Slow and Steady Literary Analysis

Maybe you can relate to me. Type A. Monitor for the quickest moving rather than the shortest check out line. Get things done. A minimum of five tabs open at a time on the computer. Don’t sit still well. Sound familiar? My high capacity disposition serves me well in most areas of life except for when it comes to teaching literary analysis. Unpacking a text is slow, tedious work. Teaching students to unpack a text can be even slower and more tedious. Slow, tedious work is difficult for me; I operate best in fast and furious mode. This year, however, I am making a change: I am slowing down – way down.

I have always struggled with teaching novels. How does a teacher exactly teach a novel? Back in my day, we read novels, the teacher lectured on the novel, we tested on the novel, and then moved on to the next text. This is not really my style of teaching. My style is more creating experiences for students to interact with the text and make meaning, and while I do a good job providing these experiences, I still rush my students through the process.

Allowing students time to for a work to marinate in the head (and heart) cannot be rushed. I plan on having whole class discussions when we first finish a novel and again after we have completed a learning activity associated with the novel. Discussions provide some of the best opportunities for thinking and learning. I also plan on building periodic quiet moments into discussion time so students have time to jot notes, doodle, sketch, or just think and process what has been said. I am not only slowing me down but slowing students down long enough to think and process. Each novel will be anchored with some type of in depth analysis activity forcing students to slow down and look in detail at a work and draw conclusions. Meaningful work on over an extended period of time rooted in discussion, grounded in the text, and not rushed – this is my plan.

During August we unpacked The Poisonwood Bible, our summer reading. I plan on starting every novel with these questions:

What did you notice?

What don’t you understand?

What seems important even if you don’t know why?

What do you want to talk about?

We circle our desks with books in hand and talk. I sit in a student desk and learn along side my students. I work really hard to keep from being the leader and encourage students to answer each other’s questions and follow up on each other’s comments only jumping in to comment if I have a an ah-ha moment like a student (and I surprisingly have many of these even though I have read the book multiple times) or if the conversation gets on a tangent (they’re teenagers after all). Sometimes I have each student write a question on a notecard and randomly pass these out for another student to read during our circle time. This is beneficial at the beginning of the year because it gets everyone use to talking in the group. Sometimes I just open the floor and let the discuss go at its own pace.

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We also did an activity to trace a topic throughout the novel and write a thematic statement based on the evidence we found in the text, and it went well. First, we identified recurring thoughts and ideas in The Poisonwood Bible. Students randomly called out ideas they thought were important in the novel and someone wrote them on the board. After all of the ideas were written on the board, we categorized them and divided them into broad overarching topics in the novel. 

 

Each family group (chosen randomly at the beginning of the semester) chose a topic with each group having a different topic. Students were given the task of finding evidence for their topic throughout the novel.

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The Poisonwood Bible is divided into books so students were looked for evidence in each book. We talked about big ideas being introduced in a novel, the development of an idea, and the resolution of the idea (or it may possibly be left unresolved). Students practiced writing transition sentences to help them see the development of the topic. This process took a couple of days. Slow, tedious work.

Finally students presented their work to the class. The class asked questions, gave ideas for further evidence, and considered what Kingsolver might be trying to say on this topic. After considering the topic and evidence gathered on the topic, each student wrote a thematic statement about the subject. Students turned and shared their statements with a friends, and friends shared out statements that were insightful. As always, I wrote alongside students, turned and shared with a “friend,” and shared out when my partner had a particularly insightful thematic statement. This helped students differentiate between a topic and a theme and gave us practice writing thematic statements. 

This activity took time but laid the groundwork for how topics can be developed into themes and how themes develop throughout a text. Slow, tedious work. Now that students have taken the time to physically lay out a path of idea development in a novel. they will be able to do this in their head much easier as they read. I plan on doing other slow projects on texts based on characterization, diction and syntax, tone, and setting. I’ll probably add more to the list when I slow down long enough to think on this.

What is your favorite way to slow down a text and dig into analysis? And if you see me this year and I’m in a hurry, remind me to slow down.

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “Slow and Steady Literary Analysis

  1. This looks like a fun and enriching activity. I’m going to be doing The Poisoned Bible next semester and may do this. I have honors this semester and we do dialectical journals for some of the novels. But I have the same problem as you…taking time to interact with the text for analysis. Your activity has enough activity in it that it can sustain their interest for a longer period of time.. kudos!!

  2. I love this and hope to use this in my AP room as well. Kids have finished “Metamorphosis” and “Fences”. I plan to have them track topics in one of those. Could you share some thematic statements your kids wrote?

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