AP Lit at IPA: College-Like Experience Leads to Exam Excellence

Irvington Prep offers a number of Advanced Placement courses through the College Board. AP English Literature and Composition is taught by Peggy Larkin, an IPA original since the school opened in 2010. And her class’s results are remarkable – by any AP standard.

Ms. Larkin’s second semester 2019 AP Lit and Comp students scored exceptionally well in the course-concluding exam: half of her students scored a “3” (passing) or higher. The collective results outperformed the Indiana average of 44.9% passing, and is just above the national/global average for AP Lit and Comp. In the process, as you will read from this interview with Ms. Larkin, a whole lot of learning went on.

Content Overview:
AP English Literature and Composition is designed to replicate a college level Introduction to Literature course. Students read and analyze poetry, novels, short stories, and plays, looking for the authors’ themes and identifying the ways that authors convey those universal messages.

Thanks to a generous grant from Indiana Humanities, our class participated in the One State / One Story reading of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. A visiting poet, Adam Henze, presented to the school and to our class about Shelley’s life and work. A Literature professor from Trine University, Dr. Cassandra Bausman, spoke with our class about Frankenstein and Jurassic Park (by Michael Crichton), and their universal themes. We also read William Shakespear’s Othello and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and went to the Indianapolis Repertory Theater to see A Doll’s House 2, a modern imagining of what might have happened 15 years after the ending of the classic play.

Students worked independently to research the lives and works of various poets and presented their findings to the class. They also formed small groups – “book clubs” – with each group working on a common text. Students chose novels like The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane), Dracula (Bram Stoker), Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne), The Color Purple (Alice Walker), and Animal Farm and 1984 (George Orwell).

In “#FlashBackFebruary,” students chose a classic they had previously been assigned in another class and revisited it through their new analytical skills. Choices included Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Odyssey (Homer), The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde), The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie), and The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald). After the AP Exam, students read graphic novels or novels of their choice, including Maus (Art Spiegelman), Watchmen (Alan Moore), I Am Alfonso Jones (Tony Medina), Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut), and The Turn of the Screw (Henry James).

AP courses are demanding by nature. How demanding was the Lit course in particular?
Students were challenged to read more – and more critically – than in previous courses, but I tried to make sure we had a good depth of understanding rather than rushing to cover a huge breadth of works. I worked hard to make sure that students often got to choose their own texts. We wrote many essays. We also grappled with the challenging nature of the AP Exam’s multiple-choice questions by working independently and in small and large groups to read and respond quickly to a variety of types of literature.

Generally, what did your students enjoy most about the course?
Based on student post-exam surveys, they enjoyed having a choice of what to read, the field trip to the IRT, and the guest speakers for Frankenstein. Many of them also expressed that they loved discussing in class what we had read.

How does taking an AP Lit class contribute to the intellectual development of a high school student and in preparation for college?
Learning to examine literature involves close reading, analysis, metacognition, and focus. Students learned to do research, cite sources, integrate textual evidence, and choose words with care to write clear, cogent arguments supported by solid reasoning. Groups set their own reading schedules, monitored their own work, and set up group norms and procedures. They often had the chance to collaborate with their peers and were asked to produce visual aids. All Language Arts classes require students to engage in reading, writing, public speaking, and thinking, and AP English Literature asks them to do all four of those tasks at a very high level.

What did you enjoy most about teaching AP Lit?
To hear my students passionately discussing literature! I loved being in a group of motivated people who wanted to improve their skills and learn new things. I also learned a lot by teaching the course. The students’ poetry presentations introduced me to some new poems by beloved poets, and I had never read Frankenstein before.
I’m incredibly proud of what my students achieved – they did well on the exam, of course, but they also grew immensely as readers and writers, and gave many presentations that became more polished throughout the year.