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Commentary on Literature: Teaching Materials and Reflection!

March 16, 2015

I’m finally trying out a type of writing that I first heard about at the 2013 NCTE Conference in Boston. I attended a workshop in which two presenters discussed student’s writing literary commentaries. The main idea I took away from the session was that students could improve both their basic and inferential comprehension about a piece of literature by both writing about it and responding to other student’s writing about it.

Introducing Commentary with a Mentor Text
After playing around with the assignment sheet and expectations, I finally implemented a commentary-on-literature assignment. I started by talking to students about the root of the word “commentary,” and telling them that the main purposes of this type of writing were to both comment on a text and to elicit comments from others. While I understand that what students are writing is not the same kind of commentary they might write for a newspaper or Huffington Post, I do think this assignment is helping them start to see how their writing can be a tool for improving their understanding about a topic.

We then read an example commentary (one that I wrote) and identified the writer’s moves that I used. The students identified the following writer’s moves:

  • The writer focused on a specific part of the text
  • The write made inferences about the text
  • The writer shared his/her opinions about the ides in the text
  • The writer made connections between the events in the text and events in our world today
  • The writer asked questions 
  • The writer used sentence frames like “I wonder . . .” and “This line makes me think about . . .”

Students Write
Then, students started writing their commentary. When they got stuck, they used the suggestions on the assignment sheet to help them (see below to download the assignment sheet). In conferences I encouraged students to expand their thinking on the page. I told them their goal was to realize something new or arrive at an interesting idea at the end of the page that they didn’t realize before they started writing. Students then wrote their first commentary in class. Here are some of the more insightful and interesting lines from this student work:

“Also as I was reading I started to think about myself and what I would do if I was one of those prisoners in that time in history. I would describe myself as a vengeful person because if I am hurt in a certain way  by people/a person I would want revenge. Not many people think of revenge as the solution but it does make things equal at least for some.”

“I think about how we do the right thing, but it may never be rewarded. But at the same time we all in a way want something to believe in.”

Ooops . . . I have to teach what a “comment” looks like!

An additional part of the assignment was for students to get three thoughtful comments from there peers on their commentaries. It has been glorious to hear cries of “Can you comment on my commentary?” this week during student work-time. However, fairly quickly, it became clear that I needed to teach students how to write substantial comments to move them beyond writing “Good job!” and “lol!” (yes, both of those comments were made, multiple times). So, for a mini-lesson, I took a strong student commentary and wrote my own substantial comment. Then I asked students to comment on it, and them compare their comments to my own. Quickly most students realized they were supposed to comment on the ideas in the writing, not on the strength or weakness of the writing itself. This led to student comments like these:

“When you said you connected to the quote b/c it’s about finally getting weight off of your shoulders, you made me think of how this connects to our everyday life. There are things in our lives where we have to accomplish them, and after we are done, we are fulfilled.”

“Now I see that, before he (Elie) knew who he was, but now, after years in the camps, he has changed dramatically.” 

Takeaways

It really struck me how hard it was for some students to start this writing, mostly in the sense that they see writing as a structured activity in which they are expected to fill in information into a pre-arranged format. In fact, some students followed my example format exactly even though that wasn’t a requirement. When I think about how I teach so much of the writing in my class (analysis paragraphs and traditional arguments) this tendency makes sense to me. But it does make me wonder how I can shift my writing instruction to help students take more ownership of their ideas in writing, while at the same time mastering academic format of writing. After students wrote a second round of commentaries more fluently and independently, I think that this writing assignment is a way to help students get the thinking back in their writing.

Materials:

Please feel free to download my commentary assignment and this student example. However, if you do download these materials PLEASE leave a comment about your thoughts or questions about this assignment. I’m excited to share ideas!

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