A Tale Of Two Literature Courses
Faulkner or Chaucer? AP Teachers Make the Call

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 10, 2008

First in an occasional series

exploring variations in how popular courses are taught.

At Clarksburg High School in Montgomery County, teacher Jeanine Hurley's English class finished "The Canterbury Tales" and just started "Hamlet." Senior Raphael Nguyen says he doesn't spend a lot of time on homework because Hurley doesn't give much.

At Langley High School in Fairfax County, teacher Kevin Howard's English class is studying "Othello" after reading William Faulkner's "Light in August." Senior Ryan Ainsworth, 17, said he does an average of 75 minutes reading and writing each night because Howard can pour it on.

Although students in these classes don't read the same works, they are taking the same course: Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition. And their teachers have the same goal: for students to learn how to connect text to meaning through skills assessed on the AP exam in May.

"You can take a look at the test and take a look at the skills that are covered on the test and, honestly, that's what I teach," said Howard, who leads teacher seminars on the AP course.

"I try to spend most of my time on four to five different skills so that it doesn't matter much if they are reading a metaphysical poet or an absurdist play," he said. "They've got to be able to look at a work critically, ask the right questions and come up with thoughtful analysis of what the author has done and how the author has achieved that."

The AP test is important not only because it is seen as a measure of teacher success but also because students who score well get college credit at some schools. Tests are graded from 1 to 5.

Course curriculum, following guidelines from the nonprofit College Board, is also dictated by which books are in the storeroom and by what teachers prefer teaching.

Howard said he loves to teach Ian McEwan, but prefers to avoid James Joyce. He tried "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" one year, he said, but "it didn't go well." The students didn't like it, and he was uncomfortable with the material. Hurley said she chooses books that "teach well," such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter."

"You like to have themes, characters and symbolism that you can easily find and trace throughout the book," she said. "Kids can find the more subtle aspects of them."

On the last day of the first quarter, a Friday that happened to be Halloween, Hurley quieted her boisterous students and directed their attention to a writing prompt, or assignment, she posted on a white board.

It was remarkably similar to one on the 2008 AP exam: "In two poems below, Keats and Longfellow reflect on similar concerns. Read the poems carefully. Then write an essay in which you compare and contrast the two poems, analyzing the poetic techniques each writer uses to explore his particular situation."

Students moaned, but she ignored them, saying the exercise was good practice for the AP exam. As the class discussed rhyme, meter, metaphor, tone, similes, themes and imagery, one student said, "I know this is dumb, but I get confused between metaphor and personification."

Hurley defined them, but the girl, frustrated, asked, "Can I just get a different prompt altogether?"

Students in both classes said they had several motives for taking the course, including the desire to be challenged. Many cited the lure of earning college credit in high school, though there is some debate in academia about whether AP courses actually reach college level.

Howard said the classes are valuable.

"High school seniors should be ready to tackle any text, even if they don't get it all the first time," he said. "It can take students two or three times to begin to understand," which is why his assignments force them back to the text.

"This is a start," he said.

Asked about the Shakespearean play Howard's class is reading, Rachel Warrick, 17, said the themes in "Othello" are generally too extreme for modern times. But Amanda Durig, 17, sees very modern themes of love and betrayal and psychological machinations in the play and enjoys tearing apart the text to analyze it.

There is, though, such a thing as overdoing it. Sometimes, Durig said, "a teacher will analyze a word and you just know the author didn't mean it that way."

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