How Each AP Lit Teacher’s Personality Creates a Unique Classroom Experience
By Charlotte Suttee
Students, you may notice how your friends have enrolled in the same course, but landed with a different teacher, and as a result, receives a very different learning experience from you. Sure, every AP English Literature class prepares students with the tools for the end-of-the-year AP Exam, but teachers Blake Connelly, Debbie Gill, and Jordan McCown have distinct personalities that explain their unique classroom strategies for semester #2.
The air vents of building 5 don’t just heat the rooms in the wintertime or cool us off come warmer weather, but they are perfect echo chambers for the booming voice of AP Lit teacher Mr.Connelly. If you put your ear to an air vent, you can listen to his exuberant exclamations relating literature to the world around us or how much Connelly loves his son, Elliot.
From inside his classroom, you can watch his hand gestures rise and fall to his inflections, and then you will shudder at the loud silences as he stops to sip his coffee mug (custom-made by Elliot). He never tires of discussing life and literature, and he hopes his students can share in his enthusiasm.
“We are wasting our time if the only thing we are doing in here is reading a book to pass a test,” states Connelly. “I feel like my classroom is giving people the opportunity to think and engage, and if we do that well, a by-product will be we have the skills to do well on the exam.”
Connelly’s rigorous workload also keeps students’ gears constantly running, and so classes are rich with discussion. But what Connelly is most vocal about as a teacher is his first novel selection of the semester: Beloved by Toni Morrison.
“You’ve got to find that one novel that is indispensable for whatever reason to your curriculum,” says Connelly. “For me, it would be this [novel].”
He is the only teacher that has assigned this book to his students. The book has been banned and challenged on multiple occasions since its publication, up until 2017.
“I teach Beloved, even though it is a very controversial sort of book… because I think it is a very, very, very important book… It is the best thing I’ve ever read that gets at the implications of slavery and what it means for our past… I think most students, given the opportunity, will rise to the occasion of maturity if they’re given a challenge.”
Morrison’s novel is not just beneficial to read for the AP exam, but it is significant to the discussion of humanity and becoming a better person in Connelly’s AP Lit classroom. Connelly’s demeanor and discussions demonstrate how to voice your ideas and that no topic should be off limits.
“Mr.Connelly teaches an author who is wonderful,” prefaces Gill, “and [Toni Morrison] is used frequently on the exam, but she is way too graphic for me. I am uncomfortable– it hurts, it hurts when she does that to her baby– I don’t deal with that well. So I do plays instead.”
Gill carries a motherly air; she wants to protect her students because she loves them, but that doesn’t limit discussing important ideas in her classroom. Beloved is tough to stomach, but Gill may still return to racial topics after Spring break; two of the plays Gill’s students read, the Death of a Salesman and Fences, have similar family complications, but Fences throws the implication of race into the mix.
Gill is the only teacher who assigns more plays than Hamlet, at the expense of reading fewer novels. Before Gill taught at Jenks, most of her students held jobs and supported themselves, so she needed to assign literature that did not take up much time outside of school.
“It would have been too much of a burden to ask [my former students] to read Crime and Punishment outside of class,” admits Gill, “but they could read a play.”
She’s carried her habit of assigning plays to Jenks High School. Gill is also a fan of class discussions over plays, poetry, novels, and novellas alike.
“I like what the students bring to the table [during discussions],” Gill says, “and it always makes for a new meal.”
She excels in listening to her students needs and fostering a healthy and safe classroom atmosphere. Gill radiates a warmth– a compassion that makes me want to hug her and thank her, but I didn’t think it would be appropriate to do so having just met her for an interview.
Connelly and Gill do not skimp out on dishing out discussions to their students, but there can be no talks more flavorful than Mr.McCown’s. He is an informed, mindful teacher who knows how to utilize humor and fresh questions to keep his students engaged in serious topics.
“We have Deep Thoughts Tuesday where every Tuesday we have a topic that a student will bring,” says McCown, “and we just talk about it in depth… “[Students] look forward to it every Tuesday.”
His discussions are less focused on a specific novel, and they are more student-led, like on Deep Thoughts Tuesday, or they revolve around a concept or question McCown chooses. For the start of the 2nd semester, he and his students will be reading texts related to Satire.
“We are talking about what needs to be changed in society, and how can we change society,” says McCown. “I also want them to have buy-in on the books they choose… Letting them select the book they want to read increases the amount of time they spend reading the book.”
Allowing students to choose their own novels is a recent development, however. McCown has decided to break away from the cycle of books Gill and Connelly go over, just this last semester.
“We were about half-way through Crime and Punishment and I was tired of the way the class had been structured. It was like reading for the quiz. It wasn’t reading for any other purpose.”
He found that many students would just Sparknote or skim through the novels, not really motivated to get more out of it, but they still valued the in-class discussions. McCown does, too. He changed the course to reflect himself more in order to make the class a more enjoyable and efficient environment to learn in– for himself and his students.
Besides letting his students have more freedom in choosing novels they read, the new structure of his course even includes a new discipline system for students who don’t complete their work. Students must commit to a punishment decided by their own small groups, such as doing extra work or buying the class QT.
Each teacher hopes that the design of their course will help their students achieve greatness on the AP test, but also in life. The bottom line: these teachers care about you more than whatever test scores you earn.
Here is what Connelly, Gill, and McCown, say about their ultimate goals for students:
“I want AP Lit students to be better people. That’s my #1 sort of goal. Art is what makes us better humans. I see the poetry that we do and the literature we do as a form of art that is meant to be provocative– that is meant to push us to think about deep questions and hopefully be better people.”
“If [students] didn’t enjoy [a book], appreciate what’s being written. Even if they are a STEM kid and they’re never in an arts course ever again, [I hope] that they read between the lines, they don’t get snookered, [and] they know what’s being said to them. I want them to be able to interpret the written word.”
“I want them to go with literary analysis skills, but more than that, I want them to be able to look at any argument or any text in the world around them and think about it critically– any speeches or advertisements or even conversations with their friends.”