Literary Criticism for the Student’s Soul

One of the biggest challenges of the high school English teacher is teaching literary criticism. It can be such a subjective mystery for so many students, even the brightest. I have found over the past few years that having students take ownership and responsibility for not only their learning but the learning of their classmates pushes them to a level of understanding and communication that is far more engaging and often easier to grasp than my method of presentation.

The first thing I do is give them a very basic definition of literary criticism. We discuss its purpose and place in the world of literature, and they give me their ideas of what they already know about literary criticism. Many of them have been critiquing literature for years, but they simply didn’t realize there was actually method to their madness. Depending on the size of the class, students choose their school of thought. Their job is to research, practice, and teach their particular school or schools of thought to their classmates. Thus far, I have had an enormous amount of success with this particular lesson. I give them time in class to research, access to a few resources from my bookshelf, and the ability to have fairly steady access to me during class and up until 10:00 pm via email, Remind, and Twitter.

Each student is given a minimum of forty-five minutes to teach their school of criticism. (I am blessed with the gift of time; 90 minutes a day and a year-long class.) Their teaching includes visual aids (such as PowerPoint, Google Slides, or Prezi) to explain their theory of criticism, modeling a reading through that particular lens (usually a novel the class has read previously and collectively, a poem, or very short story), and a handout with skeleton notes and an independent or group assignment.

When the presentations are complete, I have each student individually respond to three particular pieces from Jerome Stern’s collection of stories, Micro Fiction. They then have to choose one more from the collection to which they will respond. This year, I chose “The Poet’s Husband” by Molly Giles, “Wrong Channel” by Roberto Fernandez, and “The Halo” by Michael McFee. They critique these pieces using any lens from the presentations as long as they explain their analysis and how it falls in line with their theory of choice.

I then step away from the conversation.

The discussions these students have about criticism flows effortlessly into analysis without my prodding or even interjecting. The students feel validated and empowered by their own understanding and by the moments of “Aha!” their classmates express as each one gives their perspective. This year, each story had at least three different lenses through which different students critiqued, and each one eloquently facilitated the discussion with their classmates. I talked about this particular lesson all weekend to folks who, I am sure, did not really care (my parents, my husband, random people at church). I was THAT excited about it!

I’ve attached the rubric I use for this particular lesson. Many of the stories in Micro Fiction can be found free online, and Google books offers a portion of the book (complete stories) that students can view here. I hope you are able to find the success in this lesson that I have.

Literary Criticism Project/Presentation

Each student is responsible for researching and presenting one specific school of literary criticism. Your presentation should include clear explanations of the school of thought, specific examples of works likely to be evaluated using that school (especially ones we have read thus far in this class or others from classes in the past), and a sample excerpt of criticism analyzing one of those examples. In addition, you need some type of handout or exercise that will engage your students and challenge them to think on the level of your school of thought. Literary criticism can be complicated to explain, so imagine you are trying to explain it to the average student. Be creative! These handouts you want to keep for use later.

Preparation and knowledge of subject: 200/400

Student was well-prepared with complete slideshow that demonstrates an understanding of the concepts within. Handouts are ready to be distributed at the beginning of class. Student clearly explains concepts, and examples are relevant and precise. Student expectations are clear.

Facilitating discussion: 120/400

Student is extremely comfortable speaking in front of a group. Eye contact is consistent. Students are actively engaged in discussion because of the purposeful direction of the presenter. Discussion topics relevantly reinforce the concepts discussed within the presentation.

Handout: 60/400

Handout is extremely relevant to the student’s topic or concept, and induces the students to think critically, beyond the realm of superficiality. The handout is free of grammatical and typographical errors.

Assignment execution: 20/400

Assignment is extremely relevant to the topic or concepts and enhances student understanding. Student offers assistance or clarity on questions. Directions are extremely clear, and students are engaged and offering relevant, enthusiastic, and analytical feedback.

One thought on “Literary Criticism for the Student’s Soul

  1. What types of literary criticism are on your list for them? Do you leave some off the list if they haven’t worked well for past students?

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