When I teach literature, my focus is on enabling students to make strong arguments about the literature and writing strong essays based on those arguments. Although I of course have specific things I want my students to learn from each text, my goal for the course as a whole is that students learn how to make any argument they want about any text.
This semester, I found that my students were able to engage in classroom discussion about various aspects of each text. But when it came to writing essays, they struggled with moving beyond summary into analysis. Their first essay of the semester was a close reading, and it went fairly well. But for the second essay, when I asked for an analysis of one of the texts we had discussed, the essays were almost entirely summary.
For a short-term solution, I set aside half a session of our once-a-week class for an in-depth lesson on the difference between summary and analysis, methods for understanding when an assignment requires one versus the other, and strategies for formulating a thesis (and an essay) that provides an analysis rather than a summary. I allowed students to revise their essays once more time for a new grade, and that worked in the short-term.
For the long-term, I added activities for future texts that would support and enforce the lesson on analysis. Since this is a Writing Intensive class, and since our class meets in a computer lab, I was able to build all of this into the lessons without adding extra homework for my students (almost all of whom work and have families).
One of these activities was a collaborative PowerPoint presentation, based on Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In a stroke of luck, technology on campus was down on the first day of our discussion, so I had to revert to old-school material. It was frustrating at first to rush out and print worksheets instead of having everyone logged on to BlackBoard and Google Slides, but it actually worked in our favor!
Here’s how the two-week activity went:
Each of my lessons begins with a “Write Now” – a term I borrow from my years as a middle-school teacher. In regular classrooms, students write on papers which I collect. In computer classrooms, students write on BlackBoard’s Discussion Board. The immense benefits of this are that I can read their responses in real time, they can read each other’s responses, they can refer back to their responses all in one place when writing their papers, and – perhaps most importantly – we can use their responses immediately in that day’s lesson.
The “Write Now” assignments range from open-ended prompts like “choose a quote from the book and free-write about it” to more specific questions that guide students to more complex ideas, often asking students to consider theoretical underpinnings that we had previously discussed, like gender theory or the functions of various genres, in conjunction with the text.
For The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I asked students to respond to one of three questions:
- This book is narrated in the first person (the narrator is the main character, using “I”). How does this choice affect the book? How does it affect the way the story is told? How does it affect the way the reader experiences the story?
- Junior is an amateur cartoonist, and this book has little drawings and sketches sprinkled throughout. How does the addition of images affect the way the story is told? Do the images simply illustrate what’s already said in the text, or do they add something else (content, mood, interpretation, etc)?
- The tone of the book (especially in the beginning) is very sarcastic. Why does Junior’s voice start out so cynical? How does the cynicism and sarcasm affect the way the story is told? How do they affect the way the reader experiences the story?
Since we didn’t have access to computers for this activity, I printed the questions and students wrote answers by hand. It detracted from my ability to see what was going on, but the next activity I had planned for the day – a “jigsaw” activity – allowed me to continually check in and ensure students were on the right track.
A “jigsaw” activity allows students to become experts on a single aspect of a larger discussion, and to then teach the aspect they are experts in to their classmates.
To start, I divided the class into six groups of three. Each group was assigned one question to consider. I asked them to start by discussing their own initial responses to the question, and to then move on to asking questions of each other’s responses, whether they agree, disagree, have more to add, etc. Finally, I asked them to make sure that they had citations from the book to support their answers.
Each topic was discussed by two groups. The second stage of the activity was combing the two groups who had discussed each topic for a broader analysis. At this stage, I asked students to make sure that each student was able to convey the group’s discussion and conclusions to their classmates who had not discussed this topic at all.
For the last part of the “jigsaw” activity, the class divided into groups of three, consisting of one student per topic. They each taught their topic to the others, which naturally led to a discussion of overlapping themes and connecting thread. (And where it didn’t naturally happen, I nudged them along…) Finally, we came back together for a full-class discussion of everything they had learned during this process.
For the PowerPoint activity, I had pre-created a Google Slides presentation and pasted the link on BlackBoard. Since we did not have access to computers, I printed the slides out for each student. After our mid-class fifteen-minute break (it’s a 2.5 hour class…), I asked students to jot down as much as they could for each slide, which was based on their previous discussions and/or questions from the Discussion Guide at the back of our books. They were not formally paired or grouped for this part of the lesson, but I encouraged conversation and collaboration. I asked them to each draw one sketch as well as writing bullet points.
Due to technological limitations, I had to improvise the next steps. I collected all the notes my students had written down, and I added them to the Google Slide presentation myself, consolidating only when points obviously repeated each other. I also took photos of some of the sketches and added them into the appropriate slides.
I then organized the first slide, which had been titled “Title and Cover.” There were enough details from my students’ notes to warrant dividing that first slide into two separate ones.
I left the rest of the slides a mess of bullet points, no organization at all.
In the following class, I divided my students into groups and assigned each one a slide with the mission of organizing it all. By the end of it, we had a full set of notes on most of the topics I wanted to discuss for this book.
After all that, I assigned the final essay of the semester… A joy! But I pointed out that we had been practicing all the skills that would help them do well on this final essay: note-taking, formulating analyses, organizing those analyses, and creating outlines.
We finished it all with one final slide. During the second week of our discussion of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, we had focused on the two basketball games between Wellpinit and Reardan. The question I had posed to the class was: How do these two scenes function within the text as a whole? In groups again, students discussed the two scenes and wrote a one-sentence (and in one case, a two-sentence…) “thesis.”
We’re off for spring break now, and I’m looking forward to reading my student’s drafts when we get back in May. After this, I’m hoping that my students will have improved in the areas of analysis, thesis, and organization.