Why I read (1200+ essays in 7 days)

Many of my family, friends, and co-workers are confused by my excitement to join the AP Literature Reading with teachers and college professors from across the country to read essays for 7 days straight. My family has affectionately labeled my time at the AP Reading as “Nerd Camp.”

I first applied to the reading pool three years ago hoping to get my name on the waiting list and receive an invitation in the next five years.  Instead of waiting, I was invited the first year I applied, which I attribute to the lack of representation from our rural area. I accepted the invitation because I was ready for something more. I was the only AP English teacher in my building at the time, and I desired to build a connection with other AP Lit teachers from across the country. That mission was accomplished before I even made it to the check-in desk at the hotel, and before the week was up I had joined Twitter and Voxer and was starting a budding relationship with teachers across the country (and Canada) that has proven to be the most beneficial professional development I have ever taken part.

The entire operation is pretty mesmerizing. There are a 1,000+ readers at tables of 7-9 on a near silent convention center floor. Royal blue curtains divide the areas for the poetry, prose, and open (novel based) questions.  At the sound of a bell (Pavlov, anyone?) readers puts on headsets in order to hear instructions or encouragement from their question leaders. The edges of the room are manned by runners who magically appear as you bubble in the final score for one folder and hand you a fresh new folder full of 25 more essays. These essays are then whisked away into the other question rooms until 7 days later, when all of the essays are finally scored. Three years later, I still remain fascinated by the logistics of it all.

Best Professional Development

“The Reading,” as it is called, consistents of 8am-5pm work days full of training and scoring (and coffee/tea/Coke laden snack breaks) with opportunities on many nights for professional development.  In the past three years, I have attended the poetry night readings to hear Nikki Finney, Ellen Bass, and Richard Blanco. These are inspiring and enriching nights that inevitably influence my classroom teaching.  We also have an opportunity to meet and hear from the College Board test development committee, which is always insightful and affirming regarding the transparency that the College Board tries to maintain with its teachers.

However, the best part of the professional development happens at breaks, at lunch, and during nights at dinner, by the hotel pool, or at an outdoor Shakespeare performance. We talk titles, strategies, and victories from our classrooms.  We tell funny and embarrassing stories while in the company of people who “get it”.  It is comforting to hear of the same struggles that happen in English classroom across the country, and energizing to hear from teachers who are doing such good work for our students from coast to coast.

Improves my teaching

Although I score the same exact essay over and over for these seven days, the insights I gain are so helpful.  I am constantly making notes in a little notebook about mini-lessons that I plan to do with my own new batch of AP Lit students.  I also get to hear from fellow teachers and readers regarding the celebrations and recommendations for the two other essay questions.

This year my main takeaways included more specific work with my students dealing with writing strong thesis statements that do not merely restate the prompt and/or list devices that they see. Susan Barber and I collaborated on “Will the real Zenobia please stand up: Question 2 reflections” for AP Lit Help.

Improves my accuracy and speed in scoring

It still surprises me that I can score around 1200 essays (which is extremely average at this reading I would guess–many, many folks score significantly more essays than this) in 7 days, but I will let a stack of 30 essays haunt me for the same amount of time during the school year.  It just proves that if teachers can get in a distraction-free space (HA!) and focus, scoring can go so much quicker. Whole-class feedback or individual writing conferences are often beneficial for these types of writings and there is no need to empty a pen worth of ink onto each one.

Treated like a true professional

Our work is appreciated and respected here at the reading. Chief Reader David Miller, inspires good work, and the fellow readers are thoughtful and willing to reward students for what they do well.  Listening to the talk at my table, money for conferences and trainings is scarce from my rural district all the way to large college campuses.  In this setting, we are paid for our time and reimbursed for travel expenses. Additionally, there are not many environments where high school teachers and college professors alike are seated together and work together on a common goal.

The T-shirts

We were in Kansas City with biology and statistics teachers who have a really strong t-shirt game (many of which were over my head). I only took pictures of a tiny handful of the hilarious, snarky, clever literature and grammar based t-shirts. You know you are among your people when at any given time you are around a teachers with an Emily Dickinson t-shirt, Hamlet leggings, an Austen inspired scarf, or even Zenobia tattoos. (I am totally serious).

This week is certainly a sacrifice in time away from my family during these precious summer weeks, but I am thankful that I have a husband and family members who can hold down the fort while I get all the benefits from “Nerd Camp.”



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