Expanding Horizons: The Magic of Excerpts in the AP® Classroom
by Heather Garcia
AP® Literature classrooms can be pretty intimidating places for some students. They get overwhelmed by all the “hidden” messages; the themes and symbols that we ask them to pull out of black ink like magic. But, as teachers, we don’t want our kids to be intimidated. We want them to feel empowered, emboldened, ready to tackle the world head-on and analyze anything in front of them—whether it be a piece of great literature, a movie, or a television commercial. We want literate, thinking humans to leave our rooms at the end of the year. But, to get them to that point, we have to keep them in their seats for the hard work—the deep thinking. We have to make them comfortable with stretching their limits and then celebrate with them when they find success. How do we perform such magic? With excerpts.
By using excerpts of texts from wide ranges of genres, authors, countries, and literary periods, we allow our students to dabble in literature, to take risks, to be wrong, to find favorites, and to analyze deeply without having to commit their time and energy to an entire novel. A dull read or an antiquated text that seems unapproachable can be a slog for many of our reluctant, struggling, or even just busy students. I discover most excerpts that I use with my kids while I am reading for pleasure. I will be reading a book for fun, no pen, shutting down the “teacher” part of my brain, and then a passage will strike me as being particularly well written: the setting is portrayed vividly, the characterization is rich, an ironic twist catches me off guard, and then I hoist myself off the couch, grab a pen or a post-it, and I flag it. Sharing that excerpt with my kids is fast and easy. I use the document camera to display the page directly (or I will show them the annotations I made in my book), and we talk about what is striking about the writing, how the author pulled it off, and why it matters—what was the author’s intent in this moment?
The secret of using excerpts is that there IS no secret. Quick excerpt analysis is considerably more relaxed than a more rigid lesson, and the kids don’t feel like it is a lesson because… there isn’t a worksheet, there isn’t a huge project, there sometimes isn’t even anything to assign a grade to. Excerpts can range from a few paragraphs to a few pages. These quick mini-lessons can last from five minutes to fifty minutes depending on which skills are being reinforced, but the time spent in these nuggets of text are invaluable. Students have read something they might never have experienced, they have analyzed the author’s craft. They have explored literary motive. They have analyzed—deeply. This is a win whether we are reading an excerpt from a Carl Hiaasen murder mystery or an angsty moment from a Bronte novel.
If, like most AP® teachers, your “for fun” reading is few and far between, an alternative place to find fabulous excerpts is from the first pages of the “classics”. These public domain stories —texts from 1924 and earlier that are available for free to the public—have opening pages that are filled with setting exploration, rich characterization, and the establishment of tone. Take the opening page of Wuthering Heights as an example. In this first page, we are introduced to the isolation of the Yorkshire moors, to the puppy-like idiocy of our narrator, Lockwood, and to the misanthropic nature of Heathcliff (he even goes as far as to hide his hands in his coat upon meeting Lockwood, thus refusing a handshake—quite taboo for the time). In just 250 words or so, students get to explore the bleak setting, the overrun manor, the peculiar characters, and they get exposure to high-level syntax and vocabulary. And yet, they don’t have to read the whole book to reach that level of understanding. They get a taste of Bronte, to learn analyze her writing style, and guess at her motives for creating such dichotomous characters and pitching them against one another in the opening scene of the book. Why was this tension pivotal to capturing an audience? Why is Lockwood portrayed to be so naive in his perceptions of Heathcliff? The students analyze deeply without ever delving deeper into plot. The magic comes when they dig for clues in what limited text they have before them. What is great about this is that there are hundreds of thousands of novels and short stories in the public domain that are just waiting for students to pick them apart.
Another approach to using excerpts in the classroom is to allow students to guide the magic themselves. Students could easily search for their own excerpts that target specific skills. For example, I could send my students on a hunt for the opening of a text that uses setting to portray mood. Students would need to know not only what they are looking for, but would also need to read through numerous novel openings to find the perfect excerpt. This broadens their reading comfort levels and allows them to explore various writing styles. I could then take the openings that the students brought in and have students get into groups of five and rank the excerpts from most effective to least effective. Students would then need to defend their rankings using textual evidence and their knowledge of author’s craft. By looking closely at excerpts they chose they will be able to determine if what they thought was magical at home held up under the scrutiny of their peers.
Regardless of how the excerpts are used, there is no doubt that they can transform the AP® Literature experience for reluctant or hesitant learners. Not every student walks into an AP® Literature classroom ready to unravel full-length novels at any in-depth level, so the excerpts allow students to perform magic on small levels, in controlled ways, while they build their confidence and comfort in analyzing longer texts.
Note that AP® English Literature is an entirely different course and exam from AP® English Language—you can learn the differences between both AP® courses in this article.
Heather Garcia is an English teacher at Charlotte High School, Florida, where she teaches AP English Literature and AP® English Language. She is a professional development leader in her district, running annual new-teacher trainings and is now the Curriculum and Instructional Specialist for her district for grades 6-12. After 16 years of hands-on experience, Heather has developed a series of strategies to help her students navigate challenging texts. Her favorite book is the Steinbeck classic, East of Eden.