When planning a unit, we create a reading schedule based on the students' abilities and the number of pages we expect them to read in a night. For instance, when teaching Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, we typically divide the chapters into the following nightly reading assignments:
Night #1: "The Things They Carried" (pp. 1-26)
Night #2: "Love" / "Spin" / "On the Rainy River" (pp. 27-61)
Night #3: "Enemies" / "Friends" / "How to Tell a True War Story" / "The Dentist" (pp. 62-88)
Night #4: "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" (pp. 89-116)
Night #5: "Stockings" / "Church" / "The Man I Killed" / "Ambush" / "Style" (pp. 117-136)
Night #6: "Speaking of Courage" / "Notes" (pp. 137- 161)
Night #7: "In the Field" / "Good Form" / "Field Trip" (pp. 162-188)
Night #8: "The Ghost Soldiers" (pp. 189-218)
Night #9: "Night Life" / "The Lives of the Dead" (pp. 219-246)
Once we have created a reading schedule, we divide the nightly assignments into three sections and plan on having an AP-style reading quiz after the first two sections and a final exam after the third. For O'Brien's novel, the first reading quiz is scheduled after the third night's assignment and covers the first eight chapters of the novel. Our AP Reading Quizzes are modeled after the multiple-choice section of the AP exam. Students are not assessed on whether they have read the text, which we assume they have, but on how well they have understood it.
The directions for our quizzes are the same as multiple-choice section of the AP exam; we do not ask students to choose the correct answer, but the best answer, which implies that students need to choose between two or more "good" answers to determine which one is "best." For instance, consider the first question on the Ch. 1-8 Quiz from the first chapter of the novel:
1. In the opening chapter, after claiming that the two-pound rain poncho “was worth every ounce,” the narrator’s tone when Ted Lavender’s poncho is then used to “wrap him up” after he is killed is one of
Students should be able to eliminate a few answers immediately, such as "insincerity" and "amusement." The narrator is not being disingenuous, nor does the narrator think Ted Lavender's death is a laughing matter. Upon further thought, students should also be able to eliminate "anger" fairly quickly. The narrator is not blaming anyone for Ted Lavender's death; instead, his death is a tragedy, which the narrator suggests is true of anyone who dies in war. While students might be tempted to choose "sadness" as a result, a close reading of the text should reveal the irony in the rain poncho's being "worth every ounce." We expect the example to demonstrate how a poncho keeps a soldier dry in inclement weather—not for wrapping up his dead body after he is killed. At that point, the poncho may be useful to his fellow soldiers, but certainly not to him.
Identifying tone can be challenging for students, especially when it involves irony. The second question requires students to understand the first-person narrator's motivation in the chapter "On the Rainy River" when he makes the pivotal decision to go to the war in Vietnam instead of fleeing to Canada:
2. After spending six days at the Tip Top Lodge up on the Canadian border, the narrator finally commits to going to Vietnam saying, “I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—,” because he is too
(A) proud and patriotic not to fight for his country
(B) afraid of dying in an unjust and immoral war
(C) ashamed and embarrassed to flee to Canada
(D) interested in one day writing about his war experience
(E) smart, too compassionate to fight in Vietnam
Some answers to this question are obviously nonsensical and can be immediately eliminated. For instance, it does not make sense that the narrator would go to Vietnam because he is too "afraid of dying in an unjust and immoral war." Similarly, the narrator uses the excuse of being "too smart" and "too compassionate" to be a soldier, not as a reason to fight in the war. While it is true that the author has made a living from "writing about his war experience," there is no evidence that the narrator is motivated to go to Vietnam for that reason.
After eliminating those three choices, students are left with the narrator's being too "proud and patriotic not to fight for his country" or too "ashamed and embarrassed to flee to Canada." Throughout the story the narrator makes it clear that the vast majority of people in his hometown believe one should answer the call of duty if asked to serve. The dilemma is whether he should follow his conscience, which tells him that he should not fight in a war that he feels is "unjust and immoral," or whether he should fulfill his patriotic duty and go to Vietnam. The narrator concludes by saying, "I was a coward. I went to the war." Instead of being proud of his decision, he considers himself a "coward" for not following his conscience. Students should recognize that the narrator goes to Vietnam simply because he is too "ashamed and embarrassed" not to.
While the first two questions require an interpretation of the text, the third question asks students to recall a passage that reveals one of the most important themes of the novel. In the chapter "How to Tell a True War Story," the narrator explicitly states what he wants the reader to understand about the "truth" of war:
3. Instead of suggesting “models of proper human behavior,” the narrator claims that one can recognize “a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance” to
(A) decency and virtue
(B) obscenity and evil
(C) strength and courage
(D) hopelessness and despair
(E) pride and dignity
If students have been reading carefully, they should understand that soldiers have displayed all of these traits at some point in the novel. O'Brien's purpose is not to vilify any individual, but to condemn the act of war itself. As a result, he would argue that any story that glorifies soldiers or romanticizes combat is not telling the "truth" about war. In his estimation, a "true" war story cannot have a positive tone or outcome, which immediately eliminates the answers "decency and virtue," "strength and courage," and "pride and dignity."
Students are then left with a choice between "obscenity and evil" and "hopelessness and despair." Even if students cannot recall that the text explicitly gives the answer "obscenity and evil," students should recognize that the tone in this chapter is one of defiance and anger against those "false" war stories that turn soldiers into heroes and glamorize warfare. Rather than being filled with "hopelessness and despair," the narrator tells the story with the hope that by revealing the "truth" about war, readers will fight to prevent these horrors and falsehoods from being perpetuated in the future.
The answer to the fourth question is similarly embedded in the text, but for students to recall what the narrator wants to say to "an older woman of kindly temperament" at a book reading, they have to understand why Rat Kiley kills the water buffalo after Curt Lemon's death:
4. When the narrator tells the story of Rat Kiley and the water buffalo at book readings, “an older woman of kindly temperament” inevitably suggests he “[f]ind new stories to tell,” causing him to want to say,
(A) “From beginning to end, the entire story is made up. None of it happened.”
(B) “That’s ‘Nam, Ma’am. Garden of Evil. Every sin’s fresh and original.”
(C) “Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.”
(D) “It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story.”
(E) “If you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote.”
What makes this question difficult is that all of these lines of dialogue are said at one point in the novel. For students to choose the correct answer, they must understand the context and tone of each line. For instance, the first line suggests that fictional stories can reveal a "story-truth" even if they contain events that never happened or characters that never existed. The older woman's concern for the narrator seems to be about his mental health; she suggests that he find "new stories to tell" instead of dwelling on the old, traumatic ones. Telling her that "the entire story is made up" does not solve the problem since it is obvious that the trauma remains, whether the story is "true" or not.
The second and third answers offer an excuse for the telling of "evil" and "dirty" war stories, but if students read carefully, they should know that the narrator is not telling these stories to "wallow in all the blood and gore" of combat. There is a positive purpose for the narrator in telling these stories. The narrator has not only survived the war, but he actually appreciates even more the sacredness of life because of his war experience. The final answer is somewhat nonsensical by linking the truth about war with politics, which does not connect to the woman's concerns for the narrator in any way.
Based on the context, the only answer that makes sense is that the story of Rat Kiley's shooting the water buffalo, although gruesome, is still a "love story" in that it shows the pain that Rat Kiley feels after his friend's death. Rat Kiley clearly loves Curt Lemon, and while we are horrified by his response, we should also understand and empathize with his grief. Even though the older woman at the book reading has clearly misunderstood the meaning of the story, the narrator hopes the reader has not.
The final question is another interpretive question with an answer embedded in the text. Even if students do not remember the exact words, they should recall that the narrator has a very different impression of Curt Lemon than Rat Kiley:
5. Despite Rat Kiley's grief, the narrator claims that it was “hard to mourn” the death of Curt Lemon because he had the tendency to
(A) put the lives of his fellow soldiers at risk in order to pull off crazy stunts
(B) think of war as serious business without any time for laughing or fooling around
(C) avoid dangerous missions so somebody else would have to go instead
(D) question the authority of his superiors, thinking he always had a better plan
(E) play the tough soldier role, always posturing, always puffing himself up
A few of the answers are obviously not true, such as Curt Lemon's thinking of the war "as serious business," which is refuted when he goes out trick-or-treating "almost stark naked" on Halloween. It is also not true that Curt Lemon tries to "avoid dangerous missions so somebody else would have to go instead." There is also no evidence that Curt Lemon ever "put the lives of his fellow soldiers at risk in order to pull off crazy stunts" or that he ever challenged "the authority of his superiors." As a result of this process of elimination, the only possible answer is that was hard for the narrator to mourn Curt Lemon's death because he tended to "play the tough soldier role, always posturing, always puffing himself up."
Even though there is only one plausible answer to this question, it still requires students to not only understand the narrator's tone, but also to understand Curt Lemon's character. Most of the narrator's platoon are sympathetic characters, but Curt Lemon is not. The narrator depicts most of his fellow soldiers as fundamentally decent human beings who do not want to kill and only want to survive the war as best they can. In comparison, Curt Lemon seemed to enjoy combat and did not mind killing. He is described as cruel and callous, and despite the fact that Rat Kiley is devastated by his friend's death, the narrator is obviously not.
The goal of AP-style reading quizzes is not just to replicate the multiple-choice section of the AP Exam, but to ensure that key passages in the text are addressed so students understand the novel's main themes and are prepared for the final essay. For instance, for the final essay on The Things They Carried, we use the 2004 AP Literary Argument prompt (Form B) that focuses on "how a specific death scene helps to illuminate the meaning of the work as a whole."
The most important themes in literature are sometimes developed in scenes in which a death or deaths take place. Choose a novel or play and write a well-organized essay in which you show how a specific death scene helps to illuminate the meaning of the work as a whole.
With that prompt serving as a focus for the unit, we know as teachers that we need to discuss the potential significance of every death in the novel. One way to accomplish this goal is through the reading quizzes. From the first eight chapters of the novel we have discussed two deaths—Ted Lavender's and Curt Lemon's—from the reading quiz alone, which should provide two possible options for students when they write their AP Literary Argument essays at the end of the unit.
Since the questions on our AP Reading Quizzes are interpretative by nature and often quite challenging, we alter our grading from the traditional format. The reading quiz is worth 10 points, but instead of students' receiving 2 points for each correct answer, they start with 5 points and then gain an additional point for each correct answer. Therefore, if students get 3 correct and 2 incorrect, which is usually the class average on a typical quiz, they receive an overall score of 8/10 (B-) rather than a 6/10 (D-).
Perhaps the best aspect of the AP Reading Quizzes is the lively discussion that follows as we go over answers in class. Most questions require a close reading of the text to determine the "best" answer, which in many cases still remains open to interpretation. There are times when students make a compelling case for one of the other answers, so teachers may need to give credit for two answers at times. Generally, however, the "best" answer is evident to the majority of the class, and it is always fun and thought-provoking to hear students debate their competing interpretations while finding appropriate evidence from the text to support their claims.