Learning to Take Risks- Jumping into Literary Analysis With My Freshman

A few weeks ago, I participated in the English Companion Ning‘s Webstitute “Work with Me”. (By the way, if you teach English and are not yet a member of the Ning, get yourself over there ASAP and sign up. It is free and full of ideas, networking, and just plain fun.) The best session in the webstitute, for me, was Penny Kittle’s “Craft Analysis”.  This year, I have been struggling to get my freshman to take risks in their writing.  I teach at a math, science, and technology magnet-like school and all of my students are brilliant.  However, many of them are very analytical and black-and-white when it comes to writing.  They tend to write a lot of plot summary and avoid any type of analysis.  I figured out that they were afraid of being wrong and losing points, but nothing I tried was working- they were still regurgitating plot and not analyzing and thinking on their own.

Lately, I have also been reading a lot about our students’ deficits with close, deeper reading.  (Too Dumb for Complex Texts?)  Colleges have been lamenting that students are unable to read complex texts and end up in remedial courses.  I want to make sure that my tech-driven students are readers who are ready for the rigors of the rest of high school and college.  I have spent weeks (maybe even months!) brainstorming ways to bring this to the forefront in my classroom, too.

Then I participated in Penny’s portion of the webstitute.  She shared a craft analysis project that she did with her students and I was immediately inspired.  It was exactly what I had been trying to come up with, but had been unable to pull together in any type of organized manner.  Penny was kind enough to share her handouts and I immediately downloaded them.  Over the past few weeks I have been working on tweaking the project for my particular students while also working through the project myself, in order to model it for them.  I am rereading Judy Blundell’s National Book Award winner, What I Saw And How I Lied. I’ve storyboarded about half the book while also writing my thoughts, noticings, and questions. It’s really made me work hard and notice Blundell’s craft moves, things that didn’t jump put at me on my first-draft reading. I was so excited to share this with my students and see what they came up. This past week, we started the project.

I am so thrilled with what is happening in my classroom right now!  We started with storyboarding earlier this week and it really clicked with my kids.  While they were hesitant at first (rolling eyes, mumbling about how it was for little kids), it was fascinating to watch them storyboard William Maxwell’s “Love” and then share their pages with the class.  Not one page looked like any other student’s page.  They all thought differently and displayed their ideas differently.  It was so cool to see them standing at the document camera and explaining their thinking, engaging each other. Later in the week, one of my students met me at lunch for some writing tips/help and he told me that storyboarding is really helping him because, “it’s making me stop and think a lot, and when I think about the story it’s easier to have ideas about it. Then I don’t have to just write what it’s about.”

Right now, each student should be working on storyboarding the book(s) they chose to reread.  I had each student respond to an assignment on Edmodo telling me what book they would be analyzing.  They picked some great ones!  Examples include The Book Thief, The Shadow Children series, Between Shades of Grey, The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Thief, Impulse, Paper Towns, The Hunger Games, And Then There Were None, Ender’s Game, Twelfth Night, Of Mice and Men, The Outsiders, Thirteen Reasons Why, North of Beautiful, and so many more great books!

Next week, I will have them working on the project in-class one day, sharing their craft noticings with other readers and comparing their books.  I am dying to know what they are coming up with and I can’t wait to see their storyboard notebooks.  I will be sure to share their progress here!  By the first week in March, each student will produce for me a 2-page paper analyzing the author’s craft and sharing their analysis with me.  Absolutely no plot summary is allowed!  They will use their text notes/storyboarding to draft the paper, along with any notes they take from their peer discussions.  They will share drafts with each other on Google Docs/typewith.me, assisting one another.  Spending the next four weeks doing this will hopefully help them to become better risk-takers in their writing.  I am so looking forward to the results!

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Where have I been?  Ok, so I have an excuse- The Thief (The Queen’s Thief, Book 1) won a Newbery Honor when I was still in high school. At that point in my life, I was reading two genres- adult books and Harry Potter. (I know, I’ve regressed. I like kidlit and YA better!)

Two weeks ago I saw one of my avid fantasy readers deeply engrossed in The Thief (The Queen’s Thief, Book 1). I mentioned that I meant to read it at some point and he was shocked I hadn’t already read it, seeing as it was a Newbery and all. (My students think I have read every Newbery book. You know, because I teach language arts.) He promised to lend it to me when he finished. The next morning he walked off the bus, handed it to me, and said, “You need to read this now. it is better than whatever you are reading, I promise”. I took him up on his endorsement and set aside my current book.

WOW! How did I miss this one? The Thief (The Queen’s Thief, Book 1) is absolutely fantastic. It’s a high fantasy that sweeps you into its world on the first page. Gen is a thief and has landed himself in prison after bragging that he could steal anything, including the king’s seal. Then, the king’s magus recruits him for a the ultimate theft- stealing a mythological stone from a neighboring country. Gen thinks the whole think is a crock and waste of time, but he could use the help getting out of prison. I hesitate to say much more, lest I give away any of the intricate plot.

I loved Gen. He was annoying, sarcastic, a smart-aleck, and everything you should hate. Yet I adored him. He was so real. He reminded me of my students in some ways- completely sure of himself no matter what the situation. Self-assured and even cocky, he is a trickster and a liar. But he is also cunning and clever. The supporting characters are well-developed (though I wanted to get to know a few of them a little more). The world-building is wonderful and I felt like I was there for the whole adventure.

Plus, there are some great plot twists. As I read in the last 25 pages in reading workshop, the book owner kept sneaking up to my desk and whispering, “Did you get to the big surprise yet? Did anything especially interesting happen yet?” Periodically he would grab the book, flip a few pages, and groan that I hadn’t yet reached the big reveal. Talk about fantastic writing!

Needless to say, I am dying to read the remaining books in the series now. They are already on my wish list.