Opening the Canon of Literary Analysis
Illustrator: Adolfo Valle
Often, when students reach high school, the literary analysis essay is the only genre of writing taught. In fact, one literary analysis per quarter is de rigueur in some schools.
I’m not calling into question the idea that students should write about text, peel back the layers, argue with each other, persuade us of their ideas. They should. The problem is the essay prescription accompanying most literary analysis teaching lays waste to student imagination and voice.
The tight reliance on a format silences students’ real ideas and real thoughts for the sake of the formula. I’ve seen hundreds of handouts over the years filled with lines, diagrams, the first words of sentences, transitions, and phrases to end the essay. Students must bend their language and ideas around the formula. There is no singing, no laughing, no poetry in these papers. No one wants to write them and no one wants to read them.
What’s unwritten, but true, in these handouts is the profound distrust of the student’s capacity to write with coherence on their own. I confess that during the early years of my career, I used formulas because I feared my students’ poor performance would reflect badly on me. Their essay drafts were messy, unfocused, and by compelling strict adherence to the five-paragraph essay, for example, my students’ papers were airbrushed into looking like they knew how to write. They didn’t. They’d learned how to comply.
Teaching an “unbound” essay requires acts of patience because as teachers we have to strip back years of compliance to a formula, unteach the habit of cutting and pasting evidence, and wait for students to secure their original thinking about a piece of literature in-stead of looking to us for the “answer.” An unbound essay requires an unbound classroom where we reward students for taking risks, experimenting, making mistakes, and trying again. Where teachers are willing to forgo safe, predictable easy-to-score rubrics in favor of trusting students’ capacity to learn, even if the drafts are messy.
The over-teaching of the literary analysis essay is not only a time-waster: It misteaches contemporary essay writing. Take a look at the essays in the Paris Review,the Atlantic, Orion,the New Yorker, Rattle,the Rumpus, or Vanity Fair. Nikole Hannah-Jones, Clint Smith, Roxane Gay, Hanif Abdurraqib, Ross Gay, Kiese Laymon don’t lay out their arguments in tidy paragraphs as thesis, evidence, analysis, transition leading into the next paragraph. There are no hamburger formats in their writing. They construct their essays more openly than that — both in terms of content and style. They explode the genre by infusing narratives and poetry into the bellows of the essay. Their paragraphs sing with imagery, clutch the reader’s throat with their storytelling. They laugh, chortle, double-Dutch, pirouette across the page — writing about basketball courts, the death of a beloved coach, or schools. And they always make the reader face truths about race, class, and other social issues that many would rather stay hidden.
That’s why I was so struck when I heard Pádraig Ó Tuama’s podcast Poetry Unbound as I drove back to Portland from visiting my daughter in Tacoma. As a poet, theologian, former leader of Corrymeela, Northern Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organization, Ó Tuama meditates on the poetry he brings to the radio. After bingeing on the podcast, I discovered that he does have a rough outline for each episode. At the beginning of the podcast, Ó Tuama ruminates about what poetry means to him, then he discusses his connection to the content of the poem, the poem’s connection to the world, the literary elements he delights in. Sometimes he throws in something about his life or the poet’s life. His “outline” is loose, and he changes it up depending on the poem. His analysis of text is personal, layered with his understanding of the poet, politics, and poetry.
I wondered what would happen if the literary analysis essay became unbound using Ó Tuama’s podcast as a model. Students could write about a poem or song that mattered to them after examining his podcast as a mentor text. Dianne Leahy and I created this unit to bridge the academy and students’ lives. Dianne teaches 9th-grade language arts at Jefferson High School, located in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, and in the years since I “retired” from the school, we have often collaborated — sometimes for a unit, sometimes for a year.
By using the Poetry Unbound podcast and encouraging students to bring in poems and songs they love, Dianne and I hoped to help students discover that both poetry and analysis are already part of their daily lives, the world and the words that they already swim in. At its core, literary analysis is writing or talking about a text. Students do this daily: They analyze text messages, songs, films, Instagram photos, video and computer games.
Beats of the Lesson
Our literary analysis assignment respected students’ authentic voices and opinions about a text. We initiated the unit with a poem, so we could saturate students in a poet’s words and images before we introduced them to analysis. After analyzing an Ó Tuama podcast episode we returned to the common text of the poem to build a collective essay as a model. In online learning, even more than during in-person learning, students need multiple waves of instruction to help navigate writing the essay.
The poem “In the Aftermath” provided the perfect opening. CJ Suitt, poet laureate of Chapel Hill, performs the poem on a YouTube video. In the poem, Suitt speaks about what he yearns for and misses during the pandemic. We taught the lesson in November, three months into the online school year, and teachers and students alike could relate to both the sense of loss and hope he wove throughout the poem. We also had the written text available for students. We wanted to give them tools to make sense of the poem by asking about the core message and how it related to their lives. Our directions for the first time through the poem were simple: “Listen to/watch the poem and think about what has changed for you during the pandemic. What do you long for? What are your post-pandemic wishes?”
In the aftermath of all this
I’ll sing with you
In a choir stand
On street corners and at my favorite karaoke night
Stroll aimlessly around the mall
Even though I hated the mall
We’ll brush shoulders and walk down the same aisles
Let me pause to say that teaching in the pandemic is not easy. Of the 25 students in the class, all but two had their cameras off and mics muted. Two young women, who frequently had their videos and mics on, kicked off the conversation about what they related to in the poem. Dianne and I called on students, some answered, some didn’t, some poked a few words into the chat, some ghosted us.
The Podcast: Modeling a Literary Analysis Essay
Once we’d layered in the poem, we turned to Pádraig Ó Tuama’s podcast episode about Ada Limón’s poem “Wonder Woman.” We chose this session because Limón’s poem is stunning and hopeful. It’s about a woman who suffers from chronic pain, and then she sees a young woman by the Mississippi River in New Orleans dressed as Wonder Woman, for no reason at all, and she found hope:
She strutted by in all her strength and glory, invincible,
eternal, and when I stood to clap (because who wouldn’t have),
she bowed and posed like she knew I needed a myth —
a woman, by a river, indestructible.
Ó Tuama’s analysis is pithy and straightforward. We downloaded the transcript and posted it in our Google folder so students could follow along as they listened to Ó Tuama. Our directions were straightforward: “First, enjoy the poem. You may choose to read along as Pádraig Ó Tuama talks. Think about the role of each paragraph: What work does it do? What does the paragraph teach the listener about the poem?” In the Oregon Writing Project, we call this “raising the bones,” which means examining the anatomy of a piece of writing. In this case, how did the writer construct the essay? What was the point of each paragraph? What work did it perform for the essay? This is a tool we use with every genre and a skill that we hone with students over the year. My hope is that “raising the bones” becomes so ingrained that students take it as a tool for life. How do I ice skate? Let me watch an ice skater. How do I stain a vegetable trug? Let me find a video of someone staining one.
After we listened and discussed the podcast mostly through chat, students built the criteria for the essay. Examining Ó Tuama’s “essay” gave the concrete example of how to talk about a piece of text. Raising the bones online was a challenge, but ultimately, students noticed, with lots of prodding and questions, that the first paragraph, the introduction, discusses what Ó Tuama believes about poetry. He says:
[O]ne of the reasons I’ve turned to poetry is because poetry isn’t necessarily interested in telling the whole story. Poetry is really interested in stopping in small moments and telling the story of that moment. And that can be really helpful when you’re stuck in a story where you can’t see the outcome, or you’re stuck in a story of pain and you’re not sure how it’s gonna work out, to turn to poetry that isn’t trying to say, “Oh, it’ll all be fine,” but it is helping you to cast your eye on small moments that can give you some fortitude and that can help you through.
What I love about Ó Tuama is that he doesn’t get highfalutin about poetry. He speaks directly and exposes truths about poetry and the world. Poetry does give us fortitude; it does help us get through hard times. In an online world teaching means waiting and asking the question again and again, calling on students, as well as giving examples to model ideas. “Raising the bones” online took much longer than we anticipated because we wanted students to develop the criteria instead of us imposing the criteria on them. We wanted them to notice that Ó Tuama talks about the story the poem tells, his personal connection to the poem, the use of alliteration, and the allusion to Wonder Woman, who she is and why she is important. Eventually, students settled on these elements of a literary analysis: Introduction, personal connections, examination of the content of the poem, literary elements, literary allusions.
After listening to Ó Tuama’s podcast, we returned to the poem “In the Aftermath.” Using the elements of the essay students surfaced from the podcast, we created a Jamboard for them to discuss the poem. A Jamboard is an online collective “whiteboard” used in the Google classroom where students can add sticky notes as well as text. (More students participated when we used the Jamboard instead of chat or an open classroom discussion.) Our Jamboard had four pages: What is this poem about? How does it connect to your life? How does it connect to the world, other texts, or events? What literary elements do you notice the poet using?
We started with the question “What is the poem about?” Students placed sticky notes on the first page of the board. Some of their notes suggest their own desires in the aftermath: “The poet talks about what the world will be like once it’s somewhat normal again.” “It’s about the aftermath of isolation, and these past eight months, and how while it will never be the same, his life will be stronger than before.” “The poem is about how in the aftermath of the pandemic, we’ll finally be able to have fun and do the things we loved and hang around the people we love.”
On the third Jamboard page, we asked students to connect the poem to the world. “What allusions is the poet using? What other texts or current events does he reference?” I salted the pot by modeling both a connection and using a quote from the poem: “When he writes, ‘I’m Black and American,’ I am reminded of police brutality and the uprising/rebellion.” Tanisha nailed it in her sticky: “I mean he’s talking about COVID and that’s pretty big in the world right now.” Maliyah used two stickies for her note: “In the beginning the poet goes over how he’ll add up his subtractions and stand in the divide. This is his way of saying that in the aftermath he’ll look at what he’s lost, focus on where he ended up, and figure out all of the great things he still has. I think this relates to a connection to the world because this happened to a lot of people everywhere.”
While we resist formulas, we understand the students’ need for the language of literary analysis. There is a vocabulary to this genre, specifically for poetry, that students must learn or become familiar with: listing, allusion, rhyme, alliteration, image, etc. But instead of stuffing them full of language, or pre-teaching huge lists of words, we worked them into the framework of the lesson. For example, we discussed the term “allusion” because it is one of the vocabulary words we needed students to understand, but we did it in the context of the poem. In “Wonder Woman,” Ava Limón alludes to Wonder Woman and Padraig Ó Tuama spends a paragraph discussing allusion. We brainstormed other poetic terms with students on the last Jamboard, both to understand the depth of their background knowledge and to remind them of the terminology: alliteration, concrete details, imagery, etc.
After students filled out all of the pages of the Jamboard, Dianne and I placed students in groups of three and each group wrote one paragraph for the collective essay based on which board they were assigned. Dianne and I took the collective paragraphs, tidied them up, labeled the paragraphs based on the criteria (content of the poem, connection to the world, literary elements, etc.), and wrote it out as a model for students.
Engineering Success: Models and Supports
Dianne talks about “engineering success” in her classroom. Mostly, this means making sure students have everything they need to succeed: hands-on experiences during the online teaching with Jamboard that keep their collective notes available, discussion, small group work, and then another wave of instruction through additional models and diverse supports. Because students moved in and out of the classroom even during online instruction, we needed to make sure that they had sufficient models in the Google drive for when students worked on their own.
When we gave the assignment to write a literary analysis about a poem or song, we encouraged them to use poetry or songs that they loved for their content. We also provided two dozen poems, mostly written by former Jefferson students and published in Jefferson’s Rites of Passage literary magazine. But we also included poems by Rita Dove, Eve Ewing, Jason Reynolds, and Renée Watson.
In addition, I wrote an essay about the poem “Gurl” by Jefferson student Mary Blalock as a model. I labeled each paragraph in bold using the language and criteria students named after listening to the Ó Tuama podcast.
In “Gurl,” Blalock uses ordinary vocabulary one might associate with walking — streets, stop signs, maps, sidewalks — and she builds on the image of a liberated woman. She encounters obstacles, “stop signs on every corner” and “cracks that want to break my mother’s back,” again emphasizing the roadblocks that women face. The “gurl” walks on “without a map,” with “no place to go ’cept forward.” She rejects depending on a “Stairmaster,” which would keep walking in one place, or an “elevator” where her body would not transport her to the top floor — she’ll use the “fire escape” instead. (In this paragraph I examine the language for why she is using these words — literary elements.)
These bold bones of the essay served as reminders for students of the kinds of analysis they might try in their essays when they worked asynchronously after our limited class time.
When I first started teaching, I discovered that when I insisted on correctness, students wrote small, trying to hide their words from my scrutiny. When I learned how to coax their stories into the classroom, their writing became wild and wonderful and full of “errors.” Unbound. Similarly, the essays students produced, their first literary analysis essays in high school, were flawed in numerous ways: lack of citation notes (which we didn’t teach), problematic punctuation, lack of specificity — not naming the author or title, for example. But they were proficient in all of the ways we wanted them to be: Their voices were authentic, their opinions were grounded in knowledge of the text, their language was their own.
Many students wrote about songs: “Dreams” by the Cranberries, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel, Jhené Aiko’s “Eternal Sunshine.” As Dianne noted, through their analysis, we learned far more about them than we learned through their blocked videos or sparse chats or dialogue during class. We learned that Dean loves music and is knowledgeable, that Anna misses her brother who left for California, that Misty wants to be a better sister, and that they could all locate literary elements in the poems or songs they chose.
Haley wrote about Renée Watson’s “This Body” series of definition poems. In her essay, Haley discussed selecting the poem because she had previously read novels by Watson and related to her stories. Haley demonstrated that she could tackle the tough job of selecting specific quotes from the poem and discussing why they resonated for her by using a specific illustration from her life.
Throughout the whole poem, I had a personal connection to it. I actually can connect to every part. But the one I can [most] connect to is the second part of the poem where it says:
“1. See assimilation. See smoke from the hot comb crocheting the air, burning a sacred incense. See Ms. Tiny parting your hair, bringing iron to nap, ‘Hold your ear, baby,’ she tells you. So she can press Africa out. When Black girls ask, ‘Is it real?’ Say yes. When white girls ask, ‘Can I touch it?’ Say no. 2. See natural. Reference Angela Davis, Angie Stone. Comb yours out. Twist yours like black licorice, like the lynching rope used on your ancestors’ necks. Let it hang
I felt every part of that. I say that because people have asked me if my hair is my real hair and if they could touch it. And it did make me feel uncomfortable.
Haley concluded the essay by staking a claim and faith that it would help Black girls: “This poem is relatable to many Black girls across the world. Hopefully it can help other girls know we go through the same things if they feel bad about themselves. It is showing [how] to love your own body.”
Another student wrote about “Neon Gravestones” by the group 21 Pilots about the suicide of the Swedish producer Avicii:
This song was inspired by the suicide of the Swedish producer Avicii. This death kind of shook America. It was the first time a celebrity I actually knew and I listened to their songs had taken their own life. Recently, I found myself thinking about how we have completely forgotten about him. It’s like a sugar high. We celebrated him for a few weeks then poof. Haven’t seen his name anywhere since. In the case of the death of Mac Miller (an American rapper) who died about a month prior to this song being released, I watched exactly what was in this song take place. Mac Miller was everywhere I turned being praised for a long period of time but once two months were up, all the hype around him vanished.
What I love about the piece is how much I learn about the student — not only about her musical taste, but also about her sensitivity to others, tuning into a culture that applauds, laments, and quickly forgets. In other parts of the essay, she demonstrates her knowledge about music and production far beyond my meager understanding.
Not every student loved writing the essay; in fact, a number had to be coaxed across the finish line by Dianne at the end of the quarter. This happens in real school and even more in online school. But here’s what is true: For students to learn to write with passion and power, or to dance, understand history, science and math, or play baseball, they have to be freed to learn to think and to create. But this doesn’t happen with one assignment. Reteaching students how to write about literature, how to tap into their own knowledge, how to glean structure from models requires multiple waves of instruction, requires years of education where students learn how to learn.
It has become an educational cliché that our teaching should be “culturally relevant,” should be grounded in students’ lives, should be about things that matter — and yet too much of language arts essay teaching still begins from a stance of distrust of our students’ insights and their often culturally specific ways of expressing those insights. Instead of reaching for the Ikea instructions, let’s give our students permission to “read the word and the world,” and to offer their thoughts in essays with power and authenticity and poetry. These are the kind of essays our students need to make sense of society — and to change it.
Subscribe to Rethinking Schools at www.rethinkingschools.org/subscribe.