Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: 3 Reasons Literary Analysis Must Be Authentic

There is a a common thread that runs through many of our most-popular posts from the 2016-2017 school year: authentic analysis.  We are all hungry for something more. For something more than poorly-crafted already-been-said-before five-paragraph essays about the same old topics. And if your and your students’ disdain for reading and writing these kinds of essays isn’t enough of a reason to abolish them, Rebekah explores three other reasons why the literary analysis we teach must be as authentic and real world as any other genre of writing we teach. 

 

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Hello, friends! Oh, how we have missed you!

Allison and I are still in the midst of finishing our new book on teaching analytical writing, but we couldn’t resist a quick check-in with you to share some of what we have been up to!

Yesterday we had the great fun of doing an hour of virtual professional development  via Google Hangout with a department of teachers from Farmington High School who are searching for better, deeper, more meaningful ways to engage their students in writing literary analysis.

We all know that traditional, academic literary analysis — the kind of 5-paragraph themes you and I wrote in high school — don’t really work. Students hate writing them. We hate reading them. At best, students have successfully followed a formula that has allowed them to regurgitate what they have heard and discussed in class. At worst, students limp through the motions, inserting ideas pilfered from Spark Notes and badly-written Internet essays.

So, that doesn’t work. What does? Continue reading

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Ask Moving Writers: Generating Ideas or Narrowing Them Down

AMW Karla

Dear Trish,

I’m sure we’ve all been on both sides of this problem at some time or another. I know I sure have! And as an adult writer who’s been practicing for many more years than the young writers in my classroom, it’s easier for me to diagnose and treat my writing ailments. Although there’s no cure for idea deficit or idea overload, there are a few remedies I might prescribe.

Our first patient is the “I don’t know what to write” student who hems and haws with a topic and doesn’t know what to say or how. This particular writing problem sometimes gets me talking to myself. I confess that I’ve mistaken these indecisive writers as behavior problems, or worse, plain old lazy. The truth is, most of the time, this type of student truly does require guidance. And before I offer a few strategies to cultivate ideas, there are three checks that I use to test the vital signs of my assignment:

  • Does this assignment offer students choice?
  • Can all students find something relevant or relatable to discuss?
  • Is what I’m asking students to do achievable?

This is important because if a student is too confined, he or she may come up short on ideas. If they can’t relate to the assignment or find some glimmer of inspiration, back to the drylands. And if what I’m asking students to do is too far outside their ability levels, it may cause unnecessary stress and confusion. Trust me, I’ve been guilty on all counts and it was crippling to my students.

Now that that’s out of the way, here are a few fixes for the out-of-ideas student:

Talk. The is the best way I’ve found to help students generate ideas. My classes love activities like Philosophical Chairs and Socratic seminar to explore and define their ideas. I wonder if some of the problem with brainstorming and prewriting is students aren’t sure of what their ideas even are — where they stand on particular issues and what experiences they have to support their thinking. Talk is a simple remedy to cure the no-ideas blues.

Inspire. The longer I teach, the more I realize I’m in the inspiration business. There’s nothing quite like inspired student writing. As we age and mature, we seek our harness our own inspiration, but students need our help. Maybe it’s a walk outside on a beautiful day, maybe it’s a thought provoking story or image, maybe it’s a compelling question or quote, maybe it’s a unique and engaging short film. Whatever it is, I believe the more we create inspiration, the more ideas our students will generate ideas and feel moved to write.

List. Of all the Notebook Time ideas out there (like these, these, and this), my absolute favorite for the struggling writer is the simplest of them all. The small but mighty list. Whether it’s an idea web, an alphabetized list (like this Alpha Boxes assignment I love), or a trusty Top 10, this old school intervention strategy can, at the very least, help our struggling writers put black on white and begin to orient themselves to the landscape of their thoughts. And listing can help ideas take off, which of course, may lead to a side-effect…

On to our next patient — the overwhelmed-by-ideas, “how do I choose just one?” student who may need to play some elaborate game of idea darts to narrow down the choices.

When discussing the creative process, Stephen King said, “If they’re bad ideas, they go away on their own.”

I love this frame when I talk to students who are unsure about which topic to choose for their writing. For my students who have lots and lots of “good” ideas, the trick is helping them find the great idea.

I like to ask students to sit with their ideas for a while before officially claiming a topic, with the hope that the less-great ideas will have gone home for the night. We talk about the ideas that stick as their “shower ideas” — or the ideas that come back to them over and over at random and unobvious times. I don’t want these creative kids, or any kids, getting locked into an idea that doesn’t excite them.

So it becomes a matter of design, where the product is intentional, thought out, and effective. The advantage for the “too many ideas” writers is they have the opportunity to create a smart design.

Here is a series of questions for your inspired writers that may help them land on a single topic or focus:

  • Which ideas excite me the most? (Choose 3-5)
  • What do I find most compelling about them?
  • What experiences, observations, or knowledge do I have that supports these ideas?
  • Which idea could I tell the best story about?
  • Which topic do I know the most about?
  • Which topic do I find most interesting, problematic, or provocative?
  • Which of these best supports the assignment and prompt?

A few doses of these homemade writing remedies typically do the trick. After your students have found their great idea, have them free write a page or so and call you in the morning.

What strategies do YOU have to help students generate ideas or narrow them down? I’d love to hear from you!

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!
-Karla

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Mentor Texts for the First Week of School

One of the best ways to show our students the value that mentor texts have for their writing is to let it be the first thing they hear about on the first day of school — to put a mentor text in their hands, tell them that a mentor text is a piece of writing that guides and inspires us, and let them dig in. In this post, Rebekah offers some tried-and-true mentor texts for kicking off your writing year! 

Are you ready to start planning for the first week of school?

We use mentor texts in our classes from the very first day of school. We want to lay down a strong foundation and also some strong expectations that mentor texts will be our go-to source for inspiring our work, giving us how-tos, and answering our writing questions all year long.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have fun. The mentor texts we use the first week of school are visually engaging and meet our high school students right where they are as they walk in the door.

In our mentor text countdown this week, we are giving you a two-for-one: two very different approaches to using mentor texts in the very first week of school to help you students get to know one another while also learning the fundamentals of mentor text work!

Get out your planner! We are helping you get ready to get back to school! Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Memoir on Wax

Mentor Text: Coat of Many Colours by Dolly Parton

Writing Techniques:

  • Memoir
  • Symbolism
  • Allusion
  • Revision

Background:

Somewhere along the way, I’m not sure when, the woman I love fell for Dolly Parton. I know it wasn’t a childhood thing, because that’s not really what her folks listened to. But she’s a fan. And I get it, Dolly is an amazing songwriter, and just comes across as such a genuine person. As teachers, her support if literacy is something we admire greatly.

IMG_4140So, for the past few months, as I dig in record crates for myself. I’ve kept an eye out for some Dolly records for her. While we were in Nova Scotia, I found myself in one of those awesome, and terrifying, small used bookstores. You know, the ones that seem to have a little bit of everything crammed into a space that’s about half the size it should be. And I came across a copy of Dolly’s 1971 album, Coat of Many Colours.

Now, we’re home, and as we settle back into routines, my wife is doing stuff around the house, and I’m looking for inspiration to write. That Dolly album has been our soundtrack for the last few days, as stuff gets done around the house, and I find this week’s inspiration. Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers: Structure

AMW Jay.pngWow, Brendan, that’s a great question.

I can start with a somewhat facetious answer, in that I find a mentor text that the students can emulate. I channel the spirit of Austin Kleon, and tell my writers to be on the lookout for what they can steal for their own writing.

I use this approach most frequently with poetry, giving students a piece that highlights a specific form, or style, and having them write a version of it about a different topic. In my Grade 10 class, I try to make this a weekly occurrence as we work on our OUPAs.

Sometimes, I use the structures that exist in literature as aguide. The narrative arc diagram is useful for story writers as they plan. Once we know it, we can subvert it for effect as well. Often, in studying a genre we look at the tropes of that genre, as they can influence the structure of pieces written within that genre. Something like the Hero’s Journey gives us a ready made structure for adventure stories and I’ve used it to guide students as they write epic poems.

The most frequent request for structure lessons, from my writers anyway, is based around the essay. By the time I get them in their first year in our building, my Grade 9s have been given the list of Correct Ways To Write An Essay tips that seem rigid, and adhere to one particular kind of essay. They’re a bit intimidated that they’re going to be facing at least three and a half more years of that joyless exercise.

So, this year, with my Grade 9 and 10 students, I made a concerted effort to teach essay writing in a way that I hoped would allow them to write, exploring the idea that writing should be structured, but that there can be freedom within that structure. Continue reading

A Writing Classroom in Troubled Times

Some of you are in the classroom right now. I’m just over two weeks out from those first days with students.

It seems, however, that we are teaching in troubled times. Perhaps it is our easy and instant access to media and information, our 24 hour news cycle that makes us much more aware of this.

I’m writing this with a heavy heart. There’s not much that I can open on my phone that doesn’t seem to put the terrible things that are happening in the world in front of me, and it weighs heavy. I have a family, a 6 year old and 4 year old who I’m responsible for, two beautiful little girls that I’m going to have to explain these terrible things to at some point.

And, I’ll be in my English classroom in a few short weeks, with Grade 9, 11 and 12 students who will want to talk about these terrible things. Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Structure as Mentor Text: How Can We Organize Ideas Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay?

It speaks volumes that three of our top ten posts in the 2016-17 school year explore the issue of abandoning the 5-paragraph essay in favor of structures that are more organic and authentic and favorable to our young writers. We have Tricia to thank for sharing all of her thinking around this issue. In today’s post, she delves into a magical form called the CFC, brought to her attention by a University of Oklahoma professor. As is the norm in Tricia’s oh-so-generous posts, she supplies an in-depth explanation of this concept, along with copious examples and bonus mentor texts at the end. Dig in!

A few weeks ago, I came across a post on the Teaching and Learning Forum on the NCTE website. The conversation centered around the usefulness—or the lack of usefulness—of the five-paragraph essay. Comments varied, with many teachers chiming in with their thoughts, both fervently for and against the form.

I spent the first five years of my career teaching 9th and 10th grade. During that time, I focused my writing instruction on the five-paragraph essay. And I was good at it. I mean, really good at it. My students, through much practice, could put together a thesis statement with three reasons, write the three body paragraphs with corresponding topic sentences, and a conclusion which restated their main ideas (in case those ideas weren’t already clear).

Not surprisingly, years later when I started teaching AP Lang, my juniors walked into my classroom in September unsure how to write an essay using any structure other than the five-paragraph form. Students’ first assignment is an “essay of introduction,” which they read to the class during the first week of school. I deliberately withhold any directions regarding structure, length, or format. How students respond can be quite telling. Over the years, I’ve observed two general outcomes: 1) students either wrote in the tried-and-true five-paragraph essay, or 2) students wrote with little attention to structure and turned in the dreaded one-long-paragraph essay. In the latter case, it seems that without being told how many paragraphs to write, students weren’t quite sure how to use a thoughtful paragraph break.

Over the course of the year, however, my students learn many other methods for organization. We study the classical Aristotelian structure—introduction, narration, confirmation, refutation, and conclusion—as well as the Rogerian approach. After reading and studying various real-world mentor texts, students begin to read like writers and write like readers.

But this year, I think I may have stumbled upon an approach to rule them all. 

Which brings me back to that post I read on the NCTE Teaching and Learning forum. Amidst all the responses for and against the five-paragraph essay form was a comment from Geoffrey Layton, a professor from the University of Oklahoma. Layton argued for teaching a form that is commonly found in many professional essays. Here is how he explains it:

The form is a statement of a “Commonplace,” supported by a “First Glance” and contested by a “Closer Look.” The “Commonplace” is a statement of “what most, or many people, probably believe about a topic” and becomes the assumption (or enthymeme) on which the subsequent argument will be based. An examination of a broad range of essays written by and for both academics and the general public begin with such a commonplace. A “first glance” is then used to support the commonplace, which solves the problem that plagues many essayists, even academic writers, when they assume that their naysayers aren’t competent rhetoricians. Finally, the “closer look” advances a differing but not necessarily an opposing or “agonistic” opinion. In other words, this form – a commonplace supported by a first glance and then contested by closer look – is a formula for advancing knowledge, the goal not just of the academy but all writers everywhere. It is what makes the essay such an enduring and necessary form.

The moment I read Layton’s response, I knew he was right. This form—the Commonplace, the First Glance, and the Closer Look—is a form I have seen over and over again in essays from the New York Times, New Yorker, The Atlantic, and so on. This year, I started to teach this form explicitly to my students, and the “CFC”–which quickly became our shorthand for this structure—is now one of my students’ favorite go-to methods for organizing their ideas.

Have you heard of the CFC-The reason the five-paragraph essay has maintained its dominance in schools for so long is because of its clear structure. A clear structure, of course, is important in essay writing. However, when students sit down to write a five-paragraph essay, they too often start by thinking in terms of structure rather than thinking in terms of ideas. In other words, students’ ideas are crammed, retrofitted, and limited so that they can fit into five neatly organized paragraphs.

What I appreciate about the CFC, on the other hand, is that it requires students to leadwith their ideas. In order to effectively use this structure, students must ask themselves what is a common understanding or assumption about this issue? To answer that question, students need to have a sense of audience. Students then need to think about how that common understanding is supported at first glance by evidence. Finally—and most importantly—students must take a stance of curiosity and ask is that really true? Perhaps a closer look reveals that it is not. From this point on in the essay, students must look closer, dig deeper, and question generally held (but often not closely examined) beliefs.

Take this example:

  • A commonplace assumption is that our school education often provides our most valuable learning experiences.
  • After all, at first glance, we spend many years in formal schooling and billions of dollars on funding our public schools.
  • But are schools the only place that we can get a valuable education? If we take a closer look, we see that we can learn much outside the classroom.

The CFC structure I’ve outlined above is essentially the set-up of New York Times columnist David Brooks’ wonderful essay, “The Other Education”. Here is the opening of that piece:

Like many of you, I went to elementary school, high school and college. I took such and such classes, earned such and such grades, and amassed such and such degrees.

But on the night of Feb. 2, 1975, I turned on WMMR in Philadelphia and became mesmerized by a concert the radio station was broadcasting. The concert was by a group I’d never heard of — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Thus began a part of my second education.

We don’t usually think of this second education. For reasons having to do with the peculiarities of our civilization, we pay a great deal of attention to our scholastic educations, which are formal and supervised, and we devote much less public thought to our emotional educations, which are unsupervised and haphazard. This is odd, since our emotional educations are much more important to our long-term happiness and the quality of our lives.

Likewise, the CFC appears in the marvelous long-form essay, “The Upside Of Being An Introvert (And Why Extroverts Are Overrated)” by Bryan Walsh in Time magazine. Here is an excerpt from early in the essay:

Simply being an introvert can also feel taxing–especially in America, land of the loud and home of the talkative. From classrooms built around group learning to open-plan offices that encourage endless meetings, it sometimes seems that the quality of your work has less value than the volume of your voice.

And as if the world weren’t slanted enough toward the extrovert, study after study has made sociability seem like a prerequisite for good health, right along with low cholesterol and frequent exercise. Very shy and introverted people have been shown to succumb more rapidly to diseases like HIV and to be at greater risk for depression than their extroverted counterparts. In schools, it’s the bolder kids who get attention from teachers, while quiet children can too easily languish in the back of the classroom. “Our culture expects people to be outgoing and sociable,” says Christopher Lane, an English professor at Northwestern University and the author of Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness. “It’s the unstated norm, and against that norm introverts stand out as seemingly problematic.”

But that unstated norm discounts the hidden benefits of the introverted temperament–for workplaces, personal relationships and society as a whole. Introverts may be able to fit all their friends in a phone booth, but those relationships tend to be deep and rewarding. Introverts are more cautious and deliberate than extroverts, but that means they tend to think things through more thoroughly, which means they can often make smarter decisions. Introverts are better at listening–which, after all, is easier to do if you’re not talking–and that in turn can make them better business leaders, especially if their employees feel empowered to act on their own initiative. And simply by virtue of their ability to sit still and focus, introverts find it easier to spend long periods in solitary work, which turns out to be the best way to come up with a fresh idea or master a skill.

Walsh begins with the commonly held belief that being an introvert is often seen as a negative quality, especially because at first glance, America is a “land of the loud and home of the talkative.” Walsh includes additional evidence to support this commonly held belief, such as statistics about the physical benefits of being an extrovert and the societal prejudices against being an introvert. However, a closer look reveals the “hidden benefits of the introverted temperament.” From this point on, Walsh’s essay digs deeper to examine those benefits.

If you aren’t convinced yet, here are five benefits to the CFC:

Structure. While the five-paragraph essay is structured, it is a structure that is limiting. The CFC, on the other hand, offers a structure that is a meaningful starting point for students as they write and explore a topic.

Large and Small Scale Organization. Speaking of structure, the CFC can offer a method for global organization where the entire essay is loosely organized into these three parts. But it can also be used as a smaller craft move within an essay. Take, for example, this paragraph from “The Case for Teaching Ignorance” by Jamie Holmes in the New York Times:

People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.

Above, Holmes uses the CFC to pivot from some background information earlier in the essay to his claim that teaching ignorance has value.

And below, in Kathryn Shulz’s Pultizer Prize winning feature essay—“The Really Big One” published in The New Yorker last year (and among my absolute favorite essays of all-time)—the CFC is alive and well:

Most people in the United States know just one fault line by name: the San Andreas, which runs nearly the length of California and is perpetually rumored to be on the verge of unleashing “the big one.” That rumor is misleading, no matter what the San Andreas ever does. Every fault line has an upper limit to its potency, determined by its length and width, and by how far it can slip. For the San Andreas, one of the most extensively studied and best understood fault lines in the world, that upper limit is roughly an 8.2—a powerful earthquake, but, because the Richter scale is logarithmic, only six per cent as strong as the 2011 event in Japan.

Just north of the San Andreas, however, lies another fault line. Known as the Cascadia subduction zone, it runs for seven hundred miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, beginning near Cape Mendocino, California, continuing along Oregon and Washington, and terminating around Vancouver Island, Canada.

Notice how Shulz begins this section (which is actually the narration part of the classical argument structure) with what “most people in the United States” first associate with fault lines: the San Andreas. Shulz then shifts to take a closer look at the fault line of more pressing concern—the one found a few hundred miles north in the Pacific Northwest.

Authenticity. As I hope I’ve shown in the example above, the CFC can be found in many professional essays and mentor texts.

Focus on Reasoning. To pull off the CFC, students need to think through the assumptions behind commonly held beliefs. Then students need go further—to consider opposing or alternative views to those beliefs. They learn to ask questions and look at an issue by taking another stance. They learn to be curious.

Motivating. When I asked my students what they thought of this structure, one student replied, “I like it because it makes me feel like I’m proving someone wrong. I’m taking something that a lot of people believe and showing them how it’s not that simple.” Rather than write an essay that simply answers why I’m right (isn’t that what all five-paragraph essays do?), the CFC asks students to consider what if we’re wrong?

Of course, all this said, the CFC isn’t always the best organization for all types of arguments. Students need time and practice experimenting with many different types of organization and then choose the one that best fits their ideas.

What do you think of this method? How do you help students find a way to structure their ideas? Please share your thoughts in the comments below, or connect with me on Twitter at @triciaebarvia.

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As a bonus, here are a handful of additional essays that also use the CFC form in some capacity:

Ask Moving Writers: Mentor Sentence Mini-lessons

 

Hi, Beth!

Thanks for asking. As you know, mentor texts can be incredibly powerful tools to help students see the beauty in our language—and studying mentor texts at the sentence level can help students see what happens when we gather the best words in the best order.

I almost always use mentor texts to teach craft at the sentence level. We start each day with a notebook prompt, and I often use brief excerpts from essays or novels that illustrate thoughtful sentence crafting. 

When I use mentor texts to teach at the sentence level, I focus three different elements: diction, syntax, and punctuation.  Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

Whether we are teaching poetry or memoir or literary analysis, the requirements for mentor texts are the same: they must be accessible and relevant for students, and they should be richly crafted. And while poetry and memoir texts are ubiquitous, many of us struggle to find literary analysis mentor texts that are developmentally appropriate and engaging for our students. In this post, Rebekah gives two ways of thinking about the mentor text search for literary analysis that will leave you eager to get your hands on some of the great analytical writing out there.

 

When we are choosing genres to teach in workshop, one consideration is always at the forefront: is this real writing? Is this writing real writers do? Can I find authentic examples of it out in the world? Generally, if the answer is “no”, we don’t teach it.

With one notable exception: literary analysis.

In our mentor text explorations, we have yet to find an example of pure, academic literary analysis roaming around the real world. And yet, we acknowledge the need for students to work in this genre.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 9.56.45 AMBut, maybe not for the reasons that you think.

In many — maybe most — high school English classrooms, literary analysis is the primary mode of writing. It’s the whole shebang. There are many reasons for this, but I think the most potent one is simply this: it’s tradition. It’s what you and I did when we were high school English students. And we enjoyed it. And we were good at it. And that’s why we became English majors. And then English teachers.

But literary analysis is one star in a vast universe of analytical writing. The traditional high school English classroom makes it the sun.

While you won’t find a literary analysis feature article in The New Yorker, analytical writing is everywhere. Political analysis of the 2018 Presidential election. Personal analysis in essays and memoirs.  Sports analysis. Analysis of Furious 7 and Mad Men. And, yes, in its way, analysis of literature in book reviews. Analysis is everywhere.

So, in our view, students should be writing analysis — lots of it — but analysis of all kinds, not just literary analysis. The skills are the same. And if students can skillfully analyze their favorite movie and the effectiveness of the new iPhone and the significance of an important event on their life and the theme of a poem, they will be fantastic, well-rounded  analytical writers who are much more prepared to enter the real world of writing than those students who have only written essays about literature.

Where does this leave us on the mentor text issue?

Like all genre studies, we give students real-world, hot-off-the-press examples of analysis — showing them that the skills they are learning to make a claim about a piece of literature are the same skills that professional writers are using to analyze all sorts of things in the world around them.

Our requirements remain the same — our mentor texts should be accessible and relevant for students, they should be well-written, they should be rich with craft. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Revision

Mentor Texts:

Poetry In Action from The New York Times Book Review

E.B. White on Why He Wrote Charlotte’s Web, Plus His Rare Illustrated Manuscripts via brainpickings.org

Strategies Used:

  • Revision

Background:

Aside from noting a few things that popped into my Twitter feed, I haven’t done very much work this summer. July is largely mine. However, the idea that I’d start to meander back into teacher mode in August was always there. I’d do some planning, and resume my regular writing here.

So, imagine my joy as August began, and a clear choice for my first mentor text post of this school year rolled across my Twitter feed. I’m sure a lot of you saw it, as it was retweeted by various members of the Moving Writers community. The New York Times Book Review published an awesome mentor text set – poets’ annotated drafts of their work. I was really excited by this.

I was also reminded of something I had seen long ago at a workshop – an early draft of Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. I remembered loving the idea of showing my writers that draft of White’s, and my excitement around this Times post was much the same.

This was a readymade mentor text set to facilitate the discussion around revision! Continue reading