For years I struggled with the need to teach my ninth grade students how to write a standard five-paragraph literary analysis. I knew I was responsible for moving them up to their future English classes with this skill, but it was also torturous teaching the formulaic approach to this writing task. As we moved through the lessons, students eyes would glaze over, my eyes would glaze over, and we all generally lost interest in writing. To make modeling easier, the essay prompts were all dictated by me in response to texts also selected by me. The result was bland, repetitive writing that lacked creativity or thought. This also made grading torturous.
Then, a few years ago when I started the C3WP approach to teaching argument and research writing, I experimented with applying this method to literary analysis writing as well. Accordingly, rather than reading one text together as a class then writing an essay analyzing some literary element within that text, we started to read many texts centered on a common motif and write in short bursts about the texts daily. After we had read and discussed around a topic for a while, we would revisit the texts as a whole and ask ourselves “so what?” These responses turned into a literary analysis that was developed after many days of thinking and pulled from several texts. As a result, the writing process and lessons got a lot messier, but the engagement and thinking grew exponentially.
Around the same time I started experimenting with this new approach to teaching literary analysis writing, I stumbled across this quote from Kelly Gallagher:
Reading helps us to enter the feelings, imaginings, and thoughts of others. We temporarily leave our world for theirs, and when we return, we hope our thinking will be expanded and strengthened. We hope to be enlarged intellectually and/or emotionally.
Now, whenever my students are gearing up to write a formal literary analysis, I share these words with them and prompt them to write about how the texts have enlarged them intellectually and/or emotionally. This prompt has much less structure than previous writing prompts that read something like “How does the plot development of this story communicate theme?” or “Identify a dynamic character and explain how their change influences the downfall.” As a result the thinking and writing is all over the place and the students are the ones putting in the hard work, with me there in the background to confer and support them along the way. I still model how I would approach the writing task, but my model often varies greatly from their writing and only serves as a support rather than a strict structure.
For example, we are just wrapping up a unit in which we studied a series of pieces dealing with the transitory nature of home for many people. While digging into this idea, we thought about and discussed a variety of texts: a poem called “Home” by Warsan Shire, a chapter from The Circuit by Francisco Jimenez, a short documentary called “Border Purgatory” from The Atlantic, and a book called Dreams and Nightmares: I Fled Alone to the United States When I was Fourteen by Liliana Velásquez. Students were also invited to find and read texts dealing with the topic on their own and to write and reflect on their own personal experiences with home.
The following is how one student, a recent immigrant from Venezuela and an emerging English language learner, introduced his essay:
And here is the introduction from another student in the same class:
Both writers have made insightful observations and crafted well-written introductions to their essays. Rather than the dread I used to feel at taking home a batch of essays to grade, I am excited to read these and to see what everyone else’s takeaways are.
What are some ways you move your students beyond the basic literary analysis?