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AP English -- Dispelling the Myth

by Mary Ellen Ackerman
Retired Teacher
Brewster, Massachusetts

In the mid-1980s when I was a new English department head, my principal suggested that we add an AP English course to our department offerings. I told him I didn't like the idea because it was "elitist." He retorted that the course would be added, and I would be teaching it. Preparing for an unwanted task, I enrolled in a weeklong AP Summer Institute in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. What did I discover? AP English was not elitist at all but rigorous; it was not for only the chosen few but for the many. That summer session helped shatter the myth that AP English towers at the top of a hill only the most highly talented English students can ascend. Like all myths, though, some people are still under its spell.

In that week at St. Johnsbury I realized that rigor is the core of AP English, not ZIP codes, not last year's English grade, not teacher recommendations. Yes, there is a correlation between SAT®verbal scores and AP Exam grades. All of these criteria can be factors, but they needn't be eliminators. If one quality ranks above the rest, that quality is motivation. Some argue that motivation is not enough. I say it is a good place to start.

Take, for example, a student who was an exceptional reader. As a ninth-grader this fellow had read more than I had in my first 20 years of life. He loved literature and read incessantly. His ninth-grade English teacher played on a hunch. She stayed after school twice to go over the format of the AP English Literature and Composition Exam. Because the student could not afford to pay for the exam, the teacher paid the fee. In May the ninth-grader sat for the exam with the 18-year-olds and received his grade of 4 in July. Very unusual, yes. That thinking-out-of-the box teacher had opened a door for this young man. During his senior year, he participated in a dual-enrollment program that allowed him to earn college credit.

AP English is about opening doors, not closing them. When I first started teaching AP English Literature and Composition, my students earned grades of mostly 3s with a few 4s and no 5s. I was so frustrated. Why no 5s? Why not more 4s? We had killer summer reading assignments with tests on the second day of class. Still, the grades did not go up. It wasn't long before my "Aha!" experience occurred. I attended many professional development workshops and altered my writing and reading instruction. For example, I added creative writing as an integral part of the curriculum. This addition helped to motivate the students as they experimented as writers with the techniques used by the authors they read. My students learned to write as readers and read as writers. 

Our school system developed a version of vertical teaming in which K-12 teachers designated as curriculum team leaders periodically met. We instituted a junior-year AP English Language and Composition course. Our state implemented a high-stakes exit exam administered during sophomore year. Rigor became an expectation in earlier grades. Now many of our students earn AP Exam grades of 5. We still have our 3s and occasional 2s. Our students have a system that supports them. More doors are open, and many guides help our students through. 

My favorite time of the school year is when the students who did not earn the 4s and 5s return from college in the fall and tell me that they are at the head of their classes in English and have been asked to tutor and share their expertise with others. Is that not a wonderful thing? As educators, we must remember both equity and access. We must sometimes think out of the box for all our students and create policies that implement that concept.

Mary Ellen Ackerman recently retired from public school teaching at the high school level. She was English department chair at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School on Cape Cod for 23 years and a member of the department for 24. Before that she taught high school in Minnesota and Colorado and college in Virginia. She has been a private educational consultant for 15 years, a teacher trainer for the Massachusetts Department of Education, and a consultant for the College Board. She currently serves as a National Leader for the College Board and works with other consultants in cognitive coaching. She facilitates AP English Literature Summer Institutes in Massachusetts and Vermont.

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