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:

THUG

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.

Talkin’ ‘Bout Some Organization

In the stack of marking that I took home, promising myself I’d do before Spring Break ended, sits a stack of Of Mice and Men literary analysis essays.

As we worked on them, we had a fair number of conversations about what we were doing, and why. We talked about how, often, exercises like lit analysis are purely academic, but the process of analysis, and thinking critically, are important.

Since I teach from a largely thematic perspective, we had focused our analysis around thematic elements of the novel, which we had discussed as we read. In short, we had talked through a lot of the what of these essays before writing. I really wanted to focus on the how.

This has become a focus for me as an English teacher, because there are folks that fill my students’ heads with very concrete ideas of what an essay is. There are Right Ways. If you’ve not heard of these Right Ways, then let me tell you, the fear of them runs deep in my writers. Actually, the fear of not conforming exactly to these Right Ways has them so paralyzed with doubt that they can barely write.

My message to them is simply that there are no Right Ways. Well, not official ones that carry throughout academia from top to bottom as they’ve been led to believe. Those that pound their fists on desks and insist that there are are misleading their students – there are right ways, conventions to conform to, but those are individual preferences that very well may differ from teacher to teacher.

So we focused on writing. I let them know what my expectations for the paper were, and made it clear that our goal was to write our strongest pieces. To that end, I wanted us to focus on ideas and organization. I gave them some ideas about structure. We worked hard on introductions, even going so far as to write a rough draft of one in our notebooks, removed from the essay itself.

Like many teachers, I have my bag of tricks that I rely upon. I have a sheet I call The Big Sheet, which I print off on 11×17 to make little booklets to help us organize our ideas. The outer pages are a handout I came across that compiles the rhetorical moves from Gerald Graff’s They Say/I Say. Inside they have a thesis statement generator based upon the one that Jim Burke created. There is a page that is blank, but for a reminder of the structure of an essay: an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. I also remind them of the mnemonic that I use to remind us of the things that should be in a body paragraph, SELECT.

SELECT

I also spent a class sharing the idea of using Says/Means/Matters with them. (I’ve written about using this strategy before.)

Says-Means-Matters image

Not only did we look at using it as a strategy we can use to develop our arguments, and better explain our ideas, but I was frank with them that they may, in their studies, face a writing assignment that asks them to achieve a piece of a certain length. I know that this stresses writers out. A SELECT paragraph gives them a basic, and potentially brief way to make their point using a quote. Says/Means/Matters allows them a way to expand on that one idea, which, if we’re being honest, is a tool that they can use to add length to a paper more effectively. We did the simple math: if, using only SELECT, we can write a baseline of a five paragraph essay, with three core arguments, then we can use Says/Means/Matters to stretch that same core to up to 12 paragraphs, possibly more than doubling the length of the paper, and that’s without resorting to choosing really, really long quotes!

The strength, I feel in showing them these two approaches is that I’ve now shown them two different ways to communicate their ideas in an organized fashion. I make it clear that another strength in knowing two approaches is that they can alternate between them, giving their writing some variety, less of a feeling of following a set structure than what I’ve seen from students in the past when they used only SELECT.

Basically, I want to spend as much of their time as academic writers giving them strategies they can use in that pursuit. It will work in my class because we’re playing as we learn, taking risks and figuring out how the tools work. I hope that it will work if they roll into a classroom in which there exist Right Ways, because they’ll have confidence in their ability to write, and can do so once they figure out the expectations they need to conform to.

What other organizational tools do you use? Do you have acronyms that you use in class for strategies? I need to build better models for teaching introduction and conclusion… what have you got?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

-Jay

Mentor Text Wednesday: At The Movies

Mentor Text: Someone Will Come Along: Rogue One, Logan and Hope by Jessica Plummer

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing Literary Analysis
  • Essay Structure

Background: If, as Stephen King would say, you are a “Faithful Reader,” then you know I’m a bit of a geek. If you’re here for the first time… Hi, I’m Jay, and I really like pop culture with a genre bent. I will not go for long without mentioning sci-fi or superheroes.

These interests actually pay wonderful dividends in my classroom. At the very least, it has dropped wonderful mentor texts like this week’s into my Twitter feed.

Plummer’s piece is a great little piece that analyzes the core thematic elements of two recent blockbusters withing my wheelhouse, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Logan, the final installment in Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine film series.

logan-trailer-700x300

A still from Logan via BookRiot

I love the timing of this piece, right after I finally  got a chance to see Logan, and as I’m plotting some of the next things we’ll be working on in my classroom. Actually, it ties in quite well to some work I’m doing with The Great Gatsby in my Lit class, as I’m having them connect Gatsby to pieces of pop culture, focusing on themes. Continue reading

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

Mentor Text Wednesday: In Praise of the Secondary Character

Mentor Texts: “In praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series” – Sady Doyle

Writing Techniques:

  • Character analysis
  • Applying a critical lens
  • Voice

Background:

I am re-reading the Harry Potter series with my oldest daughter. We’re reading the gorgeous illustrated editions. This means that we are now on our second go-round with Chamber of Secrets, as Prisoner of Azkaban won’t be released with Jim Kay’s art until October.

I was a fan of this series as a reader, but as a parent, watching my oldest react with such excitement to Rowling’s tale is a whole other experience. I’m especially proud of how she’s picked up on the fact that Hermione doesn’t deserve the treatment she gets from others, because, as she says, “It’s not fair, Dad. She’s really smart and works hard to help.” Every time she takes her braids out, she struts about, with “hair like Hermione’s”

Which makes her part of my inspiration in my mentor text choice this week. Sady Doyle wrote this great piece which I’ve had in my files for a few years now. If you haven’t read it already, it is a fun piece, assuming a somewhat satirical voice while applying a feminist lens to the Potter series, imagining them as a series dealing with, instead, the exploits of Hermione. Continue reading

4 Ideas: Using Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

Using mentors to teach literary analysis makes sense. Beginning in elementary school, students are engaged in some form of literary analysis. In fact, my second grade daughter, works out her analytical muscles on the regular. Her (amazing) teacher provides her students with plenty of scaffolding and sentence starters. She coaches them with exercises like I See, I Think, I Wonder to encourage their young minds to break down a text’s or image’s complexities into parts for closer inspection. By the time students make it to high school, and in my case, into my AP Literature classroom, they are no strangers to literary analysis.

The majority of students have an essay structure that has worked for them. Most understand that they must provide their readers with a claim or assertion, followed by textual evidence, and polished off with their own commentary about the relevance of their chosen evidence in support of their claims. This they get.

What students sometimes don’t get is that their writing, yes even literary analysis, should be thoughtful, mature, and effective in exploring their ideas, how it should be narrated in a voice that is authentic to who they are as writers, and how it should be constructed in a way that supports their insights about the text at hand. 

Endlessly inspired by Rebekah’s original post entitled Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary AnalysisI have indeed spent some time thinking about mentors for literary analysis – what they can be, how they can shape student writing, and how we might best use them in our classrooms.

Below are some mentors that can help move our young writers towards more authentic and sophisticated literary analysis. What all of these have in common? Clear, insightful claims, sophisticated style, depth of thought, and insightful explorations of a “text.”

For each of these mentors, I would first have students read or view as readers – or what I like to call “people in the world,” and then as writers, answering the question, What do you notice? How are these texts constructed and put together? What are the writers’ moves?

1. “Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer Impression is an Instant SNL Classic” from Vulture.com

What if students created titles that embed a claim to guide their analysis?

For this particular article, the title makes a powerful claim. My friend Brian Sztabnik @TalksWithTeachers talks about thesis statements as a “promise the writer makes to the reader.” I might ask students how this article fulfills the promise that Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impression is indeed an instant SNL classic. I might have students dig up evidence by color coding, annotation stations, or outlining. There are plenty of activities to build in to uncover this writer’s approach to analysis, to say nothing of how plain old hilarious this sketch is.

After students have taken apart this article to examine its parts, students could then embark on their own reading, analyzing, and writing.

Students might experiment with a poem or prose passage by framing it with a similar title, like “Why Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” is the Ultimate “Daddy Issues” Poem or “Why Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” is About the Blind Leading the Blind.” I wonder if this frame might help students deepen their insights and focus their ideas. This mentor shows that a clear focus is vital for effectively exploring your insights and ideas about a text. 

2. “Hopper’s Nighthawks: Look Through the Window” from YouTuber Nerdwriter1

What if students created their own video narrating their analysis of a text, image, or painting?

This short video is a literary analysis exemplar, no anchor papers needed. As a whole, the speaker’s commentary is intelligent and insightful, and its message clear, concise, and elegantly delivered. What more could we want from our young writers?

I might have students use this video as a mentor for producing and creating their own Nerdwriter video. My friend @mszilligen suggests two additional Nerdwriter videos How Louis C.K. Tells  a Joke and How Bon Iver Creates a Mood to create a solid mentor text cluster. I’d love to see students chose their own “text” to analyse and use apps like iMovie or Do Ink to create a video that explore the depths of the work they chose.

I’m betting that if students were challenged to use their own voices, their focus would shift to the precision and clarity of their writing. There’s something about hearing your own voice that forces you to assess and reflect on how articulate you are and how clearly you can express your ideas.(If you don’t believe me, just ask my Voxer friends about my frequent ramblings…trust me, I’ve assessed and reflected!) This mentor shows how precision and clarity are synonymous with effective writing. 

Continue reading

No Unicorns Here: Demystifying the Hard Work of Reading with Mentor Texts

Why did you become a teacher? It’s the question we all know frontwards and backwards. We have an answer that we’re ready to trot out when someone asks at a party or an interview. And for so many of us, a huge part of that answer is because of our own experiences in school. I’ll be the first to admit that one of the biggest reasons I became an English teacher was because I enjoyed my own English classes so much when I was in high school. Yet, the classroom that I run today bears very little resemblance to the classes I loved so much as a student. Over the past several years, as standards have changed and as research on effective instruction has permeated our discussions, we’ve seen a distinctive shift toward many practices that were once thought of as “elementary” instructional methods. For some, the changes have been subtle, but I know that some of my friends in the secondary world have felt like the shifts have been positively seismic.

One of the shifts that has been most powerful to me has been a move toward a more descriptive approach to reading and writing instruction. In my first few years of teaching, I was lucky enough to have a mentor who introduced me to the concept of “reading like a writer.” When she let me borrow her own dog-eared copy of Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words, the concept was brand new to me. I’d already bought into a descriptive approach to grammar instruction, but writing? Structure? Done while reading?!? I tried it and liked it, but my understanding was thin, and my implementation was spotty at best. We might, for example have a “read like a writer” unit for nonfiction writing, but then for our next writing unit, I’d bust out the prescriptive lessons again. Heck, at one point, I even made laminated “cheat sheets” of essay organization for my students.

Over the past few years, though, as I realized the power in the descriptive approach and the need for deeper analysis in our reading and writing instruction, I made it a personal mission to step up my mentor text game. I focused first on my own instruction, and then as our district’s secondary ELA consultant, on supporting my colleagues in navigating these new waters.

One day, while talking with another teacher in our district, she confided in me that she was really struggling with adopting a descriptive approach with mentor texts. We talked about the need for us as teachers to plan and guide our students while still allowing them to notice what the authors are doing in a text before we tell them. “But how can I plan for every single thing they might notice?” she asked me, exasperated. Continue reading

The Chanie Project

I’ve written about this before, but this year, Gord Downie, of The Tragically Hip fame has had an impact in my classroom.

Long story short, The Hip is largely considered to be Canada’s official band. Their songs, with Downie’s lyrics, are frequently poetic ruminations on our country and identity. In May of last year, Downie revealed that he had terminal brain cancer. The Hip embarked on what was expected to be their final tour.

During prime time of the Olympics, CBC, our national broadcaster chose instead to air the final show of that tour. With the nation gathered to watch, our Prime Minister in attendance, Downie took a moment to address issues related to First Nations people in our country, and the Truth & Reconciliation movement, aimed at acknowledging and healing the legacy of residential schools in Canada. The country listened.

SecretPath-BookAnd, shortly after that concert, Downie revealed that he had a solo album coming out, called Secret Path. In actuality, it was much more than an album. There would be a graphic novel, illustrated by Jeff Lemire, accompanying the novel, as well as a film, that would also be aired on CBC.

Secret Path tells the story of Chanie Wenjack. In 1966, Chanie fled the residential school that he had been taken to, and attempted to walk the hundreds of kilometers, or miles, to his home. He didn’t make it. Woefully unprepared for the journey ahead of him, he froze to death. It was his story that first called attention to the deeply flawed residential school system.

Continue reading

The Poetry and Image Pairing

Sometimes, when we’re really, really lucky, many of our goals and passions weave together in wonderful ways.

In 2016, I decided I wanted to dedicate myself to exploring poetry more deeply, partly for my work with my students, but also, because of what poetry is, and how moving it can be. I also wanted to explore ways, in this current school year, to emphasize the six language arts in my classes, bringing the four that aren’t reading and writing into the mix more frequently. I also wanted to explore ways to generate critical thought, and encourage discussion and discourse in my classroom.

I didn’t realize that one lesson plan would enable me to hit many of these things in what has become a favorite activity of late.

Two of the courses I teach this semester are attached to outcomes related to another course, a Global Issues course. This means I’ve been incorporating a fair amount of social justice material into these courses, which is pretty much standard practice for me. A colleague and I I happened along the Teach This Poem lesson from poets.org for the week of September 19. (If you’re not aware, this part of the site offers a weekly lesson based around a poem. They’re fantastic!) The featured poem was “A Small Needful Fact” by Ross Gay, which deals with the death of Eric Garner.

The poem is powerful, but it was in doing the lesson that is offered to accompany the poem that we felt like we had struck gold. The students begin by looking at, and studying a visual, an image of a rabbit in a garden. There are guiding questions attached to help students “read” and interpret the visual. They then do a similar sort of thing with the poem. Then, we look at the connections between the two. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: A Transcendent Review

Mentor Text: TV Review – The Walking Dead S05E09: What’s Happening and What’s Going On by Regina Lizik

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing Reviews

Background:

Sometimes, a mentor text sits in your files for a long time. You wait for a need for it, or a reason to pull it out. Sometimes, you’ve saved it knowing that someday, maybe, perhaps, you’ll have the perfect class to use it with, or it will be the catalyst for an amazing lesson you haven’t designed yet. You know it’s good, you just don’t know what you’re going to do with it quite yet.

Or, if you contribute to Mentor Text Wednesdays, you file it for future column fodder.

This week’s mentor text is one I’ve had sitting in the files for a while.

Often, when I write, I pop on a quasi-mindless show to watch. Time, as a dad, teacher and human, is often at a premium, so I view while I create. I knew I needed to write this week’s column, so I started looking at what I had queued up to watch. I noticed that I hadn’t watched any of this season’s Walking Dead after the premiere. I have reasons for that. I’m really of the mind that the writers of that show have lost their way. The character development and plotting has given way to, in my opinion, working solely to create water cooler moments… which aren’t strung together with all the stuff that made this show must see TV for me. I put on my old man grumbly pants, and mutter, “I haven’t cared about anyone’s fate on that show since they killed Tyreese.”

46a608d00a7ad7694d839a79a00db91e

Tyreese whom I miss. (image via web)

 

And then I remembered that I had an awesome mentor text about that very episode. Continue reading