GUEST POST! Literary Analysis: Hold the Essay

Today’s guest writer is Jennifer Brinkmeyer, who teaches Reading Strategies and U.S. Lit Honors in Iowa City, IA. Jennifer loves teaching students how to commit rebellious acts of literacy. She is constantly seeking ways to bring her writing life into the classroom to help students validate their own writing lives. Today, Jennifer shares about teaching literary analysis in multiple forms after reading a whole-class text.

When it comes to whole-class reading, I struggle with what to do when students get to the end. The big essay or test feel less authentic than the communal reading and discussing leading up to it. The final assessment seems like a gotcha, a were-you-paying-attention that sentences me to 80 essays parroting what we talked about in class. Not anymore.

Background

As we read Fences by August Wilson in eleventh-grade U.S. Lit Honors, I decided to take a page from Rebekah and Allison’s Moving Beyond Literary Analysis. Since analysis is a type of thinking, not a type of essay, I allowed students to choose their own forms. I set them up for close reading with a prompt to read like sociologists. This prompt is key to the major understandings that will unfold in USLH, but in a different course, students’ reading could be scaffolded in another way. As we read, each student collected quotes and made notes that tied to her or his chosen focus. As with any literature unit, we took regular breaks for discussion, but this time, the discussions centered on their burgeoning theses.

When we reached the end, students pitched their projects to small groups by answering the following five questions, which are adapted from Project-Based Writing by Liz Prather (a book I wrote about here):

  • What was the spark or inspiration for your idea?
  • What form will your project take?
  • What is a brief summary of your project?
  • What are your manuscript goals (e.g. word count or length)?
  • How will your project provide something unique for the class?

Techniques

Since analytical thinking is consistent, no matter the form, we focused on four technique goals:

  • Making a claim that answers the questions
  • Offering a fresh perspective–not stating the obvious or restating what was directly taught/discussed in class
  • Developing the claim with evidence
  • Structuring for maximum reader understanding

The final product was graded on whether or not students achieved each of these goals. As students began their projects, I had them complete a Google form telling me which of the above techniques they needed the most help achieving. As the days unfolded, I hosted different “master classes” where students could opt-in to a mini-lesson on that day’s technique. While I had a general plan, I tailored the discussion to the students who attended and the forms they had selected. While these were good starting goals, in our next whole-class reading at the start of second trimester, I planned to include other goals that all students needed to work on, like effective transitioning between parts of a whole.

Mentor Texts

To get students thinking outside of the box, I provided them with mentor texts–most of them pulled directly from the literary analysis section of Moving Beyond Analysis. The students had time to look at these then talk with each other about which form would best fit their ideas. Because the students gravitated towards forms they were familiar with (as shown in the pie graph), I didn’t follow up with additional mentor texts, nor did we study them in-depth like I would during a full writing unit. As the year continued and students ventured into less familiar forms, deeper mentor text study became more necessary.

Screen Shot 2018-12-13 at 9.41.33 PM

Student Showcase

In a writing unit, I require students to submit to an outside publication, but because reading Fences was a communal experience, we ended with an in-class showcase. I linked everyone’s project to one doc, and we spent a period reading each other’s work and thanking each other for teaching us. Although one-third of students chose to do a traditional essay, some alternative examples include a journalistic article, a listicle, a podcast, and an infographic. Two more added forms that I had not suggested. One was a piece of clickbait. The other was a Sim Life representation with a voiceover giving the analysis. These products are not completely polished  (the students had 5 class days), but they are clear examples of analytical thinking, which is what I graded.

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More than anything, I’ll never forget the relief on their faces when I said they didn’t have to write a traditional essay. There is such a thing as lack-of-decision fatigue. They’re exhausted of being marched through steps to a previously discovered territory. By handing decisions back over to the students and providing a real audience for their work, they chased after ideas in forms that deepened their learning.

Next Steps

In collecting their projects and reflections, most students cited their notes as the reason their work wasn’t as deep as it could’ve been, not that they didn’t have enough time. They collected quotes but did not annotate. Many said they would annotate the text we were analyzing more next time so their writing would be better. This is the first time I’ve heard students express a desire to annotate and an understanding of its purpose in supporting the development of analytical thinking. In our next unit, I’ll support this work.

Until last year, I did not teach honors classes, but this type of work is possible for all students. Because they set the forms and the lengths, they could work to their strengths in ways that are appropriate for them. Students do not need to earn the rights to be decision-makers and creators by being in honors. They were born with those rights.

Have you spiced up literary analysis in your classroom or are you considering it? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @jjbrinkmeyer.

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