Tagged Writing

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:

Poetry uses the Left Brain: Creative Writing, and Research?


By digitalart, published on 05 August 2011 from freedigitalphotos.net

When one thinks of creative writing, he or she might imagine it as a “right-brained” activity with little room for the analytical aspect of the mind.

While this is sometimes the dominating perception, it is far from the reality.  To expose students to the true nature of the professional writer’s craft, there will almost always be some discussion of how “left-brained” activities, like research, come into play.

I watched Carrie Eneix’s class have a discussion over The Secret Life of Bees a few weeks ago, and we planned a unit of study that began with students being exposed to the type of research Sue Monk Kidd did for the book and analyzing examples from the text.   It was inspired by the following quote by Kidd describing how she went from knowing “not much at all” about bees to writing a book where they are a primary focus.

“I began my bee education by reading lots of books…  I discovered bees were a symbol of the soul, of death and rebirth.  I will never forget coming up with medieval references which associated the Queen Mary with the queen bee…  Books couldn’t tell me everything I needed to know about bees, so I visited an apiary in South Carolina.  Inside the honey house, I sketched all the honey-making equipment, trying to get a handle on how they worked…  I experienced when the hive was lifted.  I became lost in a whirring of bees.  So many, I could hardly see.  The scent of honey drifted up, the bee hum swelled…”

Taken from “A Conversation with Sue Monk Kidd” in the introductory materials for The Secret Life of Bees.

Here were the learning targets for the lesson:

  • —I understand how authors’ use short and sustained periods of research for a variety of purposes.
  • —I can identify the types of purposes (to add specificity, develop metaphors, and enhance imagery) for which an author might use research.
  • —I can utilize purposeful research in a variety of mediums to meet specific purposes in my  own writing.

The first two were targets of the specific lesson for the first day, and the third was a long-term goal by the end of the project.

On the introductory day, students were given three categories for which an author might do research.  Here are the slides we discussed for those:

Reseach for Specificity jpeg Research to Develop Imagery jpegResearch to Develop Metaphor jpeg

After we discussed the types, then we looked at passages from the text and analyzed them in two ways:

  • What research might Sue Monk Kidd have done to gather the information (book, video, primary source etc.)?
  • For what purpose (to add specificity, develop metaphor or enhance imagery)?

Here are some examples of those:

Research in Creative Writing EX 2 Research in Writing EX

Students wrote from where the research might have come and to what end it was used, and we discussed each one.  This entire concept is new to most students, and there was no definitive answer, so this was something with which they struggled.  However, they were provided with other models and examples later in the unit which I will talk about in an additional post.

On this same day, they were given their assignment.  It was the following:

  1. A short narrative (250 words or less) or poem (approximately 25-50 lines) that focuses on a “self-selected” community that becomes a “family” or provides a sense of belonging to its members to positive or negative ends.  This is not a personal narrative, so choose one that will provide a venue for research.     
  • Examples/possible options: a tribe (at any point in history), gangs, immigrant communities, fraternal orders (Freemasons for example), religious communities (such as Amish or Mennonite), communes, cults etc.    
  1. A short narrative (250 words or less) or a poem (approximately 25-50 lines) that is based upon an insect/animal as a metaphor for some larger idea and is built on the real-world aspects of that creature to develop the metaphor.  
  • Examples/possible options: butterflies, a type of fish, lion, polar bear etc.- really any living creature but humans

Ultimately, students would be presenting these pieces of writing to the class.  More to come on this later.

Here are the resources we used for the lesson:

Loveshack: Blogs with Robin Love

Blogs are basically a personal webpage where information is listed in chronological fashion with each new post appearing at the top of the home screen.  Generally, they are updated with new journals or articles with some regularity (if they are maintained).

Web and Log is Blog jpeg

Robin Love has been using Edublogs to provide an online venue for students to publish work.  Each of her students have created a blog they will update weekly.  She plans to use this resource for both personal reflections and student responses to literature and classroom activities.

Edublogs jpeg

Here is her blog if you want to check it out.  All of her students blogs are linked to her page and are contained within a “class,” but as an outsider, they cannot be accessed without the password.  However, students can respond to one another as posts appear.

She has created an easy to follow resource for students to use when getting started.  I watched her students go through the process, and they did not appear to have any trouble.

Here is a copy of the handout for the student set-up: Love Shack Blogs

If you are interested in blogs and don’t feel comfortable getting started, let me know and I can try to help you set up.

I know there are other teachers using online publishing and collaboration tools, and I am eager to continue checking those out!  More to come very soon.

Teacher-Writer: Pete Planisek

Pete's Book Cover

Book Description:

“Ten years after the loss of his entire family to madness and death, Ernest Frankenstein finds himself compelled to return to the city of his birth, Geneva, in order to discover if his elder brother, Victor, might still be alive.  Only Victor can provide the answers to questions, which have long plagued Ernest.  The quest for answers will force Ernest to confront demons, both internal and external, from his past, which refuse to be at peace and which ultimately will endanger both he and his new family. Hunted across Europe their only hope may lie with a French spy, Ernest’s childhood friend, and a mysterious gypsy girl whose people believe that Ernest will lead humanity to its salvation or final destruction.

PHSC English teacher Pete Planisek not only wrote the book described above, he also maintains a podcast, blog, and online publishing company.  While often teachers in the arts lose touch with the practice of creating because of the pressures of daily of teaching and (especially for English teachers) the time commitment of grading, he remains an active writer and arts advocate, a feat he described as “always a trade off.”

As a classroom benefit, Planisek said that maintaining his writing has allowed him to help students because, “You know what you struggle with creatively to give pointers.”

In addition, there are intrinsic benefits, “[Writing] helps me grow as a person- you have to put yourself in different worlds and situations, and writing connects you with other people who are interested in writing…  It challenges you to not just hone your craft but hone your own humanity,” he said.

Some teachers within the district have begun to explore research in creative writing, which is true to the form of many non-fiction writers, especially those who write narratives, poems or longer works with a historical context. “With the Frankenstein novels I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching the: historical time periods, names, geography, political issues, etc.  I usually really enjoy getting to go more in-depth and really work hard to make the settings and characters believable,” he explained, “I’m looking forward to going and visiting some of the locations I’ve been writing about.”

With his online publishing company in the beginning stages, Planisek is always looking for new works to add to his website.  He would welcome teacher submissions.

Concise Writing Resources

“The goal of concise writing is to use the most effective words. Concise writing does not always have the fewest words, but it always uses the strongest ones. Writers often fill sentences with weak or unnecessary words that can be deleted or replaced. Words and phrases should be deliberately chosen for the work they are doing. Like bad employees, words that don’t accomplish enough should be fired. When only the most effective words remain, writing will be far more concise and readable.”   

-Taken from the Owl Purdue Website

Sarah Harris was looking to reinforce skills of concise writing, so I gathered these (potentially) helpful resources and thought I would share.

On a sub-note, because it is a test focused on students’ ability to revise, concise writing is one of the major skills required for ACT preparation.

Here is a link to an online quiz that could be taken in class with students.  I also made a Concise Writing Practice Handout that goes along with it so that students can have a hard copy, too.

This link has a PDF handout about tips for revision focusing on concise language.  It is a good reference for teachers and students.