Monday, December 15, 2008

To Be the Best in the Field of Literature is Analysis?

After my senior essays' lack of interest: no "hooks", bland discussions of their novel, dry language throughout, I wondered not only about their writing skills, but what we ask our students to do their junior and senior years. We want students to use critical thinking, outside sources, and literary criticism to make an argument, a claim, for a new way of looking at a piece of writing. We uphold literary analysis as the creme de la creme of writing. Or do we?

When we nominate a senior student every year that represents the best English student, our conversations are about his or her incredible writing: rich descriptions, memorable word choices, and tone that stings or coddles. We love to hear about Mrs. Ferrill's students that win the NCTE awards each year realizing that it's their narrative and poetry writing that gets them noticed. We do not talk about a student that 'wow-ed' us with their deconstructivist analysis of Hamlet; we usually remember the student who turned in an art project that showed symbolism of Brave New World. We remember the mock epic the student wrote about procrastinating on homework fashioned after Pope's "The Rape of the Lock". Students that leave their mark on the English faculty touch us with poetic devices and narrative whether in writing, art, or poetry.

Do we, lead our students astray each year forcing students to analyze novel after novel?

Their freshmen composition class in college will write narratives, place essays, and biographies, not literary analysis. Many presitigious MBA programs are going to a portfolio format for their culminating project. These are described as a combination of 1st person reflections on internships, classes, and projects as well as persuasive writings that attempt to showcase a student's financial prowess.

Should we add more focus to the narrative writing?

I do not think that we need to let go of the rigor required in writing literary analysis, but if we truly think about the leaders in every field, it is someone who can communicate beautifully about their field. If it's environmental law, we view the mountains in North Carolina that are shaved and stripped, leaving sledge in its rivers. If it's Wall Street, we hear the bells cling, see the brokers waving arms wildly indicating, "Sell! Sell!" and can feel the immense pressure of our changing economy.

Do we read about the feminist's critique of Secret Life of Bees?

I come back to my earlier post: are we turning out illiterate writers? And if our students can write, can they persuade me to believe that the human story was the true story in Life of Pi, can they convince me it's the better story? The one rich with life, love, and struggle? Will I see that in his or her writing?

I propose that we do think narrative writing is needed, but we fear its too fluffy, too much like creative writing to give it much time in our rigorous classrooms. I propose we relook at storytelling as an artform that we must hone; Daniel Pink claims that it's those that are creative that will rule the world in the next century. It's those that can weave poetry into advertisement that will land the proposal. I will bring it back into my classroom, giving credence to details.

Illiterate Writers?

Collecting my senior essays last week, I was so sad to see their writing. Frankly it was dismal and certainly not at a senior level of writing. I wonder if we're sending kids into college being illiterate writers.

We have this conversation often in the English department:

"I know I taught my 9th graders how to write thesis statements. They write them again and again! And yet, on the final, they just can't generate one!"

"My sophomore students say they don't know what one is!"

"Juniors say the same thing. Or they stare at me blankly. Thesis? I can't write one."

"Why can't kids keep this information?"

We discuss this problem and are addressing this slowly in our PLC groups, but it continues to amaze me year after year. I wonder if the "one shot writing" is a culprit. That's where we assign a type of writing and even if they are allowed to rewrite it, it is a one-time thing. We then go onto another type of essay, explication, or response. Maybe our kids cannot hold onto information that's given in such isolated events. It makes sense; we don't learn to play baseball with only 1 practice. ...Not even 4 practices, or even 8. In order to be proficient, students need practice again and again and again.

I fear our rigor with literary analysis gets over their head so quickly, they feel unattached to their writing and simply try to fulfill the writing requirement without real ownership in their own thoughts and analysis.

It could be that kids are lazy, unwilling to use what a teacher has taught them from the year before; this is what we conclude every year. However, I'm afraid that there's enough grade-grubbers, people pleasers in the world of students that to see this trend year in and out, seems naive. I think we need to considerate the age, the assignment's purpose, and begin to figure out how to practice writing like coaches have their little leaguers practice a level swing at home plate.