A New Kind of Analysis, by Jennifer MacDonald
A NEW KIND OF ANALYSIS
Jennifer MacDonald, Smyrna High School
When I was first asked by my administration to consider signing up for the Delaware Writing Project, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I assumed it would be more work on the SAT analysis prompt. I am quite thankful that I was wrong. The idea of doing an analysis that connected canonical texts to modern societal issues made the prompt appealing to both me as a grader and my students as the writers.
To give context, my group based the Delaware Writing Project essay off of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. The prompt asked students to consider how a play from the 1950s, based in 1692, could still remain relevant today and what warning it might send to a present audience.Students seemed to like the prompt for the essay. I gave it out on the second day of reviewing The Crucible (after Act 1) so that they would have some guidance in the reading. It actually led to some great discussions during the rest of the reading because students were already beginning to compare character actions and decisions to news stories and events they’ve witnessed in today’s world. At the end of the reading, we brainstormed as a class how this remains relevant. I was really surprised at how many topics my students considered! Some of the most powerful topics brought up were the power of false accusations and how it can be career ending, how public opinion sometimes seems to take the place of the courtroom and true justice, and how teenagers are sometimes oppressed and then leap to extreme behaviors when set free (ie: college). We also discussed the effects of mass hysteria, specifically in the medical world and political world, scapegoats, and the desire to purify or whitewash a community from “undesirables” like the homeless, people of color, immigrants, etc.
When surveyed, one student suggested adding more time to the brainstorm session and perhaps having a Socratic circle on the reading and prompt ideas before beginning the writing piece of the unit. Student interest was much higher than usual for a typical argumentative essay, most likely because students could make it relevant to their own interests in the world. At the end of the project, I had students rate the prompt on a scale of 1 – 10 in terms of interest and relatability. Students rated the prompt on a scale of 1 to 10 from 3 – 10, with 68% scoring it at a 7 or higher. 1.5% rated the essay as a 3, 4.55% as a 4, 12% as a 5, 14% as a 6, 36% as a 7, 15% as an 8, 6% as a 9, and 11% as a 10. There were two students that liked the prompt but suggested a more interesting text than The Crucible; another 2 felt the prompt could use more clarification. I also had two students suggest more writing time in the future, and more time to analyze the text itself. This was a survey of 66 students.
Throughout the reading of The Crucible and the writing of the essay, I had my students regularly write judgment-free responses. Students did not like the notebook time that was based on broad images. They felt it was “too elementary” and “basic.” They didn’t see the point, even after discussion tied the overarching theme to the text itself. Buy-in was low here. They did, however, like responding to the quick writes or rhetorical analysis of The Crucible. I have a feeling that they were more comfortable with this because it was more like what we normally do in class. Despite student complaints, they did very well responding to the notebook time prompts. They also did well responding to the prompts on The Crucible itself.
On day three of the warm up notebook time, students finally began to come around. They particularly enjoyed the “work place revenge” statistics and did a great job connecting these back to themes from The Crucible. At the end, 55% of my students said they felt that they benefited from the warm ups, 29% said they did not benefit, and 16% said they didn’t benefit but they still enjoyed doing the writings. 11% felt strongly enough against the warm ups that they suggested either not using them in the future, or changing the warm ups in some way.
THE MINI-LESSONS: Successes and Thoughts for Next Time
Once the reading of The Crucible was finished and we had finished our brainstorming, we went into the mini-lessons on writing. My group had a total of 8 mini-lessons on the following topics: writing introductions, thesis statements, using evidence, writing conclusions, writing counterclaims, working with parenthetical comments, using rhetorical questions, and making use of the “magic three” in writing.
The first four mini-lessons (thesis, introductions, evidence, and conclusion) came after we had finished reading and discussing The Crucible. The class before, we wrapped up our review of the text and had our discussion on how this play could still be relevant in today’s world. For homework, students had to craft an outline for the essay that included a thesis statement, topic sentences and a general idea of what evidence to use from the play and from contemporary society. I started the lesson off by having students take out their outlines during the review of the thesis statements. I reviewed thesis statements via PowerPoint and a handout that had the mentor texts on it. I verbally reviewed what made a good position or concession thesis and then gave students time to read the mentor texts and supply commentary on what made the thesis work well in pairs. I then took student volunteer responses to share out what it was that made these thesis statements work. For an AP class, this assignment was fine. I would not use this for my CP students as an introduction to thesis statement writing. I feel that it would be better to already have the explanations on why these statements worked upfront. This way students know what to model in the future. In my AP class, I extensively covered thesis statement types at the beginning of the year and reinforce it each marking period. Since we are now in the third marking period, this was a review rather than introductory information.
Once we finished reviewing the thesis statements from the mentor texts, I had students go into their outline and begin revising the thesis statement while I went around the room to give advice. Students that finished early were told to begin typing their introductory paragraphs. Checking the thesis statements took about ten minutes and went well.
At this point, most of my students were ready to start writing their introductions while a few early finishers had already started. I brought the class back together as a whole group to then review the mini-lesson on introductions. This lesson went very well as presented on the board. I also included the PowerPoint to this lesson on the Google Classroom assignment page for future student reference. This was apparently a good idea since I saw several students taking pictures of the slides before I reminded them to check Google Classroom. The fact that they wanted pictures of the information on the slides though tells me that this was good information for them. Once we finished reviewing the mentor texts in this mini-lesson, I gave them ten minutes to start on their introductions. If this were a CP class, I would extend the time to at least thirty; since this is an AP class that is well versed in timed writing, it
felt like a good amount of time. While students were writing, I circulated around the class to offer help when needed.
After the ten minutes, we then jumped into choosing evidence. Looking back, I wish I had done this lesson out of order before they wrote their outlines. I think it would have helped them choose their evidence prior to writing the outlines and would have given them a more detailed outline to draft their essays. After reviewing the information and mentor texts, I gave students time again to jump back into writing. This is where the lesson got a little wonky in my opinion. I gave students the rest of class minus fifteen minutes to work. The last fifteen minutes I called them back to cover the mini-lesson on conclusions. It didn’t feel organic to the writing process since not a single student was ready to write their conclusion, but I felt like I needed to still cover it then and there since homework was to finish writing the first rough draft. In the future, I will probably cover conclusions on the second day of drafting and just have students write an introduction and body paragraphs for homework. Once again though, since this was an AP class, a lot of this part felt like review and it didn’t seem to throw the students off.
Covering four mini-lessons in one day was a bit much. I know that we originally thought of introductions and thesis as one mini-lesson, but I feel that they are in reality, two different concepts that deserve to be split. So moving forward, I would suggest doing the choosing evidence lesson before students do their outlines, then covering thesis statements and introduction lessons on day one of drafting, and then cover some of the voice and conclusion lessons on the next day of writing.
The next day, we covered three mini-lessons (counterclaims, rhetorical questions, and parenthetical comments). This was much more doable than the previous lessons.
The counterclaim and refutation lesson went really well. I had already reviewed counterclaims with my students, but showing them the three different examples gave them different ways of looking at how to present them. It was also one of the first times my students actually got the idea that a counterclaim didn’t have to be its own separate paragraph and that they could have multiple counterclaims sprinkled throughout the essay with refutations used as reinforcement.
Rhetorical questions and parenthetical comments also went well. I approached both of these lessons as suggestions for students to use in their writing, but not necessarily a requirement like the other lessons. I will do the same when I cover the mini-lesson on the use of three. I asked my classes how many of them felt that they sometimes repeated themselves over and over in their writing. As expected, multiple hands went up. I then made the point that if they feel like they are repeating themselves, imagine how it feels to be a reader reading 70 essays that are on the same topic and all repeating themselves. After a good laugh, I suggested using these suggestions as a way to make their papers more individualistic. I made the statement, “I want to read Sarah’s paper, then Parthena’s. Not paper #63 and #64.” They seemed to get the idea.
My last day of the mini-lessons focused on the use of threes. Of the three stylistic choices (rhetorical questions, parenthetical comments, and the use of three), I found this to be the one students felt most comfortable using. Next time, I would probably suggest covering the three style mini-lessons together. In order to accommodate the changes suggested below, this is my suggested “new” timeline: Cover intro, thesis, and conclusion on day 1; choosing evidence, counterclaims on day 2; rhetorical questions, parenthetical comments, and the use of three on day 3. The three style lessons were the most
preferred lessons by students because they felt like it was “new” material and practice at authentic writing.
Originally, my group had decided that we would also have a mini-lesson on dashes. I was unable to teach the mini-lesson on dashes because I did not have access to it by the time I was ready to deliver it. Since I felt that it could potentially become redundant to the use of parenthetical commentary mini-lesson, I decided this wasn’t a major concern.
At the end of the mini-lessons, 78% of the students said the information was useful; 12% said it was not, and 10% were neutral. One student suggested frontloading the unit and teaching all 8 mini-lessons in one day before the writing started because they then felt “rushed” during the writing process.
At the end of the day, so to speak, I found this project to be quite eye-opening. Students surprised me with how many different angles they took to answer the same prompt. Even though we read the same play and discussed the same details, each student had a different takeaway, and this was reflected in their writing. The best moment of this project would have to be during the teacher conference day – it was absolutely amazing seeing how far my students had come and what it had done for their confidence. What surprised me the most about this project was the length of student writing. Most of my essays were between 3 and 5 pages. I did not give students a page limit or word count requirement, and previous essays were about 2 pages in length, maybe 2 and a half for a “really developed” paper. I never would have imagined some of my “lazy” 1-page writers to suddenly turn in a 3 or 4 page paper – and to do it entirely on their own!
My most challenging moment of this project would be dealing with the mixed responses I received from students on the single-point rubric. I liked using the single point rubric while helping students in the drafting process. I felt like I was able to quickly read student essays and give them valid feedback by checking off what they had and what they were missing without becoming an editor or just a proofreader. However, quite a few students wanted to know what the essay would score if it were in the final drafting stage. I found this frustrating because I didn’t want them to focus so much on a “magic score” rather than on improving their writing in general.
Overall, I found the writing project to be quite influential on my teaching practices, not just in regards to analytical writing, but all writing instruction. Giving students mentor texts – real mentor texts – has been a great resource. I found myself continuing to find mentors for other prompts throughout the marking period and I plan to continue doing so for the remainder of the year. Ideally, I’ll be able to add to this list over the summer to have a decent selection to pick and choose from as needed.