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. 



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?

As in all writing, students’ process and writing products must be authentic if we are going to get buy in and engagement.  Here are just three reasons that the literary analysis writing we teach and students create must be authentic:

1. Our job isn’t to produce English majors

My friends, this is sad-but-true. You and I love English. We love it so much that it was our favorite class in high school, and then we became English majors, and then we loved it so much we became English teachers!  But this passion doesn’t reflect most of the students we teach — even those who like English class.

Less than 2% of all college students major in English. Colleges and universities are at a near-panic as the major continues to dwindle in numbers, depleting funding for English departments. Of those 2% of college majors, less than 1% will go on to become a professional academic, and, thus, engage in formal academic writing about literature.

Recently, Allison & I were chatting with Dr. Leila Christenbury who shared that at her university, college freshman needing an English credit are far more likely to read and write about the lyrics of Kanye West than classic literature. So, that old adage that students need to learn to structure a five-paragraph essay “for college” just isn’t true.

2. Writers need models in order to write.

If you and I were to sit down today to write a memoir, one of the first things we would do is grab a stack of our favorite memoirs and figure out what makes them so great, how the writer structures her story, the tone the writer uses to engage his reader. We would love for some models of stellar memoirs to guide our own.

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-11-01-49-amThis is why mentor texts — especially mentor texts crafted by professional writers — are so powerful in writing instruction. They guide and inspire our students’ writing by creating a map and teaching a variety of craft moves students can borrow. They provide options and spark ideas. Mentor texts whisper, “This is do-able, and this is how you do it.”

Teachers get stuck, though, when they look for mentor texts for those traditional, academic literary analysis essays. In the real world, these pieces only exist in academic journals (and those are never five paragraphs!) which our students can hardly read much less use as a model. The closest teachers can get to a mentor text for this kind of writing is an exemplar from a former student. And while this isn’t terrible, it does send a message: this writing isn’t real. This is school writing.

Here’s some good news, though: authentic literary analysis does exist in the real world. It just doesn’t look like the essays we assign to students. It looks like this. And this.  And this. And all of these.

3. The traditional, academic literary analysis essay hurts student writing.

I know this is bold, but I’m going to claim it: teaching students formulas into which they can slide ideas that don’t matter to them actually hurts budding writers. Tom Newkirk, whose every breath is brilliance, writes that “The thesis control paper often becomes so formulaic that these structures may have eventually limited the development of these writers.”

We know that given a choice, our brains are wired to choose the easiest cognitive pathway. So, when we assign students formulaic, fill-in-the-blank essays, we are training their brains to actually avoid the kind of deep, critical thinking that literary analysis is supposed to engender in the first place! We are working against our own goals!

Students must find their own voice and their own forms — even when writing critically about literature. Donald Murray reminds us that “Students will write well only when they speak in their own voice, and that voice can only be authoritative and honest when the student speaks of his own concerns in his own way.” Giving students agency in all writing — nudging them and supporting them until they figure it out rather than resorting to templates– ensures that students will craft writing that matters both to them and to a real audience.

This is a writing skill that transfers to future English classes if it needs to but also to the broader analytical writing that exists all around us: sports analysis, political analysis, film analysis, video game analysis, product analysis. This is real world writing they can master and use.

Interested in learning more about how real world mentor texts can guide and inspire your writers? We’d love to lead your department or district in some professional development — online or in person! Send us an email!

Ready to use mentor texts to plan your own writing instruction? Join us for a three-part webinar March 21 – April 4!  

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