The Genre That Isn’t

I spent the better part of last week in high school English Language Arts classrooms, working and learning with teachers who want to refine their craft. It was really interesting for so many reasons, but mostly because in all of the classrooms, students were working on either writing a “literary response” essay or, in many cases, listening to the teacher’s interpretation about the literature students were reading (Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, the Odyssey…you know, the usual) in preparation to write a literary response essay.

These well-meaning and well-intentioned teachers who truly care about their kidsLit were primarily concerned that students would do this work so that they would be “ready for English [insert next grade level here].” I get that. I mean, as teachers, we always want to make sure that our students can be successful once they move into the next grade. We never want our students to be barely treading water when they go to Mr./Mrs. X’s class.

But is that all? If we follow that logic, then does that mean the only teacher preparing students for whatever lies beyond high school is the senior year English teacher? Uh oh.

I’m sure we can all agree that one year of college (or life) preparation doesn’t even seem to scratch the surface.

So anyway, all of that got me thinking. What is the purpose of this “literary response essay”? In the writing project community, there’s even some debate as to whether or not it’s a real genre (I’m starting to doubt its legitimacy as a stand-alone genre, to be honest). Certainly, the purpose is for the student to share his or her learning about a text. But is that all? Are we really asking students to write this type of essay, which seems to show up only in school for an audience of exactly one, simply so they can show how much they know about a book we’ve told them to read? I can’t imagine that any of us would be satisfied with that as an end goal. In the grand scheme of things, it seems a little pointless even.

Of course, as I think about Common Core, I think that we all need to start thinking about the idea of authentic tasks, purposes, and audiences. If we are truly going to prepare students for college, career, and citizenship, our students need to know how to enter into a larger writing community and to write real pieces that people want to read, real pieces that they want people to read. The literary response essay, while it can serve an important purpose for the assessment of a student’s reading skills, isn’t the only way students can (or probably should) write about literature.

As I was thinking about this “school-only” genre, I wanted to discover how this type of writing (about things we read) shows up in authentic writing communities. Apparently, there are all these critics running around, writing for publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and a few other intelligent magazines. In fact, there are even awards for these people. And kind of a cult following too. Weird, right?

Anyway, knowing that my vision for this blog is to share my thoughts about genres and mentor texts that could be embedded into high school classrooms, while I was searching for the “real” version of literary response essays, I was also reminded about some beautiful words in Appendix A of the Common Core. Yes, I did just say the words beautiful and Common Core in the same sentence. That actually happens a lot with me. I know. Weird. Again.

But I want to share a bit of this beauty with you. Just humor me.

“Skilled writers many times use a blend of these three text types to accomplish their purposes. For example, The Longitude Prize…in Appendix B, embeds narrative elements within a largely expository structure. Effective student writing can also cross the boundaries of type, as does the grade 12 student sample “Fact vs. Fiction” and All the Grey Space In Between” found in Appendix C (Appendix A, p. 24).

Look at that what this says. Skilled writers actually blend the text types (narrative, informational/explanatory, and argument) to accomplish a purpose. Holy cow. Now that’s sophisticated. But isn’t it true? When I read that line, I think about a piece like George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” a piece which is clearly narrative but makes a very profound argument and social commentary. More about that genre in a future post.

Back to literary analysis.

So like I said, I was really curious about where I could find examples of ways that actual writers create this type of writing in an effort to understand why else our students might want to write in this way (and to maybe see how some of these text types blend together in order to make a literary power smoothie of sorts).

Enter “Page-Turner” in The New Yorker. The tagline on this regular blog reads, “Criticism, contention, and conversation about books that matter.”

When I read that tagline, it hit me. That’s exactly why we should teach students to write about text–so that they can enter into the conversation, so that they can be legitimate members of the literacy community. There are so many particularly rich examples of text in this segment of The New Yorker (even ones teachers could use as mentor texts in high school classrooms).

Take for example one piece called “Sylvia Plath’s Joy.” In this article, the author, Dan Chiasson, writes about Plath’s well-known collection of poems, Ariel.

He begins the article by briefly sharing the story of Plath’s suicide (a strange beginning to an article that seems to be about her joy–and, of course, one that comes together at the end) and then draws a dark connection between her attention to detail in preparing her own death and preparing her final manuscript. We also learn from an embedded exclamation by Robert Lowell that this poetry was some good shit.

Chiasson continues to discuss this final manuscript–Ariel–as a revelation and provides his initial take on the work, that “it is the great book of earliest morning.” He then includes the text of its title poem and discusses how Plath revamped a popular take on dawn. In three short paragraphs (of the eight total paragraphs–not 5–in the piece), Chiasson relates a third-person narrative, presents an argument about her poetry, and explains some historical information about the circumstances surrounding the publication of Plath’s final volume. Later in the post, Chiasson even tells a brief personal anecdote that connects to another one of Plath’s poems.

All three text types. In one piece. Not to mention, it is a beautifully crafted piece of writing in its own right and could provide a powerful instructional tool for reading or writing (or both) in a high school classroom. As Chiasson continues, he does end the piece with his own original conclusion about Plath and her poetry. Now that’s literary analysis.

Of course, that’s not the only example of this type of writing. Other interesting pieces in this blog include “Call of the Wild: The Connection between Shakespeare and Sendak” and “John Donne’s Erotica” (ok, this last one probably isn’t the best for a high school class, but it’s an interesting read and will give you even more sense of this particular genre). At any rate, you can browse the “Page Turner” section of the New Yorker website and find a treasure trove of examples.

I feel like this post might pinch a little. As an English major myself (and former high school ELA teacher), I really did have minor heart palpitations when writing these words. But if we’re really going to teach our students how to be members of a larger writing community (which is, consequently, much bigger than preparing them for college and career), and if we are going to give them the tools to be part of this conversation, then we need to look beyond the five paragraphs of the literary analysis essay. I’m not saying don’t ever ask kids to write one. I’m just saying that our world is much bigger than that.

Postscript

Genre: Literary Criticism (based in an author study)

Possible Essential Questions:

How does our work reflect our identity? How does our work create our identity?

Who is [name of person], and how do we know?

What’s [author’s] part in the conversation about literature? What’s my part?

Possible Units: These texts could be part of an author study unit or a unit on literary criticism

Ways You Might Use These Texts:

Mentor texts for this type of writing

Texts to provide alternate viewpoints about popular authors/texts

Other Instructional Materials That Might Support Students’ Writing in This Genre

Background information about the author (both primary and secondary sources)

An opportunity to read multiple examples of an author’s works

Opportunities to read other works that might connect to this author

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I Thought You Said We Were Reading!

Even though I am teaching a full semester of English 1 (ninth grade) in summer school, I knew going in, with all of the intricacies of this abbreviated course, that I would never even come close to teaching even a large portion of the standards to mastery. Because of this, I made a very strategic decision to look forward instead of behind.

Especially since the ninth grade ELA standards (both current and CCSS) loop into tenth grade, I asked myself, What skills will most help students next year? From there, I divided those standards into two large groups: reading and writing. This is because those two “R”s are the primary reason many of my students are sitting in front of me. My goal was to prepare them for the inevitability that someone will, at some point in the future (and probably some time next year), hand them a piece of hard text and simply say, “Read this.”

Because of that goal, I also organized my day into two segments: the times we think like readers and the times we think like writers.

However, something peculiar has been gnawing at my soul over the past several days. During our “Reading Block” of time, when kids are working with text, I have turned to a tool I know helps people both explore and express the larger meaning of the words on the page: Writing. We write about text all the time. We write to explore the meaning of the words. We write to tell each other what the text has taught us.

And each time we do, I hear a similar challenge from at least one (but usually more) of my students: “But this is READING time!”

It disturbs me–not because the kids are complaining; that’s what teenagers DO by nature at times. But because, as educators, I don’t think we’ve done the best job of making sure that our kids understand that the two–reading and writing–are inextricably linked.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pointing fingers. I think part of our current reality is a byproduct of how our standards are written (at least in California). There really is no expectation, save the literary response essay (which is a make-believe genre anyway), that students are writing about text. And the STAR test doesn’t improve the situation either when all of the questions about text are multiple choice. It sends a very clear message to everyone: writing is something that we do when we don’t read.

Somehow, the kids have gotten that message too. They don’t see reading and writing as activities that go together–they see them as very separate entities whose paths shall never cross. At least, my summer school students see it that way, and my guess is that at least some of their friends do too.

With Common Core on the horizon, this has to change. These new standards purposefully link reading and writing, and moreover–not that I want to get all test-obsessed or anything–the Smarter Balanced Assessment will require students to write about text too.

I’m not saying that our kids need to write a full analysis of every text they read. There are lots of ways kids can write about text to share their ideas–including many technological tools that can help (digital literacy, anyone?).

I’m just saying that maybe we need to make sure that, as teachers, we show our students the beautiful and necessary synergy that exists between the two–and teach our students how they can become even more insightful thinkers if they can simply harness that power.