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Young Adult Literature, Advanced Placement, and “Rigor”

This post is by NCTE member Cody Miller. 

Cody Miller

As stated in an earlier post, my English Honors I course is de-tracked, which means all students are enrolled in rigorous coursework regardless of test scores during 9th grade. Students are allowed to enroll in AP Language and AP Literature during their junior and senior years respectively. I am constantly revising my curriculum in order to provide equitable instruction for all students, regardless of their intent to enroll in AP courses. I believe the best curriculum expands students’ capacities to be empathetic and critical democratic citizens. However, I do not want to be beholden to the narrow, monochromatic set of “classics” that frequently populate many AP Literature lists across the nation. Please do not mistake this as a complete abandonment of the “classics.” Indeed, Romeo and Juliet is engaging and thought-provoking each year I teach it, and my students love reading To Kill a Mockingbird in 8th grade and Taming of the Shrew in 10th grade. Yet, I believe it is my duty to ensure that the texts I bring to my classroom are as diverse as my student population. Having students engage in AP Literature prompts using young adult literature (YAL) has been one way I achieve the goals of offering diverse literature and providing a sneak peek at what’s to come for students who enroll in AP Literature.

Previous AP Literature prompts, easily accessible thanks to the College Board’s website, ask complicated moral questions that are often rooted in cultural studies. I select prompts that align with concepts and ideas we’re already discussing in class. The nuanced ideas and concepts students wrestle with while reading should be privileged over a book’s status in an outdated hierarchy. In fact, English education scholar sj Miller argues that it is more important that students are able to “read widely, shift and apply literary lenses depending on context, unpack meaning, critique ideas, and make sense of literature in a way that is useful and applicable in their lives” than complete a canonical text. I agree completely.

I typically give students six to eight prompts to choose from when writing their final exam. Prompts are sometimes modified for student clarification. Students can select one text from the year to use answer the prompt, or they can synthesize multiple texts. Students have two to three class periods to complete the essay. The results are always impressive! This year alone, students answered an AP prompt relating to secrets using If You Could Be Mine and Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, both by Sara Farizan. Another student answered an AP prompt relating to the nature of power by synthesizing ideas from the canonical text Lord of the Flies, the graphic novel Persepolis, and the YA text Never Fall Down. One student explored how Walter Dean Myers represents the Iraq War in Sunrise Over Fallujah, while another student analyzed how past events are inescapable in Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis. All of these essays are engaged in discussing complex sociopolitical issues.

I understand that my assessment isn’t exactly like the AP exam. But exact replication isn’t the point. Instead, the purpose is multifaceted: to expose students to what an AP prompt looks like, to have students use literature as a tool to explore broader socio-political issues, to legitimize the stories of diverse writers, and to acknowledge the important contribution YAL has made to the study of English. I believe all of those aims to be more than “rigorous.”

References

Miller, s. (2013). AP gatekeeping: Exploring the myth of using YAL in an AP English classroom. ALAN Review, Winter edition, 79–84.

Cody Miller teaches ninth-grade English Language Arts at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, the University of Florida’s affiliated K12 laboratory school. He can be reached at cmiller@pky.ufl.edu or on Twitter @CodyMillerPKY.