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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.

 


 

Melanie Meehan View All

I am the Writing and Social Studies Coordinator in Simsbury, CT, and I love what I do. I get to write and inspire others to write! Additionally, I am the mom to four fabulous daughters and the wife of a great husband.

9 thoughts on “Literary Essays: Setting the Stage Leave a comment

  1. That’s super fabulous, I am a school owner of a Center of foreign languages and I teach English and French, here in Patras, Greece.I teach all levels and prepare students for certificate or diploma exams, they start at 6 and finish at 13 years old or later.
    This year I intend to have extra offered classes about writing stories, especially a team of 8 girls(6th grade) were begging me literally since last year because they write stories themselves! Essay writing is a crucial part of writing essays when the time comes to sit the exams so they need to know the craft of doing it. More girls heard about that from their siblings and now I have another group of 5th grade!
    I would love to have some models to show them and help them with their writing process! That would be awesome! Thank you, so much!

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  2. Reading this post brings me back to a world before the teaching of writing became an actual thing. In my day, you learned grammar and spelling and that an essay consisted of 5 paragraphs with a beginning, ending and two or three well supported ideas in the middle. We’ve come a long way. Sometimes I wonder, however, if all students are “ready” for the plethora of information that is available for teaching writing. When I taught writing I always enjoyed conferencing with students (grade 4 to college freshmen) to find out what they really wanted to say, or what was challenging them in their writing journey.

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  3. Dear Melanie,
    This is a beautifully written post that has inspired my preparation as I approach this unit with my 7th graders. I was just getting ready to pull out all of my TC work from last summer and now I am truly inspired. Thank you very much for your efforts!

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  4. Thanks so much for this lesson. This gives me some great fresh ideas on how to teach this difficult topic! I am trying to build a bank of sample literary essays to share with students. I would like to share with them essays from different pieces of literature than what I am asking them to analyze. I find my student struggle with this type of writing. I would love to have a few models to show them. Does anyone have any quality student samples that they would be willing to share? I teach 7th, 8th, and 10th grades. Thanks!

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