This is the third 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.
Three: Students need to practice being literary critics themselves.
Ultimately, students sitting for the Cambridge A Levels will need to take a stance on a text and defend it within an hour. By the end of the year, they need to know each text well, but they also need to be practiced in taking a stance and proving it in a critical essay. Practice, then, is something I try to create as many opportunities for as possible.
As a result, I prioritise giving each student as many chances as possible to practice thinking – to assert her own opinion, interpretation, and analysis.
- I give students final essay prompts when introducing the text. This is another practice that I borrowed from the late Peter Awn. As a student in his class, I found it much less mystifying to read through a text with my potential topics in mind. I also find this practice much more consistent with the expectations of postgraduate research and argument. Students receive a set of essay topic options when they first encounter a novel, and some time is taken out weekly for students to deconstruct the questions, identify relevant evidence, brainstorm possible thesis statements, and work on their essays with peer or teacher feedback.
- In students’ first pass at a text, we provide many model answers with other texts before asking students to attempt a close reading of the text. Last year, for example, students engaged with the opening paragraphs of several previous set texts for the Cambridge A Level literature exam. They then looked at model student close readings (from textbooks and online, as our students have yet to sit for the exam) and reflected on what other students noticed that they need to keep in mind or remind themselves to look for. Then, we re-read the opening paragraphs of our chosen text for the unit, in this case, Andrea Levy’s Small Island and worked in small groups to do a close reading. My hope was that this gave students models and criteria with which to engage in their work, while still ensuring that they looked at our class text without the voices of models encroaching on their ability to authentically and rigorously form their own opinions.
- My students study a text at least twice. The first time, through a unit largely focused on shared reading, literal comprehension, and conversations around big-picture topics such as theme, symbolism, and characterisation. Students then revisit the text 6-12 months later, either at the end of the same academic year or the beginning of the next one. In this second unit, they engage in a faster re-read of the text before diving into the minute: this is where they read literary criticism on the text. Here, we study genre, literary devices, and diction. This second unit is where most of the skill of literary analysis is taught, once students know plot, character, and overall structure well.
- To maximise student practice while being conscious of my own grading capacity, I administer thesis quizzes. Thesis quizzes are short formative assessments where I ask students an exam-aligned critical essay question (often past paper questions, if I have enough) and ask students, in 20 minutes or less, to identify the most relevant quotations from the text and come up with a specific and arguable thesis statement. At the end of quiz time, I most often choose to workshop a few thesis statements on the board, with students gathering around to discuss and debate whether a peer’s proposed argument is consistent with the Cambridge rubric. On rarer occasions, I will collect responses and grade them, but my experience has been that immediate engagement with possible arguments is more effective.
- I ask students to create a study guide of their chosen text in small groups. Often, student practice is in the form of graded essays, tests, and quizzes. But I also believe that lowering the stakes of student practice makes it easier for students to take intellectual risks in the classroom, which ultimately, is a crucial prerequisite to rigorous learning. The study guide assignment is usually accompanied by several different examples of authentic guides (SparkNotes and LitCharts make their way into my classroom on this day only) and a discussion on what is or isn’t useful about these resources. Instead of grading these guides, I ask students to use these guides in open-book practice exams with an old essay question, and then write a reflection on the ways the guide was or wasn’t helpful to them in an exam setting. Students then use these reflections to go back to their groups and tweak these study guides to better suit them. As a result, these study guides are usually extremely rigorous without a grade being attached to them at all. One group, studying E.M. Forster’s Howards End, re-read the entire book through the lens of each major character and theme, coming up with long lists of quotations that were organised by potential essay question. Another group included 3-4 close readings of pivotal passages – essentially writing their own practice essays unprompted.