Students discussed slavery and resistance on a recent morning at Gunn High School in teacher Anne Jensen's Advanced Placement French Literature class, taking cues from Aime Cesaire's 1968 novel "Une Tempete."
The two slaves in the novel — a retelling of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" influenced by the 1960s American Black Power movement — have different approaches to seeking rights, just as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. did, one student said.
But the complex analysis in French, which pupils say propels them to work harder and speak better, may not happen after next year.
Last month the College Board, the education company that administers the college-credit-conferring Advanced Placement (AP) exams, announced it is canceling the AP French Literature exam after spring 2009.
Also on the chopping block are Latin Literature, Italian Language and Culture and Computer Science AB exams.
Jensen and students said cutting the test could be a death knell for the study of French literature and likely hurt the French program overall at Gunn, whose students recently scored first, second and third in the nation on the National French Exam, according to Principal Noreen Likins.
Cutting the literature test will discourage students from taking French classes by removing the promise of an engaging, college-credit-conferring class at the end of studies, students and Jensen said.
To protest, Jensen has launched a letter-writing campaign urging the College Board to rethink the decision.
She's also mobilized French teachers in her role as director of the Western region for a French teachers' association, she said.
She has sent more than 1,000 e-mails and spent at least $100 on postage for letters to College Board trustees asking them to reverse the cancellation, she said.
Yet the decision to cancel the exam is final, according to College Board spokesperson Jennifer Topiel.
The cuts allow the organization to redirect funding from low-demand classes to increasing teacher resources for high-demand classes, she said.
"The College Board is losing a lot of money on these four exams," she said.
The organization will now provide more lesson plans and as-you-go assessments to help teachers prepare students for other AP exams, she said.
She declined to say the cost of the cancelled tests or new resources.
Jensen, a 30-year French teacher and recipient of the Academic Palms from the French government — an award established by Napoleon for those who spread French culture — said the literature class is not just popular but crucial to learning French.
She cited Jayne Abrate, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of French, who said nationwide enrollment in AP French Lit, as it is often nicknamed, has grown 26 percent in the last nine years.
At Gunn, Jensen has expanded the class from nine students to 25 in the past decade, she said. Students view it as a reward for spending years toiling away at language learning, senior Jeemin Shin said.
Reading engrossing poems and novels is pay-off at the end of years of grammar memorization, she said. When she shopped for a French-language book on her own, "I ended up with the French version of 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,'" she said.
Now she plans to study in France during college, she added.
College credit awarded by the AP exam is critical to maintaining enrollment, students and Jensen said.
While the school could still offer an advanced French literature class without the AP test and college credit at the end, fewer teens would want to take it, they said.
If the class were cancelled, literature would be folded into the current AP French Language class — but the lessons would be a pale imitation of their former rigor, Jensen said.
When the AP German Literature class was cancelled about a decade ago, enrollment dropped and the entire program waned in popularity, she said.
Topiel said an advisory panel for the College Board found the opposite, concluding the French literature class created an artificial gulf between the study of language and literature. The panel was composed of professors and other educators specializing in foreign languages, although none focus on French, according to the College Board Web site.
Topiel also said the vast majority of students taking the to-be-cancelled exams have other AP options at their school.