- First few paragraphs of “The Tell Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe
- Various photographs of your choice
- “After I Was Thrown Into the River and Before I Drown” by Dave Eggers
Writers use syntax purposefully to create meaning and a desired effect.
What’s ahead in this post:
A 3-day lesson series on analyzing literature for syntax, including passage analysis and short story analysis, and using literature as mentor texts
To answer E.E. Cummings’ lovely question “since feeling is first / who pays any attention to the syntax of things” — We do! We Teachers pay attention to the syntax of things in writing and in literature, and we ask our students to pay attention, too. I tell my students over and over that being careful and observant readers is what will make us better writers.
Analyzing a text for its syntax is one of the most “lightbulbs” concepts I teach all year. When students embrace the “structure supports meaning” mindset, I notice a new depth and level of sophistication in their reading, writing, and thinking that I hadn’t seen before.
Here’s how I introduce this concept in my AP Literature class:
On Day 1 of this lesson series…
I ask students to read and examine the first few paragraphs of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.” Most students are familiar with the story, and so many of them seem to love the dark and gothic writing of Poe. There’s also a great (and creepy) animation to accompany the reading that really amps up the madman mood of the room.
In case it’s been a while since you’ve last encountered this story, here is what students see on the page when they tackle the first paragraph:
TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
After students read, watch, and annotate, I follow with my go-to close reading questions:
What do you notice?
Why is it important?
Almost 100% of the time, students talk about structure. They talk about dashes and exclamation points and fragmented thoughts and inverted sentences. We spend time talking about tone and point of view and how the needle of the story is being threaded here in this first paragraph.
We also spend time talking about how deliberately crafted sentences make this possible — how there is a pretty specific reason we do fancy this madman, well…mad. Students put their fingers right on the nervous-anxious atmosphere Poe establishes and how this madness is underscored through the “writer’s moves.”
I love that this is where students’ brains go. Thanks to Mr. Poe, it’s a perfect introduction to the syntax lens of literary analysis and this writerly move for our young writers.
On Day 2…
I project a series of images on my Smart Board and ask students to create sentences (very deliberately like Poe) that mimic the feeling or atmosphere created in the photograph.
Here’s one of the photos we tackle:
Students decided that the feeling of this photograph is release after anticipation and suspense. We talked about the up and down of a roller coaster, the slow climb to the top of the hill, and the quick drop to the end of the ride. We then talk about how sentences can do that. After each photograph, I give students about five minutes to write in their notebooks.
Here is an example of one student’s writing inspired by the roller coaster photo:
After we write, I then ask students to turn and talk and share with their classmates. Finally, I’ll ask for a few volunteers to share with the whole class and then to discuss their approach their writing.
I especially like this part of the lesson because all students have a chance to hear how their classmates are interpreting the image and crafting their writing. Students always surprise me with the explanations of their writing. Their interpretations of the photos vary, but the one constant is their awareness of the construction of their writing. It’s an English teacher win.
This writing activity isn’t easy, but the writing is low stakes, and I’ve found that it opens up some creative doors that students may not have realized were there.
On Day 3…
We read and study this wonderful, wacky, and surprisingly moving short story “After I Was Thrown Into the River and Before I Drowned” by Dave Eggers.
Here’s the opening paragraph and a small taste of what students are in for:
OH I’M A FAST DOG. I’m fast- fast. It’s true and I love being fast I admit It I love it. You know fast dogs. Dogs that just run by and you say, Damn! That’s a fast dog! Well that’s me. A fast dog. I’m a fast- fast dog. Hoooooooo! Hooooooooooooo!
You should watch me sometime. Just watch how fast I go when I’m going my fastest, when I’ve really got to move for something, when I’m really on my way-man do I get going sometimes, weaving like a missile, weaving like a missile between trees and around bushes and then pop!
Similarly to the Poe passage, we read, study, and annotate this story, paying close attention to the ways in which Eggers uses sentence length, sentence order, sentence patterns, and typographical elements to achieve some purpose or effect.
And this one’s fun! It’s, like, really, really fun, and it sures up students’ syntax study. This story is plain old fun to read, fun to think about, and fun to talk about, which is exactly what we did.
Quarter Exams happened for us, but next year, here are some options I might give students as a follow up to this syntax study and to really utilize these texts and mentors:
- Have students write in the POV of Steven in “After I Was Thrown Into the River and Before I Drowned” or in the voice of any other person or animal that might make for an interesting perspective.
- Have students write a short, imagined narrative borrowing from the writers’ moves in this mentor text cluster.
- Have students extend their journaling from the photographs into a complete narrative.
How do you see this technique fitting in to your writing studies? What other mentor texts might inspire students to use syntax intentionally? I’d LOVE to hear from you!