Archives For Advanced Placement English Literature

In a well organized essay, explain how the author conveys his meaning. Be sure to consider structure, diction, setting, and point of view.

Popular MechanicsAbove is the prompt I used when I taught Advanced Placement English Literature (APLit) for all kinds of literature. This was before the Common Core’s “close reading” dictums; APLit students read and looked for author style and purpose because that was the focus of the course.

Tonight (2/22) there is a Twitter Chat #aplitchat on Raymond Carver’s short story “Popular Mechanics”; across the nation, APLit teachers will contribute their ideas on how to guide students through this particular dark story. I am trapped here in CT under another 7″ of snow, and while I wait to be dug out, here is an explanation of how my students wrote about this story.

When I passed out the copies,my students were, at first, delighted to see its brevity; the entire story is under 500 words. I would watch my students as they silently read. As they would finish in unison, their heads would snap up in shock.

Some of my students saw the story as deeply disturbing; others saw the story as dark humor. They wanted to talk plot, so I would allow several minutes of “What just happened?” and “They killed the baby??” and “Those people are sick!”
No surprise that Carver’s story generated strong responses by all of my students.

My next step in pre-writing would be to share some supporting information.  One year I gave the students the Biblical story of King Solomon to contrast the behavior of the mothers in each. Every year, I provided the definition of the word issue, the key linking the concluding sentence and the title. Here are some of the possible means of issue with connections to the story.

  •  something that is printed or published and distributed, esp. a given number of a periodical: 
  • a point in question or a matter that is in dispute, as between contending parties in an action at law; 
  • offspring; progeny:
  • a discharge of blood, pus, or the like;
  •  to go, pass, or flow out; come forth; emerge.

My students would reread the story, take notes, and spend several minutes of peer-to-peer discussions in groups. They would share how Carver’s structure, diction, setting, and point of view contributed to their understanding. After the discussions, I would ask them to draft a response using the standard prompt above.

My contribution to the #APLitchat tonight is a folder with three student exemplars that were created one year as a result. These drafts represent some interesting ideas as seen in some of these excerpts:

Student #1

Finally Carver uses these simple but revealing details about his characters to keep his story interesting and detailed but also very concise. The story starts in a bedroom, a place they probably consecrated their marriage but he is now tearing apart by leaving. We then switch to the doorway of the kitchen, paralleling her change in emotion. The kitchen is typically a place of family and love.

Student #2

Carver uses words and phrases such as “Bring that back” and “I want the baby” (Carver). The use of very simple, short words provides a more aggressive, hard-hitting tone. Carver’s sentence construction is very mechanical and rhythmic, which furthers Carver’s theory that the inner workings of a marriage and a family can be broken down into a mechanized object where basic laws of physics can be applied.

Student #3 

Carver brings in this contrast of light and dark in his first paragraph that states “it was getting dark. But it was getting dark on the inside too.” There is still light in their life before the argument, but as he packs, it begins to fade. By the time the couple is in a shady corner and the baby is torn apart, the house is darkened. It creates good imagery for the reader to illustrate the family “issues.”

As these excerpts from essay illustrate, Carver’s terse dialogue and minimal details helped my students appreciate the link between an author’s style and his or her purpose. Students enjoyed “Popular Mechanics” and at the end of the school year, they would always mark it a story that made them think about an author’s choices in writing a story.

I was fortunate to have 90 minute block periods to do this lesson in one sitting, but the lesson can be spread over two sessions or truncated to fit into a 45 minute block organized as 15 minutes of reading and discussion and 30 minutes of writing.

Good luck, #APLitchat on your discussion, and may all issues on responses to this story be resolved!

red tentMany of my students do not know Old Testament stories other than “Noah’s Ark” and “Adam and Eve”. There is the occasional biblical teen scholar who may be able to recount the origin a pillar of salt (Lot’s wife) or maybe there will be a student who saw the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and make a patriarchal connection. For the most part, students are not up to date on Methuselah or even which of the brothers killed the other (Cain or Abel). They are far more likely to ask, “So, where did all the other people come from if Eve was the only woman?”

Fortunately, The Red Tent, a novel by Anita Diamant (1997) does address other women of the Old Testament. Her fictionalized version of the story of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, is based on in a brief but particularly violent and gruesome incident in the Book of Genesis. In the King James Version of the Bible, Dinah is known as the daughter who is “defiled” by Shechem, a prince, who then wanted to marry her (Genesis 34: 1-3):

1 And Dinah the daughter of Leah, which she bare unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land.

2 And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her.

3 And his soul clave unto Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the damsel, and spake kindly unto the damsel.

Dinah’s brothers, sought vengeance for the attack on their sister. They tricked Shechem and his family, claiming to come in peace, and exacted their punishment by killing the royal family and all males in the city:

26 And they slew Hamor and Shechem his son with the edge of the sword, and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went out.

27 The sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and spoiled the city, because they had defiled their sister.

This horrific incident is explained very differently in the Diamant’s fictional retelling, as are many other familial incidents, from Dinah’s point of view. The rivalry between Rachel and Leah, the rivalry between Jacob and Esau, and the rivalry between the sons of Joseph, Dinah’s younger brother, are rich with detail and dialogue. The sparse accounts given in the Old Testament are fleshed out in this compelling narrative, with the women center stage, a striking contrast to the male-dominated biblical text.

Several of my female students in Advanced Placement English Literature choose to read The Red Tent as an independent choice, and their response is not unlike other female student responses chronicled in the article “The Wandering Womb at Home in The Red Tent: An Adolescent Bildungsroman in a Different Voice” by Holly Blackford. In this review, Blackford writes about the female students’ enthusiasm for the book:

So emotional about the story of The Red Tent that they can barely speak, and indeed continually interrupt one another, they cite the way in which the contemporary novel revises the patriarchal story of Jacob; represents the concerns of girls in terms of emotion and relationship; and details the entire lifecycle of girl-to-woman through engaging first-person narration:
  Carol: There are certain books I just can’t put down.
      Laticia: Seriously, I’ll read until like three in the morning . . .
      Interviewer: Like what?
      Carol: Like The Red Tent!

Blackford also points out that this revision of an ancient text  comes at a time when girls are, “hungering for an exploration of female-centered myths, deities, worlds, and power-structures.” Her claim in The Alan Review (March, 2005) is that books like The Red Tent:

“… appeal to adolescent women and grow their appreciation for contemporary women’s literature that speaks “in a different voice” (Gilligan) from the more masculine canon they expect in their school curriculum.”

There are about 20 copies of The Red Tent on the class independent book cart, all purchased at book sales for $1.00 each. Picador USA publishers produced an oversized text, about 2″ taller than a standard trade paperback; on the AP English Lit book cart’s top shelf, these copies stick out. The cover art, designed and illustrated by Honi Werner, is also eye-catching. Students always pick up the book with interest.

“What’s this about?” one asks.
“Read the back,” I reply.
“‘...told in Dinah’s voice, this novel reveals the traditions and turmoil of ancient womanhood-the world of the red tent,’ (*pause suspiciously*)…is this a ‘chick book’?”
“Yes,” I chuckle, “this is most definitely a chick book….probably the ultimate chick book, of ALL chick books.”

How else to describe a story that centers on celebrating the onset of womanhood?

After they read any independent book, the AP students are required to write an essay. The essay prompt this quarter for any book they choose is taken from the AP released exam list of questions:

In retrospect, the reader often discovers that the first chapter of a novel or the opening scene of a drama introduces some of the major themes of the work. Write an essay about the opening of the first chapter of a novel in which you explain how it functions in this way. *hint: the lens you use is the lens from the conclusion of the novel*

Students who choose to read Diamant’s The Red Tent will certainly want to return to the beginning to explain how Dinah’s life story begins and ends with the women who loved and supported her.  They will also have had a “crash course” on the Book of Genesis, which is the source of many other literary allusions. While The Red Tent is not great literature, this novel sets many female students looking for equally compelling contemporary novels about women, with or without that “chick book” label.

The recent invitation to respond to the statement “Don’t Teach the Test” was under discussion in the New York Times: Invitation to a Dialogue series. The question was posed by Peter Schmidt,  the director of studies at Gill St. Bernard’s School, and he singled out two tests in particular: the SAT and the Advanced Placement Tests.

Schmidt suggested that the SAT should be eliminated as a requirement for college on the basis of economic inequality.  Students who have the finances to take prep courses or hire tutors have an advantage, and Schmidt suggests that, “our colleges are further promoting the inequities of our society.”

Schmidt also called for the end to  Advanced Placement  (A.P.) courses in high school, saying that they

“too often fail to prepare students adequately for college-level course work. They also put pressure on students to perform well on the A.P. exams in the spring, leaving them exhausted and lacking a spirit of intellectual curiosity.”

Full disclosure: I teach Advanced Placement English Literature, and I have served as an A.P. Reader.

AP TestsThat said, I believe Schmidt is right about the pressure the testing for these courses places on students. I agree that these students are exhausted the first two weeks of May since students who take A.P. courses often take more than one A.P. class. Many students are scheduled for two separate tests on the same day. But as to his assessment that the A.P. courses do not prepare students for college level work, I must respectfully disagree.

Students who take A.P. courses recognize that they may or may not receive college credit for the course. College credit is given based on a student’s test score (minimum a level “3” on the A.P. English Language or Literature) and the willingness of the college to accept that score in lieu of an undergraduate course.  As a result, there are no guarantees of college credit in an A.P. class; however, colleges do look to see if students are taking A.P. classes as an indication of their academic ambitions.

The A.P. exams in all subject areas are a mix of multiple choice questions and essay responses questions.  In the A.P. English Literature exam, there are 55 challenging questions on five or six literature selections. Students need a command of vocabulary and the ability to “close read”, a skill that was the hallmark of A.P. courses long before the Common Core State Standards. But the most demanding part of the AP English Literature exam is the essay section where students write three essays in response to three prompts in two hours. 

My students practice writing to these prompts throughout the school year.  They learn to read, annotate, and draft quickly, but Schmidt raises a good question.

Does the A.P. test prepare students for college?

In responding to Schmidt’s concern, I have thought about how my student’s responses to the essay test questions are not the only measure for determining student understanding. A good A.P. course incorporates the practice of revising drafts written for a practice test. There is always a gem of an idea in these hasty constructions. There is always some hypothesis that student will discover as he or she “writes into” the prompt, something I have previously referred to as a “manifesto in the muck.” A good A.P. course provides a student with the chance to take that essay draft, and expand and revise. A good A.P. course gives students the chance to start again with the end of the draft in order to begin a better essay.

Schmidt complains about “the  lack of  imagination and creativity” that “are the cornerstones of genuine learning,”but these generalizations are not true.  I know first-hand that there is nothing to stop a student’s imagination or creativity in responding to a work of literature in an A.P. course. Some of the most amazing statements or ideas I have read have come from students undergoing the intellectual crucible of writing an organized essay in under 40 minutes. In reading these practice drafts, some ripe with grammatical errors and misspellings,  I will pause with my red pen suspended, repeating to myself, “First do no harm”, as I leave a draft untouched. A.P. advises instructors to “reward the student for what they do well”, even on a practice test.

There are too many reasons to not like the standardized tests that are choking education today; the limited data that standardized testing yields is often not worth the time and expense. Frankly, I am no fan of the College Board. The limitations of the A.P. test, however, does not mean that an A.P. course is not valuable.

The A.P. test, like all standardized tests, is a single metric measure, but an A.P. course is a much broader experience.  So, yes, I teach to the test, but I also teach the A.P. course as a preparation for the rigors of college level work, and in particular, I teach the course so that my students will have the option to waive a 100 level composition class giving them the option to take a course in their major field of study.

Schmidt concluded his invitation with an impassioned plea,

As E. M. Forster wrote more than a century ago in Howards End, in addressing the shortcomings of British universities: “Oh yes, you have learned men who collect … facts, and facts, and empires of facts. But which of them will rekindle the light within?”

I would argue that my A.P. class is the only place in my curriculum where I can offer the writings of E.M Forster, if for no other reason than to see how students would respond to that literary prompt.  I know that in their responses, there could be one from a student who, writing under intense pressure, could draft a sentence or two that would reveal a “kindle of light within.”  Whether that student response would be in a test booklet written during the A.P. test or not does not matter.