Tagged literary analysis

Building to a Literary Analysis of To Kill a Mockingbird

I watched Tim Starkey teach this Extended Looking lesson with his freshmen, leading to writing a literary analysis of To Kill a Mockingbird.

We had taught the lesson, which uses art by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison to explore the process of gathering evidence to create meaning, a few weeks previous in his AP classes.  Starkey saw applications to writing a literary analysis essay, so we used the same lesson to scaffold students toward gathering evidence in text sources to reach thematic conclusions in his ninth grade classes.

To build a theme statement, he asked his students to write down a single word that captured what they thought the picture “meant.”

The next day, Starkey and his students further analyzed the image by going back and gathering evidence related to the “meaning word” (or topic) they had found the previous day.  Then, he had them go back and write a complete sentence (theme statement) describing what the artist/piece was saying about that topic.

This lead directly into the students literary analysis.  Starkey first brainstormed one-word “meanings” for To Kill and Mockingbird with students.  Then, they had to go back to the text and find evidence and passages that pertained to that theme.  Afterward, they used the evidence to turn the one-word meaning into a thesis for their paper.

To write a thesis and literary analysis without a prompt is a very high-level thinking activity, especially for freshmen.  This will be the first time that Starkey has tried such an open-ended assignment with freshmen, and we will be looking at his students’ work next week to see how they performed with the task.  However, anecdotal evidence suggests that students were better able to “see the connections” in the analysis process because they had already practiced with the image according to Starkey.  In addition, the students’ theme statements and evidence for the image were quite impressive in their level of sophistication.

I think Starkey’s strategic change from having students write a thesis statement then trying to “justify” it with evidence, to instead having students examine the evidence to build a theme is more authentic and will lead to more logical thinking by students when practicing analysis.

Here is the resource used to scaffold students to independent literary analysis:

Mapping Out Narrative Structure and Author’s Intentions

I had previously posted about the use of the intentional, emotional and physical arc to analyze literature.  I used these concepts, with the addition of the “reader response” arc, with Susan Turley’s HTS 11 class last week to analyze “Where are you Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates.

The learning targets for the lesson were as follows:

  • žI can identify how writers engage readers through their purposeful development of narrative structure.
  • žI can analyze a text using the arc structures and share my findings with a group in a meaningful way, tying my arguments back to textual evidence.

We began by introducing the concept of the arcs via a Power Point and a diagnostic/notes sheet of narrative terms (see the bottom of this post for resources).  Fortunately, the students were engaged by the ideas presented, and while introducing the emotional arc, the class had an interesting conversation about the possibility of a “flat” character who was also “dynamic.”  Unfortunately, the lesson probably should have been stretched out over three or so days, and we tried introducing it and working with the arcs in the same class period, so we really didn’t get to flesh out the process.

After the initial introduction, students were all asked to define and plot out the intentional arc first, and then also plot an additional arc (reader response, physical or emotional) over top of it.  The students struggled using the arcs because no one was really sure what it should “look like” when they were put on paper.  Since then, I have thought of some ideas that might make this easier.  For example, plotting out five pivotal plot points on the bottom axis and then using them as anchors to graph the changes in emotional or intentional arc as they are relevant in time to those points.

In the long run, the goal of the lesson would be for students to “share out” their arcs and justify their choices with evidence.  We did not get this far, but I think this would be an interesting conversation because the intentional arc for each of the groups will be different.  This being said, I think a debate could even ensue on which narrative arc structure is most accurate or logical.

I would really like to do more work with these in the classroom.  I think they are an interesting tool that has a lot of possibility.  In addition, I have been fortunate enough to be in direct contact with their creator, William Kenower, and he has created some short videos for us about the teaching the intentional arc in literature.

Here is the first of the three videos:

The rest of them can be viewed on his Youtube channel.

Here are the resources for this lesson:

Lesson on the “Unknown”: Visual to Text Literacy

Susan Turley wanted to do an extended looking lesson for her AP classes focusing on the theme of the “unknown.”  To this end, we used the Extended Looking Learning Targets and Reflection and paired them with this image:

The Unknown

After we went through the extended looking process, we immediately transferred the skills to text the next day using the following poem:

From Space to Time

By Carolyn M. Rodgers


on a day when

we were dark

and not so full of


we met

    what did we find?


everything, when we closed

our eyes

which anyway

had never been open.


once, we thought we

loved each other

       who can reverse


we tried.

we stepped out

of space

into some new

step of distance

and fell—

and not in love.

Taken from Poetry Foundation:

Carolyn M. Rodgers, “From Space to Time” from The Heart As Ever Green (Garden City: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978).

Copyright © 1978 by Carolyn M. Rodgers.

Here is the worksheet we used to guide through the extended looking process after students had read the poem.

The students began with seven minutes to fill out the “observation” part of the chart.  In the seven minutes, they wrote down observations from the poem about the following independently:

  • Context (are there stated characters, setting, dialogue, action, audience?)
  • Surface features (sentence structure, punctuation, word usage)
  • Literary devices (simile, metaphor and imagery)

Afterward, they worked in small groups to come up with their “meaningful connections,” “questions,” “theme statements” and “supporting evidence of theme.”

Susan and I will be reflecting on the learning targets and extended looking process for text later this week.

Beyond Narrative Arc: Exploring Intentional and Emotional Arcs in Literature

Exposition, rising action, climax, resolution; students have probably studied these narrative elements since elementary school.

However, Melissa Larisch found a resource published by a William Kenower about the use of the emotional and intentional arc.  While this idea was originally intended to explain what author’s should do when writing narrative, some teachers at North (including Sam Bosse) have been using it analyze literature, providing a deeper focus for understanding the nuances of the narrative structure.

As teachers used them, the narrative arc describes the physical action of the piece, the emotional arc describes the emotional development of each of the characters (there may be multiple of these), and the intentional arc describes how the author relays their “deeper purpose” or theme to the audience.

Bosse and I also discussed the possibility of an “arc” for the reader’s response that could be added to this.

In his classroom, groups of students were given one of the three arcs to map out for “To Build a Fire” and put up on the board for comparison and (see below).


These arcs might allow students to “dig deeper” into the text and examine how these different narrative elements interact with one another.  In addition, in accordance with CCS, a teacher might ask student to create arcs for multiple themes and see where and how the themes interact with one another.

I am excited to use this analysis tool in other teachers’ classrooms and explore it further.

Here is a link where you can download a file on the different types of narrative arcs mentioned.

Lord of the Flies Part I: Diagnostic Projects

Following up on Susan Turley’s work with Lord of the Flies in her Honors Thematic Studies 12 class, students gave fifteen minute group “diagnostic” presentations relaying a theme from the book this week.  The products had to display the following components:

  • Analysis of Literary and Non-Fiction Texts: Students analyzed the text within their groups via their own ideas and a scholarly article provided by Turley
  • Writing: Students could choose to write in any form about their theme (This could be via Power Point, essay, song lyrics etc.)
  • Speaking and Listening: Student presentations had to have the following components: an attention grabber, an overview of their analysis, and a summary/conclusion
  • Product: Students created a physical representation of their theme and analysis; see the pictures below as examples:

IMG_1330IMG_1333  IMG_1328 Lord of the Flies Student Project

This initial project was built upon the students’ summer reading assignment, the content for which the class had already been tested.  Functioning as a diagnostic to assess current levels of performance in a range of areas, students were not given much guidance in regards to the final vision they should be presenting.  Instead, they were allowed the opportunity to address the standards and expectations in their own way.  The diagnostic created a “building point” for future areas of improvement and a summary of current strengths.

In addition to this functioning as a gauge for Turley to consider current levels, students were also given an opportunity to be reflective about their own learning using the CCS after they had presented.  I will be writing about these CCS conferences in a second post about this project.

“Testing” in this different format is interesting.  In the literature and educational conversations I have been a part of, diagnostics often take the form of “pencil and paper” tests which are often lacking in student engagement, but why does this have to be?  Are there ways to explore the potential of students where they might even surprise us in how they fulfill the standards?

This reminds me of a speech used in my classroom, Randy Pausch’s “Last lecture” given at Carnegie Mellon.  In it he describes his class Building Virtual Worlds.  The first project he gave had few parameters for what the “worlds” students would create needed to “look like.”  He stated in his speech, “The kids said, ‘Well what content do we make?’ I said, ‘hell, I don’t know. You make whatever you want. Two rules: no shooting violence and no pornography.'”  He was concerned with programming skills they were acquiring- not set outcomes.

He explained how the very first project defied all his expectations.  The bar had been set very high for the rest of the year; but he would not have known that without giving the students permission to try and freedom to engage.

Extended Looking: Using Images to Build Theme Statements

I worked with Kristina Claytor and Allie Sberna this week using a strategy learned/modified from the Pages program at the Wexner Center.  This learning activity is one I have utilized many times, and it was a pleasure to work with two patient, flexible and talented teachers trying it out with a new group of students who are learning to “look deeper” and explore thematic connections.

The “product” of the strategy is the creation of a single sentence theme statement that is supported by multiple pieces of evidence from an image students have studied.  Here is the image from which students gathered information.

Garden of Selves

This image is from Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison. Here is a link to the original image online.

Here are the learning targets provided to students:

  • I can look carefully and  critically.
  • I can contribute meaningful ideas to a collaborative conversation.
  • I can write a theme statement that reflects a deep understanding of a theme.

I usually introduce themes to students as topics (or “big ideas” if you prefer) plus an opinion about that topic.  Here are some of the “big ideas” or topics students were able to come up with using this strategy:


We explained a theme is one of these big ideas/topics above, plus what they think an author/artist is saying about this topic (his/her opinion).

Example: Topic (Creativity) + Opinion (can require seeing/doing what others may not yet understand).

So a theme statement might be: Creativity can require seeing and doing what others may not yet understand.

Students might support this theme statement with evidence from the text by saying that, “The man represents creativity because he is the only one ‘seeing’ what is in the distance, so he is the only one willing to escape the box.  The others remain curled in the containers because they don’t believe in or have knowledge of this new understanding.”

This is a very difficult concept for students; it takes practice.  They may have to look back at and revise the theme statements after the teacher collects them and gives feedback.  However, this is also an essential skill for literary response.

The following is a handout I have given to teachers to explain the activity step by step.  I have also attached the instructions as a downloadable document at the bottom of the post.

Extended Looking Activity: Learning Goals  

This lesson is a scaffolding tool to help students understand theme in literary works.  The learning goal is to have students be able to write a “thesis statement” for what they think the piece means; they must base it on evidence they have gathered from the piece itself.


Extended Looking Instructions

  1. Look and observe the art – you can move around, get closer etc. Write down observations and questions about it (5 min.)
  2. Discuss the visual image.  What is happening in the photo?  Here you are noting details and making observations, no talk of meaning yet (5 min)
  3. Make connections to and ask questions about the art in writing. What are your thoughts about the piece, what does it make you think of, does it remind you of anything etc.  (5 min.)
  4. Discuss the connections students found in the piece and continue to have students use the evidence they have gathered to support their perspective ( 5 min.)
  5. Introduce and model a theme statement for students.  Have students write a “theme statement” for what they think the piece of art means and support it with evidence from the art itself (10 min.)
  6. Tell them the name and a little about the artist. (I do this the next day and build suspense!)  Does this change your perspective on the piece?  Are you glad you know?  (They usually are not.)


  • Before step five, have students write short form poetry about the art or a piece of narrative
  • Talk about the process of how the art was created and use it to model students own work in writing after the activity

Connections to help students make:

  • Literature and art are very similar and we can talk about them the same way and go through the same process of analysis with them
  • An artist or writer has an intent, but viewer/reader also bring their own experience to the table to create “meaning”
  • This activity shows how argument is developed because students needed to use support for their ideas

This activity was modified from the 2011-2012 PAGES summer workshop for teacher-partners at the Wexner Center, and photography used to conduct the activity was created by Robert and Shana ParkHarrison from The Architect’s Brother collection.

Here is the printable resource Extended Viewing Activity 2