Thoughts from an AP Lit Reader: Question 3

Many of the lessons I learned from reading Question 3 essay after essay were ones I’d learned before, but the prevalence of some the problems that cropped up reinforced in my mind the points I am going to emphasize with my students next year. Here are some of the crucial ideas I’ll be bringing to my classroom this fall:

Introductions: GET to the point and HAVE a point

AP readers who are looking at many, many essays for many, many hours do not enjoy reading lengthy introductions. Students have a very limited time to write their essays and readers will understand (and appreciate) not having to hunt for a thesis amidst historical accounts of the author’s time period and your thoughts on which politicians tend to lie the most. Do not bother to restate the prompt, as I can assure you, many, many students have already done and do not give a laundry list of the three literary techniques you will be discussing in your essay. Instead, formulate an idea that answers the prompt using the novel you have chosen and hopefully incorporating the meaning of the novel as a whole and get on with your essay.

Organize Your Ideas

I was amazed at the number of one-paragraph (multi-page) essays I read during my time in Louisville. Yes, you have to write your essay quickly and it’s easy to panic and just write down everything you can think of about the novel, but paragraphs help the reader follow your line of reasoning. It’s easy to lose track of what the writer is saying if one thought blends into the next and it’s easy to lose track of what you’re trying to say if you don’t have a basic plan for your writing. Consequently, I teach my students to spend 5 minutes sketching out a basic plan for their essay: thesis, main supporting points, and evidence they’ll use to support these points. Roman numerals are not necessary – just a simple roadmap for where you’ll be going with your ideas.

Also, while this is not by any means the only way to organize a body paragraph, my students who struggle to embed quotes effectively appreciate the quote sandwich technique. Begin the paragraph with one of the main supporting points you’re making about the thesis, follow with your specific evidence from the text, and finish with an explanation of how the evidence supports the thesis. This helps students slow down and include their analysis of the text as well as discouraging plot summary. If you have to explain everything you mention from the text, you’re less likely to include something irrelevant.

Ban Plot Summary

I read several essays that were simple retellings of the story of the student’s chosen novel – some of them several pages long. I would hunt diligently for analysis amid the paraphrase – after all, we were told to reward the students for what they did well – but often, the essay contained little analysis, overt or implied, and these essays could, according to the rubric, score no higher than a 4 out of a 9 point scale.

I’m sure we all have told our students that plot summary does not an essay make, so why do they keep reverting to this? On the essays I saw that contained little more than a paraphrase of the text, one crucial thing was missing: a thesis that discussed the all-important Meaning of the Work as a Whole – something I also refer to as Universal Theme. If students haven’t come up with a larger idea of what their novel says about the world or society as a whole or how it applies to their lives, there’s really not much to say other than what happened in the book as it applies to the prompt.

There are many ways to approach teaching theme, but one method I use is asking students: “What do you notice?” and “What do you think?” This year’s Q3 prompt asked about deception and most students could think of a novel where someone deceived someone else. If I were having students practice with this prompt, I would have them pull out incidents of deception from a novel that they noticed and then spend some time discussing what they thought about these acts of deceit. O.K. – Iago spends pretty much all of Othello deceiving pretty much everybody. So what? Why is that important? What does it say about human beings and the things we tend to do? What does it say about life and the human condition? Once you can formulate a point that Shakespeare might be making through Iago’s deceit, you actually have something to explain in your essay and you can spend the ensuing paragraphs giving examples of Iago’s deceit and how they support the main point your thesis stated. It’s a lot easier to write an essay supporting an idea if you actually have an idea to support.

Write a LOT

This may sound contradictory to my rant on paraphrase in the previous section, but the upper-level essays (6s, 7s, 8s, and 9s), were almost always 3 pages or more. This is not to say there were no low scoring essays of this size, but in order to have enough evidence and analysis to reflect true complexity in the text, you need to write more than a few pages. I saw many essays with promising introductions cut off in their prime at 1½ pages.

Students are often good at finding evidence in the text, but when it comes to explaining how that evidence supports their thesis, they struggle to have anything to say. We practice this skill in my classroom in a number of ways, but one particularly effective activity for students is to pull out a quote from the text we’re reading and write a response of at least a page – just for that one quote. Responses can do a number of things, from discussing the connections they have with the quote, to discussing its relevance to a particular topic, to asking and exploring questions large or small, to discussing the effect of literary devices they’ve noticed, to expressing opinions they may have about something in the quote.

Many students will struggle with this at first because they’re not used to writing more than a sentence or two about a piece of evidence, so be encouraging and use these responses as a basis for discussion. Students will hear others’ ideas, which will, in turn, expand their understanding of what is possible when it comes to responding to a text, and spark more ideas of their own. It’s great practice for expanding their thinking about a text, and when they sit down to write, they’ll have a lot more of consequence to say.

A Few Final Miscellaneous No-Nos

  • Penmanship matters. I always mention this to my students, but next year, I will be much more emphatic about it. After the 762nd essay, you don’t want the reader struggling to read what you have to say – they will do their very best to decipher your writing, but it would be very sad if they missed a brilliant piece of analysis that could have moved your score of 5 up to a 6.
  • “It moves the plot forward.” is NOT an analytical point. The prompt did not ask you to discuss the plot; please just answer the prompt.
  • No editorializing. When you rhapsodize on about the brilliant work of the author, you are not endearing yourself with the readers, you’re just distracting them from what should be the focus of your essay: your literary analysis. Save the compliments (or otherwise) for a book review.

Undoubtedly, I will take a wealth of ideas and strategies back to my classroom, but I have to say the most important thing I have to relate to my students is this: there is no secret formula for writing a good Q3 essay, or any essay, for that matter. It’s all about coming up with a well-thought-out idea and effectively communicating that idea. That has long been the focus of my classroom, but somehow, reading over 1,500 essays has a way of clarifying things for you; it’s the thought that counts.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts from an AP Lit Reader: Question 3

  1. This is amazing insight! I am going to add “this moves the plot forward” to the list of banned phrases in my classroom (such as “the author uses diction and syntax”).

  2. I do appreciate your thoughts and experiences. Thanks for taking the time to share insights with all of us AP Lit teachers and students.

    However, I do wonder about the fact that students are given one shot to do this work and as a reader, you seem to be sending the underlying message in your post that because you (and other readers) read so many exams, students had better take that into account. Isn’t that unfair to students? Can they help it that the readers have to read so many essays and may have done this for years and years? For most students, this is their first (and probably only) time taking this test.
    Maybe I am reading your subtext incorrectly here.

  3. Everything mentioned here is what I preach from my podium. Nice having the ability to reiterate the same from someone just returning from the trenches.

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