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Students often find themselves overwhelmed when they are asked to write a literary criticism. They confuse a summary with an analysis, and they struggle to find evidence from the text. A lack of confidence in their own writing causes them to qualify their arguments with statements like “I think the characters feel this” or “I believe the author meant that.” No matter how many times I stress the importance of avoiding first person pronouns, they don’t seem to listen. “Write with authority!” I preach. You wouldn’t want your defense attorney to stand before the jury and say “I think my client is innocent. I’m pretty sure he didn’t do this crime.” That would weaken the attorney’s argument, right?
Approach paper writing like a court proceeding
If you think about it, an essay really does follow the format of a court proceeding. You begin your paper with your “opening statement.” The writer needs to fill her reader in on the topic at hand and she needs to make a bold, firm statement about what she will prove throughout the essay, just as an attorney will do when giving her opening statement to the jury. The body of the paper is like witness testimony. Each piece of evidence from the text or outside source represents a witness on the stand, and the attorney’s job is to connect that witness testimony to the case at hand. Finally, the lawyer gives her closing statement: a strong conclusion that ties together all the threads left by witnesses and reiterates to the jury the main points of the case.
Debating “The Scarlet Ibis”
I often use this analogy when I am explaining essay writing to my students, but it wasn’t until a heated discussion about the short story “The Scarlet Ibis” that I decided to really test my analogy. If you are unfamiliar with the story, the unnamed narrator is reflecting back on his childhood and his handicapped brother, Doodle. Through his recitation, we see the narrator struggle with his child-like emotions regarding having a disabled brother, but we also see him pushing Doodle to rise above his infirmities and reach his fullest potential. In the end, Doodle is overcome by his illnesses and dies, and Brother is left with an overwhelming sense of guilt. Did he push him to his death? Or did the ailments that plagued Doodle since birth finally get the better of him?
You cannot ever fully trust a first person narrator; therefore I’ve always believed the guilt that burdens Brother leads the reader to believe he has done something wrong. In reality, he never wished ill for Doodle, but because Doodle died and the narrator lived, his crippling guilt gives the story a shameful tone.
My students often see things differently. They even go so far as to say that Brother “killed” Doodle. No matter how much I try to persuade them that this is only because they are seeing the story through Brother’s own eyes, they can’t be convinced. And so, we put Brother on trial.
The Position Paper
I begin the trial project by encouraging the students to get excited by the concept. The class will assume the role of all the major players in the story, with the addition of a couple of roles, including four attorneys. They usually love the idea of doing something a bit out of the ordinary. Their strong feelings about the story help to sustain that enthusiasm. The first step I take is to assign a position paper. The requirements are simple: one page in length, with a strong assertion regarding Brother’s “guilt” or “innocence,” and three examples from the text that support their point of view.
I also suggest that they write on the top of their paper what their dream role would be in the trial. They know that the suggestion does not guarantee them that role, but it signals to me their level of commitment in the project. If a student writes that they want to be a jury member, they are probably not going to perform well as a lawyer. Their ability to comb through the story for evidence that proves their point of view signifies to me whether or not they can tackle a bigger role.
Once I assign students to their roles, I give them each specific worksheets to help them prepare for those roles. They spend time researching their parts, both using details from the text and outside sources. (Hmmm…sound familiar? A little like paper writing, perhaps???) I give them suggestions, but I really allow the students to take the helm and decide what information is necessary. On their own, they usually research the law, deciding what charge is appropriate for the crime and what the punishment for that crime might be in the state in which we determine the story takes place. The doctors research potential causes of death and the players from the story scour the pages, searching for details that support their case.
Although I prefer to avoid casting jury members, it is sometimes necessary, depending on the size of the class. Jury members understand that their roles are reversed: while the active trial members are busy early in the project, the jury takes action upon the trial’s completion. Not only do they have to take notes during the trial and deliberate afterwards, but I also have them write a final reflection, discussing the trial itself and the performance of their classmates.
The Trial Begins
During the trial, the students really shine. They take immense pride in taking their research and turning it into action. The really ambitious ones even dress for their roles! I schedule two days for the trial, with flexible scheduling up to a week, because sometimes they are so enthusiastic it can’t be contained into just two days.
The class period begins with opening statements, and then the prosecution presents their case. The witnesses are “sworn in” by swearing on the literature book to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me William Shakespeare.” Defense gets to cross-examine the witnesses before presenting their case on the following day. The whole affair wraps up with closing statements, and then the jury takes over.
Jury deliberations can take anywhere from ten minutes to a full day. Even though these are generally my less motivated students, they, too, get caught up in the fun of the trial and they want to do their part well. They ask to “review” evidence (often my own notes, or “documents” that the other kids have prepared) and they carefully comb over the facts of the trial. When they come back with a verdict, the classroom accepts it even if they disagree because there is no doubt that they came to an educated conclusion.
By the end of the whole affair, my students realize the importance of research and fact checking. They understand the need for a strong “opening statement” and a conclusion that restates all of their important facts and solidifies the final judgement they want their readers to believe. Not only do they have a more solid grasp on writing a literary analysis, but they have quite a strong opinion on the guilt or innocence of poor Doodle’s Brother. In the end, it is the lessons with which students are able to have fun that have the most impact on their learning. For more of my thoughts on teaching lessons that make an impact, check out my article Teaching the Why.