exploring literature instruction in my classroom, part 2

This is the second post in a blog series attempting to explore the key premises that guided my choices while teaching literature and the resulting consequences for my classroom.

Two: There is no value in having an unsubstantiated opinion.

When I first taught literature, my emphasis in instruction was teaching students to argue first, justify second. I wanted my students to have something to say in their essays, and I wanted to bypass the mundanity and inauthenticity of traditional five-paragraph essays that sound more like book reports. So, I scaffolded, taught, and re-taught the importance of interesting, opinionated, and persuasive thesis statements. However, this strategy led to students putting forth a claim that was provocative but lacked nuanced – arguing something that was barely true but definitely overstated. When the second unit of literary analysis arrived, we had to invest time in messaging our new core belief: that there is no value in having an unsubstantiated opinion for its own sake. Now, I teach students the importance of a foundation of knowledge and understanding before I ask them to form their opinions.

As a result, here are some of the practices I put in place to help students understand the depth and breadth of knowledge that has to underlie a strong persuasive essay.

  1. I began teaching literary criticism. Originally, I thought that this was too hard and too irrelevant to many of my students, most of whom will not go on to become literary critics. However, I couldn’t think of a better way to provide students with a model of real people having real, debatable stances on a piece of literature. In the beginning, this did not mean reading scholarly articles. Instead, I paraphrased a key argument surrounding the play we were reading (last year, it was Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman) and asked students to collect as much evidence as possible to justify or counter a critic’s claim. Then, we walked through the evidence in small groups and tried to develop our own stance. In this way, students really engaged with two-sided (or multi-sided) real debates around the text they were reading in class and understood the importance of evidence in coming to a conclusion. Once students better understood the process of evaluating potential interpretations, they began reading full-length literary criticism. I taught students the same text twice, once in 11th grade when they were first introduced to the concept of literary analysis, and then again in 12th grade as part of a series of revision units in preparation for their exams. In that second unit, students began to read through the arguments they’d independently evaluated the year before. They noted down how much evidence was required to prove a point, the ways that strong thesis statements organically broke down into smaller arguments that constituted sections or paragraphs, and the way an argument progressed over the course of an essay.
  2. I insisted that thesis statements come last when reading and planning a response. We have always insisted that thesis statements come after students have spent time poring through evidence, which they must have written down. I sit with each student and their list of direct quotations and think through potential claims with them. This is a practice I learned from the late Peter Awn when I was at Columbia. Students must start with the evidence and follow it to an insightful argument. This is a stance I swear by – it minimizes the number of times students come to me with a ‘great’ and provocative claim that they cannot justify.
  3. I try to consistently identify and confer with students when they don’t have logic behind their opinions. Often, this means tough conversations with students who are convinced of their ideas but can’t recognize whether these ideas come from the text or from their personal bias. Almost always (and naturally), students’ interpretations of the books they read are informed by their own personal experiences and opinions. To encourage and nurture this part of their reading experience, I ask students to write separate and regular literary letters. But when we’re working on critical essays for the A Level Literature exam, I try to differentiate between these informal letters and more formal thesis statements that have to draw on what the author has created through the words on the pages. To be honest, I’m still figuring out how to effectively differentiate between the two types of ‘arguing about a text’ in a way that makes sense to students (without killing English for them). But I do have one-on-one conversations with those who still show confusion.  

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