A New Approach to Literary Essays in Middle School: Part II

Today’s guest post is part of a series on changing the way we think about literary essays in middle school. In Part 2, Beth Toerner (@btoerner) will share how she moved students from thinking about texts in interesting, fresh ways to actually producing polished pieces of literary writing! 

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Earlier this week, I shared the beginning of my journey with literary essays this year, ending with the creation of an assignment asking my students to write essays that answered the question “What does reading teach us?” So far, we had created lists inspired by the mentor text “Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life”.

After making these lists, we moved onto work with our next two mentor texts, which showed two different ways to write about personal experiences with reading. “Their Inner Beasts: The Lord of the Flies Six Decades Later” is the perfect text to model writing about the impact that different characters have on us as readers. Plus, it’s written by Lois Lowry, so the students have a bit of background knowledge as they begin. Once again, we had to spend some time reviewing the basic concept behind Lord of the Flies, but this essay has no major spoilers in it.

Following reading and discussion, students completed an activity in which they highlighted every sentence that shows a personal connection in one color and every sentence that showed text-based evidence in another color. (Spoiler alert: everything was highlighted!) This helped students to outline a pattern they could easily follow: write about something in the book, explain how it relates to you; write about something in the book, explain how it relates to you; repeat, repeat, repeat.

In the mentor text, Lois Lowry writes about the immediate connection she had with Ralph as a reader. She highlights the admirable qualities that she identified in him, such as leadership and a sense of humor. She notes that even though she didn’t necessarily possess those qualities, she wished she did.

And then — yes, this appealed to me greatly — he took charge. He established order, made rules, saw to everyone’s well-being and, with very little opposition, was chosen to be chief. Me? I was a follower, always, not a leader; but I secretly yearned to be the kind of kid who would be chosen as chief.

Then, she went on to discuss Piggy, acknowledging the fact that although he was less likeable, she saw parts of herself in him- traits of which she was not exactly proud

“Now, as a young student at a very large university, I felt as vulnerable as Piggy and disliked him for that reason — he revealed too much about my own self.”

I had students make a t-chart in their writer’s notebooks; one side was to be a list of their “Simons,” and the other was to be a list of their “Piggies.”  On the Simons side, we listed characters we loved and wanted to be like: your Harry Potters, Percy Jacksons, and Katniss Everdeens. On the Piggies side came the characters with whom we weren’t proud to admit we identified: Draco Malfoy, George from Of Mice and Men, and “the boy who tried to kill Tris in Divergent. Then, I had them complete some writing sprints in their writer’s notebooks, taking about a minute or so to write out a more detailed explanation of their relationship with one these characters, then switching to a new character for the next minute of writing.

The final mentor text that we studied was “How Judy Blume Changed My Life”. This mentor text showed students how to write about how one book, author, or series had a direct impact on them, thus showing them how to analyze plot and theme in a format other than a list. At this point, students were beginning to better conceptualize where we were headed with our essay, and they had started to gather some ideas of their own. As we read this text, many students were already identifying where the author used evidence and where she drew on her own personal experience.

After we read, I had students reflect on the three mentor texts we had read by completing the chart below.

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Here are some examples of the final products my students created:

One student closely imitated “Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life” in her analysis of The Help. She identified five thoughtful lessons that this book teaches, and maintained a consistent example-explanation-evidence format throughout the piece.

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One student used “Their Inner Beasts: The Lord of the Flies Six Decades Later” to write an essay called “They’re Not Just Characters,” in which she explored the impact that characters from her favorite books: The Harry Potter Series, The Hunger Games Trilogy, Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, and A Dog’s Purpose (she analyzed her personal connection with the main character, who happens to be a dog). Her essay is full of wonderful moments where she uses the mentor text to guide her writing while simultaneously moving outside of its guidelines.

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Another student used this mentor text to analyze his similarities to two characters in the novel Game Changers. He began with a story about his recent soccer tournament and some of the challenges he faced while playing; then, he moved on to draw the novel and its characters in through a comparison. Throughout his writing, he does an excellent job of alternating between personal experience and text-based evidence, drawing from the highlighter activity we had done after reading the article for the first time.

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Overall, students answered the question “What does reading teach us?” in thoughtful, authentic, and analytical ways. I loved noticing the mentor texts popping up in my students’ writing- whether it was an overall organizational move, like a list; or smaller, sentence level craft moves. My students’ voices came across clearly in each piece.  As I read my student’s writing, I felt like I was hearing their true voices and getting insight into what they were thinking about the world and their role in it, rather than checking off a list of prescribed steps that are required in a literary analysis essay. Students were able to use their reading experiences to explore a variety of personal issues that I would have never been able to get them writing about through a prescriptive writing assignment.  

And, for the first time in my teaching career, rather than a sense of relief that essay-grading had finally ended, I actually felt a pang of sadness when I finished grading because there weren’t any more essays for me to read. My students scored higher on their essays than they had on any assignment this year, and more importantly, they created writing that was truly their own. No two people have the same experience with reading, and I have twenty-six essays that show that.

How might taking Beth’s approach change writing in your classroom? Leave a comment or questions below, find us on Facebook, or catch up with Beth on Twitter (@btoerner). 

 

 

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