Writing Our Way In: Using Writing to Introduce Literature

I think what I liked most about middle school was the fact that I had two English classes: Language Arts AND Reading. Now, as a high school English teacher with three sections of an intensive literature course, I often think back to middle school and wish my classes were twice as long so I could split the time evenly between writing and reading (forgetting, of course, how much extra prep might be required).

If my students are in the thick of deep literary study, writing instruction takes a backseat to discussion; and if I’m teaching a particular type of writing, it sometimes seems like we haven’t cracked a book in months!

But what if we used writing as a way to explore a text rather than just a means of demonstrating understanding of that text in a final assessment?

America’s favorite rapping, ravenous reader, Alexander Hamilton, “wrote [his] way OUT,” but during my beat this fall, I’m going to explore how students can write their way INto texts and use their writing (or others’) to learn more about literature. If you’re looking for new ways to use writing in a literature study or hoping to blend writing workshop into a course where it doesn’t seem like a workshop should fit, then this beat might be for you! I hope you’ll follow along and share your questions about how students can write their way into the literature you’re study this year! We’ll start with ways we can use writing to introduce a text.


A school calendar is a paradox: just as a year might start to feel long, the weeks we need for a unit or a project inevitably fly by, and if we’re preparing classes for an external assessment like an AP or IB exam, it can feel very risky to try something new that might take up already planned time. But writing into literature doesn’t have to take forever; in fact, in often works better in small doses. Here are three easy ways to write into a new literature study. (We’ll work on riskier strategies and answers to your questions in future months.)

Method #1: Teaching a classic? Start with something contemporary

The first required unit of study in my senior IB class is a close reading of prose other than fiction from a writer on a list of prescribed authors, many of whom are white and male and/or stopped writing several decades ago . And though students know the word “essay,” their concept involves telling what they know through a rigid structure rather than weighing and sifting ideas like the history of the word essay suggests. Instead of plunging them into an unfamiliar genre with an unfamiliar guide, I’ve started introducing this unit with a variety of contemporary essays like this examination of nostalgia and American culture through a trip to the Olive Garden or this meditation on what tiny house programs have to tell us about the economy.

This year, students read essays like the ones linked above to learn more about the genre of the “literary essay” and its possibilities. This mini-study is also an opportunity for reading choice in what is otherwise a rather rigid curriculum. What I should have done in addition was use the contemporary essays to teach writing moves we would see later in our classic literature study. Why wait to teach students about the rhetorical techniques in Orwell’s “Some Thoughts on a Common Toad” when they could identify them in “A Pet Tortoise Who Will Outlive Us All”? I’m wondering now if some sentence studies from recent essays could have helped students identify and analyze similar moves in older pieces. Note to self: write WITH our contemporary texts next year!

Method #2: Notebook prompts or flash drafting

Writing into a text can be as simple as starting a class with a notebook time prompt:

  • Pose one (or all!) of the “big questions” your text (or an excerpt of the text) attempts to answer
  • Invite students to remember a moment that’s similar to something experienced in the text
  • Ask students to write their answers to the first discussion question of the day–more hands may shoot up when you ask for volunteers to speak and share

I’ll admit that when I’m pressed for time, I cut reflection in favor of more analysis, BUT, as my seniors showed me this week, reflection is essential and often leads to better analysis. Though I had given my classes detailed directions, lots of examples, and plenty of advanced warning for a writing project that asked them to think like our author, they were stymied by the task, too afraid that their lives weren’t enough like the life of our author, their stories not enough like his stories. So I stopped class yesterday for some flash drafting with a few of the “big questions” our literature asked (“What’s bothering you?” “What is something you wish more people thought about?” “How do you want to change the world?”), and I made sure not to mention that literature at all. Some uninterrupted, totally focused reflection time made pens start moving and keyboards start clacking. A little nudge and a little time went a long way.

Method #3: Start with a line

When I start teaching a new Shakespeare play, I usually start by giving each student just one line from the play. We “toss” the line, performing a variation of the word activity I describe in this post, and we put the line into a scene, imagining how one line could respond to or prompt another student’s line. And we often leave it at that; the line serves as a connecting point with the text, some Velcro that makes a later moment stick. But we could keep going!

We could:

  • Write some character analysis predictions: what kind of person might say the line? In what sorts of situations? 
  • List all of our lines and write about the patterns or themes that emerge from the list
  • Write about a moment when we could have used that line (thanks to my Folger colleagues for that idea!)
  • Write a line like the line we received

Been There, Done That–What’s Next?

There’s a good chance you might be doing one or all of the suggestions above in your classroom, so now I’m wondering: where have you struggled to bring writing into a literature study? What questions do you have about blending writing workshop with a literature-focused course? I’m going to follow Rebekah’s lead and post a Google survey below. Please, write away! Connect with me through the survey below or on Twitter @msjochman.


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