A Technique-Based Literary Analysis Workshop

But even if we want to, how can we teach literary analysis in writing studies throughout the school year using a workshop approach?

Do we just repeat the same mini-lessons again and again until the students have mastered them? Do we teach the mini-lessons once at the beginning of the year and just bring out new mentor texts for each subsequent go-round? Do we only teach literary analysis in one study of the year and hope it sticks?

Technique-Based Analysis Studies

To combine the study of literary analysis writing and writing workshop, one trick I have found is to break literary analysis into sub-genres: analyzing theme, analyzing character, analyzing symbol, analyzing a key passage, etc. Not all analysis is created equal —  in different kinds of analysis the techniques differ. The structures differ. The way we read, think, and unpack our ideas differs. So, we can teach students to look a pieces of analysis differently based on their purpose.

The Assignment

A few weeks ago, my IB students launched into a technique-based analysis study in which they analyzed two poems side-by-side. (For my IB friends, this is the same task they will be asked to do on Paper 2 … so it was great exam prep!) I intentionally avoided calling it a compare-and-contrast paper because I didn’t want visions of Venn diagrams to pop into my students’ heads — that’s too simplistic, too easy, compared to what a sophisticated analysis of two texts actually does. Like all true workshops, students had choice — they each chose the poet and the two poems on which they wrote.

My IB students, seniors all, are well-versed in writing rote literary analysis. They are masters of school writing. They understand the structures — they know how to construct thesis statements and bring in textual evidence.  Thus, the focus of our study was breaking out of the tightly constructed box that we, their teachers, have made for them over the years. We focused on maintaining fidelity to smart, tight, persuasive analysis while also incorporating voice and style — hopefully writing something that they would actually want to read.

The Mentor Texts:

I began by giving my students four mentor texts: Continue reading


Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

When we are choosing genres to teach in workshop, one consideration is always at the forefront: is this real writing? Is this writing real writers do? Can I find authentic examples of it out in the world? Generally, if the answer is “no”, we don’t teach it.

With one notable exception: literary analysis.

In our mentor text explorations, we have yet to find an example of pure, academic literary analysis roaming around the real world. And yet, we acknowledge the need for students to work in this genre.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 9.56.45 AMBut, maybe not for the reasons that you think.

In many — maybe most — high school English classrooms, literary analysis is the primary mode of writing. It’s the whole shebang. There are many reasons for this, but I think the most potent one is simply this: it’s tradition. It’s what you and I did when we were high school English students. And we enjoyed it. And we were good at it. And that’s why we became English majors. And then English teachers.

But literary analysis is one star in a vast universe of analytical writing. The traditional high school English classroom makes it the sun.

While you won’t find a literary analysis feature article in The New Yorker, analytical writing is everywhere. Political analysis of the 2018 Presidential election. Personal analysis in essays and memoirs.  Sports analysis. Analysis of Furious 7 and Mad Men. And, yes, in its way, analysis of literature in book reviews. Analysis is everywhere.

So, in our view, students should be writing analysis — lots of it — but analysis of all kinds, not just literary analysis. The skills are the same. And if students can skillfully analyze their favorite movie and the effectiveness of the new iPhone and the significance of an important event on their life and the theme of a poem, they will be fantastic, well-rounded  analytical writers who are much more prepared to enter the real world of writing than those students who have only written essays about literature.

Where does this leave us on the mentor text issue?

Like all genre studies, we give students real-world, hot-off-the-press examples of analysis — showing them that the skills they are learning to make a claim about a piece of literature are the same skills that professional writers are using to analyze all sorts of things in the world around them.

Our requirements remain the same — our mentor texts should be accessible and relevant for students, they should be well-written, they should be rich with craft.

Mini-Mentor Texts

Allison wrote about mini-mentor texts in one of our very first blog posts. Mini-mentor texts zoom in on a specific skill — making a claim, using supporting evidence, etc. — in a larger piece of analysis.

Rather than using a cluster of whole mentor texts, we parse out snippets of larger articles as we teach specific skills. We don’t give students the entire article — just the relevant paragraph or two that demonstrates the technique we want to see in student writing. Because these are bite-sized mentor texts, we use them most often with our younger writers who are new to analysis.

Take, for instance, this David Edelstein review of the new Spongebob Square Pants movie — a “text” from childhood that our students would be amused to revisit.  Edelstein gives a charming synopsis of the movie that can help my students as they write meaningful, engaging context for a piece of literature in their analysis. I might pull just this paragraph as a mini-mentor text:

It begins as all “SpongeBob” episodes do, with a hairy pirate who’s there to sing the theme that whisks us to the undersea world of Bikini Bottom, with its ukulele music and flower-cloud backdrops. But wait, here, he’s live-action and played by Antonio Banderas, and he’s on an “Indiana Jones”-like quest to find a magic book. After dueling with a skeleton and shushing some card-playing seagulls, the pirate reads aloud from that mysterious tome, a story of wholesale destruction, societal collapse, apocalypse, all triggered by the loss of the recipe for the wildly addictive Krabby Patties from the Krusty Krab restaurant where SpongeBob works and his best friend, Patrick, the fat, pink, dimwitted starfish, eats. I know what you’re thinking – this has something to do with Plankton, the tiny but very loud owner of the rival, Chum Bucket, restaurant. And you’d be right to an extent. Plankton did engineer a scheme involving pickle torpedoes, a giant robot and a Trojan horse-like coin to get into the Krusty Krab’s safe – I have a feeling I’m losing you. The best thing about this movie is that it can’t be explained, though you can hear how high the stakes are when Mr. Krab straps Plankton down, and with SpongeBob watching, uses diabolical means to recover the recipe.

Notice how Edelstein paints a scene, gives the gist of the plot, and connects with his audience.  I can use it for more than just teaching context, though. This excerpt from Edelstein’s review also makes an allusion to Indiana Jones — a helpful skill to teach students as they work to draw connections between the literature they are studying and the world around them. I can also use it to teach making a claim about a text; Edelstein makes a claim at the end of this paragraph that he will spend the rest of the article unpacking: “The best thing about this movie is that it can’t be explained.”

This mini-mentor text has the potential for use in three mini-lessons perfect for the writing of literary analysis.

Whole Mentor Texts

While mini-mentor texts are perfect for teaching literary analysis skills, whole mentor texts are great for teaching skills melded with voice and style in analytical writing.

My students love the casual-yet-authoritative style of The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, whose piece “Candy Girl” — a character analysis of Kimmy on Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — we studied as a mentor text for their own analytical piece on a character from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Nussbaum’s piece bears all the essential skills students need to include in a work of literary analysis: a claim, reasons that support that claim, copious evidence that props up those reasons. But, from this text, students also explored how to sound expert and human at the same time (my students often swing between sounding like a robot with a thesaurus or a tween chatting with friends at the mall). They noticed the effective use of parentheticals to hold extra information and commentary. They picked up on Nussbaum’s use of dashes for emphasis and to quicken the pace of her argument. They examined her skillful and clever transitions — pulling the idea from one paragraph down into the next paragraph to deepen her nuanced argument.

Whole mentor texts are perfect for our older writers who are already familiar with the essentials, and thus can more easily digest and translate an entire article. These students are ready for something more — ready to take their writing to the next level.

Now that you’ve gotten a taste of how we think about finding mentor texts for studying literary analysis, Wednesday we will dive into a workshop analysis unit — a technique-based study comparing/contrasting two pieces of literature.

Moving Writers’ Literary Analysis Blog Blast: April 27 – May 6

Last week, I promised more details on using the workshop approach to teach literary analysis. I haven’t forgotten you!

And, so that you won’t have to wait to hear all we have in store, next week we will celebrate our very own Literary Analysis Blog Blast Week. Here’s the lineup:

Monday, April 27: Ways to Think About Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis Workshops

Wednesday, April 29: Technique-Based Analysis Studies — one kind of analysis workshop, with suggestions for mentor texts, mini-lessons, and samples of student writing.

Friday, May 1: A second sample unit for a technique-based study

Monday, May 4: Literature-Based Analysis Studies — another kind of analysis workshop, with a sample unit.

Wednesday, May 6: Take-Aways, Discoveries, and Next Steps for Literary Analysis Workshops

We hope that you will join us each day as we tackle a topic that is so central to high school classrooms!

If you’re in town on April 30…

On Thursday, April 30, Rebekah and I are presenting at the Central Virginia Writing Project’s Spring Writing Mini-Conference at the University of Virginia. We will be talking about using mentor texts (surprise!) and also about our experience of turning our teaching ideas into a blog and eventually a book.

If you attend one of our sessions, you will be entered into a raffle to win a free copy of our book due out in September!

Win a free copy of our book!

Win a free copy of our book!

Below are the descriptions of our presentations:

Session 1: Using Mentor Texts From Planning to Publication

Presenters: Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell

Audience:  9-12      Room: Ruffner 206

Classroom teachers and new Heinemann authors, Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell will share how to use multiple, current, engaging mentor texts to reach every writer in the room. They will show how mentor texts inspire and instruct students through every stage of the writing process, from planning to publication.

 Session 2: Turning Teaching Ideas into Publications

Presenters: Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell

Audience: Teachers K-12       Room: Ruffner 206

Authors Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, will share their experiences turning their teaching practices into a blog and then a published book with ideas about how teachers can do the same. They will give suggestions for ways to take a seat at the English Ed table and join a bigger professional conversation through writing and speaking.

We will be presenting alongside some amazing speakers, including the keynote speaker Dr. Natasha Henry, whose talk is titled “Beyond Tradition: Reconsidering Writing Instruction and Student Writers.”

Click here for more information about the mini-conference and registration materials.

A Writing Workshop Cure for the April Doldrums

Photo via Creative Commons

Melancholy by Edvard Munch Photo via Creative Commons

T.S. Eliot wrote, “April is the cruellest month.” Sadly, this observation rings true for many students. I don’t know what it is about April, but it seems to bring on the stress, boredom, and lack of motivation that one would normally associate with months like December and February.  The guidance counselor at our school recently shared about the dramatic spike in the number of students who visit her office during March and April every year. We see a lot of rain in Virginia, too.

Sometimes one of the best ways to comfort students who are feeling low is to honor their feelings of stress, sadness, and melancholy rather than try to distract them or encourage them to stay positive. A study of the elegy — a poem that expresses sorrow or lamentation — can be a way to honor students’ emotions and help them reflect on their feelings in a healthy way while studying some absolutely brilliant poetry. Continue reading

Writing Workshop Transforms Literary Analysis, Too

Last Friday, I dismissed my fourth period IB English class early. We simply couldn’t go on.

They filed out, sniffling, wiping away tears, heads down. Some were silent and left alone; most found a friend or two and whispered as they left, arms around shoulders.

They had just finished sharing their first piece of workshop writing.

You see, a few weeks ago, I simultaneously hit a wall and had an epiphany — one that I suspect had been brewing underneath the surface for quite some time. My IB seniors were all competent writers, I already knew that they will perform well on the IB exam, but I was bored teaching them (unlike my ninth grader workshoppers) and they were just going through the motions, totally turned off of writing (unlike my ninth grade workshoppers).

For years I have tossed around ideas about how full-fledged writing workshop could work in an IB or AP class.  (Amy Rasmussen (@amyrass) at threeteacherstalk.com has done a lot to cause these thoughts to ferment and bubble over.)  But, I had never acted on them. Not until a few weeks ago when, frustrated with not being the very best teacher I knew to be, I decided to leap. All in. All the way.

After all, I reasoned, if I truly believe that writing workshop is the best way to develop, deepen, and inspire passionate lifelong writers, how could it be wrong?

In broad terms, my IB students, now fully immersed in workshop life, do two kinds of writing studies — literature-based writing studies and technique-based writing studies. All of which require critical thinking and literary analysis. All of which will help them score well on their IB exam and wow their professors next year in college. But, far more importantly, all of which challenge them and push them and engage them in the process of great writing craft. All of which drive them to create pieces of writing that matter to them.

That’s why we had to end class early last week — because my students’ writing mattered so much to them that reading it aloud brought them to tears. And seeing so much emotion poured  into and out of and through the writing of their peers, other students cried with them.

In the next few days and weeks, I’ll share the process nitty-gritty with you. I’ll tell you about the writing studies we’ve done so far, I’ll share the mentor texts I used and how I used them, I’ll show you how this instructional approach and the writing it yields more than meets the requirements of AP and IB programs, and I’ll show you the results of the students’ labor.

For now, I’d like you to hear from my students.  These quotes come from their author’s notes for a recent workshop paper that asked them to write about two texts side-by-side.

I have seen the power of writing workshop to transform struggling and disengaged writers. Recently, I have seen that it is just as powerful for students who can already check the right writing boxes but thirst for something more.

Dear Mrs. O’Dell,

I thoroughly enjoyed writing this paper much much more than all of the boring papers in the past. I felt as though I was actually a writer working for the New York Times. I felt passionate about what I was writing because I could actually speak to the reader and express my opinions in a way that was actually enjoyable. I think that next year you should tell your students to write all of their papers this way…Thank you for giving us this opportunity Mrs. O’Dell, it has made me enjoy writing much more!   — Harrison

“This is one of my favorite papers I have ever written, which is definitely not something I expected to feel at the end of my senior year. I’m glad you forced me to push my writing to something different.” — Seth

“I really really enjoyed writing this paper! Seriously, this might be one of the first times I’ve ever had fun writing a paper” — Fletcher

“I had a blast and a half writing this paper.  I don’t think it was necessarily easier to write this paper than other English papers, but I do think it was a more enjoyable experience…Thank you for widening my knowledge as a writer and pushing me to write to the best of my ability.” — Alex

In conclusion, I have a confession: writing is an incredibly difficult task for me. I enjoy doing it, but words don’t flow out of my mouth and brain the way some people’s do. I struggle with word choice as well as run on sentences; it seems like my sentences can last forever at times. But I honestly did enjoy this paper. Last night I was about to go to bed after finishing my paper that afternoon, then decided to go back one more time to make sure that I loved what I was saying and that you would be happy with what I wrote. I can’t say that I have done that on many English papers. (I’m just being honest.) Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy English. I just struggle with analyzing pieces of writing, and specifically, comparing two pieces. But I was satisfied with what I wrote. I feel that I took risks in many aspects of my paper, specifically with tone and structure, but also with the general format of what I chose to say. I’m happy with my paper, and I hope you enjoy it as well. — Kathryn

Connect with us in the comments below & on Twitter @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett. 

A Genre Mini-Study Perfect for April

With Saint Patrick’s Day, Easter, and the advent of spring, greeting cards are abound in our house. Perhaps most exciting of all are the blue cards with storks and animals that continue to show up in anticipation of our first baby’s arrival in early May!

Photo by Coolceaser via wikimedia

Photo by Coolceaser via wikimedia

All of these cards, lined up along the sill above our kitchen sink, got me thinking.

What about a greeting card mini-study?

The greeting card industry is doing something right. Every time I shop at Target, I spy at least a dozen people in the greeting card section, pulling cards here and there, in search of the perfect note that puts into words their exact sentiment, hope, thought. Some of the cards on these shelves are worth the price of a small gift: $5, $6, sometimes $7!

Yet many of us prefer to make our own cards and write our own letters because it’s difficult to find a card with the perfect meaning.

As I thought about it, this “tension” seemed to lend itself to a greeting card mini-study in which students consider the following questions:

  • Why are greeting cards so popular?
  • How do writers of greeting cards craft messages that are compelling?
  • How do these writers create messages that are personal yet have broad appeal?
  • What do buyers of greeting cards look for?
  • What kinds of topics are appropriate for greeting cards?
  • What kinds of prewriting work do greeting card writers do?

As it was nearing April, National Poetry Month was also on my brain. Students just finished a poetry study, and we are all looking for ways to share the poems and poets we have come to love with others.  From these thoughts, a National Poetry Month Greeting Card mini-study was born. Details below!

How to Conduct a National Poetry Month Greeting Card Mini-Study

1. Bring in an assortment of greeting cards for students to study. Cards should be of varying length, tone, topic, style, and brand.

2. Put students in groups of 4-5, and give each group a stack of greeting cards. Have them read the cards like writers, discussing and jotting down responses to the essential questions above.

3. Discuss findings as a whole group. Create a class Google Doc with every groups’ responses, or select a student to be the class recorder, and ask him/her to jot down responses on a giant sticky note to display in the classroom during the study.

4. Select 2-3 noticings from the class document from which to create mini-lessons. Possibilities may include: how to achieve a genuine tone, perfect and near rhyme in greeting cards, writing your personal message, different styles of cards.

5. Distribute a mini-genre study overview, detailing the requirements of the study.

6. Consider allotting 2-3 class periods for mini-lessons and writing and conferring. Provide students with art supplies — nice card stock, colored pencils, magazines, markers, glue, scissors, craft paper — whatever they need to design beautiful greeting cards.

7. On the last day of the study, tell students to bring in the address of the person to whom they are sending their greeting card. Conduct a final mini-lesson, teaching students how to address an envelope properly.

8. Stamp and mail the cards!

Some of your students will spend hours searching for the perfect published poem to adorn the front and inside cover of the card; others will write their own verses a la Hallmark. Many will devote their energy to crafting the personal message on the card’s inside. Your classroom artists will create beautiful facades, linking the card’s overall aesthetic to the message and content.  Everyone will have fun.

Below is one example of an in-progress card. Like some greeting cards, Colette’s provides an interactive feature on the back: directions for creating your own newspaper black-out poem and a magazine swatch for getting started!

Colette's in-progress card

Colette’s in-progress card

An interactive embellishment on the back of Colette's card

An interactive embellishment on the back of Colette’s card

Where do you see potential for mini-genre studies throughout your workshop year? How do you celebrate National Poetry Month in workshop? Please comment in the section below or find us on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.