A Lesson on Beautiful Sentences

A Lesson on Beautiful Sentences

There is so much ugliness in the world. Enough to last us all for a good long while. As I was adjusting my classes this week, I thought, why not beauty?

My AP students have been fixated on the weird and wonderful language in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. And frankly, I’m not over it, have never been over it, will never be over it. Each year, I teach this novel and find some new, exciting sentence I get all shivery and weird over. Each year, my students and I tag the quotable, the tattoo-able, and the indelible.

After some student requests for mini lessons that “focus on beautiful language,” I decided that there was no better moment than the present.

So, here’s what we did…

First, I asked students: What makes a sentence beautiful?

I gave them a few minutes of notebook time to write down their thoughts. After our routine writing, turn and talk, and share out, I asked students to post their best responses on the board. Here’s what they said makes sentences beautiful…

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Next, I asked them to go digging.

I gave students 5-6 minutes to thumb through the text for examples of “beautiful language,” and then write down a few examples. We then went around the room, student to student reading aloud our beautiful sentences.

Here are some some very recognizable, albeit beautiful examples, that emerged in class:

  • “All time is all time.”
  • “And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”
  • “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”
  • “But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.”
  • “The queer earth was a mosaic of sleepers who nestled like spoons.”
  • “He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.”
  • “The creatures can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti.”

After that, we read like readers and then read like writers.

Some guiding questions that helped:

  • What do you notice?
  • What feeling, idea, or event is the sentence conveying?
  • How does the writer do it?
  • Is there anything significant about connotation?
  • Are literary or rhetorical devices present?
  • Is there repetition?
  • What is special, exciting, powerful, or summoning about this sentence?

Then, we built our list of mentor text “noticings.”

From students of Room 729…

 

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Finally, we did some writing of our own.

I write about this often, but this is the beauty of literature as mentor texts. You read the literature, you practice close reading, you read like a writer, and you try your hand at crafting your own beautiful sentences by making concious choices. I tell my students over and again that this is how we become more mature, sophisticated, and intentional writers.

For this portion of this activity, I gave students a series of abstract words and asked them to conjure up a sentence or two that somehow conveyed the feeling or idea of the word. As always, I asked my students to let the mentors be their guide and to use their list of “noticings” to inspire their work.

With this scaffolding and rule of thumb in mind, we wrote about WARMTH, about HOPE, about DESPAIR, about SATISFACTION, and about INEVITABILITY.

Here are a few beautiful sentences written by a few of my very lovely students (who I am grateful to for allowing me to share here):

For Warmth by Jillian C: Warmth is something that cannot always be found under blankets, or in front of heaters, or between the arms of another. Sometimes it cannot be sold or borrowed or stolen. So ignite.

For Hope by Madison B: The potential was proven when all at once, humanity became whole.

For Despair by Sydney B: At night she navigated the den that was her mind; the wolves would arrive soon. It’s a pack mentality.

Reflections on the lesson:

– I happen to be teaching Slaughterhouse Five now, but this activity can be done with any text anywhere. There’s something fun and interesting about that for me. I suspect there’s beautiful language in unsuspecting places, and if we can get students to notice that and pay attention, that’s a win for the good guys.

– Although “beautiful” is a subjective term (in the eye of the beholder and all that), this lesson forces students’ hands in categorizing and articulating beauty in language, a frequent sentiment in AP Literature.

– This lesson hit the head and the heart. One of my favorite, favorite lines from Slaughterhouse Five that I find particularly moving, especially now, says…

“What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at once…they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

Ain’t that the stuff?

How do you celebrate and call attention to beautiful language in your classroom? I’d love to find out. 

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

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Mentor Text Wednesdays: Let’s Rank The Things We Love

Mentor Texts: All 115 of Taylor Swift’s Songs, Ranked by Rob Sheffield

School Days and Parisian Nightsuits: Every ‘Freaks and Geeks’ Episode, Ranked by Jennifer Wood

Writing Techniques:

  • Criticism
  • Considering Appropriate Length
  • Recognizing good writing

Background:

 

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Love this minimalist Freaks and Geeks poster via Etsy

One of this week’s mentor texts was a total must read for me based upon the subject material. My Grade 12 classes study Freaks and Geeks as part of our look at Identity, Individuality and Independence. It’s a wonderful text, giving us lots to ponder, and explore, while being entertaining and engaging. There’s a reason you’ve seen it on so many lists of the shows you must watch.

 

The other was a must read for me as well, but because of the writer, not the subject material. I am a huge fan of Rob Sheffield’s writing, having devoured his memoirs and beautiful book on David Bowie in the last year or so. He’s a music fan, and writes about it so unabashedly that I will gladly read any of his writing about music. This is significant, because I am not a Taylor Swift fan. I do enjoy her songs as performed by others, and I’m listening to Ryan Adams’ wonderful full album covering of 1989, but her music doesn’t do it for me.

I’ve long been fascinated by these epic rankings of the creative works of people. Every special edition that Rolling Stone publishes featuring an artist I love has one of these features. I read the lists fanatically, in my head reordering my own personal list. I’ve never actually taken the time to put pen to paper, but I’ve solidified a few Top 10 lists while killing time.

We live in a pop culture saturated world, as well as a world which is constantly ascribing value to things. Top 10 lists are standard fare, and there are those among us who may still apply Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 to our appreciation of music. If you’re a fan of anything, you are expected to be able to name the favorites – songs, albums, episodes, seasons, games, levels, novels, scenes, comics, artists, or whatever it may be. Continue reading

Organizing Instruction for Effective Feedback: Strategies for Teachers and Students

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As any writing teacher knows, one of the hardest things about teaching writing is getting meaningful feedback to students. And in a writing workshop model where students are constantly writing, the task can be even more daunting.

But as Kelly Gallagher has reminded us, our kids need to write much more than we can grade. If they only write as much as we can grade, then they simply can’t write at the volume they need to in order to improve as writers. How can we organize our writing workshops, especially at the beginning of the school year, to provide more meaningful feedback for the months ahead?  As I thought about this question, I realized that this was ultimately a question about conferring, since talking about our own writing is the most effective way to get feedback. We learn best in the context of our own writing and our learning can be enhanced through meaningful talk. Continue reading

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

How To Reflect: 5 Ways to Encourage Reflection in Your Classroom

How to Reflect

Today is an important day, a day all teachers cherish. Graduation. How remarkable to be able to share in this milestone year after year, class after class. What a privilege to take some small part in the upbringing and education of so many wonderful young people moving up and onto the next steps of their lives.

Every year this time, I’m verklempt by the flood of students parading in and out of my room in their caps and gowns, their hugs and photos, their thank yous and goodbyes. It reminds me of a line from one of my favorite poems I teach, “Blackberry Picking” by Seamus Heaney, “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.” And recently when tearfully thanking my students for sharing in great literature like this with me, one student jokingly promised to not turn bitter and rot like the molded over blackberries in the poem.

It gets me thinking. More accurately, it gets me reflecting—seeing the image of the year thrown back at me without being absorbed by it. Not yet anyway. That will happen in the fall when the yellow school buses pull up and a new year begins.

But for now, I’m reflecting on this year—what went well, what went not so well, where I succeeded, where I failed, how I helped and how I hindered. I reflect on another year’s experience of teaching because reflection is a powerful opportunity to learn and grow, both personally and professionally.

The same, of course, is true for our students.

I love creating opportunities for my students to reflect. I see on their faces the deep introspection that is the turning over of your own thoughts. It’s the class-magic equivalent of a room of silent readers all digging into a good book. But this time, instead of books, it’s their brains. And over the years I’ve noticed that reflection creates sound writing. Speaking of magic, there’s something about making sense of your own thoughts, feelings, and ideas that sparks creativity and, as we like to say around here, moves the writer.

Here are some ways you can encourage reflection in your classroom:

  1. Letter Writing

This is by far my favorite reflective activity. Aside from the beauty and nostalgia of a handwritten letter, the form lends itself to contemplation and introspection. It’s something I’ve only happened upon in my classroom. In letter writing, the task is clear—address a specific person and relay information in your own unique and authentic voice. Plus Letters of Note would sure make for some great mentor texts.

Here are two of my favorite letter writing activities:

The first is an assignment created by my teaching mentor Kevin Mooney, called Hello, It’s Me. The task is to write a letter to someone who you think needs it. There are a few stipulations, and that’s what yields considered writing. They are as follows:

  • The letter should be to someone real, living and available.
  • The letter should say what you haven’t had the presence of mind, the guts, the opportunity or the time to say.
  • The letter should be genuine, heartfelt, and brave.
  • The letter should represent your full effort to balance the scales, pay the debt, mend the fence or rightly honor the achievements.
  • The letter should be written to someone who you would send the letter to. And, I would suggest and prefer, it should be written to someone you think might appreciate or need or require a letter like this most.

My next favorite letter writing assignment is the Literature Letter to Your Teacher. My only requirements were that students read, enjoy, appreciate, and savor an assigned poem; to talk about it with their friends;  examine the writer’s craft, structure, literary elements; and then write a letter to me reflecting on it.

The poem was Wild Geese by Mary Oliver in case you’re wondering. And a poem like this certainly begs reflection and elegant prose.

The letter form was perfect for exploring the concepts of the poem. Students were freed from “academic style writing” and free to use their own voices. Here is one of my favorite letters:

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  1. Prove You’ve Been Here (an end-of-course reflection)

Here’s a fun little thought experiment. Give your students this prompt: It’s graduation day and the principal says, “Nope, you’re not walking today. You don’t have your English credit.” You stand there, clad in cap and gown, and you have to defend you did indeed earn an English credit this year. Your task is to prove you’ve been here.

Students have a lot of fun with this, and this playful prompt allows them to really explore what they have learned and achieved throughout the year. And while you’ll probably get a lot of genuine and heartfelt “thank yous” along the way, you’ll also get some surprising reflections from students you may not anticipate. Here was a student response that humbled me and made my heart swell.

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I do love playful writing, but beginning and ending the year with meaningful reflection is meaningful to students. Check out Liz Matheny’s post using the beautiful E.B. White essay “Once More to the Lake” as a way to open or close your year with reflective writing.

  1. SketchNotes

It’s no secret that visual arts is one of my tricks of the English classroom trade. This year, after my students studied Slaughterhouse Five and before assigning their Narrative of Learning essay, I asked my students to use SketchNotes as a means of reflection and a way to “brain dump.”

The meditative quality of sketching and coloring made this reflection style both unique and worthwhile. This particular form worked as scaffolding to my students’ end of novel essays, but in the meantime, it helped them continue to uncover ideas about the text and see connections they perhaps didn’t before. SketchNotes proved to be an effective form of pre-writing and reflection.

IMG_0438 Continue reading

Fostering Reflection in Narrative Writing

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Today’s guest post is from Liz Matheny (@matheeli)

I like to open and close the year with reflective, narrative writing. I do this for two reasons: to help my students explore themselves and their experiences, but also to help them see the growth in their writing. One of my favorite ways to do is to have my students reflect on personal change through the lens of E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake”.

Becoming an adult is tricky, especially for my juniors and seniors. They have one foot planted in adolescence, but want the independence and confidence of adults. That duality is exactly why White’s essay works so well with older high school students.

Just like my students, White yearns for summer. He recalls sweet memories of vacationing at a lake in Maine every August with his family. He recalls the sights, the sounds, the little intricacies one only notices in the sweltering heat summer solitude. Eventually his nostalgia gets the best of him and he revisits the lake as an adult with his son. White’s new experience–visiting the lake as an adult– is all consuming. He tries to enjoy all the things he once did as a boy, but realizes he no longer fits in. It is his son that must enjoy the subtle nuances of this magical place.

When I introduce the essay to my students, I give very little context other than they probably know E.B. White as the writer of Charlotte’s Web. I request that as they read they mark up their noticings. What moves does White make that make the essay work?

Once they finish reading, I see students caught up in their own daydreams, lusting for summer or the past. I ask them to form a small group (no more than 4 people) and share out their noticings. I want them to talk it out and pick up on noticings they may not have recognized.

After their 5-minute conversation, we compile a class set of noticings on the board.  As they share their noticings, I request that they add noticings from other groups to their own annotations. As they contribute various noticings, I ask them to explain the impact of that move on White’s essay. How did it impact the reader’s experience?

Here’s a sample of what my 6th period class noticed:

  • Varied sentence structure and lengths (to create intensity and emphasize certain emotions).
  • Repetition (to create rhythm)
  • The use of contrast (to help the reader see his “a-ha” moment)
  • Tone shifts (to contrast before and after)
  • Imagery (symbolism of lightning; keen attention to detail and description)
  • Duality of experience (past vs. present comparison)
  • Organization: before/after, past/present, compare/contrast (to show his own growth and awareness)
  • Concluding recognition (the realization his experience at the lake will never be the same and he will have to live through his son’s experience)

I then ask my students to talk within their groups and select the three or four most meaningful moves White makes. We reconvene, and the groups discuss and whittle away at our master list. My mod 6 determined these moves as the most significant, meaningful moves:

  • Varied sentence length
  • Detail & description
  • Repeition
  • past/present organization

We spend a few minutes talking about what they liked about the essay: their favorite lines, if they could relate. I share some of my favorite lines (“…sometimes in the summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of the lake in the woods.”).

I close our conversation by talking about the reflective nature of personal narratives. How these essays often reflect human nature and experience more authentically than any other form. Then, I give students the following prompt:

Use White’s “Once More to the Lake” as a mentor text for your own reflective narrative.

  • Incorporate at least 3 of White’s moves that your class selected.
  • Pick an approach:
    • Tell about an occasion when you revisited a place that you no longer “fit” into.
    • Consider a belief you once had that changed or developed. Tell about the experience prompted the change?

My students spend the rest of class brainstorming and writing. I encourage them to go back to White’s essays frequently to study the moves so they can play in their own writing. I tend to give them about 48-hours to compose their narratives.

Over the next two or three class periods, we work on the essay by re-reading White’s moves and sharing their writing with one another. They label the top of their essays with the moves they incorporated in their own essays. This helps their partners give feedback about the success or limits of how the move is used. They consult their copies of “Once More to the Lake” again and again, deeply analyzing how White’s moves function. They compare White’s writing to their own and their peers’. They see how they’ve used the same moves similarly, or in unique ways.

Our final step is to use White’s title as inspiration. Over the years I’ve read essays entitled  “Once More to the 1st Grade Classroom”, “Once More to the Church”, “Once More to the Soccer Field”. Just as my students learn so much about themselves and each other through this process, I also learn about them, too. I learn about their experiences as people, but I also get to see my risk-takers when it comes to writing. I get to see who put themselves out there and who kept guard. I get to know them as people and as writers.

Teachers (especially high school teachers!)  love “Once More to the Lake” — how have you used this text to spark writing in your classroom? Are there other texts you use as mentors for reflective narratives? Leave us a comment below! 

O Captain, My Captain

I love showing Dead Poets Society to Grade 12 students.

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Image via creoflick.net

There’s something special about that movie and that group. They’re not much longer for my building, and will soon be sallying forth to “Carpe diem.”

But, if I must be honest, I’ve always applied the Stink of English class to it by attaching an academic piece to it, often an essay. The film is rich, with lots to discuss and debate, much for students to ponder as they respond in writing. It works for this, and it’s a good piece to give them the “freedom” of an essay response to say what the movie inspires them to say.

And I kind of hate that I’ve done that. My DPS lesson plan was becoming as stolid and devoid of passion as the introduction to poetry Keating has the boys rip out of their books.

So, this year, I revamped things. There was to be no formal response. In actuality, I wasn’t even going to be able to watch the film with them, because I would be away at PD. They watched. Continue reading

A Late Night Mentor Text

I’ve written before about lessons inspired by my Twitter feed and it happened again early this week. Sometimes, right when you need it most, the universe drops the perfect mentor text right in your lap.

My AP Language students are busy prepping for the exam and all of them need a little more work with rhetorical analysis. They’ve gotten pretty good at identifying a writer’s purpose or message. They can pick strategies that an author uses to achieve that purpose or convey that message, but they struggle with explaining why.  They want a formula that, unfortunately, doesn’t exist.

Why is something powerful? Why does it create a certain tone? Why does it work?

I needed a text that would help them see the why.  Enter Jimmy Kimmel.

Continue reading

Poetry Mentor Text: “Raised by Women”

Poetry Mentor Text-

I love the excitement of a great lesson. The kind of lesson that leaves you slack-jawed and all, “why haven’t I read this/thought of this/done this before?” The kind you know you will immediately take back with confidence to your classroom and to your students because it’s that engaging, that well-designed, that…good.

Recently, I presented at National Writing Project at West Virginia University at their Teachers as Leaders and Writers conference, and while I was thrilled to be there presenting, I was equally excited to be in sessions, learning alongside fellow WV teachers and pre-service teachers at my alma mater. Besides being a sucker for nostalgia, I enjoy being in the student’s seat—to engage with instructors and classmates, to catch my breath from the marathon of the school year. 

The first session that caught my eye was entitled “Writing Poetry in the High School Classroom”, with poet and WVU English teacher Amy Alvarez. My brain went ding! and I found a lucky seat in her session that morning.

In the spirit of great lessons and the ending of National Poetry Month, here is the relevant and thought-provoking activity that Amy, being inspired by Linda Christensen’s lesson and her book Teaching for Joy and Justice, shared with us that day, and how I ended up adapting it to my classroom.

Grab a journal. Talk about being “raised.” Questions you might ask include: What does it mean to “be raised”?  Who were you raised by? What did these individuals, places, or groups contribute, say, or do that helped to “raise” you?

Listen to “Raised by Women” by Affrilachian poet, Kelly Norman Ellis.

Annotate and analyze the poem, paying particular attention to imagery, verbs, and categories.

Share out literary “notices” (like the speaker is powerful and independent and pointing to specific supporting evidence from the poem) and then mentor text “notices” (like the poet uses repetition at the beginning of each stanza).

Make a list of mentor text “noticings” to guide the assignment and writing.

Continue reading

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.