Category: Literary Theory

Helping Students Answer the Question “What is the author doing?”

One of the most difficult things for my AP Literature students to do is to write specifically about author language use and how it contributes to meaning. Sure, they can identify terms with the best of ’em, recount the happenings of a story in detail, and offer insightful connections to the themes of the reading… but they have a very hard time getting out of their own heads and into the author’s head. This poses a problem when students are required to write an analysis of merit, since term-dropping and opinion-posing will only get them so far. This year, I took notice of the same comments popping up yet again in my feedback to students: “Yes, but what is the author doing here?” “Why might the author have made this choice that you refer to?” “What message does the author reinforce here?”

I started noticing that when I pushed these questions into my students’ hands in conferences or discussions, I’d be met mainly with quizzical expressions, even from very bright kids. They’d scramble weakly with questioning voices: “Uh… giving details? Imagery! Um… definitely foreshadowing, you know… like we know maybe something bad might happen later?” I’d then try to push a little bit to get them to think in a more nuanced way, but this process always ends the same way–with me finally giving up and saying something like, “Ok, well, this is what I see here” and explaining the passage away, examining all these little language nuances I’m picking up on and watching the students scribble down exactly what I’ve said in their notebooks.

This is not awesome teaching. I know this. But what can you do when your students can’t find the answer independently? Especially with my AP students, it is absolutely imperative that they learn to speak and write in a sophisticated way  about language use without my hand-holding. By May at the very latest, they need to work independently of my guidance. So I started pondering, and I kept coming back to those same (bad) answers I always get to my “What’s the author doing?” question: Foreshadowing! Building suspense! Painting a picture in the reader’s head! Setting the scene! The more I thought about it, the more clearly I realized that these phrases probably all showed up in a middle school language arts workbook word bank at some point, and my students were still hanging on to them because their writer’s craft vocabulary had never evolved past that point. I thought to myself,You know what? They just don’t have the vocabulary. They don’t know what the author is doing because they literally don’t know what to call it. They don’t have the tools to build what I’m asking them to build.”

Then I thought: Internet to the rescue! I need a list of things that authors “do” in literature… moves that authors make which add up to meaning! It was my vision to use this list to help train my students with new, more writerly vocabulary so they could analyze with a much more informed dexterity. Alas, Google did not provide, so GUESS WHAT? I made my own. And I’m sharing it with you that you might find a use for it, or adaptation of it, with your own students.

WHAT IS THE AUTHOR DOING? Here are some ways to answer that question…

  • Drawing comparisons
  • Establishing or developing character
  • Revealing the nature of a relationship
  • Creating atmosphere
  • Providing social commentary
  • Being metaphorical
  • Using irony
  • Working with a symbol
  • Complicating the plot situation
  • Building emotional tension or conflict
  • Genre-blurring
  • Exploring the workings of the mind
  • Writing in dream time/sense
  • Playing on nostalgia
  • Philosophizing
  • Making an allusion
  • Moralizing
  • Presenting a paradox
  • Romanticizing
  • Breaking the fourth wall
  • Shifting perspective
  • Presenting a cosmic view of man/universe
  • Reflecting religious or spiritual beliefs
  • Echoing a previously established motif or theme
  • Employing humor for effect
  • Satirizing
  • Highlighting injustice
  • Using an unreliable narrator
  • Paying homage to someone or something
  • Downplaying/Understating
  • Making a political statement
  • Building on archetypes and mythology
  • Shifting perspectives
  • Incorporating dialect or other cultural elements
  • Using evocative/visceral description
  • Questioning cultural norms
  • Witholding detail/using opaque narration
  • Creating contrast
  • Justifying
  • Using and/or breaking conventions intentionally
  • Utilizing structure to reinforce meaning
  • Overemphasizing/Hyperbolizing


Here’s the link to my first assignment using the list: WhatisDickensDoing. We’ll see how it goes! I’m excited to observe how using the list helps my students grow in their literary analysis skills. Every day, I ask them to traverse new intellectual territory. It makes sense to give them a phrasebook as they start with translation and move toward fluency.

Literature as a Window and a Mirror

Way back in 2007, I wrote my first post on this blog, with a type of mission statement that has grounded my career as an English educator from the start–I talked about the idea that Universe as Text embodies: the idea that we need to read and interpret the world around us in order to understand our lives. This idea still lies at the very heart of why I believe in my work so intensely. Teaching English is a way of encouraging new realizations about the human experience in the next generation through stories that are consumed and created.

I’ve been working alongside my teaching partners Mrs. L, Mrs. J, and Mr. B all year to refine the curriculum for our junior level communications class, which we’ve been trying to make more and more about seeing the relationship between rhetoric and society, exploring how authors use narrative as a vehicle for social commentary. We’ve also taken a more individualistic look at literary works, through a psychoanalytic lens, to show what fiction can reveal about a character, about an author, and–in turn–about us.

Somewhere during these professional conversations, I suddenly remembered something that one of my mentor professors, Dr. Tom Scott, used to say in lecture at UWM. He used to reference the idea that literature works both as a window and a mirror. We look out, and see things we wouldn’t otherwise see. We look in, and see ourselves. It’s a simple, but very effective metaphor. As I prepared to transition my class from two units that focused heavily on author purpose and social commentary to a more personal exploration and study of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, I created a stick-figure comic to share with my students to demonstrate the difference in the ways of thinking that we’d be applying. It turned out to be a highly effective way to explain the different ways that we can use to study stories, and the disparate yields (both of great value) that we can gain from that study.

I formalized my comic a bit on the iPad and decided to share it here. [P.s. Procreate is an amazing drawing and painting app, despite its unfortunate name.] It is my hope that this image will also be of use in your class, especially in framing the varied approaches that you and your students take when exploring texts of all kinds.


Untitled artwork

Lyric Poetry

Lyrics can be a kid’s key to poetry, to interpretation, even to learning that literature can be an emotional experience as well as a mental exercise. Whenever I teach literary interpretation, I start with lyrics. (Then, I slowly reveal to the students that they’ve been hoodwinked into studying poetry… by the time they realize it, they’re too hooked to resist.) For me, music is life. In fact, I’m fairly certain that my love of literature began at age 4 when I started incessantly asking my parents “What is this song about?” Every time a new track popped up on the radio or CD player, I wanted to be clued in to the secret. Sometimes the explanation was easy, other times my parents would talk circles around themselves, exploring possibilities while I pondered them. I try to bring this lifelong love into the classroom whenever possible, whether it’s comparing The Bravery‘s “Believe” to Odysseus’ point of view in Homer’s Odyssey or decoding Miller’s Death of a Salesman with the help of “New Low” by Middle Class Rut. It’s really cool to take what’s on the radio and say, “Hey, it’s practically like this song was written as part of the soundtrack for this unit!” But sometimes, especially if one wants to teach the mysterious art of literary analysis, it’s neccessary to find a fresh song. And teachers, I’ve got just the guy to help you out.

American folksinger David Wilcox is a singer/songwriter who sang/songwrote his way deep into my heart back in those days when I was first figuring out that songs could be “about” something. Wilcox albums were always on repeat in the house–my dad was already his biggest fan back in the 90’s. I grew up with Wilcox’s warm, wise voice echoing around me, and I still look to his music when I’m seeking solace, philosophy, or some key to my own emotions. One of many awesome things about David Wilcox’s music is that his lyrics are masterfully crafted. He creates songs that always contain some element of mystery, irony, or prophecy. This makes his work especially rewarding to people who view themselves as thinkers, questioners, and poetic souls. Luckily for me and my career, his music is also the ultimate literary analysis canvas. Because the lyrics are so multilayered, they offer a world of possibilities to curious students who are learning the satisfaction of peeling back layers, making sense of smudges, and defending an interpretation of a literary work. Listening to the music in class has always been very successful for me as well–it’s so different from the mainstream that students just sort of stop and cock their heads, truly listening.

If you’re looking to dive into some potentially analysis-ready Wilcox lyrics, I strongly suggest starting with a trio of early albums: Big Horizon, How Did You Find Me Here, and Home Again.  While you’ll likely find your own perfect piece, I can recommend “Jamie’s Secret” (from How Did You Find Me Here) as a track that my students have really responded to, on visceral as well as intellectual levels. If you like what you hear, or you’re just curious about more recent work, I recommend progressing to Turning Point, Underneath, and Vista.  You can listen to tracks, find lyrics, and even read blog posts on David Wilcox’s website.

Having seen him in concert, I can attest to the fact that this troubadour has a very gentle, smart, and thoughtful presence. Try letting his presence into your classroom through music and lyrics–you might be surprised at your students’ reactions. With Wilcox’s spell, literary analysis warms into something cozy, enigmatic, and profound.

Thanks, David.

Teaching Visual Literacy

Ever since I realized that the definition of “text” could extend beyond print sources, I’ve been committed to including the use of visual texts in my classroom. It’s important for students to increase visual literacy alongside traditional reading skills; still, I feel that many language arts teachers never “get there,” or they give a project where kids make a collage about a book and call that sufficient. This summer, during my research with the National Writing Project, I chose an inquiry topic that dealt with this question: How do we teach students to read and author non-print texts? I had dabbled in answering this question during my first year of teaching, but never really spent the time to full-out teach it. After my summer research, I had some clarity on some techniques that seemed like they could work. This semester, I decided to give it a try.  I’ve rolled out a new visual literacy unit with my seniors. This is essentially a super-unit, with several mini-unit components: Image Analysis, Film Studies, Media Messages, and Online Identities. I’ve started implementing a blend of the methods I proposed in my summer research, things that have worked in single day lessons in my past experience, and new ideas that flow from thinking about how to connect all this together.

At first, my students seemed confused by the concept of “reading” images. I had to equip them with a whole new lexicon to help them talk about the components of an image. We had to go back again and again to reinforce skills of observing an image in an academic way and interpreting those observations as abstract themes. But then it started clicking. Suddenly, they were reading pages and pages of meaning in a text with no words. They were creating images catered to purposeful rhetorical choices. They were realizing that there can be so much more to viewing a film than just “watching a movie.” I’ve been pushing them, hard, to make meaningful observations. And you know what? They’re awake. They’re working. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that at least half of my students (allegedly the lowest English performers in the whole senior class) could be acing an entry level film studies course at any university. This is one of the most successful units I’ve ever taught. But what’s behind the success? Part of it is probably the class chemistry and rapport I’ve been able to build with my relatively small groups of students (about 20 per class). But, after reflecting, I think there are some key things that might help other teachers who want to try teaching some serious visual literacy.

 1. Read Picturing Texts by Lester Faigley, et. al. This is the best resource I ran across as far as working with visual rhetoric. There are many resources on how to use visual art in classroom activities, but this book is one of very few I’ve ever found that helps with using images as an actual text for study. Any art book by Sister Wendy Beckett also does a great job of breaking down and discussing traditional and contemporary art.

2. Make sure students have a foundation in literary analysis. Interpreting a still image or a film has much in common with this traditional language arts skill. If students can’t pick out literary elements and use them to support an inferred theme in a poem, they will struggle when asked to do the same with a non-print text. I began my unit with a little bit of traditional literary analysis so I could build a bridge between the two, pointing out how the operations are the same, even if the language is different.

3. Think-aloud with examples. This has been an education buzzword for a few years. Essentially, it means that you, the teacher, speak through your thought process as you interpret an image. Put an interesting one up on your screen and talk them straight through what you notice, why you notice it, why it’s significant, and how it adds to a final conclusion. Once students are comfortable, have them also think aloud with an image in front of the class. It allows them to really show that they know what they’re talking about, and it gives the class multiple examples that come straight from peers.

4. Teach them the difference between literal and abstract thinking. Help them understand that they need literal thinking to make quality observations of a visual text, but that those need to add up to an abstract idea in the end. Coming back to rhetorical choices and the concept that artists and photographers make intentional choices for a reason can help. Non-examples of image interpretations can also help, as long as a positive counterexample is also provided. I had a non-example that a good natured student let me use, where he had written that an image of a large machine next to a comparatively tiny person  “symbolized that the machine was very big.” Through his non-example and a successful example that I prepared, students really started to understand how thinking abstractly meant they needed to “see the invisible.”  Here’s the Powerpoint that accompanied some of this instruction: [The_Road_is_Not_a_Road]

5. Give them a vocabulary. My students have received glossaries for both image and film that help them intelligently identify the rhetorical choices they identify. (Terms like: composition, values, figures, juxtaposition, mise-en-scene, camerawork, cuts, casting, etc.)  Letstudents practice identifying these things before asking to apply them in written analysis. When they’re ready, they’ll talk the talk.

6. Spend some time picking quality image examples and film clips. Take some real time to locate images and film segments that hold meaning for you. Things that are extreme, colorful, surreal, or controversial tend to capture students’ attention, but it’s even better if you can truly connect to the examples you show. The more meaning you find in a visual text, the more your students will catch the fever. The internet is your friend–YouTube has film clips galore, and online photo galleries are filled with all kinds of gems. I tend to like Edvard Munch, Scott Mutter, Time magazine’s photo essays, and National Geographic’s “Visions of Earth.”

7. Don’t accept substandard work, whether it’s a result of laziness or true misunderstanding. When you get the papers that say big things symbolize how big they are, don’t move on. Go back to basics, talking about symbolism and how it works. Make them do it again until they get it right.

8. Teach them how to take notes on film. This is quite a different process than taking notes on literature, because of the speed required, and the amount of information being processed at once. I gave my students and example of my own notes on a film clip. We watched the clip, and then looked at the notes I had photocopied for them. I use a Cornell method, where I jot down quick observations on the left side during viewing, and then develop and organize my interpretations on the right side of my notes after viewing.

Expanding the definition of text beyond just print sources not only helps prepare students with 21st Century Literacy skills, but it’s also a whole new window of discovery for many kids. My favorite quote of the unit came from an anonymous senior boy I overheard in a group discussion who laughed and said, “I’ve watched like a million movies. But I never actually thought about any of them until today.” If I had any doubts about taking the time to teach this unit, they disappeared right then.

P.s. Ever since college, I’ve heard great reviews of Reading in the Dark: Using Film As a Tool in the English Classroom by John Golden as a teaching resource. I haven’t read it yet, though it is on my neverending wishlist for books. I have a feeling this book would be a great place to start for English teachers who want to get serious about using film as a text for serious study in the classroom.

First Couple Weeks: Creating English Scholars

The first couple weeks of my teaching have been going very well. My three preps are so very different–it’s kind of amazing, and it makes every day a veritable potpourri of teaching variety. My writing lab class, which in content and student body is quickly becoming my best-loved hour of the day, is a creative, process-based elective for high schoolers. This is where I can create the curriculum of my dreams: a writing workshop where I can guide every step from inspiration to publication for my community of writers.  The seventh graders are a treat that is new to me–they still very young, confused, and playful, and an absolute breeze as far as classroom management goes. Everything is new to them. The seniors–low on motivation, high on sass, but smart as whips–are my special challenge and in some ways my other favorite. I am determined to be the teacher that, during this last, vital year, leaves the door open for Language Arts in the hearts and minds of these students as they enter the adult world.

With the seniors, I spent the first week centered completely around WHY we study literature in the first place. I know I certainly didn’t understand or even think about the reasons behind literary study as a high schooler. In fact, I avoided AP lit by taking a theater class instead. I just didn’t get it. And either did my current students. While there’s still a long way to go, I felt some glimmers this week, some hints that they are starting to think about the value of the written word, and that makes it all worth it.

My two best recommendations for “Why Literature” lessons:

1. Selections from Mario Vargas Llosa’s essay “The Premature Obituary of the Book: Why Literature?” This is, when approached from an open-minded point of view, a staggering argument for literature that students enjoy both debating and considering. It contains such gems as this, which made my literary geek heart swoon: Nothing teaches us better than literature to see, in ethnic and cultural differences, the richness of the human patrimony, and to prize those differences as a manifestation of humanity’s multi-faceted creativity. Reading good literature is an experience of pleasure, of course; but it is also an experience of learning what and how we are, in our human integrity and our human imperfection, with our actions, our dreams, and our ghosts, alone and in relationships that link us to others, in our public image and in the secret recesses of our consciousness.

2. I had my students, in groups of four, come up with at least ten reasons why someone might want to study literature. Then, I fused all the good reasons together and published it, giving each student a copy and posting it, LARGE SIZE, on the wall. As I explained to them, “If I came to teach every day just to get paid and go home, I’d be a poor teacher. Just the same, if you come to school each day just to pass and go home, you’ll be substandard students.  To be good at something, you need to find a reason behind it. Here are your reasons for literature. Dig deep and find one, or more, that work for you, and you might surprise yourself by the wealth that you find!”

Here’s our list… Is your reason on there? 🙂


by English 12, Hours 3 and 6

1. To seek answers to unanswered questions.

2. To expand our imaginations.

3. To feel or express an emotion.

4. To reflect on the state of the world around us.

5. To expose ourselves to viewpoints outside our own.

6. To appreciate the artistry of great authors.

7. To learn passion.

8. To understand other cultures.

9. To improve our society.

10. To imitate the masters in our own writing.

11. To explore different value systems and philosophies.

12. To learn how to live or how not to live.

13. To stand out.

14. To approach important ideas.

15. To hear a good story.

16. To gain reading and critical thinking skills.

17. To think about something strange, deep, or interesting.

18. To learn about other historical periods.

19. To experience something we’ve never physically encountered.

20. To see ourselves reflected back to us, with both flaws and admiration.

21. For comfort or encouragement.

22. To be respected by others.

23. To expand vocabulary.

24. To escape into an alternate reality.

25. To read and write poetry.

26. To delve into the minds of greatness.

27. To teach others.

28. To maintain a set number of intellectuals in our society.

29. To learn different genres and styles of writing.

30. For inspiration.

31. To challenge ourselves.

32. To become more intelligent.

33. To learn about famous authors.

34. To learn about new or little-known authors.

35. To impress members of the opposite sex.

36. As part of a career.

37. To better visualize a thing, place, or idea.

38. Because it’s been studied for centuries.

39. To stay out of trouble.

40. To pass Ms. H’s class and graduate from high school.

Field Trip

I recently visited my city’s public museum, a well known collection of natural and cultural artifacts. Having not been to the museum very often since my youth, this was my first time looking at the museum as a teacher. And I found two things of interest to my English-teaching self: one specific object and one broad realization.

First, the artifact.

This is a writing desk and quill from the Lewis and Clark expedition. The quote on the inserted sign is from a letter written to Meriwether Lewis from Thomas Jefferson before the journey. It reads: “Your observations are to be taken with great pains and accuracy; to be entered distinctly and intelligibly, for others as well as yourself…” Isn’t it interesting that Lewis and Clark’s most important “assignment” required some of the same essential features that we still require in writing? Thoughtfulness, accuracy, clarity, and mindfulness of one’s audience as well as one’s own feelings and goals: I don’t think I could ask for a much better general set of writing guidelines!

And the realization…

As I strolled the museum, I found so many things that felt new and intriguing, from the spectacular dinosaur skeletons to the subtler, small things, like the antiquated silverware pictured above. It reminded me that observation and reflection are a huge part of thinking in a literary way. It is so important to have an open mind when approaching tasks like creative writing or taking alternative viewpoints in a discussion on literature. And part of that mind-opening process is being able to step back and think about the world, the people in it, and the countless strange, amazing things that surround us. Exploration is an underrated concept, I think, in our society today. We should be able to walk about and discover things every once in a while. Natural and cultural wonders are part of our textual universe. When you look at things in this light, is much easier to see how science, sociology, and history overlap with this (practically subjectless) subject we call English. I mean, aside from the hardware skills of reading, writing, interpretation, and discussion, “English” is really about EVERYTHING, about our world. And we need to explore our environment to understand it–both philosophically and physically. English isn’t found in the classroom. It’s found everywhere. And I found it at the museum.

So, what was accomplished here?

1. A re-affirmation of my theory that the universe is a text, and we English scholars are obligated to explore, interpret, and create what we can.

2. Every subject, even science, can lead to an English lesson. *Evil laugh of satisfaction*

3. Career goal: Come up with a field trip (such as a trip to the museum) that will allow both time for exploration and education. Kids will want to have a free for all, obviously, but maybe that’s part of living that’s intergral to the process of literary creation and interpretation. I want to harness the inherent passion for discovery and learning that every child has, and use it to aid learning. There is so much energy in young people–why waste effort squelching it when it can be developed and employed?

The beauty of language and ideas is everywhere… we just have to look closely.

Putting the “fun” in Formalism

I’m now realizing that formalism has suffered from a bad reputation. And I don’t really wonder why. We’ve all probably had enough formalism/structuralism shoved down our throats in the early part of our English study to last a lifetime. I remember hating it. Learning dry facts about meter, for instance, seemed to kill poetry. As a high school student, I was filled with resentment and confusion about these teachers who (to my mutinous, adolescent eyes) were trying to turn English into math. Though I excelled in my literature classes, I loathed them. I remember how much I rejoiced when I got to college and found out that there was more to literary study than just a strict analysis of how the words were put together.

Considering things from a teacher’s perspective, I understand why formalism was such a frequently used focus: it’s safe. Rules exist. Feelings don’t have to get involved. Parents won’t call to complain. Bland? Perhaps. Simple? Yes. Secure? Definitely. Hence, probably why a lot of teachers stress formalism in their English classrooms and avoid the thought-provoking but risky idealogical discussions that I so savor.

But that being said, when one learns the reasons behind it, formalism does have a fascinating side. It doesn’t have to be “blah.” If we blend discussions of formalism with the text’s larger themes or other aims, things get a whole lot better. Sometimes, I think, just simply going that extra step further to why a certain device was used makes discussion much more fulfilling. Part of the reason that I was so bored with formal elements as a student was that I never understood how they connected to the parts of literature that mattered to me: themes, truths, characters’ struggles, and my personal response to the reading. The connection between form and function never solidified for me in high school. If it had, maybe I’d be a published author by now. (Besides the blog–ha ha!)

Since the path I’m on is the one of the teacher, I’m hoping to sensibly balance safety and risk in my practice, and hopefully illuminate some of the “why’s” of literature that were never explained to me until college. I think it’s possible, but not easy, to put the fun in formalism. Form is where meaning begins, not where it ends.

Kindred Spirits

In my reading of Deborah Appleman’s Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literacy Theory to Adolescents, I found some quotations that really support this blog’s theme of navigating the “universe as text.” I have shared them below.

“Reading this postmodern culture requires that we reconsider which artifacts or elements of culture actually can and should be read. In other words, we must refine ‘texts’ to include a variety of forms, both print and non-print, literary and nonliterary” (Appleman 104).

“[F]or many deconstructionists, the traditional conception of literature is merely an elitist ‘construct.’ All ‘texts’ or ‘discourse’ (novels, scientific papers, a Kewpie doll on the mantle, watching TV, suing in court, walking the dog, and all other signs that human beings make) are of a piece; all are unstable systems of ‘signifying,’ all are fictions, all are ‘literature'” (Barnet, qtd. in Appleman 104).

“Once ‘text’ is conceived of as a cultural artifact, any text, past or present, classic or popular, fiction or non-fiction, written, oral, or filmic, can be admitted to the English classroom for legitimate and regarding scrutiny…” (Boomer, qtd. in Appleman 104).

“It is not only for the survival of our profession [as English teachers] but for the survival of adolescents as well that our students, now perhaps more than ever before, need critical tools to read the increasingly bewildering and text-filled world that surrounds us. Those texts can range from the literary to a galaxy of artifacts in the external world” (Appleman 105).

We have to learn how to read our world, through books as well as outside of them. Otherwise, the discussion and definition of texts is irrelevant frivolity. Life is what is important. Hopefully, my teaching will find a way to reflect that.