Title Talk

In June, I had an epiphany of sorts. I started really thinking about titles. title-talk

Some background first. In the province I teach in, Manitoba, our Grade 12s write a provincial assessment. It’s the closest thing we have to high stakes testing, and although I do have some concerns about it, I actually quite like the format. The students spend three hours the first day reading various pieces and answering questions in response to them. The following three days are dedicated to a writing task, along with some reflection questions. (They have an hour each of those three days, because I know some of you were wondering.)

The assessment is written near the end of each semester, in January and June. There are marker training sessions that, although I am familiar with most aspects of the exam, I enjoy, because we discuss the quirks of the current assessment, and, well, as teachers are wont to do, we talk shop.

It was in the marker training session that I had my epiphany. See, a recurring reflection question asks students to give their written piece a title, and then reflect upon why the title is suitable. As we discussed the responses that were appropriate for the question, I realized it was actually kind of a bad question.

See, the thing is, there’s only two kinds of answers to the question. Either the title is obviously relevant to the piece it’s attached to, or it’s a title that has a deeper, more symbolic meaning. My guess would be that the “best” answers would be for the symbolic titles. For example, were Harper Lee in my Grade 12 class, she might write:

“To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful title for my piece. It draws on a phrase that is used a few times throughout the piece. The titular mockingbird, it is noted, should not be killed, as it exists solely to provide beautiful music for people, and does no harm. Harming something that is inherently innocent is wrong. The mockingbird of the title may be understood to represent Tom Robinson, a good man who only tries to help, yet suffers harm as a result. It also represents Boo Radley, a recluse who protects Scout and Jem, yet needs not be celebrated for this, as would be harmful to him, given his reclusive nature. Furthermore, since a mockingbird is innocent, the mockingbird “threatened” in the title may be the innocence of the young Finch children, which suffers much in this coming of age story. Deeply symbolic, To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfect title for the piece that I’ve written.”

Now, Harper Lee had a lot of time to perfect this piece, and was able to layer in symbolism to make the title so damned effective. As a result, she’d be able to write a much better response. My kids have three hours.

I can’t help but chuckle imagining Ray Bradbury answering the question based upon Fahrenheit 451.

“Fahrenheit 451 represents the temperature at which paper burns. In my piece, the main character burns books in a dystopian future society that doesn’t value knowledge and independent thought. Therefore, this title is perfect for this piece.”

Honestly, that’s about as eloquent as I can see a Grade 12 Bradbury being. One of the great works of literature, and that’s pretty much a full analysis of the title. Experience has shown me that many Grade 12s are writing their best version of what my imaginary Bradbury did, “I called it that because that’s what it’s about.” Therein lies the core problem with this question.

Last week, I walked one of my classes through the TPCASTT structure for poetry analysis. Again, the question of title comes up. I’ve never really rigidly stuck to any one structure for poetry analysis, but I can’t help but wonder what happens in a rigidly applied TPCASTT regime when an Emily Dickinson poem comes across their desks. There is evidence that Dickinson herself only gave four of her poems titles. Many of them were simply given a title that was simply the first line of the poem. A TPCASTTer would be encouraged to analyze what is essentially a non-title. Twice.

I chuckle again, thinking of the poetry habits that have been ingrained in our students. We were studying the poem ‘A Small Needful Fact’ by Ross Gay. It’s an amazing piece, and the lesson around it from poets.org is powerful. I asked a student to read the poem aloud. He did what we all do, pausing after the title. And then he looked kind of frustrated and angry. See Gay’s poem is one of those poems where the title is actually part of the poem. As soon as he realized this, I could tell my volunteer reader wanted a do-over. Again, titles can be tricky.

My writers write a fair number of pieces. I try to insist that they give each piece a snappy title. I want them to play and practice with language there as well. Let’s be honest, I’ll have a stack of Fahrenheit 451 essays to mark next week. If they’re all called “Fahrenheit 451 Essay” I’m gonna snap! High school is a wonderful place for writers to take risks. I want them to know that they can do that, with their titles, in my room, while we talk about titles of other works we’re studying. We look at what the title is about, what it can mean, and how we can use it as writers. I want them to see, as writers, and as budding literature enthusiasts and analysts, that the title can be many things, a profound, symbolic thing, or an afterthought. In doing this, I hope that it becomes more than an afterthought though, and something that they consider.

Are there things about titles that I missed? What work do you do with titling in your classroom?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

-Jay

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