Last year, I was asked to take on teaching AP English Literature and Composition to the 12th grade class. I excitedly agreed to take on this course, as English literature is my area of expertise—at least according to the university that conferred to me an English literature degree. I love literature for many reasons, so I was prepared to share that love of books with my students with the hope that they would absorb that life and perpetuate it amongst themselves. Well, I was not completely aware of the realities I would be facing in the classroom.
One of the first activities I decided to implement in my class is the Spider Web Discussion method. This method places students at the center of learning by having them guide their discussions from beginning to end. Students have the opportunity to come together and create prompts, questions, comments, and insights that deepen their understanding of texts. My job, as a teacher, is to sit back and watch them take on these discussions on their own while maintaining an objective perspective and allowing them to struggle with ideas without interfering. I was excited to roll out this discussion protocol, and when I explained it to my students they showed some real excitement as well. However, when the timer began, and my students were faced with the daunting reality of having to lead their own discussion, everything began to crumble.
Here is the reality I’m struggling with: Advanced Placement, or AP courses, are not designed to deepen thinking; they are designed to promote rote learning. In other words, AP courses invite students to memorize formulaic ways of reading, writing, problem-solving, etc. From its inception, AP courses were designed to measure and predict students’ college-readiness. The way they go about determining college readiness, however, is not faithful to models of critical-thinking and collaborative problem solving. For instance, in order to prepare my students for the AP English Literature exam, all I need to do is to teach my students how to analyze poetry, how to analyze prose, and how to exercise varying multiple choice strategies. That’s it. There is no critical-thinking involved, no collaborative problem solving.
When I asked my students to engage in a collaborative learning space where they were asked to grapple with literature’s profound and philosophical questions, they were not able to understand its relevance to the test, so they pushed back. The fact is, they were correct. In order to be successful in the AP English Literature test, a student simply needs to memorize a couple of technical literary terms, incorporate evidence in their writing, and get as many multiple choice questions correct. Students are not asked to think deeply about literature in the test. This is the reason I believe AP courses are a waste of time. It encourages a transactional relationship between students and content-knowledge. What’s worse is that students don’t really expand their knowledge because they are not given the chance to develop a love for a subject. This is why I believe AP courses should be fully redesigned to incorporate critical thinking skills and collaborative work. Only then will we get a more accurate view of our students’ college readiness.
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