The Art of Teaching AP English Literature

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Building Justified Confidence

As all teachers do—but probably even more so—we AP English Literature and Composition teachers spend most of our days juggling. We are always thinking how best to integrate concepts, ideas, and thought-provoking conundrums into the lives and work of students who alternate, often in a flash, between the highest levels of sophistication and the deepest abysses of ignorance. One moment they will be challenging the definitions of morality in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus or Morrison's Sula, the next they will be asking to be reminded about who came first, Moses or Jesus.

At our best, we enable our students to go beyond merely tolerating the inevitable ambiguities they find in literature and, of course, in their lives; we enable them to embrace these ambiguities. Simultaneously, we make them eager to write about them, to tell us and their classmates what they're thinking. But how do we accomplish this enormous task? How do we even begin? Of course, there is neither an AP English pedagogy nor an AP English reading list, which is one of the many reasons most teachers love the course. But as Robert Scholes states in his book, The Rise and Fall of English, "the one thing a curriculum in English must do... is to lead students to a position of justified confidence in their own competence as textual consumers and their own eloquence as producers of texts" (p. 66).

The notion of justified confidence in both their reading and writing is at the heart of excellent teaching in the AP English Literature class, for it implicitly poses four major questions:

  • What should students be reading? What texts should they be consuming?
  • How should they be approaching that reading and consumption?
  • What kinds of writing will be most productive to students both in illuminating their reading and defining their own ideas?
  • How can we help them recognize when their confidence in their efforts is justified?

We want students to experience a high level of self-esteem about their work, but we want that sense of self-worth to be warranted. We want them to join us and the generations before and after us in a conversation about and exploration of literature. And if they don't yet know how to accept our invitation on this demanding journey, then we need to show them how.

The invitation we offer to our AP students is to listen with us to voices that resonate from the 16th century to late last night; voices that have chosen to speak to us through prose and poetry, novels, stories, essays, and memoirs; voices of men and women from Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia. If texts are, as Robert Scholes asserts, "the fabric of culture itself, in which we and our students find ourselves already woven, even as we try to learn and teach how to reweave those garments," then what texts we choose to present to our students become crucial. Here is where the AP teacher has the greatest of luxuries. Even within the constraints of local guidelines, we can display the riches of the fabric of culture. And rather than presenting the same literature year after year, until it assumes the character of scripture in the collective minds of our students and administrators, if not in our own minds as well, we can offer new works or familiar works in new contexts.

The Importance of Context

By offering texts in new contexts, we invite students to not only hear strong and eloquent voices individually but to set up conversations among the works they are reading and to become part of those conversations themselves. Most of our students, like most of us, have been tempted to do what they know they shouldn't do. In literature, however, both the temptations and the stakes are almost inevitably enormous. By focusing on the dilemmas that face human beings who sometimes desire what they cannot have, we can invite students to explore with us the tension that arises from thwarted ambitions or from goals that have been attained by unacceptable means. Since the temptation to transgress knows no racial, national, or ethnic boundaries, this thematic grouping allows, naturally, a multicultural approach. Think of the titles that might work here: Shakespeare's Macbeth, The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, A Doll's House and/or Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, perhaps supplemented by films like The House of Games by David Mamet or Raise the Red Lantern by Zhang Yimou. Of course, there is nothing sacred about these particular suggestions, and another AP teacher might devise an entirely different but equally rich and challenging list.

And what about the ambiguities surrounding the notions of innocence and evil? Through examining a variety of texts, AP students and teachers can explore the complexities of these issues and confront what seems to be the impossibility of clear moral judgments. Texts for this might, once again, be a culturally rich mix, including such titles as The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor, Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Sula by Toni Morrison, and Shusaku Endo's tale of Portuguese missionaries in Japan in the 17th century, Silence.

A unit or course reflecting the growing uneasiness about the impossibility of certainty is an invitation to discuss the nature of reality itself. The authors AP teachers could discuss here use exaggeration, time disjunction, understatement, character displacement, the supernatural, and absurdity (among other things!) to convey their concerns. Many of these authors can be considered modernists or postmodernists, which means (very generally) that they lacked the certainty that absolute and unquestionable factors like God, religion, or universal moral codes rule the world and that their themes and narrative style reflect their uncertainty. Authors whose texts can evoke passionate, sometimes confused, and outraged reactions and heated discussions might include Franz Kafka, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and William Faulkner.

Even AP courses and units that are as apparently canonical as ones centered on Shakespeare can be organized around themes that invite our students into conversations with minds from the English Renaissance. The plays in such a course can be organized around the theme of difference, from gender to religion to race to culture. Sometimes the differences are a source of humor, curiosity, and love; more often they are the basis of exclusion, prejudice, and domination. Through a careful reading of plays like The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, or Much Ado About Nothing, students can both become acquainted with some of the beliefs of Shakespeare's times and examine the beliefs and stereotypes of their own society.

It's not, however, always so easy to join the conversation. Dennie Palmer Wolf begins Reading Reconsidered with an example from Kenneth Burke's book, Philosophy of Literary Form; Burke likens being a reader to entering a parlor where several people are engaged in heated conversation. "In fact," says Burke, "the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there," and no one, therefore, can brief the late entry about everything that has already transpired. "You listen for a while, until you decide you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him... the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart with the discussion still vigorously in progress." This is the conversation that we invite our AP students to enter, that we must prepare them for and for which we hope their other middle and high school teachers have been preparing them.

Organizing Experience and Expressing Thoughts

When bright students who are either unaware of a literary tradition and/or simply unaccustomed to the way people talk about literature enter the AP English Literature class, they must learn what, according to Wolf, "amounts to a second language... But just like a first language, these second languages are... ways of organizing experience and expressing thoughts. Acquiring them can change how a student sees the world: sometimes opening new possibilities, sometimes threatening familiar ways of knowing and saying." Burke's metaphor of the conversation in the parlor, Wolf's assertion that readers need a new language, and Scholes's idea of students gaining justified confidence in themselves as textual consumers and producers combine to shed some light on what exactly the AP teacher's work should be.

For example, when we teach poetry in the AP English Literature class, students must know some terminology and this "second language" often serves to help students organize their perceptions and even perceive the riches of the poem itself. When students enter into a conversation with a Donne sonnet and see how form reinforces meaning, how biblical allusions play off against rebellion, how the change in a single word can affect denotation and connotation, then they are engaging themselves in genuine learning, merging their "second language" with their first. But how can we lead them to these discoveries without falling prey to the wry observation, "I taught a great class today. Who knows if they learned anything?"

What doesn't work in helping students become fluent in any second language is giving them a list of terms (diction, alliteration, metaphor, metonymy) to memorize and then asking them to show that they "know" the terms by giving them a quiz. The act of taking a quiz does not involve learning for anyone, teacher or student. It merely involves regurgitation on the part of the student and mind-numbingly boring work in correction on the part of the teacher.

Engaging Students Through Questions

Questions with no preset answers, the kinds that open discussions and arguments, the kinds that invite everyone into the conversation should be the basis of the AP English Literature class. But questioning doesn't mean standing at the front of the room directing who, what, how inquiries at a classroom filled with passive students who know that all they have to do is volunteer to answer one or two every class or so in order to gain the right to snooze the rest of the time. We must make sure that students learn to ask most of the questions, of each other, of their teachers, and ultimately and most importantly of themselves. Experienced teachers know that students often already know answers; they simply do not know how to ask themselves the questions that will elicit what they have already discovered or may yet discover.

A specific approach that almost always evokes initial resistance and subsequent surprise and pleasure is the question paper. Students must write a page or two, in paragraph form, about the text they are examining, but every sentence must be a question. So, for example, if they are confronting John Donne's "The Flea" (always a winner with students) for the first time, they must come to class having read the poem carefully and with a paper of questions. When students approach their task, they cannot imagine how a paper of questions will be anything more than a disjointed and literal list: "Why is he writing about a flea? Is it a man or woman talking, and who is he talking to?" However, as they write, their questions start building and become, increasingly, speculations about meaning, hypotheses about imagery patterns and their intention, contemplations about possible irony and sexual innuendo. "Why does he use the word suck twice so early in the poem and then again at the end? Isn't the diction level of that word lower than the rest of the poem? Is he (I'm pretty sure it's he now) trying to convince the woman? Are they in bed? Why does't the author alternate his voice with hers?" In effect, they wonder themselves into the authentic beginnings of understanding before they even come to class, before a teacher has posed a single question to them.

Another technique to use is the reflection paper or thought piece. These assignments are meant to help students to focus on a question, an issue, a line, a word, or anything that strikes their interest in the reading assignment. Though they are informal "writing-to-learn" assignments and are not meant to be revised, they might well become the basis of a later, more formal writing assignment. Teachers can have all students write thought pieces on a given day and then have them hear others' reflections, either as a whole-class or small-group activity. Alternatively, teachers can have two or three students write reflections for each class and use these reflections as opening gambits for whole-class discussion. Students who know they will be reading their reflections to all their classmates as opposed to merely submitting them to the teacher tend to see the writing stakes as considerably higher.

Student-generated opening gambits like the question paper and thought pieces have several advantages: students rather than the teacher set the terms and questions for the discussion; the caliber of students' writing tends to be better since they know they are writing for a larger audience; discussions are more likely to be among students with the teacher's participation rather than dominated by the teacher. Students who come to class having read, thought, and written about the assignment can feel justifiably confident about participating.

The Power of the Sonnet

Analytical writing is not, however, the only way to understanding. Students who study the sonnets of Shakespeare and then read Gwendolyn Brooks's "First Fight, Then Fiddle," or Claude McKay's "If We Must Die," or Seamus Heaney's untitled sonnet about folding sheets with his mother certainly gain a sense of the power and flexibility of this apparently most constricted of forms. However, when they try writing sonnets themselves, they learn on yet another level. Similarly, reading Elizabeth Bishop's "Sestina" and trying their own raises crucial questions about this form: should a poet start with six words? Maybe it's better simply to write six lines and see what words turn up at the end of each line? And what's the difference in outcome and meaning? Why would someone want to write in this form anyway? Certainly, after writing a sestina, it is unlikely that they will forget how one works.

We can't, however, always be certain that our students are learning either the content or the independent approaches and self-reliance we hope we are teaching them. Yet we know what we want students to accomplish. We can, for example, distinguish clearly, for them and for ourselves, the attributes of good writing. Excellent structure, content, style, and mechanics are identifiable and recognizable. However, we want students themselves to become good judges of their own efforts; to be able to hold their own in conversations with others, students and teachers, who might challenge their approaches and their conclusions; to be able to recognize when their confidence is justified. As students read more widely and become more comfortable and adept in their analysis and discussion of poetry, for example, teachers might encourage them to set up conversations among poets. Such conversations or dialogues demand not only that students read carefully and analytically but also that they are able to defend the comparisons they have constructed.

Here's how this might work. Many AP English Literature teachers present the poetry of Sylvia Plath to their classes. Her rich verse raises rivetingly painful issues of parent-child tensions, suicide, and uncertain self-image, especially in the context of feminist readings. But the publication of Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes, her husband, allows readers to see their often-tormented relationship through the other end of the lens, which, of course, opens up discussions of perspective and point of view. Asking students to construct a dialogue between Plath and Hughes, using only lines from their poems, invites them to evaluate, compare, contrast, analyze, and, of course, be aware of what they've done and why. Devising such approaches, with their built-in reflections on the process of learning, allows students to join with their teachers in informed evaluations of their progress and successes.

When we ask ourselves what outcome we want after our students have completed AP English Literature, of course one answer is a 5 on the exam. But that should not be our driving goal. Our obligation, our joy as teachers of AP English is to accompany our students on a journey across cultures and centuries, introducing them along the way to the most interesting texts and characters we can find, then to cheer them on their way as they move onto other arenas to continue the conversations we've invited them to enter. Our charge is to elicit from them comments, both written and oral, of the highest caliber by offering help, expertise, and encouragement. If we succeed together, their achievement becomes the source for us all of genuine self-esteem, of "justified confidence."

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. University of California Press, 1977.

Scholes, Robert E. The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English As a Discipline. Yale University Press, 1999.

Wolf, Dennie Palmer. Reading Reconsidered. The College Entrance Examination Board, 1995.

Authored by

  • Ellen Greenblatt
    University High School
    San Francisco , California