Teaching Writing and Analysis in the Literature Classroom

Migrated Account
0 0 1,210

This post originally appeared on February 25, 2014.

One of the great challenges in teaching a survey course full of non-majors is making sure everyone knows how to write about literature.  This past semester, I faced that challenge in my world literature course – I had a room full of students, ranging from high school students taking college-level courses to senior English majors working on their capstone papers.  I didn’t want to lose my seniors, but I also know that when a sophomore psychology major sits down to write an interpretive paper in my class, that student might feel lost.

I decided that a bit of group writing in class might help.  I built the following exercise around the analysis of symbol and setting in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, but you could easily adapt it to work with any narrative text.

1. First I divided the class into 8 groups – 2 groups for each act of the play – and gave students topics to work on for their particular act.  Some groups analyzed Chekhov’s use of setting; others worked on the symbols within their given act. (So, basically, the questions were:  “How does setting operate in Act 1?” or “What do the symbols of Act 1 tell the audience about the theme of the play?” and so on for each act).

2. Once the groups had gathered their information – and by this, I mean direct quotations from Chekhov’s play that supported students’ claims– I had them work together to write paragraphs, using in part a model (PIE or Point, Illustrate, Explain) that I learned when I worked for Barclay Barrios at Florida Atlantic University. Basically, my directions were this:

  • Make a claim about the topic (i.e. write a topic sentence that explains your main idea about setting or symbols in the play; in the model I learned from Barclay, this is the “Point” part).
  • Introduce the context for the quotation.
  • Give the quotation (this is the “Illustrate” part).
  • Explain the meaning of the quotation.
  • Explain how all of this works together to support your topic sentence (this is the “Explain” part).

3. Next, students swapped paragraphs with another group for review.  After they looked at each others' work, making notes for what needed clarification and elaboration, groups went back to work to revise their paragraphs.

4. When they finished revising, groups read their paragraphs aloud to the whole class.

This exercise succeeded in helping my students with their analytical skills – both in terms of reading a literary text and in reading and responding to their peers’ writing.  While not every student quite got the message that the exercise provided a model for how to write an analytical or interpretive paper, it did give me something to refer back to as I encouraged them to rethink and revise.

About the Author
Emily Isaacson received her BA from Augustana College (Illinois) and her MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. Previously at Chowan University, where she was the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program, Emily is now working as an assistant professor of English at Heidelberg University. She has presented her work on early modern literature and on teaching literature at meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America, the Renaissance Society of America, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and the College English Association. She also frequently reviews books about teaching literature in the classroom.