“Reward the Writers for What They do Well”: Reflections from the 2019 AP Literature Reading Question 3 “An Ideal Situation”


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The AP Literature and Composition Reading was held in Salt Lake City, Utah this year.  Let me get the most important items off the table first: the food was amazing, Salt Lake City was beautiful, and the food was so amazing.  

Once again I found myself assigned to Question 3.  I was half-hoping for Question 1 so I could read what students had to say about the nosy landlady, but to be honest, Question 3 is my favorite.  This year the College Board asked students to address the following prompt:

In his 2004 novel Magic Seeds, V. S. Naipaul writes: “It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That’s where the mischief starts. That’s where everything starts unraveling.”

Select a novel, play, or epic poem in which a character holds an “ideal view of the world.” Then write an essay in which you analyze the character’s idealism and its positive or negative consequences. Explain how the author’s portrayal of this idealism illuminates the meaning of the work as a whole.

The prompt was accessible, and students found multiple entry points to share their ideas.  I read over 1500 essays and found very few students who left the pages blank or short on content.  

Some other basic statistics from my experience:

  1. Students used 189 different novels.
  2. The top ten works I scored included the following:
    1. The Great Gatsby (far and away #1)
    2. Brave New World
    3. Death of a Salesman
    4. Heart of Darkness
    5. Frankenstein
    6. The Handmaid’s Tale
    7. Hamlet
    8. Things Fall Apart
    9. To Kill a Mockingbird
    10. The Importance of Being Earnest

Many students scored well with these novels and plays, while other students struggled to move beyond mere plot summary. Students who addressed the prompt with a defensible thesis, used apt evidence and commentary, scored well regardless of the novel or play they used. Effective composition won the day. See Susan Barber’s recent blog On Writing and Thinking.

This year I want to focus my reflection on the key word from our scoring guideline: “Reward the writers for what they do well.” We hear these words the first day and every day from our Table Leaders, Room Leaders, our Chief Reader, David Miller (a true gentleman @Miller_DG), and from each other.  “Reward writers for what they do well.” Simple  enough, but not always easy to put into practical practice. Do these words mean to only reward writers for what they do well and ignore what writers do poorly? Every Reader I have ever met wants to reward writers for what they do well.  I preach this sermon to my kids every year. “Give Readers something they can reward you for.”  This year I might need to bring more fire and brimstone to my sermon to gain more converts. 

This is the last year for the holistic 9-point rubric.  Starting next year we move to an analytical 6-point rubric.  We AP Literature folks also have a great new CED to play with as well. I have worked briefly with the new scoring guidelines, and I am excited about the possibilities for teachers and students.  But be it a holistic rubric or an analytical rubric, Readers at Salt Lake City next year will look to “reward readers for what they do well.”

I want to humbly offer my fellow teachers and their students a few suggestions for what they can do well, so they can be rewarded.  I want all students to earn a qualifying score, of course, but more importantly, I want all kids to grow as readers and writers as they move on to the next stages of their lives.  So here it goes.

  • Read the prompt and the task you are being asked to perform carefully, and do your very best to answer the prompt in your own words with your own thinking.

All teenagers, even 18-year-old teenagers, have strong opinions.  If you are not 100% sure what the right answer is, give it your best thinking in the moment.  There is no 100% right answer, there is only your answer. Answer the prompt with your best thinking.  That’s it. You’ll have a thesis statement, and you’ll earn 1 point on the new rubric. You need a defensible thesis. Answer the prompt and defend what you think.  Isn’t this what you do when you are in a pickle with your parents? Don’t you make an argument even when you are on shaky ground? Do your best. Write what you think. Earn the point. (You can see that I am writing directly to kids, right?)  

  • Use evidence from the passage, poem, or book, to justify your defensible thesis.  You don’t want to use long quotes, just enough to prove your thesis is defensible.     

Okay, your thesis might seem a little shaky, but you had to arrive at it based on something, right?  Look for the word(s), symbols, imagery, or interesting sentences that caught your eye. Use that evidence to justify your thesis. Use your own language to explain the connections you see. When you want something you might not deserve, don’t you do your best to argue for why you deserve it?  Do the same thing here. You had an idea (thesis) and here is why (evidence). It doesn’t have to be 100% correct. As a matter of fact you can earn 3 out of 4 points on the new rubric even if your evidence and commentary is uneven, limited, or incomplete.  Just make sure your evidence is in support of your thesis. Write like you are right in your thinking. Act confident even if your head is telling you to take a nap.

  • You will be rewarded if you do your best to write clear sentences that are punctuated correctly. Clarity is key.  You don’t need fancy words like “titular”, but you do need a mix of sentences whose only goal is to communicate your ideas clearly to eyes that read about 250 essays a day.

You know how to write.  You’ve been writing for a long time now. I know some of you don’t like to write, and that’s okay.  But you are in the AP Literature game now, so you might as well play to win! Telegraph to your Reader that you know how to communicate like an about-to-be-college-student. Use only words that you understand and feel comfortable using.  You don’t need to impress, but you do need to communicate. Underline titles of books. Put short stories and poems in quotation marks. Use possessive apostrophes. Capitalize proper nouns. Don’t get carried away with sentences that wander into paragraph length.  Clarity is your goal. Write what you mean and mean what you write. Be your best writing self and that will be good enough.

We the Readers want to reward students for what they do well.  We want all students to succeed because we want our students to succeed. The exam is one day, and one day does not define anyone.  There are way too many variables to stake one’s self-worth on any exam, but AP Literature and Composition is far more than a test. Teachers want their students to grow as readers and writers and be prepared to take the next step in life.  As it turns out, the AP exam is one of those steps, and as long as students take the exam, we want them to succeed to the measure they prepare. So on exam day in May 2020, do your best and give us a reason “to reward you for what you do well.”  

Roy F. Smith is the English Department Chair at Round Rock High School and teaches AP English Literature and Dual-Credit English. Roy is an adjunct professor at Austin Community College.  Roy is an AP English Reader for College Board, and a College Board consultant. He also acts as a consultant for the National Math and Science Institute (NMSI). In 2015, he was named Round Rock High School and the Round Rock ISD Secondary Teacher of the Year.






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