Anchors for the Course

This class is all about the exam; this class is not at all about the exam. – Lisa Boyd

We start the year with this quote and talk about living in the dichotomy of learning that prepares students for the exam while at the same time not making the class a sole test prep experience. AP Literature is so much more than the exam. Y’all know because you see it in your classes as I do. This class becomes a family over the year. We know our students are so much more than the combined score of an FRQ1, FRQ2, FRQ3, and 55 MC questions. We know that we as teachers are not defined by our students’ test scores. YET this is the time of year that the exam is staring us in the face, and if we’re not careful, lassitude, stress, and even guilt can set in. I imagine our students are feeling a lot of the same things. 

I don’t have answers on how to resolve this tension, but I have chosen these anchors for the remainder of the year to keep up moving forward. 

Anchor 1: Agency and Choice

This year of all years has left our students feeling victim to circumstances as they have watched the world spin out of control on so many fronts. Giving students opportunities over how they want to spend these last few weeks provides areas where they can exercise control which feels pretty good when there’s so many areas where students have no control. Here’s how this looks in my class:

  • Dystopian Choice Reading – I like ending the course with a dystopian or post-apocalyptic text which many of my students end up using on the exam. And what screams happy end of the year more than some good dystopian lit – ha! Students read their choice book, write a couple of responses along the way, and the a FRQ3 on the book at the end. Sometimes students will break into small groups by books to discuss, but at the end of the year this is far less formal than a lit circle. 
  • We have four days of synchronous learning now, and my goal is to have one day each week where we work with a common text – reading, mini-lesson, low stakes discussion, etc. – and one day on targeted writing instruction. The other two days students can choose what they want to work on. Here’s an example of what that looks like in class. This gives them some ownership over their learning and gives me a break from trying to figure out how to meet all of the needs of my students in one lesson. 

Anchor 2: Creative Outlets

When I first started teaching AP, I was a “more is more” teacher. More essays, More texts. More practice. All of this inevitably led to more stress and more work. Now I definitely have a “less is more” approach. The only more in my classroom these days are more creativity and more play, and I have found that my students are no less prepared than before.

 Mentor texts have been a staple in my classroom for years and as the exam gets closer I will fight the urge to just test prep and continue to give opportunities for creative writing. Last week we read “Girl” by Kincaid (a lesson I do every year – here’s the lesson slide deck) and my students wrote their own prose poems. (Student Samples shared with permission). As you can see in the lesson there are specific skills targeted (perspective, tone, syntax, thesis statements, etc.) as well as a creative outcome for students. Learning and creating are not mutually exclusive. 

I anticipate as we review for the exam, my students will be creating playlists, visual representations of specific scenes with analysis, one pagers, etc. all of which will help students feel less like they are cranking out work to cram for a test but still providing content and review. 

Anchor 3: Celebration and Continued Community 

This is another area where I have to continue to fight the urge to jump straight into work because time is short. Each Monday we start class with Tell Me Something Good where every student says something good – big or small – that happened over the weekend. Sometimes we start class with sharing ideas of how we are taking care of ourselves during this semester. We celebrate college acceptances. The Class of 2021 needs and craves this community as their year – no matter what the circumstances – is far from normal. We will continue to build community until the very last day even if it means less time on content.

Anchor 4: Literature

What an opportunity we have to teach in the humanities during this time. We are all longing for someone to put into words how we are feeling and are desperately looking for stories that draw us in to shared human experiences and challenge us to rethink societal norms. Texts that do this are the basis of our class and will continue to be present until the very last day when I will send them out with this poem (most likely).  We will read literature that causes us to think and shapes us as people. I make sure my students know about where and how to find literature when they leave this class (Library of Congress, The New Yorker, GoodReads, #Bookstagram, #TeachLivingPoets, etc). The class is AP LITERATURE, and we will keep literature as the primary focus. 

Anchor 5: Grace and Acceptance

Many of my students have dropped their exam this past week. When they found out their last day of school was May 11th and their AP exams would be after that date, several decided it’s just not worth doing. I imagine some who are still registered will wake up on exam day, roll back over (even though the exam is at noon – ha), and go back to sleep. These kids are tired – tired of logging onto Zoom each day for school for over a year and tired of their senior year that never really panned out to what they imagined. There is ZERO pressure or judgement for me if they choose not to test this year. I will continue to be present and invest in these students academically and emotionally even though they aren’t testing and even though honestly many are having a hard time just showing up. 

Many of my students, however, need this college credit for financial or scheduling reasons. They are pushing forward through the weariness to be prepared. I will bring the same energy to review sessions that have only a handful of students as I would if all were present. 

Finally, I will give grace to myself and encourage you to accept what you have done as enough. Students were not the only ones living and learning through a pandemic, political unrest, and social justice issues during the past year. We as teachers were as well, yet we showed up and did the best we could. Some days I showed up with great lessons and was fully engaged. Some days I just showed up. Could I have done more? Yes. Would I do it differently? Probably. Will I feel guilty about where I fell short this year? No. We did the best we could do and that is good enough. 

Susan Barber teaches AP Lit at Midtown High School in Atlanta, Georgia. Susan also serves at the AP Lit College Board Advisor. In addition to reading, writing, and investing in the next generation, she loves watching college football with her family especially when Alabama is playing.

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