An English teacher’s dream: a class size of 11, a group of students that love reading, critical thinkers that analyze and write well, unstructured discussions that delve below the literal level of a text. The students did the reading, came to class prepared, were positive about the workload, and showed engagement throughout the year. I just got done teaching AP Literature for the first time and could not imagine a better experience.

I know the students learned a lot (and I think mostly enjoyed the process), but I realized that I learned a lot as well, not just about literature but about learning, teaching, and students.

Successes are not mine

Much of the success that happens in my classroom is independent of me and what I do. I can only do so much in my classroom, and a lot of what happens is then up to the students. Embarking on any large task for the first time can be daunting, but I felt mostly at peace tackling such a large project. And it came down to having a strong group of students that were going to do well and succeed, no matter what I did.

It made me realize that fostering the right environment, allowing students to make choices, and helping students to find their inner motivation are such a crucial part of teaching. I’ve noticed that from year to year, I can teach the same class with markedly different results; the difference is not the content, my classroom, or the way I teach, but simply the students. Much of learning and the success students have in my classroom is rooted in the attitude, approach, and work-ethic they bring to the class. The successes this year were rooted in the student attitudes and hard work.

My students are better writers than I am

Quite a number of my students are better writers than I am. Most are better than I was in high school, but quite a few are better than I am now. Several times this year I’d read an essay written by one of my AP students after a 40 minute timed writing assignment and I’d think, “Wow…there’s no way I could have come up with this in that amount of time.”

That doesn’t mean they didn’t still have writing skills to learn or that I had nothing left to teach them. My added experience and broadness of vision could help them to become even better. And they didn’t get to where they are by skating by, so they welcome my feedback, incorporate it, and become even better.

It really made it fun to grade their essays. I never quite knew what I was going to read, but I knew I would be surprised, startled, moved, and impressed every time. They didn’t always believe me when I told them I enjoyed grading their essays, but I genuinely did. The hard work, effort, and sheer word-smithing was evident.

I love teaching High School

I taught middle school for a few years, and I’ve occasionally thought about moving to higher education at some point in the future. This AP class was what cemented and affirmed my conviction that teaching HS English was the ideal place for me.

I love teenagers in those grades. I can mostly treat them like I would adults (unless they do something dumb and I have to treat them like I would a middle-schooler) but they’re not always as stodgy. They get my humor, they engage with my banter, but they’re also mostly mature enough to know when it’s time to settle down and work. They’re still exploring the world, finding out who they are and what they care about, and I get to be involved. I get to share my love of reading and writing, my stories and ideas, and help shape them into the adults they will become.

This AP Literature class was the cream of all those sentiments. The students chose to be there, they were already somewhat interested in literature, I had taught all of them before, and we had a lot of fun with it. I got to push them to their reading/writing limits, could challenge their abilities and perceptions, and when we got to something really complex, we could sit down and figure it out together.

Discussing literature with peers

One of my favorite moments is when a student points out something in a text I’ve read oodles of times and it’s surprising to me. I hadn’t thought of it like that, or it was a detail I just hadn’t noticed before, a connection I hadn’t made.

In other classes, discussions about texts aren’t always as dynamic, often because I’ve read the text numerous times (and I’ve heard the same remarks and comments by previous year’s classes). I still love it, but I’m rarely surprised. In my student-led discussions in AP Literature, I never knew what was going to happen or which direction the conversations about a text would turn. It stimulated my own thinking, forced me to reexamine interpretations, and often led to a better understanding of a text, not just for the students, but for me as well.

It’s all the best bits of a book club that gets to meet every day. Delightful.

Outside help

I like to think of myself as self-sufficient. I want to be able to handle challenges myself, come up with my own solutions, and plan for what is coming up. I’ve long since learned that teaching pushes me to the limits of what I’m capable of and this AP class did that in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

I inherited a thorough curriculum from a brilliant teacher and it made all the difference. Having in the past had to come up with my own curriculum for classes, I know this year would not have been as successful had I not had this resource left for me.

The support, ideas, recommendations, and helpful willingness of numerous AP Lit teachers online was highly beneficial. When students had questions about format, practice, or other topics I didn’t know about, I knew where I could go. Their advice not only helped my students, but me as well. It affirmed a lot of what I was already doing and showed me the path towards improving my teaching.

So, thank you students, for reaffirming my love of teaching, my desire to be in a classroom with high-schoolers, and for all the effort, energy, joy, laughter, and brilliant thoughts you shared with me this year.