March (Madness) to Determine Significance


March Madness March is still two months away, but that didn’t stop my students from facing off March Madness style as we reviewed Lord of the Flies last week.

One of the challenges students often face when writing literary analysis is that writing literary analysis asks students to demonstrate two important but distinctly different things: first, their understanding of the text (comprehension, analysis, synthesis) and second, their ability to communicate that understanding (writing). We all know students who can know a text inside and out yet struggle to get those ideas on paper. Conversely, we also know students who are proficient writers but whose analysis and evidence don’t quite measure up.

To help, one thing I’ve tried to do is to help students sharpen their analytical skills on the front end of the writing process. The longer I teach, the more I realize that the most valuable part of the writing process is the thinking that happens before any formal writing begins and fingers touch a keyboard.

Finding Moments Worth Writing About

Part of that thinking includes not just gathering evidence but also determining which evidence would be the best to use. This past month, after we finished reading Lord of the Flies, I wanted students to find “moments worth writing about.” These “moments” would be the scenes – and evidence – they would later use to build their essays. First, I started with a few journal prompts to begin discussion.

  1. What makes a scene significant? Whether you read a book, watch a movie, see a play, or follow a TV series, what makes that particular scene or moment stand out to you?
  2. What are the criteria for a “stand out” scene or moment?

img_0228After a few moments, I asked students to go to the board to share one criteria from their notebook writing so that by the end, we started to develop a decent working list of ideas. We reviewed as a class as I asked some students to share their thinking. We then turned back to our notebooks to get a little more specific:

  1. Think about your own personal experiences with different types of texts (books, movies, plays, television, etc.). Jot down a quick list.
  2. Choose one text from your list and quickly write down, next to it, the scene that pops into your head immediately, the scene that stands out to you when you think about that text. Describe the scene and explain why it stands it out. Do any of the criteria we’ve brainstormed fit?
  3. Repeat with another text.
  4. And so on.

My hope here was to get students to start thinking more concretely about how they would support their criteria for a “standout scene” with their own personal examples. Our discussion was animated as students recalled such moments, especially as they discovered similar examples among their peers. Interestingly, students almost always turned to examples from movies or television shows before books.

adobe-spark-53At this point, I told students that we were going to compile a list of the Top Ten Scenes for Lord of the Flies. Using the language of film to review the novel forced students to think visually—and cinematically—about the book (after all, you can’t come up with a list of best scenes without actually seeing those scenes in your head). While we would use the criteria we had already brainstormed to guide us, I also shared several mentor texts that would be helpful for them to consider:

  1. “The Best Film Scenes”, a yearly list from A. V. Club published for the last several years
  2. “25 Greatest Movie Scenes of the Last 25 Years” from USA Today
  3. “The Best Scenes in Movie History in One Countdown” from Cinefix

The last mentor text from Cinefix, in particular, does a nice job of explaining the ten criteria it used to determine its own top ten list. Below are the criteria, and as you can see, I’ve also listed a possible corresponding literary device:

  1. Range of human emotion (characterization)
  2. Laughter or humor (mood)
  3. Visual storytelling (selection of detail)
  4. Pathos (characterization, internal conflict)
  5. Tension (characterization, conflict)
  6. Moment of truth or “showdown” (characterization, climax, theme)
  7. Beauty, transcendence (theme)
  8. Action (plot, conflict, character)
  9. Romance (characterization, theme, conflict)
  10. Conversation (characterization, theme, conflict)

Many of these criteria were also included in our student-generated list. My goal here is to get students to see that the language and lenses we use to think about visual storytelling (as in film) also overlap with the language and lenses we use to talk about literature. And again, in asking students to think “cinematically” about the novel, I’m asking them to visualize the literature in a way that might also lead to greater understanding and appreciation for the words on the page and how they might be translated through film.


screen-shot-2017-01-24-at-5-34-53-pmTop Ten lists have become ubiquitous on the internet. I shared with students how my 9-year-old son loves to watch superhero shows like The Flash. One of his favorite things to do in the days after a particularly exciting episode is to see what his favorite YouTube channel, Emergency Awesome, has to say. After each episode, Emergency Awesome posts a “Top Ten WTF” moments video and breaks down quickly how or why that moment stood out (I also explained to my son that “WTF” was a grown-up way of saying “OMG” 🙂 ). One thing I want students to see is how diverse and flexible a top ten list can be, whether it’s for my son’s favorite TV series, for Star Wars fans’ favorite Princess Leia moments, or for the most significant Harry Potter scenes. So as an extension (or for homework), I then asked students to do a brief web search of Top Ten list for one of their favorite movies, television shows, or books. 


Students were now ready to dive back into Lord of the Flies and come up with their own individual “Top Ten Scenes” list for the novel. And this is where the March Madness tournament comes in. First, I asked students to share scenes from their list while I collected them on a Word document I had projected on the front board (in the future, I might collect their responses ahead of time instead using a Google Form or an app like Socrative). After we compiled a list of about 15-20 scenes, I highlighted the scenes we would use for our March Madness tournament, In this way, I chose what I saw as the most important scenes among their ideas, but I could have also allowed students to vote (this just saved time).

I ended up picking twelve scenes. Why twelve? My 9th grade classes have ~24 students in each; by choosing 12 scenes, students could work in pairs when it came time to analyze the scenes. I numbered the twelve scenes (randomly) and then randomly assigned each pair of students a number from 1-12 to correspond to the scene they had to go back and analyze.

At this point, I tell students that their task is to reread the scene and determine in what ways the scene is important both by itself and in how it relates to other parts of the novel. They need to prepare a 60-second presentation to explain to the class. I gave students about 10 minutes to prepare, but I think next time, I could definitely give them a little longer.

Our bracket system. Each number refers to a scene from the book.

While they worked, I set up the March Madness bracket. Because I had twelve scenes, I had to come up with three separate brackets, each consisting of two rounds before determine a winner for that bracket.

When it was their turn, each pair would come up to the front of the room and in 60-seconds, explain why their scene was significant. Then the opposing pair would present their scene and reasoning. Students in the audience then voted on which pair did a better job at “arguing” for the significance of their scene (I reminded students that to put aside their own personal opinion about the scenes and focus solely on how well their classmates presented their evidence).

After the first round, I gave all the “winning” teams another five minutes for the next round. This time, I encouraged students revise their initial presentation. Although this wasn’t my initial intent, this part of the process worked really well. I heard students reconsider the evidence they had already presented and finds ways to strengthen their arguments (in our debrief after the activity, I pointed out to students the parallels to writing in this process).

Here, students use post-its to keep track of their notes for their 60-second presentations for March Madness.


Logistically, it was difficult for me to set up a traditional bracket that would end with a clear “winner.” Instead, we had three winners, one from each bracket. At that point, I asked students to reflect on these final three and to rank those in order of most to least important. The goal here was not to necessarily come to consensus on a single, “right” answer, but to think about in what ways each scene could be significant depending on the terms we were using. Getting students to the point of determining that – the criteria by which we were measuring significance – then became the crucial mental move that can use now only when they write their essays next week, but in all of their reading and writing.

So there you go. Overall, I thought the lesson was successful, especially as students were engaged and motivated to “debate” each other a la March Madness style. Looking ahead, I’d love to hear any suggestions you have. What are your favorite strategies in helping students to find the best evidence—to answer that question, “what makes this significant?”

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