We English teachers all know that students have a hard time analyzing literature, and we tend to get a lot of plot summary rather than analysis. So what do we do to help? Use narrative writing to teach analysis. Telling stories helps us understand the world around us and helps us understand ourselves, so why not use them to understand literature too?
The writing we assign based on a novel or a play is often a literary analysis essay and, as much as that form of writing has its place, I’ve never seen it create much engagement from the majority of students. Yes, there are a handful of future English teachers in our classes who think literary analysis is fun, but the reality is that it will not inspire most to get excited about what they are reading and writing.
I’m not suggesting that we forget the literary essay, only that we should consider other forms of writing sometimes, especially ones that allow students to make real connections to the stories we ask them to read.
I love this quotation from Graves because it gets to the heart of what I’m trying to say here. Our traditional method of assessing literature may lead to “well informed” students – but not always to passion. Narrative writing can, however, because it allows students to explore their own truths and to develop skills that are effective for all types of writing: organizing, sequencing, using transitions, choosing the best words, showing, etc.
So how do we use narrative writing to teach analysis?
Begin with some discussion and pre-writing that allows students to explore ways in which the events, characters and/or themes of the story you are reading relate to their own experiences. Encourage them to choose a meaningful event from their lives, so they can write about something that matters to them. That is the key. Once they are engaged in the subject, they are far more likely to dig into the writing and work on honing their skills. And, because they need to link to something from the text, they will be exploring important elements of the text at the same time.
For example, if you’re reading Romeo and Juliet, your students may be able to relate to unrequited love, having a friend or significant other that their parents or friends didn’t approve of, doing things a parent may have forbidden, defending friends that get in trouble, etc.
When I use narratives to teach analysis, I always ask my students to use an allusion to the text in their stories. This does two things: it illustrates a connection to the text and allows them to use this literary device in an authentic way. So, using R & J again, a student might write a narrative about an event where they helped out a friend who was feuding with another, and refer to himself as “acting all Benvolio.” Or they might write, “like Romeo, I have a habit of falling for people quickly.”
Next, ask students to pass in an explanation with their narrative. I’d strongly suggest that this not become a mini-literary essay, however, as that just defeats the purpose. Instead, ask for a brief paragraph that explains the connections, as well as quotations that illustrate this.
This process allows students to think about the choices they made to connect to the text as well as to the best quotations that would support the connection. This has them thinking about their own purpose and technique and will help them understand how writers do such things as well.
If you’d like to try this with your students, I’ve just created an assignment to use with Macbeth and To Kill a Mockingbird. You can check them out HERE and HERE. You can also give your students a more focused look at narrative writing with my stations.