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Reading Modes and the Pluses and Pitfalls of an Analysis Focus in the English Classroom

May 28, 2014

Note: I accidentally posted a very rough draft of this post last week!  Oops!  I’m super embarrassed – no more using the WordPress app for me!  If you read that and wondered “What is she thinking?” then please read this more clearly written post.  My apologies!

It’s that time again when I feel like the misfit toys from Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer as they wait for Santa.  At one point the jack-in-the-box laments “Might as well go to bed and start dreaming about next year!”  Well, that is what May and June are like for me.  My students are working hard on end-of-the-year projects, but my mind is starting to wander and plan for next year.

"Might as well go to bed and start dreaming about next year!"

“Might as well go to bed and start dreaming about next year!”

In the last few years of teaching I have focused heavily on having students write analysis paragraphs.  “Just paragraphs?  In 10th grade?” you might say incredulously.  But the truth is that these analysis paragraphs have gotten my students to focus on author’s craft  far more than the essays we wrote before.*

I have found the analysis paragraphs to be a vehicle for critical thinking in a way I struggled with in a “literary analysis essay.”  I think this is mostly because essays turned into essay triage.  Here is how analysis paragraphs work in our class:**

Students are given or select a rich passage of text from the book we are reading.  They are given a prompt that requires them to identify a concrete literary device (such as figurative language, repetition, diction, etc.) and explain how that device shows an abstract idea (such as theme, tone, or something about a character).  For example, in Othello students might be asked to analyze Iago’s speech about jealousy as a green-eyed monster when given the prompt

“Explain how Shakespeare uses metaphor as well as dramatic irony to make an important statement about jealousy in this scene.”  

An ideal student paragraph that answers this prompt would include the student giving examples of both metaphor and dramatic irony, and then explaining how these examples demonstrated the idea that jealousy traps us all, including both Iago and Othello.  A more common paragraph would include a student analyzing the negative connotations in Iago’s metaphor (jealousy is a monster (something negative), as opposed to a siren (something positive) and would maybe just touch on the dramatic irony in this scene.

Reading and responding to text in this analytical ways is just one of the academic modes of reading I focus on.  The three modes of reading I use to organize and focus my teaching are

  • Comprehension (both a surface understanding and deep inferences about the text)
  • Analysis (investigating author’s craft)
  • Big Ideas (discussing the big themes and considering literature as “rehearsal for life”)

In the past few years I have been focusing on analysis more than the “big ideas” because it was the mode I was most uncomfortable with. Unlike comprehension or big-idea modes, reading in analysis mode is unnatural for me.  I never majored in English  and only as I have started my own writing that I have started to be aware of “author’s craft” as I read.

With all of this in mind, I am currently thinking about what has worked with my focus on analysis (specifically with analysis paragraphs) and what I would like to change and improve on next year.

Here are some of the things that are working:

  • The focus on SHORT writing (“just” a paragraph) is pushing students to more deeply understand the link between concrete literary devices and big ideas.
  • The focus on analysis has helped students consider how to use concrete devices in their own writing.

Here are some of the things that are problematic:

  • We are spending so much time on analysis, we have not spent enough time on considering the “big ideas” in the text.  However, when I step back and consider the priorities I want to focus on, the “big ideas” are as important (if not more) than analysis.  I want to find a way to balance these more.
  • We spend a lot of time analyzing author’s craft in prose (usually narrative), but students mostly write informative or argument pieces.  When I consider the ways that analysis of author’s craft is valuable in the world, it seems like analysis is valuable in terms of understanding how an author can manipulate his/her audience and to help a budding writer hone his/her craft.  In order for all of this to line up, I’m wondering if we need to focus more on analyzing author’s craft in mentor texts instead of in the narrative fiction we are reading.

Next year I want to continue the work students are doing with analysis paragraphs, but I’m leaning towards having them do analysis primarily with short texts (short stories, informational, and arguments) and focusing more on the big ideas when reading larger texts, such as Othello and Night.  Additionally, I think students need to do more than write about author’s craft in order to fully understand it.  They need to actually USE the author’s craft in order to understand how it functions; they need to make thoughtful decisions as writers.  So, if I have them analyze poetry, they should also be writing poetry.  If I have them analyze a play, they should also be writing a play (or at least some dialogue).  If I want them to write arguments, they should write arguments.

And these are my thoughts and plans for the 2014-2015 school year so far.  What are your hopes and dreams for next school year?

*Of course, I always think they need to write more.  This year they wrote five “pieces” and my goal for next year is seven. 

**Much of this work led by my co-teacher – I have sure learned a lot from her!

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