When You Find Yourself in a Pickle

Students may have found themselves in a pickle after the initial reading of the Smollett passage, but according to Trevor Packer, students scored highest on this essay. Here are a few observations from Q2 readers Amy Adams and Susan Barber (reflections in italics).

Students struggled the most with tone. There seemed to be a disconnect between the word choice students were using, ie barbaric and wrathful (bipolar, Shakespearean, snarky, quirky)  to describe the writing. They seemed to be confusing this with mood. The best way to respond would be to identify the satiric nature of Smollett’s writing, which I was pleased to see most students did identify and understand.  The essays reinforced my need to differentiate my instruction on tone and mood and help students develop a clear understanding of each. Even if it is not mentioned in a future prompt, tone would be a literary device accessible for most students to write about.

I also noticed students struggled with tone writing about the tone of the characters and the changing tone throughout the passage. Many students who were able to identify tone and discuss it reasonably still lacked precise adjectives in describing tone. Tone is hard, but we are asking our students to do hard work with this being within the realm of what students can understand with practice. 

The writing style of the dialogue proved to be tricky for students. The lines of dialogue did not indent as speakers changed in the first section of the prompt. Numerous students misread the passage because of this. Some even identified multiple speakers because the prompt changed epithets to describe the characters: the soldier, the youth, Perry, etc. This was a common error among the responses. If students misidentified the characters, this threw off the writing for the entire passage.

The use of pronouns in the second paragraph definitely confused students with nearly half thinking Pickle won the duel. This misread would not necessarily put students in the lower half of essays if the essay was well written and fully unpacked the relationship between emotions and social propriety. One interesting misread that I saw more than once was about Pickle being a scientist (lines 34- 37).

Narrative pace also had students in a pickle. Many identified the pace as fast or slow, but were unable to connect it to the parts of text to help analyze the why and how narrative pace applied to the text. The analysis was often superficial as students made broad statements about how the passage moved. Many were not able to identify the shift in the paragraphs and how each section moved at a different pace.

Note to self: be sure students can not only identify narrative pace but understand how the author uses it in the development of plot or characters and can relate this back to the theme. Upper-level essays were able to explain how emotions escalated quickly through the dialogue in the first paragraph but then slowed as the pair found a field, pulled off each other’s boots, and discussed using swords or pistols showing their commitment to being proper.

Those students who scored well on the passage were able to tie together tone, narrative pace, and dialogue and thoroughly analyze how each contributed to the satire of the writing.  With the repetition of “sir” many were able to identify the piece as satire but were unable to fully develop and essay connecting all pieces they identified in their thesis statements. The strongest essays identified the separation of classes and identified Pickle and Gaunlet’s argument as having moved from being about Emilia to a battle over pride. These students identified the conflict between the emotional state of each man and how each maintained their social propriety throughout.

The far majority of the upper-half essays that I read worked through the passage from beginning to the end as opposed to organizing by device. Students began by unpacking the dialogue and recognizing it as satire even if they didn’t use that word; this was true especially of the use of “sir” found even in lower half essays. Upper-level essays were able to continue the analysis through the duel scene, but this is where many students failed to connect actions to a theme or defaulted to plot summary. Some resorted to showing off their AP Euro knowledge of that time period or duels while others ignored the second paragraph altogether.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised at this prompt and the effort many students put forth in responding. Admittedly, this was the prompt I did not want. After the Twitter memes and then reading the released exam, I didn’t think students would do well. Many, rose to the occasion and wrote concise and clear essays where they could find a way into the text.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised with the Q2 essays as well. I was slightly nervous after reading for “Juggler” last year that I was in for an encore performance, but this simply was not the case. A final thought is about writing instruction. AP Literature is not simply a course of teaching literary analysis; we are writing teachers as well. Writing instruction is hard, messy, but necessary work, and students deserve our best efforts in this area. 

Finally (for real this time), students are real people and often funny; it’s easy to lose sight of this when reading essay after essay. I loved when someone at my table would chuckle because I knew that meant they were truly hearing this student’s voice. After writing good essays, students would take time to say hi to a teacher, encourage a reader, draw a quick pickle, or make a joke. Again – these things were observed at the bottom of well-written essays. The next month will be about scores and data, but at the end of the day we are teachers and students. 


Amy and Susan having a pickle duel to celebrate the finish of the 2017 AP Lit reading.


4 thoughts on “When You Find Yourself in a Pickle

  1. I also read Question 2 this year, and your reflections are right on. I’d add that lower half essay writers struggled with the prompt’s directive to consider the “complex interplay between emotions and social propriety.” Many lower half writers focused solely on the conflict between a suitor and a woman’s brother, arguing that Pickle and Gauntlet are fighting over the love of Emilia. As you pointed out, upper half essays generally noticed that Emilia is irrelevant to Pickle and Gauntlet’s somewhat ridiculous battle. The lower half writers also seemed to misunderstand “interplay,” believing the word referred to the characters’ interactions. Since “complexity” appears often in Q1 and Q2 prompts, I’m planning on spending more time this year on helping students understand how to write about it. Finally, I share your relief that this passage was accessible for most writers, and I was pleasantly surprised as well.

    • Great insight, Ed! I also need to focus more on the complexity of characters and scenes as opposed to what is literally happening. I would love to know more about how you will help your students write about this.

      So great to meet you in person last week!

  2. Thanks Susan, I enjoyed meeting you as well. Such a warm community of educators at the 2017 reading!

    As far as complexity goes, I’m thinking about emphasizing both tone and undertone as a way of getting students to pick up on subtext. Most lower half writers concentrated on the hostility between Pickle and Gauntlet, missing the satirical undertone of the passage as a whole. Reading the passage as satirical allowed stronger writers to comment on the effects of narrative pacing and write insightfully about Smollett’s subtle mockery of gentlemanly propriety.

    • Mr. Gillet,

      Would you please be kind enough to direct me to “bona fide” academic explication in which the evaluator uses the term “literary pacing” or “literary pace”? Thank you.

      I just completed thirty seven years teaching high school English and Latin. During he last two years of my teaching AP English, this term has become quite prevalent. I should like to research its genesis.

Comments are closed.