Literary Essays: Setting the Stage

As part my MFA program, I’ve had to write eight page papers on a paragraph or two of text. That’s a lot of words about not too many words. I’ve also watched my daughters draft critical analyses on literary works in both high school and college. Writing a literary essay is a lifelong skill that we are all working to master, so what can we expect our elementary writers to be able to do, and how can we provide instruction so they can succeed at a sophisticated task.

As with most writing units, the first thing I show students is a chart with the steps involved in writing a literary essay, a final product, and the student-facing checklist for opinion writing. Strong literary essays have a claim that is supported through text and interpretation, and it’s important for students to understand this concept.

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More than anything else, a strong literary essay requires close reading. I teach students to read a passage many times, using different lenses each time. In this example, I have marked up the text, Spaghetti by Cynthia Rylant. This short story and many others can be found in Every Living Thing. 

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Each color represents a different read, thinking about a different idea.

One of the ways I teach students to do this kind of work is to present them with a chart that looks something like this:

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That way, each sticky note represents what you’re looking for in a read-through, what you might mark up with a specific color. These concepts might change depending on your students, but the idea of reading with just one particular focus is important. If you haven’t read Falling in Love With Close Reading by Kate Roberts and Chris Lehman, you will get lots of ideas about how to implement this sort of work from their book.

Depending on your students, you might want to consider making short text packets. Typed versions of favorite picture books work well, as well as poems. It’s important that whatever texts you use, students can (and are willing) to read them several times. Although I am always revamping and updating my short text collections, some tested and true texts are:

Picture Books

  • Crow Call by Lois Lowry
  • When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant
  • The Stranded Whale by Jane Yolen
  • Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
  • The Table Where Rich People Sit by Byrd Baylor
  • A Day’s Work by Eve Bunting

Short Texts/Story Collections

  • Hey World, Here I Am by Jean Little
  • Every Living Thing by Cynthia Rylant
  • Knots in My Yoyo String by Jerry Spinelli

Additionally, almost any poem works for analysis, and literary essays are a wonderful pathway to infuse poetry into your students’ lives.

Once you have students reading their texts over and over and marking it up, then it’s time to develop some more in-depth thinking. I have several examples of this that I keep in my teaching notebook.

 

 

The chart on the right tells students how to do this work and the examples show them what the work looks like. Both are important. I have to say that I have come to many new realizations–had many authentic a-ha moments–by using repeated thinking stems. It’s a powerful process if students have the time and the stamina to really take a deep dive into their thinking.

Once students have worked through their thinking, they can think about what they have the most to say about, and that decision helps drive the direction of their essay. The follwing chart works well for sorting through their thoughts and patches of thinking.

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At this point, most students are ready to plan their essays. Again, I give them a chart of how to do it, and examples of what the work might look like.

 

 

 

I can’t guarantee that everyone will write prize-winning essays, but I will say that this sort of work is important for developing independent thinkers with stamina and appreciation for the work of writing.