Vulture’s “Close Reads” and Key Passage Analysis: Perfecting On-Demand Literary Analysis with Mentor Text Study

“I just don’t have enough time to say what I want to say!”

“If I had more time, I would be better.”

“I had all of these ideas planned, but I could only write about one of them.”

“I just don’t think I work well under timed conditions.”

Eleventh-graders’  laments fill my IB English classroom at the end of every in-class commentary*, a timed literary analysis that mimics one of the two official exams students will take at the end of the course next year. I have a lot of careful, contemplative writers in my junior classes, and the disappointed looks that cloud their faces after every commentary seem to beg, “Please don’t think this paper represents who I am as a writer! I know I can do better than this!” They look like they want to cry, and looking at them makes me want to cry, so I have decided, in the spirit of Rebekah’s “What’s the worst that could happen?” and Allison’s post about seeing on-demand writing in a new light , to back up and try a new experiment, one inspired by a mentor text about a moment that made me cry a lot.

“Why Did That Jane The Virgin Finale Scene Make You Cry?” is part of Vulture’s “Close Reads” feature, a column that explores the impact of one moment in an episode, one episode in a series, or a series/movie in a genre. In other words, it is a real-world version of a key passage commentary, an analytical exercise familiar to most literature students.

I read Kathryn VanArendonk’s piece about Jane the Virgin last spring, just hours after watching the show’s season finale and sobbing about exactly the moment VanArendonk explores. I fell for the title’s “clickbait,” but I was surprised by the deep, heartfelt literary and cultural analysis to which it led. I tucked the article away, hoping for a time when it wouldn’t be too uncomfortable to bring up a show called Jane the Virgin in front of my Catholic high school students.

As my juniors scribbled away on their most recent commentary, I decided that the time was now. Though they had had the chance to review, revise, and self-assess each on-demand commentary they wrote before I looked at it (and could take comfort in knowing that I would only record the best of the three scores), I knew they ached for a chance to show what they could do with more time and planning. Thus, in another “desperation leads to inspiration” moment, the “Close Reads”-style Commentary was born.

Here is the process I cooked up in my own 45-minute frenzy:


I just introduced this new experiment, so I don’t know what the results will be, but I am happy with the premise. The mentor text “twist” will, I hope, discourage plagiarism of the myriad key passage analyses online, since the “Close Read” columns require a writer’s authentic response to a text.  My greatest hope for this new assignment is that it will give students a chance to develop their writing voices and their own approaches to future on-demand writing. There are plenty of templates for writing a key passage analysis, and I know there are days when my students wish I would give them one. While we frequently discuss what an effective analysis includes and what “writers of literary analysis” do, I resist giving them THE template for a paper because a course that invites students to appreciate the variety and creativity of established writers should foster young writers’ variety and creativity, too.

Students will have a week to write their “Close Reads” commentaries, roughly 224 times the length of a class period and 84 times the length of their official exam. We will discuss what they observe in their mentor texts and reflect on what they learned from having more  time to write and plan. With any luck, our next in-class commentary won’t finish with sad faces and pleas for more time but instead some confident smiles.

And what about that OTHER experiment? The fledgling writing center? 

Writing Center tutor training began last month with a class of ten eager tutors. Students read chapters of The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors to learn about how to set an agenda and lead (or guide the writer to lead) a tutoring session. Most recently, tutors practiced tutoring by using role-playing scenarios from The Bedford Guide. We’ll practice with a few more scenarios and some sample papers next week, and I will also invite the tutors-in-training to meet with my freshmen as they finish their personal narratives.

What are your go-to mentor texts for on-demand writing? Have any suggestions for training writing tutors? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments below or @MsJochman on Twitter. 

*A note for readers who also teach IB: While Paper I of the IB Language A: Literature curriculum is a “blind” commentary on an unknown passage, my students first practice this writing task with passages from stories they have already read. 

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