the last bit of the prompt – how the origins illustrate a meaning of the work as a whole. The reason these essays did not score in the upper half was that they read in a disjointed, formulaic manner. The overall meaning of the work was not adequately argued throughout the essay but saved almost as a final thought.

Essays that scored in the upper half did a better job at presenting the overall meaning of the work in the introductory paragraph and in every paragraph that followed. Many students still followed the order of the prompt to organize their essays; the theme was clearly stated in the introduction in a solid thesis statement, and each paragraph explicitly stated how the mysterious or unusual origins helped to establish the theme. They included apt and specific textual evidence and explicitly explained how it helped the author to create meaning.

Essays that scored an 8 or 9 had two key additional factors. The first is students’ use of sophisticated diction–used correctly and without sounding forced. They also had sentence variety, and these two elements together allowed their writers’ voices to be heard. The second factor the 8s and 9s accomplished is that they had an additional level of complexity to their analysis. For example, some brought in a deeper intention of the author and what he/she was trying to achieve with the text. I remember of all the Gatsby essays, there was one that dug deeply into Fitzgerald’s judgment on the materialistic and depraved lifestyles of NYC in the 1920s, using Gatsby’s mysterious origins as a catalyst into what Fitzgerald was really trying to get at. Or maybe the student brought in a literary lens to analyze the work, such as the feminist or psychoanalytic lens to explore the text’s meaning. I read a 9 essay that explored Kurtz’s origins in Heart of Darkness and how he transformed psychologically throughout the text; clearly, there was much discussion in class on Freudian analysis. Another 9 essay was on Pilate in Song of Solomon that took a feminist approach. It was this extra level of complexity in these essays that gave them the boost to the 8 and 9 range.

Lastly, I was surprised to see many students organizing their Q3s by literary techniques. While it’s acceptable to mention symbolism or tone in how they help to create overall meaning, literary devices really don’t belong in a thesis statement of a Q3 essay. I’m assuming these students were lumping Q3 with the other two essay questions, but remember that Q3 is a different beast. Its focus is theme-based, not device-based.

2017 Poetry Prompt Reflections

2017 Prose Prompt Reflections

Melissa Smith teaches AP Literature and 11th grade American Literature at Lake Norman Charter High School in Charlotte, NC. She is a proud to be a mom of two, LNC’s ’16-’17 Teacher of the Year, National Board Certified, and a black belt who spends all of her money on poetry books.

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. 

Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash

One thought on “Taking the Mystery Out of Question 3

  1. These comments echo the statements of so many AP readers I have met over the 10 years I have taught AP Lit. One of the big problems with the overused canon of titles is a deep misunderstanding of the course itself. The College Board should punctuate the course title, rendering it AP English: Literature and Composition. I taught in a building in which students who did not take British Literature in grade eleven were not welcome to take AP Lit in grade twelve.
    I am convinced that this is where the over emphasis on British literary war horses emanates and then is perpetuated in the AP courses themselves. So many of my students used Kostova’s “Historian” and a retinue of Dante’s characters in answering this question.
    I do not consider a course in British Literature a prerequisite for AP Literature, and I call upon my colleagues to reflect upon this essential question: Is not our mission to teach students how to evaluate ANY piece of complex literature and then how to communicate that evaluation effectively in writing?

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