Scaffolding Towards AP Lit with Literary Analysis

Maybe your school has an undesirable course that all your department members try to avoid.

Grammar for Writing? Ugh.

Economics? Eek.

Well, for some crazy reason, English 10 is the unwanted reject in my English department, and lucky for me, all this other-teacher-avoidance means I’ve been able to snag my favorite ELA core for the last eight–and now nine–years.  

Bound for APLit

Unlike some teachers, I have no dreams of teaching honors or Advanced Placement seniors on the verge of college. I love teaching underclassmen, helping them develop their skills and move on towards later refinement. English 10 is ripe for major composition transformations. With that, I have no need to keep my fingers crossed hoping “Ooh! Maybe someday I’ll have APLit on my schedule.” Nope, that’s not what I’m after; instead, I want to keep the end in mind and have the Advanced Placement courses as a goal for my students. Even if they choose not to take them, I want my students to be prepared for the demands of AP, college, and beyond.

This summer, thanks to the support of my principal, I was able to attend APLit training in an effort to prep my soph-ies for the rigor of the College Board. I’ve been doing similar work with APUSH for the last few years in my sophomore US History, pairing down the skills required to dominate the DBQ, but this summer I got the chance to finally tackle the expectations of APLit.

One of the biggest things my sophomores have been trying to tackle has been Literary Analyses. In particular, my students are quick to say that they struggle to find the purpose in writing them in the first place. If we can work on this early–eighth, ninth, and tenth grade–and as a whole department–common language and delivery–, I think that all students will write better essays.

In English 10, I typically get a class set of nearly identical Literary Analysis essays, all talking about the same symbols, same theme, and same characters. It’s just a regurgitation of class discussion or maybe Sparknotes. Thankfully, my kids can blend quotes and–for the most part–explain how they support their claim. The problem is that these essays are formulaic and incredibly boring to read.  You know how it is when you’re sitting at Panera all Saturday grading essays and one after the other, you can’t tell the difference between each student’s idea. It’s torture. No wonder I eat so many bear claws!

Provide some Purpose

Last year, Dave Stuart, author of the new gem A Non-Freaked Out Approach to Teaching the Common Core, shared this great article, “How ’bout That Wordsworth!”,  by Jerry Graff. If you follow this blog, you already understand the high regard that I hold both Stu’s recommendations and Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s book, as I’ve already mentioned both a number of times, so, of course, I jumped on this resource. It’s a powerful (and short–Yay! Only 2 pages!) article about pushing students to write better and more meaningful Literary Analysis.

You should totally read it, but I want to use this post to give you a few snippets.

To start, Graff says, for one, Literary Analysis essays need to start by responding to someone else‘s argument:

photo 2
I realize that my students essays were boring, because they were trying to play it off like they were the only readers who had ever thought that Daisy’s green light means something more than a green light. Kids can’t pretend that they’re the only people who have ever talked critically about that particular book. It makes their writing lose any life or argumentative weight.

Use Counter Voices

Graff says, “The assumption is that persuasive writers need…a conversation to motivate their own arguments–that unless we are provoked by the views of others, we have no reason to make persuasive arguments at all.” Exactly! Kids may not have the consciousness or the gall to ask “Why are we even talking about these ‘enchanted’ objects? What’s the whole point?” Without someone to get the conversation started, our kids have no grounds for debate, so we’ve been playing with this idea of responding to other sources who have also discussed the book. Sometimes this is easy as looking at the book’s foreword; other times I share analyses by literary critics (Bonus: They work as great mentor texts).
photo 3
With our Great Gatsby essays, I shared Matthew Bruccoli’s foreword (found in the front of our edition) and John Green’s Gatsby Crash Course (Part 1 & Part 2). Sucking the assignment out of the vacuum and bringing in other “They Say” critics made my students’ arguments not only more engaging reads but they also provided so much more direction.

Sophistication or Informal Voice?

If I want my students to be ready for AP-worthy Literary Analyses, I have to do more than just provide purpose and counter voices. I’ve got to build scaffolds towards sophistication. Great news is that Graff and Birkenstein make our jobs easy here with the inclusion of Literary Analysis sentence starters in a new chapter of the third edition of They Say, I Say. (Yay! Cheers for High School Edition!)
Here are a couple examples of the new brushstrokes:
  • According to Critic A, novel X suggest _______, I agree but would add that ________.
  • Several members of our class have suggested that the final message of play X is ________. I agree up to a point, but I still think that _______.

Some teachers might feel uneasy when they see the use of personal pronouns and class debate blended into formal essays. Until this last year, I was one of those teachers. I marked kids down. I guided them away from this kind of writing, thinking that it was too casual and not persuasive. But since attending the APLit training and reading Graff’s article—keep in mind he was the president of the Modern Language Association, I’ve come to realize that these are key moves to add voice and life to our writing. Real literary critics do it too, you know, when they’re not writing 5-paragraph essays.

Okay, so I’m obviously still new to this APLit prep. I’d love to hear what you have to say. What is working for you and your students? Where do you find solid literary counter voices? How do you help your students increase their sophistication? What’s your take on the personal pronoun debate? How do you feel about students infusing their peers’ literary critiques into their papers?

3 thoughts on “Scaffolding Towards AP Lit with Literary Analysis

  1. This is such an important topic; thank you for bringing such great resources into the debate. As a teacher in training, I admittedly have little real experience figuring out what works with students in terms of improving arguments and inviting authentic debates, but I have been thinking a lot about authenticity lately. Not only are unoriginal arguments tedious and torturous to grade, but leading students down this path likely convinces many of them that literary analysis is neither an interesting nor valuable endeavor. In an era where educational practices are becoming more research-based, it is disheartening to think that many students graduate from high school thinking that literary analysis is about finding some secret but intentional level of meaning in a literary work that, once uncovered, is as static and uninteresting as the hidden image in one of those ‘Magic Eye’ pictures that were popular in the 1990s. The popularity of ‘Magic Eye’ pictures came and went, so why would we expect students to develop passion and appreciation for its literary equivalent?

    In my experiences learning about educational methodology, the concept of authenticity is touted as a precondition for effective learning. Our students deserve to have the fascinating and challenging experience of developing their own arguments and putting them in the arena with arguments that may contradict them or may cross paths with them but reach a slightly different destination. That being said, many of our students will understandably feel nervous and ill-equipped to step off the well-worn paths of ‘Gatsby’ interpretation and step into the jungle of original analysis.

    Again, I can speak more from my experiences as a learner than as a teacher, but we need to remind our students that every skill seems mysterious and unattainable until it doesn’t. I love your willingness to share arguments with your students as model texts and as springboards for developing their own arguments, and I think these are valuable practices, but our students should know that the only real way to develop their own skills is to try, fail, and try again. Unless they are willing to write arguments that are less than great, then the process will remain mysterious. It took me a long time to really accept that failure is an essential part of my learning process. Anyone who writes and argues with sophistication does so because they have practiced and failed many times.

    I like your idea of infusing peer critiques into students’ arguments. This practice will present challenges, but I really like the authenticity of modeling what happens in the real world in the microcosm of the classroom. I would love to hear other teachers’ ideas of how to implement this idea in a way that is non-threatening to students and efficient enough to work in limited a limited time frame.

    As far as the personal pronoun debate, I think the important thing is for students to understand how to make their writing powerful. As I modeled in the previous sentence, students often fall into the trap of adding too many qualifiers when the personal pronoun is present—I think, I feel, I believe, it seems to me—which can ultimately weaken an argument. We need to help our students understand the effect that the use of personal pronouns has on the power of their arguments, and help them make good decisions on their own about when it is appropriate and effective in their own writing.

    Thanks for the excellent post! As you’ve probably noticed in a few emails I’ve sent, I have a real problem with brevity, so sorry for being long-winded; at least I’m only using digital space.

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