Last year I taught AP English for the first time, and yesterday’s dismal test results show that I could have done much better.
Here’s what I would’ve done differently:
1. Take a summer AP workshop.
Our school didn’t have enough money in the budget to send me to a summer workshop. I assumed that good curriculum design and strong teaching would be enough to prepare my students for the exam. Now I think that the summer training was necessary to make sure I designed the course correctly.
2. Assign fewer (shorter) books.
There’s a big debate about how many books to teach. I took the suburban approach: Read lots. But the test doesn’t care about the number of books you’ve read. Rather, it cares about whether you know how to read intensely difficult, obscure texts. Therefore, classroom time needed to be less discussion of literature and more close reading, line by line, of challenging prose and poetry. Forget about The Catcher in the Rye and focus more on Heart of Darkness. Also, see #5.
3. Assign fewer essays and focus on thinking.
My theory of action was that if students had a lot of practice and wrote under the pressure of the clock, they’d be fine. But what happened was that my students never got good at first-draft writing. Only after extensive revision did their essays exhibit clear thinking and grammar. I should have done more training in class with the workshop model. Once the students had the basic essay structure down, we needed to work more on analysis. Yes, this is a reading skill, too — and the only way to improve it is live in the classroom.
4. Teach more directly about literature.
The AP test does not measure content, but the more exposed you are to literature, the better off you are. Because my students haven’t read as many books as their more privileged counterparts, I needed to close that gap with more direct teaching on topics like Shakespeare, the literary periods, and academic language. My students, who have different background knowledge, can’t “fake it” as well as their suburban peers. I should spent more time making them literary nerds.
5. Learn how to teach the reading section of the exam.
Ugh. Have you seen this test? It’s basically a harder version of the SAT. You’ve got your challenging reading passages that come out of nowhere. Then there are the multiple-choice questions with no clear correct answer. I never figured out a way to help my students improve on the reading section. Their scores were flat. They wouldn’t budge no matter what we did. For the most part, how they scored in October was similar to how they did in May. Worse, I couldn’t tell you what I’d do differently.
* * *
Last summer, when I prepared to teach this course, I had to make a decision: Should I try to get the students to pass the exam? To be sure, a test-driven curriculum would not necessarily inspire my students to love reading and writing. But I went for it because I thought it was authentic and the right thing to do. The AP, whether you like it or not, is about the test.
I don’t regret my decision, but now that my students and I have failed, I am concerned about their reaction. What will this mean for them? They worked hard, trusted themselves and their teacher, and participated in something they otherwise wouldn’t have done because they had faith in the process.
Now they’re finding out that even when they’re at their best, even when they tried and didn’t give up, they’re still less than average.
How will they process this failure? And how will they remember this class, their time together?