I’m always on the search for visual aids to help exemplify those super-abstract concepts that we encounter in language arts. Like a gift from above, this idea came to me over the weekend. I used it with my 12th grade class today, and it seemed to work pretty well… Success!

The goal: Visually portray what it means to conduct a literary analysis. I’ve been teaching my students how to analyze a text, through a kind of mental excavation process… identifying elements, paying attention to how language works, going as deep as possible into the implications of the author’s choices in order to discover the thread of meaning that’s interwoven within. But that’s a lot of big words. So how do I make what I’m asking for clearer? This is what I came up with.

First I asked my students, “What is this?” And I held up a paper ball.

Of course, they answer–A paper ball.

Then I tell them: “It’s fairly obvious, right? We look at this, and we see the surface. It’s round. It’s a ball. It’s made of paper. Pretty straightforward. Now I’m going to be using this as a metaphor for a text that we might want to analyze. What do we do in order to analyze something, if you think back to our discussions from earlier this week?”  Take it apart. Look for deeper understanding. Look closer. “Great! So let’s start taking this apart.”

Then, I uncrinkled the paper just a little bit.

“We’ve started our analysis, beginning to look closer and take this object apart. What do we see now?” Dark marks and shapes on the paper… “Right! So we have started to identify some things that we see here. We think they might mean something… but what? To find out, we have to look closer.”

Next, I completely uncrinkled about a third of the paper, so full letters were visible.

“Now what can we see?” Letters! I-N-G. Ing! “Yes, we now see some things that we recognize, that we can connect to. We know these elements, we know what they mean alone, and we know together that they are probably part of a greater whole. We’re almost there, but in order to find what unites this whole piece, we need to spread out all these elements for ourselves to see… So… what do we get?”

I finally uncrinkled the paper all the way, to reveal the full word, written boldly on the page… “MEANING.”

“This is what we’re going for,” I told my students. “To unfold and uncover and analyze enough to get to a place where the underlying meaning of a text is clear. Now, let’s practice!”

And the lesson continues.  To my surprise, my class actually seemed to get the concept more than before! And I displayed the crumpled sign as a reminder right next to the pencil sharpener.

Whatever it takes. 🙂