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:

  1. Review: “Why Football Matters” versus “Against Football”  (LA Times)
  2. Scary New World (The New York Times)
  3. Review: Kate Tempest, a Young Poet Conjuring Ancient Gods (The New York Times)
  4. Pharrell Williams: Just Exhilaratingly Happy (NPR)

The first three texts are reviews of two texts — two books and two poems, respectively. Allison and I often find that reviews make the best mentor texts for literary analysis in the real world. The third, a review of two collections by spoken word poet Kate Tempest, was a particularly lucky find since my students were also writing specifically about poetry. The fourth — a review of a Pharrell album — was included solely for the purpose of showing students how skillful writers use figurative language in their analysis.

The Lessons

We ran class using a typical workshop structure: mini-lesson (using mentor texts) + time for writing and conferring. Here’s what our study looked like:

Day Lesson Mentor Texts Used
1 Mentor Text Noticings — what do writers do when comparing two texts side-by-side? #1 – #4
2 Sentence structures that support meaningful analysis of two texts
Words that encourage texts to speak to one another throughout a text
#1, #2, #3
3 Using figurative language in analysis #1-#4
4 Using parallel structure for persuasion #3
5 Using absolute phrases to add beautiful detail #1-4
6 Properly using dashes #1-#4

Students pulled the skills taught in each mini-lesson into their essays, as well as other elements that they picked up on our initial day of noticings.

On submission day, each student wrote a letter telling me about their experience writing this paper, what they tried that was new to them, and where they took risks. This was important, as I had offered up ten points of extra credit to reward risk-taking and voice-finding. You have already seen a sampling of their responses in a post from two weeks ago.

The Outcomes

Here are two samples of pieces students submitted.

First, from Harrison:

Growing up, Norman Dubie often heard his mother describe the depressing reality of hospital work––stories of dead and dying children were absorbed by Dubie’s young brain in grotesque detail. He learned not to skirt around the ugly things in life, but instead to embrace them and incorporate them into his work.

The great blue sphere we live on is, in fact, not the Garden of Eden and Dubie relishes in highlighting this in his poetry; he uses words that keep the reader captivated but with their brows furrowed due to the tragedy evoked in his words. “Confession” and “Of Politics and Art” both use tragic diction, however “Confession” uses it in a different way. Reading “Of Politics in Art,” leaves the reader with a spark of hope, whereas “Confession” leaves the reader somewhat shocked and depressed.

“Confession” is a bloodbath of grotesque imagery that molds an image of a war torn, corrupt, and doomed world. Nuclear bombs and shaky alliances; hangings and suicide; mobs and even zombies all make appearances in this poem to accomplish the grandiose effect of making us feel like the concrete under our cubicles is crumbling.

Right off the bat, we get a sense of uneasiness as “The General’s men sit at the door.” If there are soldiers outside of your door, chances are they’re not just stopping by to see how your day is going and to help with some chores, they are there to do some damage or to inform you of an epidemic coming straight for you.

Just as “Confession” begins with an unsettling image, so does “Of Politics and Art.” In the first stanza, Dubie creates a cozy yet ominous feeling by making readers feel snowed in but with a teacher “dying of tuberculosis,” and a way home not available until late at night. Without the addition of the dying teacher, this passage would be rather exciting for any adult who remembers the jovial times of being snowed in. But with the dying teacher, the scene creates a sense of guilt because of the childish joy you may feel and the impending tragedy awaiting the teacher.

Further creating a sense of instability in the second stanza of “Confession,” Dubie highlights some ships that are “loosely allied like casks floating in bilge.” In this outtake, we get a sense of political instability as well as death and pollution. This shapes the world of the poem for us: a world where pollution is unhindered, death is rampant, and politics are volatile. By giving us this horrible setting, it helps us see that “Of Politics and Art,” while not necessarily in a setting of joy, is in a much more stable and hopeful state because of the bus that should be on the way.

While “Confession” is creating a scene of absolute misery in its second stanza, “Of Politics and Art” is juxtaposing crisis with calm. The stanza begins with a description of Moby Dick where Dubie describes the scene as “calamitous.” The stanza ends with the sailors feeling “at peace with themselves.” This contrast shows how things can begin hectic and insane but can end in tranquility and peace. The reader starts to grasp the message Dubie is relaying––that there is always hope.

As it has previously done, “Confession” continues to delve deeper into the pit of total war in stanzas three and four. These stanzas have it all; they have revolt, they have acts of barbarism, they have mass suicide, they even have the (metaphorical or not) undead. But the last three lines have something that is remarkably more chilling than all of that that came before, an introspective look that speaks to us all as we hear about ISIS beheading people, children starving across the globe, and nuns being raped in India and say ‘oh my that is so horrible, somebody should really do something about that.’ The last three lines read: “Something inhuman in you watched it all. And whatever it is that watches, It has kept you from loneliness like a mob.”

We take for granted our safety and security and watch the people who don’t have our blessings without emotion. Sure, some are moved by the horrible events that we have become numb to, but what do they get labeled as? Hippies, over-zealous activists, and numb-skull kids who should be working on their education or career. And we label these romantics because we realize everyone else does as well and so we find comfort with the norm. These ominous last three lines make us realize how much darker “Confession” is than “Of Politics and Art,” and, perhaps, how much more realistic as well.

Second, from Henry:

Ted Kooser: Intergalactic Guru or Humble Poet?

A mid-westerner, born and raised, Ted Kooser uses eloquently crafted metaphor to gorgeous effect. Relying heavily on the beauty of nature that was inherent to his upbringing, Kooser binds humanity to the simplicity and complex vastness of the natural world; in two of his greatest masterpieces, he takes elements of nature familiar to the reader and uses them to express feelings both profound and universally recognizable. Being a poet Laureate of the United States, Kooser makes precise use of each word in his poetry comparable to the pointed concise style of Hemingway.

Most evidently, Flying at Night takes the reader through a myriad of feelings and visuals in a mere eight lines. The poem begins and ends from the same perspective relative to the speaker, yet the reader’s understanding of the interconnectivity of the entire universe expands as Kooser takes them on a journey “five billion miles away” from the microscopic uniqueness of “snowflake falling on water” to the “distant death” of a galaxy. A similar journey happens in After Years when the reader is dragged from “an ancient oak… in the Cumberlands” “to the other side of the galaxy” to witness the “vanish[ing]” of a star.

In both cases Kooser loses no time to communicate  the vast connectivity of the universe. He takes these events separated by light-years in space and time and makes them connected to the soul of existence. The lonely “farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death” is unaware of the binding fabric of the universe, but is still affected physically by a chill. What I see Kooser doing here is attempting to coax the reader out of the limitations of our own perspective. He wants to say ‘just because you don’t know it’s there doesn’t mean it isn’t’. In both of these poems, this serves as the primary function of the human actors; what they do isn’t necessarily as important as the fact that those actions are the product of a billion different influences from across the galaxy. Nothing is separated.

It is this lack of difference between the “stars” “above us” and the “bright street lights” “beneath us” that Kooser wants to convey in his poetry. This parallel between humanity and nature is equally present in After Years particularly well in the case of the old woman. Man naturally puts himself in a superior position to the natural world, yet the juxtaposition of the woman humbly “scattering corn to her chickens” with the unimaginable magnitude of “a star thirty-five times the size of our sun explode[ing]” reminds us of our place. The simultaneousness of these events removes the illusions of human grandeur in the scheme of the universe.

However, Kooser is by no means choosing to belittle the human experience. In fact, this emphasis on the things we feel, externally and internally, is at the heart of his writing. His life in the modest mid-west has given him a distinct appreciation for the value of other people and the emotions that bind us together as a species. As perpetual pupils of great minds, we should all be familiar with Twain’s quip, “Don’t just say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” And this is exactly what Kooser does for the reader. At no point does he tell the reader what they are supposed to feel, he describes it with brilliant metaphor and sensory detail, and lets the reader fill in the emotional vacuum created by the excellently framed lead up.

Both poems conveyed emotions that I could actually feel as I worked to comprehend the metaphors better than any I can remember. At the conclusion of After Years, which is demonstrably about the loss of someone very dear to the speaker, Kooser describes a universally recognizable pain. The astronomer viewing the vanishing of such a massive and radiant star — that one imagines to have been a brilliant light and warmth in the speaker’s life — is left with nothing but the reflection of the nova on his eye. You can almost feel the physical weight of the astronomer “as he stood on the great open dome of [the speaker’s] heart”. This explosion symbolizes the loss of the relationship being observed by the speaker, a feeling not unlike someone standing on your chest. This oppressive, irremovable burden is something that anyone who has suffered overwhelming loss and sadness can relate to.

Equally relatable, the speaker in Flying at Night provides the reader with the feeling of ineffectual smallness and irrelevance that everyone has experienced at some point or another. “Feeling the chill” of the immensity of the galaxy dying overshadows the importance of the farmer’s own “little system of care”. It seems clear that Kooser chose “system” reflect what we know as the solar system. In this case it makes the farmers sphere of influence seem even more minuscule in comparison to the vastness of an entire galaxy, further relating to the feeling of smallness that can overwhelm you.

That being said, Kooser also loves contradiction in size, in scope, in focus, and in the message he wishes to convey. Even though the emotions he choses to explore in his poetry are negative in nature, he also wants to tell his readers that there is hope. It is not explicit. It is not blazing bright. It’s subtextual. What he wants to impart on the reader is that the intergalactic interweaving of influence is not one way. For the very reason that anything like a “snowflake falling on water” can impact you, so can you impact everything in the world around you.

It makes ripples.

No matter the size, snowflake or star; no matter the person, farmer or astronomer, we are all human and have as much as place in this world as anyone else. Our cities are “like shimmering novas”, the product of everyone within it. Kooser illustrates that even if there is “no one to tell” the things weighing on us, we aren’t alone.

Though certainly different in tone and structure than a traditional English classroom five-paragraph essay, these essays are no less rich in terms of deep, compelling analysis. In fact, by virtue of the fact that they are more authentic and written with readers in mind, I would argue that the analysis is even deeper and more compelling than the more traditional papers they are used to writing.

Friday, I will walk you through another technique-based analysis study to show how this can work over time in an English classroom. Next week, we will walk into a different kind of literary analysis workshop — one centered on the craft study of the literature being read.

What do you think? Could this work in your classroom? With your students? In your curriculum? Leave a comment or catch up with us on Twitter @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.


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