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5 things I would’ve done differently

 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? 


  1. John at TestSoup

    I think the main question is: which is better? Turning a bunch of students into readers and writers, or passing a test?

    The takeaway might be that you do all these things to prepare next time you’re back in the classroom. But you also have to work on properly defining success and failure with your students.

  2. Kevin Eagan

    I agree with John. Even though the test scores might not be that great, think about those two or three students who left your class with a real passion for reading and writing. I know that some of these tests take away that pleasure, and it’s tough to deal with. But I think you’ve got something good going here. Even in your new job/role, continue making an impact for those larger issues, beyond test scores.

  3. Mark Isero

    John and Kevin, thank you for your comments.

    I would agree 100 percent with you if we were talking about state standardized testing. But the AP carries real meaning for students. It says, “Hey, you’re ready for college.” It also offers college credit, which gets students out of the horrific remedial track and saves them quite a bit of money.

    Back in September, I told my students the grim truth — that it was likely that at least 75 percent of them wouldn’t pass the test. But they didn’t want to hear that. They wanted to do better. The test was the thing.

    Maybe that’s a problem of the AP program. Is it an unfair set-up for my students? Or does it tell them the truth? And to what degree would they have done better in the hands of a different teacher?

    • Kevin Eagan

      Since I teach freshman college courses, I have a lot of students tell me “I took AP classes, why is this so hard?” And it makes me wonder if the tests and exams are really preparing students for college level work the way the tests claim they are. Your story helped emphasize for me the absurdity of some standards. I think that even the best of the best teachers aren’t able to predict the outcomes for students after taking these tests. Let’s hope that standards can continue to improve at the examination level so that teachers can focus on really good teaching.

    • Mark Isero

      Kevin, I appreciate your comment very much, especially because of your experience as a university lecturer and teacher of freshman college courses.

      You’re exactly right that students who do well on the AP English test aren’t necessarily prepared for the kinds of reading and writing required at the college level. My friend and former colleague Tony, who is a graduate student, makes a similar point below.

      In your experience, what are the ingredients of a successful beginning college student in English? What kinds of reading and writing assignments do you assign, and what advice would you offer high school English teachers who want to decrease the number of students who must take remedial classes in college?

  4. Susan

    “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.”

    What will this mean for them? It means they are ready for real life? Honestly, you’ve just prepared them for the real world of real jobs and real bosses and obscure rules and odd human judgments.

    More important: did they enjoy the journey? Have they grown?

    And, yes, I know I’m being a PITA. I know the stakes are high and the odds are low for these kids. More so now than ever. And that, perhaps, is why I think they’d damn well better enjoy the doing as much as the outcome… Because the outcome is highly uncertain, no matter how you score.

    All that said, I admire your fierce teacher tenacity… And the courage of your students to try, and “fail”, and try again. They are, after all, our future. And our future is full of trying again.

    • Mark Isero

      Susan, I like your point that sometimes it’s OK to prepare students “for the real world of real jobs and real bosses and obscure rules and odd human judgments.” I completely get it. Thanks for pushing.

      In fact, too many (usually liberal white) teachers try to explain away the truth because they feel like the students can’t handle it (they can). Usually, it’s the teachers who can’t handle the truth.

      Thank you for entering the conversation and making sure that I don’t get too gloomy. I won’t.

  5. Dave Keller

    My condolences go out to you and your students. I have a lot of practice with not meeting goals and it is painful. In reading your post there are two things that I found interesting.
    •When I took AP English as a student, the experience was life-changing because it challenged me, I saw tangible growth in my skills and I was part of a group of my peers that were given extra status within the school and my family. Even though I did not take the AP exam (because I was advised I wouldn’t pass) when I look back on the experience my memories are extraordinarily good.
    •Teaching reading to classes of students with wide ranging ability has been my challenge for the last few years. My emphasis has been less on close reading/decoding and more on viewing the texts as sources for discussion/reflection, analysis, and questioning. However, next year we’ll be doing much more decoding.
    Thanks for your post. It has helped focus my work for next year.

    • Mark Isero

      Dave, I was happy to read your comments. You’re right that excellent learning experiences, when they’re challenging and memorable and with the right people, are more important than any specific test. That’s why our World Studies years were so much fun.

      As for reading, I really don’t know the answer, but I’m looking forward to figuring things out next year. The fact is, working on close reading is often boring, especially in a heterogeneously grouped class. But then again, focusing on discussion without the line-by-line analysis sometimes results in students faking it and doing well even though they didn’t read the article. We’ve all been there.

      I hope you’re enjoying your summer, and thank you for reading my little blog.

  6. Zaretta Hammond


    I appreciate your reflection on what you’d do differently. But you should know that you helped change everyone of those students as learners. The shear challenge of tackling an AP course helped them grow new dendrites and synapses.

    And I particularly appreciate reflection #3: focus on teaching thinking. The way I think about this is that we need to get students “ready for rigor” before we expose them to rigorous work such as AP courses. We need to help them build the internal cognitive processing structures that allow them to do the complex thinking and reasoning this type of literary analysis requires (or in any other subject, for that matter). Of course, its not so linear.

    Unfortunately, that is not what our professional development offerings helps us master.

    Yes, students come into AP classes with a range of reading skills, but we need to think about how we help them accelerate their own learning. They say students need to read 200 wpm in order to be college-ready. We need to think collective about how we help them do that without reverting back to some slow, boring remedial class approach.

    I am excited to hear about how this all shows up in your instructional coaching. Thanks for sharing your practice.

    • Mark Isero

      Zaretta, it’s always great to hear from you. I appreciate your emphasis on the brain!

      You make an excellent point that that we need to focus our attention on teaching students how to think. Many of my colleagues talk about “critical thinking,” and this is an important skill. But so is thinking. To me, thinking is being aware of what and how you’re learning, monitoring your progress, making changes and revisions to your learning process, and figuring out next steps.

      What’s your definition of thinking?

      You’re correct when you write that “we need to think about how we help them accelerate their own learning.” This year, I found that the classroom did not offer enough time for my students to make the necessary gains. They needed to accelerate their learning outside the school day, sometimes on their own. Doing so requires not just hard work and commitment but also an engagement in the learning journey and an understanding (through thinking) of where you stand.

      Zaretta, thank you for pushing my thinking.

  7. Tony

    Hi Mark – when I taught that class many students also did not pass the AP exam. Many of them also are doing great, succeeding in college and writing. Some are not. Just saying.
    Also, I took a summer institute to help me teach AP – problem I had there was most of the teachers in the institute were teaching kids not like those we had at our school.

    • Mark Isero

      Tony, thank you for reminding me of the truth. As Kevin says above, you don’t succeed in college just because you passed the AP English exam.

      (And by the way, you did an excellent job preparing our students to pass the test. And many of them did.)

      As for the summer institutes, I think I’d like to attend one someday — even if that means feeling a bit alienated and wondering what everyone was talking about.

      How’s your summer?

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