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It’s Critical! Using Literary Criticism to Promote Deeper Reading and Higher-Level Thinking in the Secondary English Classroom
Critical literacy and literary theory enable us to understand, analyze, and interpret a text—whether it be a picture book, young adult novel, canonical classic, or media message—from multiple perspectives. In this workshop we will examine how incorporating literacy criticism benefits all students—from reluctant readers to avid ones, from sixth-grade students to high school seniors—by fostering deeper comprehension, cultivating higher-level thinking, and developing the habits of mind that support critical reading and active engagement in meaning making. This session will include teaching strategies and student-centered activities to help you put the critical approaches into practice.

Introduction to Literary Criticism

Word Storm

Begin with the Syllable Squat (see Morris, p. 51)
Take 2 minutes to brainstorm words related to Critical Theory - Literary Theory - Literary Criticism
Word Storm directions and handout are available on pp. 7-10 of the free pdf download from Vocabulary Unplugged by Alana Morris
Use the Give One, Get One activity to exchange ideas with each other

Finding the Poem Activity

  • Move around the classroom, introducing yourselves to one another and comparing stanzas until you find another that seems to fit with yours.
  • When two people have found a match, continue to roam as a pair until you find the rest of your poem.
  • When you feel you have a complete poem, sit together in your group and put your stanzas in what seems to be the right order.
  • Decide on a title you think would be appropriate for your poem, and be ready to share your thinking with the rest of us.
(Probst, 2007, pp. 48-49)

Three-Stanza Poems

“The Hands” by Linda Hogan
“Happiness” by Stephen Dunn
“The Ideal” by James Fenton
“Mother of the Groom” by Seamus Heaney
“The Panther” by Rainer Maria Rilke
“The Talker” by Mona Van Duyn
“Transit” by Richard Wilbur
“Travel” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
“Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden
“Wall” by Gabriela Mistral

Debrief the Finding the Poem activity

Key Questions: What does it mean? How does it mean?
Click here for Finding the Poem activity - Instructions and Poems (with and without titles)

Excerpt from A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

Objective Criticism: Formalism, Structuralism, New Criticism

Introduction to Formalism

“Texts are made of words, not things or ideas.” ~Michael Riffaterre

“Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins from the Poetry 180 website
(See also Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, an anthology of contemporary poems selected by Billy Collins)
Who is I and who are they and how does each person/group feel about the study of poetry?

How do we help students think about what is important in a poem?
Answers can be found in “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins
Images—“hold it up to the light/like a color slide”
Sound—“press an ear against its hive”
Mystery—mouse in a maze; being in a dark room
Silly—waterski (connect to how all kids love Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, etc.)
(These ideas come from San Antonio poet and writing teacher Jenny Browne )

“Fifteen” by William Stafford

Read and analyze the poem from a formalist/structuralist approach
Click here for the Formalist Analysis of Fifteen - poem and questions

Teaching Literature: From Reading to Interpretation

Click here for the lesson plan on Setting and Character in Tennyson’s “Mariana”
Additional resources are available from the Companion Website to The Reading/Writing Connection by Carol Booth Olson

Why teach irony before reading "A Modest Proposal"?
You wouldn’t want to watch the director’s cut on the DVD if it was your first time seeing the film, would you?

Recommended Texts for Objective Criticism

Oedipus Rex
The Inferno
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein
Monster by Walter Dean Myers
ttyl (Talk to You Later) by Lauren Myracle
Nothing But the Truth by Avi
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Novels in Verse - Click here for an annotated bibliography of selected titles and a more complete list of 125+ titles

Subjective Criticism: Transactional Theory aka Reader Response Criticism

"The Poetry of Bad Weather" by Debora Greger

Associations and Readings

Click here for a complete description of Associations and Readings activity from Probst
Part 1: Experiment to examine everyone's associations with the word "car"
Part 2: Most Important Word activity with "The Journey" by Mary Oliver

Introduction to Reader Response Theory

“We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” ~Anaïs Nin

Read "Mushrooms" by Sylvia Plath (without the title) and share what you think it's about
Click here for the Intro to Reader Response lesson plans

Louise Rosenblatt, the Pioneer of Reader Response Theory

Special issues of NCTE journals dedicated to Rosenblatt's life and work:
Talking Points, Vol. 17, No. 1, October 2005
Lanugage Arts, Vol. 82, No. 1, September 2004
Voices from the Middle, Vol. 12, No. 3, March 2005
English Journal, Vol. 94, No. 4, March 2005

Louise Rosenblatt tells us three things . . .

  • The literature itself must have some connection to the students’ lives.
  • The approach must, in order to capitalize upon the students’ lives, be inductive.
  • Students must be involved, must be engaged to the point where the discussion leads them “to raise personally meaningful questions . . . [and] to seek in the text the basis for valid answers.” (ix-x)

Characteristics of a Reader Response Classroom

  • Teachers encourage students to talk extensively.
  • Teachers help students make a community of meaning.
  • Teachers ask, they don’t tell.
  • Teachers ask students to make links to personal experience.
  • Teachers affirm student responses.
(Christenbury, 2006, p. 128)

The Reader Response Approach is NOT an invitiation to . . .

  • Ignore completely what is in the text.
  • Read into the text facts or inferences that are clearly not present or not defensible.
  • Insist that, “well, that’s my opinion” constitutes the last–and unassailable–word on the discussion.
  • Reveal sensitive aspects of their personal lives in order to discuss the literature or defend their points.
(Christenbury, 2006, p. 135)

Key Points of Reader Response

  • The reader makes the poem in reading it.
  • The reader sees herself in the poem she has made.
  • Reading is itself experience.

“The mind fits the world and shapes it as a river fits and shapes its own banks.” ~Annie Dillard

Putting Reader Response to Work in the Classroom

One Text, Two Poems

Suggested Texts: “Sign for My Father, Who Stressed the Bunt” by David Bottoms and “Pockets” by Karen Swenson
Click here for the One Text, Two Poems lesson and poems

Marginalia: Capturing Our Readings

Suggested Texts: “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros and "She Unnames Them" by Ursula Le Guin
Click here for the Marginalia lesson and short stories

The Reading Act

Consider the multiple transactions that are possible with a single text
Read "As Best She Could" by Donald Jones
  • What does the poem make you feel? If nothing, can you tell why? If something, then what precisely?
  • Does it remind you of anyone you know, anyone that you have ever seen, any experience you have had?
  • Does it call to mind thoughts, ideas, or attitudes, even if they seem tangential?
  • Is there any word in the poem that you think is particularly important?

Dialogue with a Text

Listen to “The Secret” by Denise Levertov read by Denise Levertov on Poetry Speaks (book and CDs)
Discuss the poem with a partner using Dialogue with a Text booklets
Click here for a link to the “Dialogue with a Text” article by Robert Probst - The English Journal 77.1, Jan. 1988

Reader Response as "Filling in the Gaps"

Use short texts such as these Very Short Stories published in Wired magazine, Nov. 2006 (not all are classroom appropriate)
Invite students to interpret some of these Six Word Stories or these Six-Word Memoirs - perhaps have students write their own
See also Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure
Listen to Six-Word Memoirs: Life Stories Distilled (and click on link to see the gallery of illustrated six-word memoirs)
Or have students create a six word story with a photograph and share to the group pool on Flickr

More Short Texts for Reader Response

The World's Shortest Stories edited by Steve Moss
The 5-Minute Iliad and Other Instant Classics: Great Books for the Short Attention Span by Greg Nagan
Shrinklets: Seventy of the world's towering classics cut down to size by Maurice Sagoff
Short Short Stories by Dave Eggers for the Guardian Weekend magazine

Electric Literature has also posted these animated interpretations of single sentences from literature

Reader Response as "Re-visioning the Text"

Share visual interpretations of poems with students as examples, and have students choose their own poems to re-vision

For example, Poetry Everywhere features 34 animated interpretations of poetry
Additional Poetry Everywhere resources are available on the Poetry Foundation website

These poems by Billy Collins have also been re-envisioned through animation

If you don't have access to YouTube, the videos are also available on the Billy Collins Action Poetry website

Reader Response Journals

Also called Reader Response Logs, Dialectical Journals, Double-Entry Journals, etc.
One way to consistently implement reader response theory in the classroom is to have students keep a reader response journal
Depending on the age and readiness of the students, they will need some kind of scaffolding
Helping students develop a repertoire of questions and stems they know how to respond to provides this support

More Reader Response Lesson Plans

Literary Scrapbooks Online: An Electronic Reader-Response Project (9-12)
Reader Response in Hypertext: Making Personal Connections to Literature (9-12)
Focusing Reader Response Through Vocabulary Analysis (9-12)
Making Personal and Cultural Connections Using A Girl Named Disaster (6-8)

Recommended Texts for Reader Response Criticism

"The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
“A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka
“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
A Separate Peace by John Knowles

Finding the Balance between Objective Criticism and Reader Response

Read "From One Friend to Another" by Naomi Shihab Nye (San Antonio poet)
Aesthetic and Efferent Stances Toward Reading
Begin with the personal response before moving into any structural analysis
Be careful not to "beat it with a hose"

Critical Literacy

Transformation = Critical Thinking + Literacy ~bell hooks

What is Critical Literacy?

Critical literacy is the ability to read texts in an active, reflective manner in order to better understand power, inequality, and injustice in human relationships.

The Four Resources Model of Reading

Four necessary roles for the reader in a postmodern, text-based culture:
  • Code breaker - coding competence - the ability to decode text - break the code of texts
  • Meaning maker - semantic competence - the ability to make meaning - participate in the meaning of texts
  • Text user - pragmatic competence - every day functional literacy - use texts functionally
  • Text critic - critical competence - the ability to critically analyze texts - critically analyze and transform texts

Critical Literacy and Proficient Readers
Looking at research into proficient readers and studying critical literacy helped me come to the following understandings about strong readers:
  • Strong readers can envision—they can build the world of a story in their minds (Keene and Zimmerman 1997; Langer 1995; Pearson et al. 1992).
  • Strong readers can read between the lines—they can construct not only what literally happens on the page but also see the deeper meaning behind the words. They understand that often the literal words simply imply more, and they try to ask questions that allow them to unpack the belief system the text suggests (Bomer and Bomer 2001; Edelsky 1999; Keene and Zimmerman 1997; Langer 1995; Pearson et al. 1992).
  • Strong readers can let the story lead them to develop big ideas about the world of the story and, by extension, their own worlds (Bomer and Bomer 2001; Edelsky 1999).
(Santman, 2005, p. 25)
Questions to Encourage Critical Analysis of Texts

Lessons Learned from Reading with Adolescents

  • Enthusiasm may indeed be contagious, but students won't necessarily like books just because we do.
  • Students are constantly reading the world. They need a place to talk about what they've discovered.
  • Students want what they do in school to matter. Students want what they do outside of school to matter.
  • Don't underestimate adolescents. They are often much better than we might imagine at finding meaning in a book.
(Appleman, 2007, 143-147)

Multiple Perspectives: Critical Approaches to Literature

The Blind Men and the Elephant

The story of the blind men and an elephant originated from India. It has been attributed to the Sufis, Jainists, Buddhists, or Hindus, and has been used by all those groups. The best-known version in the West is the 19th-century poem by John Saxe. There is also a picture book version called Seven Blind Mice by Ed Young.
Click here for three different versions of the Blind Men and the Elephant

Another good picture book for introducing the concept of multiple perspectives is Fish is Fish by Leo Leoni

Reading from Different Perspectives

Read aloud "The House" by Laurie Henry
If I gave you a quiz over the details of the house how would you do?
Have students read "The House" again from one of two different points of view - real estate agent or thief
Highlight what's important, share with a partner, see if your partner can guess your point of view
How would you do on the quiz this time? Better or worse? Why?

The values of teaching students to read from multiple perspectives?

According to Paolo Freire, literacy education involves not only reading the word, but also reading the world.
Gives students a variety of ways to look at the world
Helps students understand the world from different perspectives
Adolescents tend to have a dualistic perspective, introducing plurality/multiplicity is an important habit of mind
Interrogating the text and society can help us move toward social justice

Introduction to Multiple Perspectives

Start with a Familiar Story

Think of a family story, preferably one that is retold often and is a part of your family mythology. In a paragraph or so, tell that story from your own perspective.
Now think of another family member and retell the story from his or her perspective.
What difference does perspective make? How can we know what the "true" version of the story is?
Click here for the Matter of Perspective handout including the prompts above
Each member of the family has a different version of a family story
Oral history assignment: Have students gather different versions from different family members to compare

A Matter of Perspective

Read "Little Miss Muffet" by Russell Baker or The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka
Students draw a nursery rhyme out of a hat or choose a fairy tale they want to work with
Students recast the story from several occupations or roles (like "Little Miss Muffet") or come up with an alternate version (like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs)

There are at least three different sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth.

  • What if The Adventures of Huck Finn were told from the perspective of Tom Sawyer or Jim?
  • What if To Kill a Mockingbird were told from perspective of Boo Radley or Tom Robinson?
  • What if Diary of Anne Frank were told from the point of view of Peter or Anne’s father?

Prisms of Possibility: An Introduction to Theory

When moving from the general notion of multiple perspectives to literary theory, begin with poetry
Poems provide the opportunity to look at a work in its entirety and they are open to multiple interpretations

Oranges, Two Ways

Upon Seeing an Orange
Read "Oranges" by Gary Soto
Divide the class into groups and give each group a different lens to apply to the poem
Click here for the Literary Theory: Prisms of Possibilities chart
Jigsaw: after each group inhabits one lens, students regroup to share different interpretations with each other
You can look at the same exact thing from a variety of lenses and see different things
Be sure to point out that there is not just one feminist reading of a work, etc.

Other Ideas for Introducing Theory

Theory Wars: Looking at Star Wars through Critical Lenses
Looking Through Lenses: Our First Look
On the Subway from Four Perspectives (jigsaw)

Literary Theories: Introductions and Overviews

Literary Theories: A Sampling of Critical Lenses
Overview of Literary Theory
Literary Criticism Viewpoint Cards

Critical Theories: Detailed Reference

Archetypal Criticism
Recommended short story for archetypal criticism: "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson
Recommended films for archetypal criticism: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Wizard of Oz, The Lion King, Finding Nemo
Recommended classics for archetypal criticism (hero's quest): Gilgamesh, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Beowulf, Idylls of the King, Siddhartha
Recommended text for archetypal criticism (hero's quest): Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, "A Worn Path" by Eudora Welty, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Through Rose-Colored Glasses: The Feminist Lens
Recommended short story for feminist criticism: "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Key Ideas of Karl Marx
Recommended texts for Marxist criticism: To Kill a Mockingbird and Hamlet
Suggested poems for deconstruction: "Annabel Lee" by Edgar Allan Poe and "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost

Concluding Activities

Critical Encounters: Reading the World
From Reading Words to Reading the World: Perception is Everything

Further Reading and Lesson Ideas

Literary Criticism Bibliography

"'Mirror, Mirror on the Wall': Readers' Reflections on Literature through Literary Theories" by Joanne M. Golden and Donna Canan
EJ Extension: Two Additional Critical Approaches and Little Snow-white by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

"Learning to View Literature Instruction with Literary Lenses: One Group's Story" by Pamela Sissi Carroll
EJ Extension: Additional Lesson Plans

"Film as Film: Using Movies to Help Students Visualize Literary Theory" by Valerie Muller
EJ Extension: Additional Movies and Literary Theories for Classroom Use
Media Literacy in Texas Curriculum Guides
Click here for more media literacy resources

"Approaches to Reading with Multiple Lenses of Interpretation" by Melissa Troise
RWT Lesson Plan: Id, Ego, and Superego in Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat

"Taking a Cultural-Response Approach to Teaching Multicultural Literature" by Yu Ren Dong
RWT Lesson Plan: Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges: Critical Discussion of Social Issues

"Perspective-Taking as Transformative Practice in Teaching Multicultural Literature to White Students" by Thein, Beach, and Parks
RWT Lesson Plan: Exploring Language and Identity: Amy Tan's "Mother Tongue" and Beyond

Note: We used the 4 A's Protocol to discuss selected readings during the workshop. This protocol is one that encourages critical literacy. Protocols are helpful for students because they provide a structure for discussion. For more protocols, see the School Reform Initiative .