A Workshop Teacher Takes On AP Lit

Whoever says teachers don’t work in the summer has no idea what they’re talking about.

I’ve spent most of the last week at my computer in various locations working to wrap my head around my new prep for next year: AP Literature and Composition. I also attended a College Board institute two weeks ago to get myself ready for this class.

The class is not totally new to me. I have four years of AP Lit experience behind me and many hours at College Board training during those four years. But that was twelve years ago, at a different school, in a different state. A lot has happened in twelve years. I now have a teenage child instead of a toddler. I’ve lived in four different houses. I drive a different car. And I’m a different teacher. Graduate school, Colorado Writing Project training and consulting, and the years in the company of my awesome colleagues at school who challenge me constantly–all of these things have really shifted my practice.

I’ve become a reading/writing workshop teacher.

The way I taught AP Lit before doesn’t totally conflict with the workshop model. I wove in a lot of student choice, for example. But I wasn’t as intentional about it as I am now because I didn’t understand as well then what I was working to achieve. I get it on a whole different level now.

When I taught AP Lit before, I was the only AP Lit teacher in my school, which is smaller than the one I teach in now. In fact, I started the AP Lit course at that school. Totally built it from scratch. My classes were capped at 15 students. The 45 total AP students I had then meant three sections. Now that means one and a half sections of AP in my current school. And I am not the only AP Lit teacher. These all make for some key differences. I have to figure out how to manage more students than I had before while working toward the same challenging curriculum, and I can’t do whatever the heck I want within the bounds of the AP Lit curriculum. There is a history to AP Lit at my current school. All the teachers who have taught it before have built something significant. They have been incredibly generous with their resources and I have much to work with.

It’s a totally new challenge, and I welcome it. I have been kind of cruising along the last few years with no significantly new curricular challenges on my teaching load. But more than simply building an AP Lit class however I want, I need to understand the AP Lit tradition at my school and make sure I don’t do something completely outside of the pale. I have to figure out how to make the work load manageable for me with the 60 students I’ll have in two sections, alongside the 60 I’ll have in my other senior Language Arts class, alongside the 30 or so I’ll have on my newspaper staff.

And I have to figure out how to honor what I’ve learned about building readers and writers in my evolution toward workshop.

In May, I met with my colleague who will also be teaching AP Lit this next year. He has taught it for several years at our school. He helped me realize something critically important: AP Lit is essentially a reading class. Yes, there is a lot of writing, and students need ample practice in and feedback on a very particular type of writing, but all of that writing work supports the main event of the curriculum: interpretive reading of complex literature. Getting this understanding uploaded into my head has helped a lot, especially in my efforts to keep straight how the AP Lit is characteristically different from the other Language arts class I teach.

Senior Literature, Composition, and Communication (SLCC) is a reading, writing, thinking, speaking, collaborating, get-yourself-ready-for-whatever-is-next-for-you class. We do a slice of interpretive analysis, but only a slice. The course explores writing for other purposes. Though our students do a lot of reading in the course, it is primarily a writing course. The whole weekly structure revolves around students developing a regular, weekly writing practice. All the reading we do serves our goals for building writers. So seeing AP Lit as a READING class first and a writing class second really helps me as I think about how to put things together.

Here are some key things I’ve learned as I’ve become a workshop teacher and how they’re helping me to design my AP Lit/comp classroom:

1) Weekly Routine/Schedule to Protect the Most Important Work

The weekly routine/schedule is something that has really helped protect my workshop classroom. I have to protect space for my students to read and write. I have to protect time for conferences. I have to protect space for students to read and respond to each other’s work. Until I build a weekly routine/schedule and did everything I could to stick to it, my classroom wasn’t quite the workshop I wanted it to be. So a goal for me with designing my AP Lit class based on what I’ve learned as a workshop teacher was coming up with a weekly routine/schedule to protect the most important work.

SLCC, as a writing first class means that I dedicate over half of the week’s class time writing: writing time, mentor text study, focus lessons on writing. We start the week, Monday and Tuesday with discussion and exploratory writing surrounding texts that we read–all with the goal of giving students something to write about for the rest of the week on our Wednesday or Thursday block period and Friday (the equivalent of about three class periods). I plan to flip this for AP Lit–we’ll use the Wednesday or Thursday block period and Friday for reading: reading time, discussion activities, focus lessons on reading and interpreting the complex texts we’ll study. Monday and Tuesday will be opportunities to practice the writing that goes along with this and extends it–how do you take that interpretive thinking and express it clearly in writing? We’ll practice the sort of timed writing that students will confront on the AP Lit exam on those days and read and respond to that writing toward the goal of clarity in expressing interpretive thinking.

2) Choice Surrounding Reading

If I were the only AP Lit teacher at my school and if the course didn’t already have a rich tradition built by my colleagues, I would be approaching this differently than I will be for this next year. If it were totally up to me, my students and I would choose one major work per semester for us to read and study together and then they would read more major works independently or in book groups. And this follows the recommendation from the instructor of the AP Summer Institute I went to a couple of weeks ago. If students choose their titles, they read more. And I want them to read as much as possible.

There is already a list of six major works identified for the course, a list determined before I even knew I was teaching the course, a list published for students in May so they could purchase the texts, two of which were assigned as summer reading. I LOVE the books on the list: Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, Frankenstein, Othello, The House of the Spirits, and Beloved. The only one I’ve not taught before is The House of the Spirits, and I can’t wait to read it. These are good books, well worth the time my students and I will spend on them.

But the workshop teacher in me is itching for more student choice. These six books–plus the time we need to spend on close analysis of poetry and passages of fiction–will fill our time completely. Through conversation with my teaching colleague, I’ll work on making changes to create more space for students to choose the major works that they read for the class. But for next year, the six required major works represent a parameter I need to work with.

Student choice is not just students choosing the books they read. Choice extends to the ways students respond to the texts as well. I could spend my summer seeking out resources for each text, carefully planning how I’ll guide my students through each one–the questions we’ll use for discussion, the activities we’ll do as we study them, the prompts I’ll use to guide their writing, the exploratory writer’s notebook work they’ll do for each text. But that approach takes me away from what I’ve learned as I’ve moved toward a reading/writing workshop classroom. The skill we’re practicing in our workshop is interpretive reading. My job is to create space for students to practice that. And it starts very simply with what students notice about the text. I must help them get from those initial responses to some analytical thinking about how the text is working to interpretive thinking about what they think it all means. I could guide them through this with guideposts along the way based on what I think is important for them to notice, or I could follow them as they walk through their own thinking, supporting them where needed, and helping them to discover and build their own interpretations. What I’m teaching is a PROCESS, not a particular understanding or interpretation about each text.

Thinking of it in this way totally changes how I plan and prepare for the time we spend in class on these books. I have worked to build a scaffold, a container for class time that will enable students to do the interpretive work together with enough guidance to show them what the work looks like but then enough freedom for them to really own the work. Jay wrote a post a while about about workshop, arguing that it’s really quite simple. Students need to spend as much time as possible DOING the thing you are teaching rather than talking about it. Teachers support students as they do the work rather than covering content.

I can trust my students to have thoughts about our texts that are worth unpacking. They might not be the same thoughts I have about our texts, but that’s not the point. At the forefront needs to be their thinking, their idea building, their interpretations, their meaning-making. This was rarely the case in my college literature classes where class discussions seemed to be competitions where students each tried to say the thing that was the closest to what the professor already thought. (Read more about my struggle as a reader in school here.)

Toward the goal of NOT doing the interpretive work for my students but instead creating a space where they can hone their ability to do that work on their own, here’s what I’m planning:

  • Our work with a major text will start with a brainstorming conversation after having read the text in its entirety: what did you notice about the text? Collect this visually on a white board. Fill the board with their ideas. Eventually move toward categorizing things–draw arrows, circles, etc. Then hone it down to big issues/ideas in the text worth talking about. From there, have students sign up to facilitate discussion days on any of the topics that surfaced in the conversation.
  • Provide ample resources for students to use as they plan to facilitate discussions. Here’s what I’ve got so far. I’ll model a few discussions for them, talk about what I did to set up the conversation, how I thought it went, and what I would do differently next time. I’ll talk with them about their plans for discussion. And on those student-facilitated discussion days, I’ll sit among my class and participate as just one other reader trying to figure out what I think about a book.
  • Success on the AP exam requires close analysis of poetry and passages of fiction. I plan to do analysis of passages from the major works we do to address the passage analysis. But for poetry–I want to open this up to student choice. We need to read and discuss poems and work together on analyzing how the language is achieving meaning. It really doesn’t matter which poems we use to do this, as long as they are poems of literary complexity. I’ve planned for a week of poetry in between our work with each major text. I’ll model the first poetry week–our first week of school actually–with three poems for us to read and discuss and compare. I will take them through discussion activities with them and exploratory writing to help them discover their ideas. I’ll help them start to develop their own processes for making meaning from poetry. And then I’ll ask students to be in charge of bringing poetry to the table for us to discuss and planning for how we will discuss it in the subsequent poetry weeks on the calendar. (More details about this on the same document I linked to above.)

3) Choice Surrounding Writing and Focus on Writing Process

AP Lit exam writing is responding-to-a-prompt writing, and we will practice that extensively. Nearly every week. But what I will push my students to see is how much choice they have in HOW they respond to those prompts. They will need to read creatively to be able to write their very best interpretive analysis.

But to work in more significant choice and an emphasis on process, after three weeks’ worth of practicing the kind of timed writing students will do on the AP Lit exam, I’ll ask students to pick one of those three time writings to revise:

  • One they will revise to hone the interpretive argument so it would score higher on the 9-point AP rubric.
  • One they will revise to extend the argument beyond the bounds of the original prompt. This means that they will include more of the text in their argument or bring in another to compare/contrast. This asks them to take the timed write as a very tentative starting point for something that will be more extensive.
  • One they will revise to transform the timed write into something completely different. This asks students to take the core of the argument and make it the core of another piece of writing that looks completely different. A poem? A short story? A letter to the editor?

They’ll revise these until it seems they’ve learned what they can from the writing work–an on-going process throughout the semester. (Read more about how we’ll approach these revisions here.)

And I’ve developed a semester punch list to help guide their choice surrounding their writing as well. Workshop is not about totally free, unencumbered choice. It’s meaningful choice within a carefully constructed scaffold that enables students to soar with enough support to grow.

4) Stop Grading

You know this is a huge focus of mine if you’ve spent any time at all reading this blog. I argue that especially for workshop teaching, getting students focused on the work rather than the grade is critical. Readers and writers need to know it’s okay to take risks without there being a possibility of points lost affecting a grade that has high stakes.

Here’s how I’m approaching AP Lit without traditional grades:

  • Day one: we will read and discuss excerpts from Alfie Kohn’s Case Against Grades to begin the conversation about shifting their focus to learning rather than grades.
  • Gradeboook: I have to record number data there. I can’t ignore it. My school uses it weekly for things that have nothing to do with my classroom (e.g., athletic eligibility). I’ll keep track of whether or not students are doing the work. This is NOT grading for completion or points for compliance. Not at all. This becomes a data point to let all stakeholders know if students are doing the work or not. If that number does not equal 100%, it’s a signal to students that they have some work to do. I will also record qualitative notes to let students and other stakeholders know what the student is working on and what growth is happening.
  • Rubric scores: In my SLCC class, I’ve moved away from rubric scores totally. The main reason for this is that my students are always working on such wildly different pieces of writing that I would essentially need a rubric for each piece. My feedback does focus on figuring out what the student is working to achieve in the piece of writing and what the student can focus on to get there. But for the AP Lit exam, there IS a rubric–three actually–and the better students know these rubrics, the more successful they will be with there interpretive analytical writing. We’ll use the rubric frequently and we’ll keep track of the scores, but not in any kind of way that will calculate into an ongoing grade. Frequently, AP teachers will do something like this with the rubric scores to turn them into a grade: 9 = 95%, 8 = 90%, 7 = 85%, 6 = 80%… I just don’t want my students worrying about high stakes grades that will affect their overall percentage on every single timed write that they do. It’s a skill that the need to hone. They need to be free to take risks–some that will work out brilliantly and some that will be a disaster. But that’s how we learn. So in the “grade” box for a timed write in my gradebook I will indicate if the task has been completed or not, and in the comment box I will indicate what the rubric score was. Students will then be able to see how they’re doing on that rubric but no stakes will be attached.
  • Semester grade based on process and growth rather than a collection of points: In the end, I want the semester grade negotiation process to be an opportunity for meaningful reflection over learning and growth. Students will look back over their work, the data I’ve collected in IC, and their reflective writing about their learning goals and determine what grade best reflects the work and learning they’ve done. They’ll know exactly what this looks like from the start, with this. They’ll write me letters at semester’s end to let me know how they think they’ve done.

5) Community

A workshop classroom is a community of readers and writers. When functioning at its best, writers and readers in a workshop need each other desperately for feedback on their writing and thinking. I’m hoping to build this in AP Lit. Peer feedback. Response groups. Lots of opportunities for conversation. Meaningful collaborative projects. I want to build a sense that we’re all in this together, and the more we work together, the stronger we’ll all be.

6) Writer’s Notebook

This is an ongoing area of growth in my teaching and my own writing. I’m slowly figuring this out. I know what I want: students’ writer’s notebooks become indispensable extensions of their brains. I did my annual Target run last week for 50 cent composition notebooks that I give or sell to students. This year I also picked up various tabs and colorful tape for students to use to keep their writer’s notebooks organized. My own writer’s notebook has become more critical to my day-to-day existence, so I’m figuring some things out. I’ve been seeking out inspiration to imagine what writer’s notebooks could become. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of seeing concretely what you could build and then you can build it. Check out biology teacher Lee Ferguson’s Interactive Notebooks. Love it. And this inspiring example. I plan to work to get students’ notebooks under the document camera as often as possible so they can get ideas from each other about what to do with their notebook space.

In short, I want to turn students to their notebooks daily for meaningful work that really helps them with the main event of AP Lit: interpretive reading of complex literature.

As Jay pointed out in the post I linked to earlier, workshop is a pedagogical approach. It’s not something you squeeze in for a short creative writing unit. It’s not additive–it transforms your practice totally. But the reality of going workshop in high school is that sometimes it seems in contradiction with our other curricular expectations, like the AP Literature and Composition curriculum. It’s not necessarily possible to go full on reading/writing workshop immediately. But if I can work on doing less that is teacher-centered, teacher directed and more than orbits on student choice, process rather than product, and using class time to DO the most important work in a vibrant community of readers and writers, I’ll be moving toward workshop.

I’d love to hear from any other AP teachers and your thoughts about workshop.

This entry was posted in #StopGrading, balancing, gradebook, making change, not grading, planning, teaching, teaching literature, workshop teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Workshop Teacher Takes On AP Lit

  1. Thanks, Sarah. This gives me some real food for thought, for both courses I teach. I love hearing your inner dialogue here: the process of how we work with students, which is ever evolving.

  2. Ali says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your plan and reflections. I am also an AP teacher working toward a more workshop model (which I have long used with my sophomore classes but struggled to implement in my senior level classes, including AP). I also am moving toward gradelessness. I am struggling with how to push my readers toward deeper analysis with Independent Reading. Lots of food for thought here.

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