As of July 14, 2008, the content from this page migrated to AP English Connections, a blog for teachers to connect.

On teaching to the test

On Choosing Books and designing a syllabus

Adapting others' work for your own use

Where do I begin?

What one thing?

Timed writing

Developing a web site

I Need a Language syllabus

Jim writes: "I am teaching AP English 4 next year for the first time, and I am spending much of this summer trying to figure out how to do this. The teachers who had been assigned senior AP are no longer at my school, so the other 2 AP newbies and I will be basically making it up as we go along. I have been teaching American Lit. and a Senior English: Lit. & Film class I developed for the past 2 years, so I have a solid idea of preparing the students for college, but little to no clue as to what to do for AP and the test at the end of the year.
Anyhow, I have come across your website on a few occasions, and was wondering if you had any advice and/or suggestions. We will be using a textbook (that has not arrived yet) as well as 4-6 novels/plays throughout the year. At the moment, my main goal is to determine those non-textbook readings. In general, I understand AP English is primarily a college prep class, but that pesky test is always looming at the end of the year, and I basically want to make the class as productive as possible. Thank you in advance. - Jim"

Jim, I want to suggest that AP really does mean "teach to the test." There was some discussion in our high school last year about this very topic--college prep or get ready for the test. I think it's both, but the test must take priority. AP students enroll in an AP class expecting the teacher to help them be ready to do well on that test. Students who do well in AP will be ready for college by default. We've also, in the past, had discussions about which texts to use. As I told Carrie (see below), any text of literary merit will suffice for AP. But it is nice to have read some of the common works that generally appear on their list for the open ended essay question. One last thing, the only way to get good at teaching AP English is to teach AP English. Please read some of my other letters here, which address concerns of new teachers. My advice hasn't changed. Go to a conference. Join an AP list serv. Then, just do your best. AP is rigorous, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun. What were some of your college lit classes like? Model some aspects of your new AP class after them. My class is mostly comprised of three things: read, discuss, and write. It is as simple and as difficult as that. Good luck.


Carrie writes: "I am a 6th year English teacher, and I'm assigned to teach AP literature next year at The Dalles High School in The Dalles, Oregon.  I've taught AP language for one year (a few years ago) with another school district, but I have never taught AP literature.  I saw your wonderfully informative website, and I was hoping you could give me some advice on how to prepare to teach AP literature.  I took two courses on AP teaching, but I still don't have an AP syllabus to work from.  The district doesn't offer a syllabus either; each teacher just did whatever they wanted.  So, I'm searching the net and talking to friends about where to start/what books to teach, etc....could you give me some advice?  Also, do you recommend any books for me to read that would help me teach the course?"

Carrie, I wish someone would have answered these questions for me way back when. The texts used for AP Lit will vary from teacher to teacher, but mostly what I see fit the classical world lit category. Any work of significant literary quality can be used in an AP lit class. If your school is like mine, you won't have money for all new books, so some of what you choose for your class will come from the current stacks. Unless, of course, you are starting from scratch, and then you are in an enviable state (except, what to choose is the hard question).

Our tendency is to choose books for our students that we have studied. The benefit of this is that we can prepare more in-depth units for these books. But it might be a worthwhile risk to try something new. As a new teacher, I had not read most of the books I taught, and I found that reading and learning along with my students was a great experience.

There should be a mix of old and new, and the texts should be challenging but not impossible. I think the books should be thematically significant. In other words, we should choose books that allow for discussion of the key questions in life. "Who are we?" and "why are we here?" and "how ought we to live?" are several that I think are worth exploring. It's not a bad idea to read from a variety of cultures, but we can only accomplish so much in a year, so for me, this priority is low.

Therefore, if you know your community culture, your department's curriculum (can't overlap, you know), and your students, choose books that will fit you and your school. Check out the booklists page for ideas.

Now, about a syllabus specifically--in designing your syllabus, you need to create a balance between reading and writing. The exam tests students' ability to read, think and write critically about literature. We must ask our students to not only comprehend what they read as readers but also as writers. I like to incorporate critical essays into the syllabus, and we begin in the 11th grade year with this. We ask students to read, understand, and deconstruct an argument. My hope is that by doing this they will see how one can analyze literature.

All essay writing should be done in 40 minutes, which I am sure you will agree is a natural amount of time for an intelligent person to consider a prompt, read a passage, and write something not only coherent but also insightful. Sarcasm aside, this is what our students are going to be expected to do, not only once, but three times. So why even harbor the illusion that writing is a process? Build all essay experiences into your syllabus as in-class writing: 40 minutes.

I try to make all my essays as AP-like as possible and I do use three former test prompts. Students do write in the 40 minute time slot, but then I ask them to take the essay home and type it, making only minimal revisions. This way, both of us can read the essay and it is easier to give feedback.

The syllabus should be rigorous but reasonable. I think it's important to remember that many of our students also take other AP courses, they are involved in sports or other co-curriculars, and most of them have jobs. They are busy people. But from my experience, they are also curious people who want to know about life and will be fully engaged when we present them with great books and great ideas and interesting ways to respond to both.

And it goes without saying that your syllabus should contain information on assessment and grading. Perhaps your school district has other requirements as well.

My syllabus is only one example. I am compiling a list of others and will add yours when it's finished. Good luck!!


What is the best way to adapt others' course materials for our own use?

The most ethical approach is to email the instructor first and ask permission to use his or her resources. Explain what your goals are. Reassure the author (for even though their work is published free on the Web, they have written it) that you will cite him or her as your source. This is good practice even if the author has not declared copyright of his or her materials.

Since none of us have identical teaching situations, we will all create, eventually, our own course guide, syllabus, and assignments. Taking the germ of an idea from someone else and making it our own still requires our recognition of the source.

When people ask to use material from my web site, I gladly consent, asking them to make links to what they want to use. I have created a usage statement that makes my wishes known.

In addition, the process of creating a network of links seems to me to be the power of the Web. In linking to others' sites, we not only provide our students and ourselves with great resources, we also are recognizing the fine work of our colleagues. Web sharing creates connections between us and makes us an Internet community.

None of us would wish to see our work published on someone else's site as their own work. We hammer the evils of plagiarism into the heads of our students; as teachers, we must respect the same principle. Simply because something is on the Web, and therefore free, does not mean that we can take it for our own.


Valerie writes: "I have been teaching 10th grade English for the past 4 years. I will be teaching one section of AP English Lit and Comp for the first time this year. I have no idea where to begin!! Do you have any tips on getting organized and/or ways I can challenge my regular 10th graders by incorporating some of the ideas I use in my upper level class?"

Getting started is an overwhelming proposition it seems. I think because our students look to us to teach them what they need to know to do well on the AP test, we feel more pressure to do just that. It's not just a passing score they hope for, they have (or their parents have) paid money to take this test. It matters that they do well.

I know it isn't helpful to say that the only way to learn how to teach AP English is by teaching AP English. Having said that, I do have some advice for you. Find a syllabus that you like and model yours after it. Or find a couple of them and make yours a reflection of both. Look at the section on designing a syllabus and choosing books for more on this.

Secondly, get enrolled in an AP English Lit seminar or conference. You will learn a lot and you will get some great materials. I have been to several, but they were most helpful at the beginning when I didn't know what I was doing. Not only will you hear from experienced AP teachers at a seminar, you will also have the chance to talk to other rookies. Simply talking about your concerns with someone who shares them can be a real help for your state of mind. Ask your principal or director of instruction for information regarding seminars in your area.

Next, get hold of an objective test (old ones are out floating around) and take it. Give yourself the same amount of time your students will have (60 minutes) and do your best. I bombed the first time I tried this. Then I attempted to analyze what I did wrong. This is the best part of the experience. There are some questions that are so easy and we over think them. Others really are very, very difficult. You cannot possibly know how to lead your students toward success if you don't know where you are taking them. If another teacher in your building is teaching AP, ask for copies of old tests and answer keys.

Students should also take practice tests. April is a good time for those taking the real test, but our juniors also get a little taste of what's to come. The APEX learning site is pretty good for test prep. We found it to be a little hard to navigate, but students found it mostly helpful. Use those old objective tests for this purpose.

Next, read some sample essays and how they were scored. The College Board used to provide these in their seminar packet. They also used to have them online. On the links page, click on the link for free response questions. Also, become familiar with a good grading rubric. AP essays are scored on a 9 point rubric. You can look at the rubrics I have posted if they will help. It is helpful to students to see model essays. I try to save good ones from each year from my own students.

Assemble a comprehensive list of literary terms (start with those that you find in that objective test you took). There are also good resources online. You don't want to overdo it, but you do want good coverage. I have 50 fiction terms and 50 poetry terms (with some overlap). I tell my students that they must know these like they know their name because when they encounter a term on the test, they don't want their cluelessness about something as simple as "paradox," for example, to trip them up.

Then, you must find your way day by day. As for how to enrich the experiences of your 10th graders--I predict you will have a year full of revelation. Ways to connect will come to you as you go through the year. The AP approach is, or at least should be, all about critical thinking. And after all, isn't this what we want for all our students?

Good luck and have fun!


Scott writes: "Your websites and information are very impressive. I have been teaching high school English for eleven years, but never AP...until now! I consider myself a competent teacher, but I am quite worried about the upcoming school year. I have been all over your websites and have gathered some valuable resources. If there is one thing that you could highlight over all others to help a new AP teacher, I would love to hear it."

The Golden Key, the Holy Grail, the One True Thing? I wish there were such a thing. However, I do think that attending an AP workshop may be it. At least in the beginning, the workshop will help give you a sense of the AP philosophy. You will also get an idea about how others structure successful courses. In addition, you get a lot of great materials that you can use, like old tests to use for practice tests, sample essays and keys to how they were scored, sample rubrics, and more (at least I did when I attended these workshops).

To find out how to register for a workshop in your area, go to the College Board site. You will have to register as a new member, but that will give you more access to the site which has more to offer you. You can also ask your principal to be on the lookout for flyers for workshops. In the past, workshops in our area were in October. While it would be nice to find something in the summer, it is also nice to attend a workshop after you've been in your class for a bit and have a foundation to build on and a source of questions.

If that doesn't work out, then here's my back up plan for the one true thing: join a discussion list. Being part of an e-community is invaluable. Experienced and inexperienced teachers talk about the nuts and bolts of the AP English classroom and what makes it effective. If you have never been a member of a discussion list before, I offer some advice:

  • join, and then "lurk" for awhile, listening and learning the norms of the group.
  • pose real questions
  • thank people who offer advice
  • be open minded
  • realize that sometimes the discussion lulls and don't be frustrated by the highs and lows
  • discussion lists can produce a lot of email; simply delete threads that don't pertain to you or that you're not interested in to manage the mail load
  • create a folder in your email program and a rule to send all list messages to that folder if you want to keep things organized

So that's two things, not one. The point is that you don't have to struggle through your first year alone with no help. It's out there for you, so make it happen. Good Luck!


Greg Ann writes: "I appreciate your web site. Thank you. This is my second year to teach AP Literature. What advice would you give to teach basics of the "timed write," specifically for an open question? For example, we have just completed The Sound and the Fury. I will be giving a timed write on the AP question regarding the issue of "time" as it relates to the work as a whole."

I'm not sure there is a way to teach timed writing other than by having students do it. The AP exam expects students to write three essays in two hours time, which essentially breaks down to 40 minutes per essay. This is a tough task. What makes it even tougher is that they must read and understand the passage and the prompt in that time period, too. My approach is to structure all of our essays to replicate an AP essay. I limit time.

In the beginning of the year, I do guide students prior to the essay day. For example, before students write an essay about Oedipus Rex, I have them complete a graphic organizer that helps them closely examine passages where Oedipus is oblivious to what we all see clearly. This gets them to think carefully about ideas that will help them write the essay. Later on, there is no front loading other than the fact that we've read the work on which the essay is based.

Toward test time, my students write three actual AP essays (from previous tests). I wish I had the time to have them attempt all three in two hours, but I don't. I strictly limit them to 40 minutes, however. I think this experience is valuable. For all three of these essays, they are seeing the prompt and the passage for the first time on the day they write the essay.

By open question, I think you mean that students can draw on the entire work instead of one passage. In this case, it is critical that the students understand the work fully. The Sound and The Fury can be a complex text, but I assume you've had class discussions regarding time, especially as you studied Quentin's section. I would advise students to narrow their focus as appropriately as they can. What I mean is, they don't want a superficial analysis, but they also cannot cram everything about time into a 40 minute essay.

Most of the essays my students write are passage specific essays. However, there is value in drawing on entire works, for the last essay on the test asks them to recall a major work.

As to organizing and developing ideas for a timed essay, I remind my students to make a mini outline in the margin of the prompt page. Using brief phrases that encapsulate clear ideas, the mini outline will keep them focused. Not all students are able to juggle three or four supporting points in their head at one time.

And obviously, I remind them to focus on their given task. If the prompt calls for an analysis of diction and tone, they should not be bringing other elements in on their own. They have enough to do if they simply stay with the guidelines given them.

While the AP readers say they look for evidence that the writer is developing his or her understanding through the essay, I imagine they still expect a high level of fluency and organization. These things nearly always are easier to teach and learn when we allow for a revision stage. While in real life, all writers would reflect on what they've written and revise and tweak, there is no such luxury in May for our students. So I advise my students to make the most of each minute for each essay because there is no second chance.

All in all, the sense of timing comes through repeated practice. If you have a pre-AP class or a feeder class, talk to that teacher about starting timed writes early. This will help your students develop this internal sense.


Lori writes: "Thank you for such a wonderful website. I am sure your students appreciate the info that you provide for them. Eventually, I would like to develop my own site so that my students will have access to my materials whenever they need help. Do you have any suggestions for creating a student accessible site?"

Hi Lori. I am not sure what you mean by student accessible. If you mean a site that's easy for them to get to, then what you need is to create links on your school's main site, your department's site, and any other logical place. You should give the url on your syllabus also. I think you may mean something else, though. A site that is usable and is meaningful is also important.

I started out small, believe it or not. The first incarnation of my web site was really practical. I posted the syllabus and the course calendar. I wanted students to know what we were going to do and when. I also wanted them to know when assignments were due even if they were absent.

Next, I realized that more details about unit plans would be good. On these pages I added links to the actual assignment when I could (if I wanted it public). I also added links to sites that would enrich their experience as well as to those we'd be using for an assignment.

My current site is a great tool to keep me organized, but I know from feedback that students also appreciate having it as a resource. Because there is so much published on the site (literally, much of my file cabinet is now on the web), they feel empowered. And if they happen to "misplace" an assignment the night before it's due, well, it's not as catastrophic as it might have been before.

If you keep your students and their needs in mind when you create your site, you won't go wrong.


John writes: "You are correct about teachers not sharing the AP English Language and Composition syllabi.  I have been looking for two weeks.  Today I looked for six hours.  What does this say about our profession?  Can you help me?"

Hi John. Unfortunately, I can't. My focus is literature, although I am leaning toward incorporating more of the language aspect into my course as more and more my students are taking both exams. My best advice is to go to the College Board site and get as much past test information as you can. It would be good to go to a workshop on teaching AP Language. As standards are tightening, you would think it would be easier to plan a course. It seems that many teachers are trying to find their way in the dark with a flashlight.

My theory is that the AP track (if that's what you want to call it) is a big money maker, so the more that is kept "secret", the more we have to pay for. And yet, more and more students are opting to take AP courses, so more and more teachers are finding themselves in exactly your spot.

For the past three years, I have had several students take both exams. This year, I polled them about the difference between the two. Their perception was that there was little difference. The structure is identical: objective section and three essays. I tried to get out of them some information about what specific terms were tested, but they were true to their promise not to reveal information about the test.

From what I can tell, the Language test has more questions about syntax, more analysis of sentence patterns, more questions about rhetorical devices (especially persuasive techniques). Our students still need to be able to argue their point, to support their argument, to write with command of the language, and to understand what they read.

As for what literature to read, this is probably as open as it is for the Lit test. While the College Board has lists (question three) each year, any work of literary merit is appropriate in an AP course. It is true that the typical Language course has more nonfiction, but it does not exclude fiction entirely.

Perhaps the best AP course would be one that covers both. While that's a lot to do in one year, I think that's where my future efforts lie. Good luck!



Have a question? E-mail me please.

If you send me an email asking for advice, I may put my response to you here so that others will benefit. If you do not want that, please let me know in your email.


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Dawn Hogue, 2004, 2005