AP Lit Lessons for the ELA Middle School Classroom
This past week I had the opportunity to participate in an AP Literature & Composition Summer institute (APSI). As a middle school teacher in my district this was quite an experience and one that most teachers at my level never get to do. In my case, a high school teacher had to back out at the last minute, and I was the lucky recipient of this coveted spot. I wanted to try and capture some of the gems that I gleaned from this amazing experience so that other middle school teachers might benefit from my experience as well.
I have always been interested in what goes on in an AP class and the kinds of skills that students are expected to have once they reach that level. As a curriculum writer for my district, I had been charged with incorporating CCSS into our 7th grade curriculum and had successfully introduced more challenging texts and supporting strategies into that pacing guide.
Currently I teach 8th grade and I am in the midst of writing some new units for this grade level. I participated in the AP training class because I wanted to learn more about the content, strategies, and expectations for AP-level work in order to incorporate these strategies/skills into the new curriculum as well as apply them in my own classroom.
What I learned is that the skill of close reading is crucial for success in AP Lit. We have been teaching and reinforcing this skill over the past three years at our school. It was very gratifying to learn that this emphasis will definitely pay off for our students when they get to the high school level and beyond. AP texts include poems, prose, and book-length novels and plays. These works must have “literary merit” and in our state (NC) should include the focus of our 12th grade curriculum (16th Century literature to the present, British & American literature). All week we read AP sample texts, answered multiple choice questions, read student sample “free response” essays, and practiced scoring them based upon a rubric. The range of student writing was considerable and I was so impressed by the level of sophistication that some students were able to produce in less than an hour. On the free response section of the test, students must read an excerpt of prose text and/or a poem pairing and then formulate and write a coherent essay response in less than an hour. This is no small feat! Many of the texts were extremely difficult and I would have been challenged to do that even today, let alone when I was senior in high school!
In addition to the importance of close reading skills, students must know how to write well. Specifically, they need to know how to convey the “what” and the “how” of the piece. The “what” is the content—what is happening in the text? Does the student understand what is going on? Then, they need to be able to explain the “how”—what literary techniques/devices does the author use to convey meaning? It is not enough to know/define the literary terms; students should have internalized these meanings and be able to skillfully convey their understanding of the writer’s craft. This is where I think many students need the most support. They can pick out a metaphor or repetition or antithesis, but they struggle with explaining why the author chose these techniques to convey meaning. Provide lots of opportunities for students to practice this skill.
It would be impossible to list everything I learned in my APSI, but here a few gems:
1) Continue to teach students how to do a “close read” of a text. Remind them that they must read “beyond the text” and think about what the text could be saying on a symbolic or metaphoric level.
2) Teach students about literary archetypes. This will be invaluable to them as they encounter the classics in high school/college.
3) When writing about texts, always cite evidence to support your claims. Keep your discussions text-based. Show you know what you are talking about by citing direct evidence from the text to support your arguments. Focus on the “what” and the “how” of the text.
4) When having students read a particularly difficult text or set of poems, have them first read/annotate the text individually. Then have students discuss their responses in a small group setting using guided questions for that text. After they have fully discussed the text in this manner, then have them write their responses. (We did this ourselves and it helped tremendously when we were writing our own free-response essays to a particularly difficult text.)
5) The collective literary experience of reading a novel as a class is so important for so many reasons. In our district, teachers have been discouraged from reading a novel as a whole class since the implementation of CCSS. There are many reasons why this makes sense (e.g. the amount of time it takes to read through an entire novel together as a class, especially a particularly long novel, lack of funding for books, different reading levels, etc.), but the importance of a shared literary experience cannot be downplayed. I would like to try Ariel Sack’s Whole Novels for the Whole Class approach and see if I can’t make that work this year.
6) When students are analyzing/interpreting text, have them pay particular attention to the “tension of opposites in a text” (light/dark, good/evil), ironies, etc. All AP Lit exam free response texts will contain these contrasts on some level, and it is an excellent approach to interpreting a text. This identification of opposites/contrasts is also a great way into a text. Most students will be able to do this, and this gives all a place to start in literary analysis.
7) You must balance the rigor with the enjoyment of the class. Always follow a particularly difficult text/novel with something more accessible/enjoyable so that students (and teacher) don’t burnout. This is so important to remember. Balancing intense analysis or writing with lighter texts will give all the fuel for the long haul.
In my classroom I have incorporated many of these techniques to help my students grapple with challenging texts. For example, we have read many of Poe’s short stories and some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work. These texts are challenging in many ways—especially the vocabulary and syntax—but with appropriate support, my students have been successful in reading and enjoying them. I believe this practice and exposure to challenging works of literary merit will prepare them for the rigors of high school and college-level work. This early introduction familiarizes them with the language of the discipline that is so essential to their academic success. Knowing exactly what is expected of my students for AP-level work, I feel better prepared to provide the types of learning experiences they need to give them the best chance for success. This is particularly true if we are sincere about equal access to AP courses. Giving middle school students a heads-up on what to expect empowers all students to earn a spot in an AP course.
If you currently teach middle school and have an opportunity to participate in an AP Summer Institute or workshop, I encourage you to take it. This training and experience has been invaluable to me as I work to create a challenging and engaging language arts classroom experience for all.