Scaffolding Authentic Literary Analysis

The need for authentic literary analysis has been simmering in my brain for a while now. Rebekah wrote about 3 Reasons for it  a while back, and I’ve been working on how to help teachers support and empower their students to write without formulas.

I talked with my students about this issue, too. Not surprisingly, they thought the traditional 5 paragraph, formulaic essays were pointless. They didn’t see any connection to why they’d want to write them or who would ever want to read them in the real world. Every single student agreed that they’d rather write for real, authentic audiences in real, authentic formats.

So, I committed. For our literary analysis unit, I was not going to provide them with a list of topics or thesis statements. I wouldn’t start with an outline of how many paragraphs. They would write about something worth analyzing in a way that they felt was worth reading. But I quickly realized that even though they were empowered by choice, some of them still needed a lot of support.

What we started with:

To launch the idea of analyzing literature, we watched a short film together. (I used Borrowed Time. It’s beautifully crafted and packs an awful lot into its short 6 minute time frame. Really, any short or scene that elicits a strong reaction in its viewers could work, though.) I set it up only by telling the students that they would watch, write their reactions in their journals, and then we’d have an opportunity to discuss.

Borrowed Time

image via borrowedtimeshort.com

Their responses were varied: emotional reactions, wonderings, and postulating about meaning. As we wrapped up our conversation I said, “Did you notice how, for some of our conversation topics, there seemed to be a lot more to talk about? That feeling that there’s a conversation waiting to happen is where real literary analysis lives.”

I connected them to this idea by asking if they ever tweet or text a friend after they’ve finished watching a show. Of course they have. “What do you want to talk about?” I asked.

“How— (this character) — was so dumb,” someone replied.

“Yeah, or how I can’t believe it ended like that,” another student responded.

How we connected the concept of analysis to our reading:

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image via: amazon.com

I did a think-aloud with the book I was reading at the time, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I explained, “you know, there’s a lot about this book that I’m really loving. And I keep finding myself recommending it to other people because I want to talk about it with them! That feeling like I need to talk about an idea is a clue that it might be a good topic for analysis, since I sometimes think of analysis as a conversation about thoughts. So I’m going to jot it down in my notebook as a possible topic.” Then, I listed the following possibilities in unpolished, thinking-aloud wording:

 

  • I love how authentic the narrator’s voice is. Angie Thomas does a beautiful job making it sound like a teenage girl is talking to you.
  • I love how Angie Thomas doesn’t oversimplify or fall for easy stereotypes with her characters.
  • That reminds me of another thing. In a lot of YA lit, the parents are either absent or awful. Hers are neither. It’s refreshing.
  • It’s tempting to think that because it’s dealing with a hot-button issue, this book will be a flash-in-the-pan, but I think it has a lot of literary merit and could become a YA classic.

After modeling the thinking behind brainstorming, students went back to their own notebooks to generate similar lists of topics for their own reading.

How I scaffolded brainstorming with mentor texts:

As I conferred with my students, some were ready to hit the ground running right away. With these students, we studied a few shared mentor texts to examine how authors of real literary analysis support their claims. (Hint: they still have evidence, but there is no magic 5 paragraph formula.)

There were still a few kids, though, who were really struggling with coming up with their own topics for analysis. In frustration, one moaned, “just tell me what to write!” I hesitated. I wondered if maybe some kids would benefit from the concrete structure of a 5 paragraph formula, but even they had told me how pointless they feel that kind of writing is. I wasn’t willing to give up on authentic writing.

So, instead I pushed for more. After questioning them about what was frustrating, we agreed that it wasn’t that they didn’t know how to organize their ideas into paragraphs; it was that they still didn’t have ideas that they felt were worth analyzing.

That reminded me of a post by Hattie and a conversation I’ve often had with colleagues. As she described in her post, the hardest work of writing often isn’t always the writing itself. It’s the thinking. Sometimes we need to scaffold the thinking that goes into writing more than we need to scaffold where a topic sentence goes in a paragraph.

To do this, we went back to mentor texts again. (They’re the professionals. Why wouldn’t we?) Instead of reading an article carefully, we looked at as many headlines as we could. Students flipped through VultureA/V Club, Literary Hub, and files of mentor texts that I’ve pulled throughout the past few years. We recorded the titles of articles that stood out as being analytical, then once we had a bunch, we stepped back to see if we noticed any patterns.

Literary Analysis JackpotRight away, they noticed that  almost all dealt with a “why” or a “how.” Then, they noticed that they might examine the “why” or the “how” of a character, a particular scene, etc. (And I bookmarked the idea that the difference between “why” and “how” as it relates to rhetorical analysis might make for some powerful lessons later in the process.) As we collected these trends and observations, we started to form columns, and we noticed how you could almost mix and match to form analysis topics. In my head, I started to picture the columns as the screen on a slot machine where all of the components line up to give you a result. Obviously, we said, our topics shouldn’t be random like a slot machine, but this image helped them understand how different pieces could fit together to make a topic for literary analysis. Fitting together some pieces that they had observed themselves in real-world writing gave them the support they needed to add their own thinking.

After a few minutes and some more tooling around in their notebooks, everyone had an idea for something they were excited to explore in literary analysis and they were starting to draft – without ever asking how many paragraphs they’d need. Jackpot!

What have you done to scaffold your students in authentic literary analysis? Where do you find students usually struggle the most when it comes to literary analysis? Contact me in the comments below or @megankortlandt.

Bringing Life to Literary Analysis

Lessons Learned in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

My wife and I are big enough film buffs that it’s pretty commonplace for us to comment aloud about the beauty of a particular shot’s composition or color or general aesthetic while watching a film.  Our kids are used to hearing such remarks even during family movie night.  

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when, after I had remarked about a favorite shot from the opening scene in Star Wars The Force Awakens , my eight-year-old chimed in a few scenes later, “THIS is my favorite shot in the movie.”  It was the first shot of Rey, the film’s heroine, so perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me that the shot stood out to her.  And yet, look at it:

starwars56266a4e8641eScreenshot:  The Force Awakens (20th Century Fox)  

It’s not exactly the introduction of a strong-willed heroine for a young girl to idolize and fall in love with.  It’s…strange and foreign.  Off-putting, even potentially villainous (the costume design of the mask strikes a perfect balance between menace and utilitarian practicality).  I ended up pausing the film for a second and we talked about a few different shots in the film, and it turned out she had some fairly sophisticated reasons for loving each of them.  Her “mentor text” for such thinking had simply been my wife and I talking film in front of her. Continue reading

Books That Move Us: Beyond the Five Paragraph Essay

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Today’s guest writer is Chasidy Burton, who teaches English to juniors and seniors in Nashville, TN. Chasidy loves to teach writing for the empowerment students experience with getting words on the page and the discovery of their own voice. She is constantly seeking to better her teaching practice, and she enjoys reading about unconventional approaches to teaching and literacy. Today, Chasidy shares about a professional development book that has shaped her writing instruction. 

How long does this need to be? How many paragraphs? How many words? How many pages? Then I ask, did Ernest Hemingway ever ask these questions? My response to my students when they bombard me with questions about guidelines and page length is not always well-received. I would love to unleash them and tell them to channel their inner “Papa”, but that just doesn’t seem to work that well with my students. I am usually met with blank stares and sometimes evil eyes.They want structure. They want a framework. They want a mold. Following the rules is so easy, but I have had trouble finding authenticity in my students writing. I don’t know about you, but if I have to read one more five paragraph essay detailing Hamlet’s three stages of indecision, I may spiral into madness like Ophelia and start passing out imaginary flowers. We need a change in my senior English class. And after reading Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay by Kimberly Hill Campbell and Kristi Latimer, I am inspired to conquer my own fears of breaking a mold.

60 Second Review

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Kimberly Hill Campbell and Kristi Latimer focus on the fact that research proves that the five- paragraph formula hinders writers. Their book equips teachers with strategies, skills, and insight in teaching students how to write authentically and thoughtfully. The book is organized by skills ranging from combatting formulaic writing, to establishing reading and writing routines, to reading and writing like writers and explorers.

There are loads of activities that will stimulate students’ thinking and challenge students to approach writing not in a formulaic way, but through the use of model texts, scaffolded assignments, and creativity. This book uses  activities that are centered around literature, which helps the strategies and methods implement seamlessly into an established literature-based curriculum.

My Big Writing Takeaways

  • My students can expand their writing skills and writing structures through the power of narratives.

I am expanding my notions of the power of narrative voice. One of the lines that really grabbed my attention in this book was that “all students should have the opportunity to discover that their ideas matter and are worthy of exploration and shaping to meet the needs of readers – not a formula.” This struck me because for years I kept forcing my students into a box – a box that I didn’t really believe in. Why? I kept hearing teachers preach about structure. Yes, structure is important, but what if we start with the most important thing first? To me, it is the idea. The ideas are what I want them to remember long after they walk out of my classroom. Great thinkers, writers, and leaders rarely start with the structure. They start with the idea. I cannot recall one time when I read something and thought, wow, that structure really inspired me. Of course we know that structure matters, but I want my students to experience more than that.

This book inspired me to create more narrative writing opportunities for students — because students are more naturally inclined to begin with strong ideas in this genre, and teachers are less inclined to assign a structure.  Instead of spending so much time on form, we are spending more times on genre, purpose, style, and voice. So many writing conversations this year are revolving around what best fits their purpose. This book is offering me tools to create these experiences for my students.

  • Students are scared to take risks, but we can provide a safety net within our classrooms for them to experiment.

One of my fears as I am trying to move away from formulaic writing is trying to allow students to explore writing in unconventional ways. The book advocates that this doesn’t always have to look like an essay. Essays are MY comfort zone. Like most teachers, I always have that overwhelming need to control, and it is easy to control a five-paragraph formulaic essay, especially with a rubric.  Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay has helped me create some “low-stakes” activities that get my students writing as a way to prepare for the big assignments.The appendices at the end of the book  have several examples of activities that can be modified for all sorts of texts. One activity that I really like is allowing students to create a soundtrack for a text. Students love movies, so this is a fun and creative writing assignment that I feel like is low-stakes to get them thinking for a more significant piece later.

This activity can modified in a number of ways, but allows a different take on the standard five-paragraph literary analysis, and students enjoy it!

My students are scared of writing – I am too most of the time. Mine have trouble finding any authenticity in the formulaic models and so do I, but that is what we lean on because we haven’t tried anything new. This book allows teachers to begin to slowly implement creative changes that can lead to those bigger changes – the ones where we really see students’ writing shine –  we are longing for. These small changes allow for those moments.

  • Exploration can and should be a framework within our writing classrooms.

When I think about what inspired me to become an English major and ultimately an English teacher, I always come back to the words. How the words were arranged on the page. How I felt after reading the words. How the words had the power to shift the world a little. Exploring words and ideas are the roots of thinking, and students need a place to establish roots. There is a chapter in the book titled “Writing to Explore” and I love this notion. Exploring is fun. Exploring is dynamic. Exploring is empowering. Exploring can be scary.  If students are just expected to fall into a mold when writing, they lose their voice. This chapter begins with questioning techniques and then describes different types of essays such as exploratory essays, formal journal entries, mini-essays, focus essays, question essays, and collaborative essays. These descriptions of how these work in a classroom has been essential for me as I attempt new strategies. They are easily adaptable, and allow students the opportunity to explore ideas without the confines of a rigid structure.

  • Unleashing The Power of My Sofa in My Classroom

I read this book over the summer but some of these ideas really made sense to me when I began conferencing with students about college essays. I am fortunate to have an office in my classroom with a nice comfy sofa. My seniors come in and conference with me while sitting on the sofa and this is where I hear about the most candid details of their lives. For some reason, that sofa creates an atmosphere of sharing and truth. The conversations this year have ranged from difficult parent relationships, to eating disorders, to depression, to insecurities, and ultimately how to write about these complex issues. These kinds of ideas don’t fit into a formulaic model. These issues are raw, blunt, and vulnerable. As my students talk, I keep finding myself making connections to Hamlet, The Color of Water, or The Great Gatsby. As I continue to think about this idea, the Writing with Mentors chapter in this book keeps coming to mind. This chapter is divided into 2 sections, Literature as Mentor and Literature as Inspiration.  I love this chapter because of the overlap of utilizing the classic literature that I love and currently teach alongside more authentic forms of writing such as memoirs, eulogies, pastiches, letters, character conversations, business letters, interviews, podcasts, book trailers, and recipes.

As my students talk about their own insecurities, failures, and successes with me, I want them to see the connection between themselves and our literature. This chapter has given me some great ideas of how to implement these types of experiences within my current curriculum, all while offering my students an opportunity to foster their own writing voices – I want to hear the voices from my sofa in their writing in my classroom.

How I Hope to Use It

I am currently using this book in my classroom to begin to build a more legitimate writing workshop environment. Instead of assigning five-paragraph literary essays for them to complete at home, I am leaning more towards the ideas presented in the book – particularly the exploratory writing experiences. My students have already demonstrated a new energy about their writing experiences. Some are energized, some are frightened, some are always going to be apathetic. As I attempt to work towards more innovative writing experiences, this book offers a framework to get started. The ideas presented are clear and concise, which is allowing me to adapt my content easily.

Should You Buy the Book

Yes! I want to be a risk-taker in my classroom. That is a scary place to be at times, but this book is helping me find the courage to try new things.

What if I let things get messy this year? What if I feel liberated with my teaching and challenge my students to think like writers instead of students who write?  Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay is helping me pursue this. So instead of wallowing in 85 essays that just sing the same old song, I am dreaming of unique voices singing their own songs.

Here’s a bit of inspiration. One of my students told me this semester that “it’s nice to know that our teacher cares about what we think rather than a rigid structure.” For me, that’s a victory.

So here goes. Leaving my comfort zone, but inspired.

 

Books That Move Us: Independent Writing by Colleen Cruz

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This past fall at NCTE, I think startled Colleen Cruz when I gasped and, like a true fangirl, exclaimed, “Ohmygosh! Independent Writing! I read it on the plane! That book is major. REALLY major.”

She was completely lovely to me but probably surprised to hear me raving about one of her older titles. I picked up Independent Reading after reading Colleen’s new title, Unstoppable Writing Teacher, which is a gem. In it, she references the independent writing projects she undertakes with elementary school students.

“Yessss,” I thought. “That’s exactly it. The thing I want my students to be able to do. Truly independent writing.” So, I ordered a copy and took it with me to NCTE.

By the time we landed in Minneapolis, I had five pages of notes in my notebook — written edge-to-edge and up the sides. And as Allison unpacked in our hotel room, I sat on the bed and read her every one.

Independent Writing fired me up, made me want to run back to Virginia to try new projects with my students, and turned me into an independent writing project evangelist.

60-Second Book Review

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Colleen Cruz looked around her fourth-grade-classroom and realized that while her students were creating strong writing in their workshop studies, they were never writing entirely for pleasure. Sure, her students were becoming good writers, but they didn’t see writing as a part of their daily, personal, outside-of-school lives. They didn’t yet see themselves as writers.

So, while still teaching whole-class genre studies, Cruz began loosening the reigns and opening the possibilities, allowing students to “make or write anything they wish[ed].”

In Independent Writing, Cruz walks readers through a year in her classroom, from introducing independent writing projects, to setting up the physical classroom space to support this work, to helping students use their notebooks and study mentor authors as inspiration for their own writing. This book is FULL of charts, calendars, sample student handouts and worksheets. Like the very best professional books, Independent Writing is practical in the extreme, ready for you to pick up and implement in your classroom tomorrow.

My Big Writing Takeaways

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Building Writing through Independent Reading Projects – a Follow-Up

In January, I reviewed Dan Feigelson’s Reading Projects Reimagined, and I was on fire! I couldn’t wait to take the brilliant-yet-simple idea of inviting students to track an idea of personal interest throughout a book. No more prescribed annotations! No more end-of-chapter questions! No more herding students into tightly-constructed pens of thought built on what I think is significant!

Especially with a book like The Catcher in the Rye, the whole-class novel my ninth graders were about to tackle.

I’ll tell you the end of this story upfront: independent reading projects were a huge success. I’m never going back to what I was doing before.

Here’s the rest of the story and how we walked through the first independent reading project together (chock full of goodies from my classroom for yours!):

Continue reading

Books that Move Us: The Revision Toolbox (Georgia Heard)

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When was the last time you read a book that made you want to change your whole approach to teaching writing?

For me it was November, on a plane ride to Minneapolis, with Georgia Heard’s The Revision Toolbox (Heinemann, 2014) cracked open in my lap. I devoured it in a single plane ride and have been obsessing over it for months now. I’m finally getting a chance to sit down and tell you why.Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 9.23.20 PM

60- Second Book Review

The Revision Toolbox is predicated on a simple but transformative approach to thinking about about writing: all writing is revision. Heard writes, “Revision means to have a vision of what we want our writing to be like. Real revision is inner work: clarifying what we really think and believe about an idea; getting at the heart of a story; distilling our sentences and words to best express how we feel and what we think. Revision is how writers write” (1). Even a FIRST draft represents an act of revision because the writer has rehearsed an idea in her head, turning it over and over like a small stone in the palm, until it’s a bit more polished and ready to hit the page.

With a title like The Revision Toolbox, the book promises to be chock full of strategies for helping students revise. It more than delivers on this promise. From revision checklists to quick exercises like “Refresh Your Eyes,” to suggested talking points for strategic conferences and an appendix replete with graphic organizers, the book is brimful with  use-in-your-classroom-tomorrow ideas.

But it also vibrates with big ideas and inspirational quotes. Although fitting, the utilitarian title belies Heard’s signature poetic voice that runs throughout the book. Quotes like “We are not reading to check for spelling or punctuation…but to compare the accuracy of our words with what’s in our hearts and minds” inspire with soulful wisdom.

While most of the student writing samples are from elementary school-aged writers, Heard sprinkles in some lessons and mentor texts suitable for high school writers. But this is besides the point. The philosophy that undergirds this book is timeless. I have used copious lessons from this book with my high schoolers. The lessons Heard presents naturally adjust themselves for the age group you’re working with; you’ll have to try them to see what I mean.

My Big Writing Takeaways

The whole book is special, but my single biggest takeaway is the concept of revising with different lenses. The idea is simple: introduce one lens at a time, and have the students “resee” their writing with that very specific purpose in mind. For example, on the first day, they might reread with the lens of focus and clarity, looking for ways to hone their main idea or elaborate their heart. On a different day, students might revise with the lens of language, going in search of dead words or cliche writing.

Revision lenses have changed the way my students view writing and view themselves as writers. Revision lenses turn the big, insurmountable challenge of revising into a series of possibilities that help the writer get closer and closer to the idea she is supposed to write. One at a time. Over a period of time. Revision lenses make revision concrete. Manageable. Meaningful…

I so appreciate that Heard gives us a language for talking about revision that is both utilitarian and passionate. She talks about “finding the heart” of your narrative and “cracking open words.” She encourages us to write narratives to “someone who is really there” and likens the writing of conclusions to “leaving the house.” She inspires me to use the language of love and life to teach writing.

How I Hope To Use It

After finishing the book, my first thought was, “I wish I could start the year over…” but soon this thought vanished when I realized I could start the next day and make a difference. So I did. I taught my first writing-as-revision lesson on cracking open words the Monday after NCTE. Since then, I have reframed most of my writing lessons as revision lessons. Here’s what a typical study in my workshop looked like before and after reading her book:

Typical Study Before Reading The Revision Toolbox Typical Study After Reading The Revision Toolbox
Days 1-2: Study Mentor Texts

Day 3: Generative lesson on ideas/possible topics

Day 4: Lesson on possible structure; students start to brainstorm ideas for their writing

Days 5-9 Lessons on word choice, sentence structure, and style; students begin drafting

Day 10: Students turn in rough draft; I return the next day with comments

Days 11-14 Revision/editing lessons

Day 15: Students submit final draft

Days 1-2: Study Mentor Texts

Day 3: Writing off the page/brainstorming ideas/rehearsal in the mind

Day 4: Flash draft––get a  draft down as quickly as possible

Days 5-9: Revision lessons: a different lens each day!

Day 10: Students turn in rough draft; I return the next day with praise, a possible revision focus (one lens), and an editing focus

Days 11-12: Students return to lessons/lenses as needed

Day 13: Student submit final draft

You’ll notice that our study takes less time because it’s more focused. Students produce writing on the third day of the study–but they are mentally rehearsing and revising from the start–and work throughout the remainder of the study to clarify, sharpen, and deepen those initial thoughts. Confidence improves because the flash draft is makes it messy. The writing shines because revision makes it better.

Should You Buy the Book?

If I’ve done my job here, you’ve already clicked over to Amazon or Heinemann to purchase The Revision Toolbox. But if you’re still on the fence, let me just say this:

Like Georgia Heard’s poetry, this book delivers a message that speaks to the core of our being. On the surface, if offers an approach to teaching revision. Look deeper, and it resonates on a much more personal level, reminding us that revision is not just how we write, but how we live. To borrow from the first page of Heard’s book, it’s about clarifying what we really want for ourselves and believe about ourselves. It’s about having a vision about what we want our life to be like––and living into that vision.

Find me on Twitter @allisonmarchett.

 

 

Books That Move Us: Reading Projects Reimagined (Dan Feigelson)

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You know how the greats always make it look easy? This is the way I feel whenever I get to listen to Katie Ray or Tom Newkirk — they say something clear and simple and beautiful and even common sense, but it absolutely rocks my world.

So it was when I read Dan Feigelson’s Reading Projects Reimagined (Heinemann 2015). After hearing Feigelson speak at NCTE about “revising” reading and his “quick and dirty reading projects”, I knew I had found a strategy for my second semester literature focus. And, quite possibly, a road into student writing about literature. And after digging into the book over winter break, my teaching world was rocked by the book’s simplicity and brilliance.

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Fear not — Feigelson’s “reading projects” are not rendered on poster board or as dioramas (which was my initial fear upon reading the title). It is so much more intuitive and authentic than that.  A reading project is simply a written record of  “what the student wants to think about”. And as we encourage students to pursue those lines of thought, we make them “co-conspirators in their own comprehension.”

Why haven’t I already thought of this?

Feigelson presents a simple three-step process: Continue reading