Category Archives: Social Justice

#TeachLivingPoets: Introduction to Literary Analysis and Critical Lenses

Books

I’ve been a little bit frustrated by my first unit in AP Lit. since my first year teaching it. Since this year is my fourth, it was time to make some changes or scrap it altogether, and since I felt it had some real potential, I decided to rethink the selections I was using to introduce literary analysis tools and critical lenses. I’m a little embarrassed it took me three years to figure out the solution. Even more embarrassing? I stumbled on this solution by accident after forgetting I was a day ahead of where I thought I’d be in my lesson plans. But after that serendipitous change went well, I knew what I needed to fix the rest of my unit: student agency.

I started peeking into discussions on Twitter at the hashtag #TeachLivingPoets some time ago. I asked which collections teachers using the hashtag recommended, and they offered a great list. I already had Clint Smith’s Counting Descent, which I highly recommend, and Wisława Symborska’s Poems New and Collected. I found Second Space by Czesław Miłosz, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry edited by J. D. McClatchy, and Miracle Fruit by Aimee Nezhukumatathil in a classroom, presumably left behind by a teacher who departed our school.

I ordered the following:

I put all these collections in a box I called my Box of Books by Living Poets. Of course, Miłosz and Symborska are not living poets, but they are at least 20th-21st-century poets. I carried the box with me to class.

The books that generated the most interest were Counting Descent and Citizen Illegal, though students also looked into Calling a Wolf a WolfElectric ArchesAmerican Journal, Miracle Fruit, and The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. To be honest, no one cracked open either Miłosz and Symborska. Some students elected to focus on poems they knew and loved by poets as diverse as Rupi Kaur, Allen Ginsberg, Dr. Suess, Eminem, and Emma Lazarus.

The first thing students do with the poems is learn how to use one of several literary analysis tools to help break down the poem. In my AP Lit workshop a few years ago, I learned about DIDLS, TWIST, and SIFTT (video). Lisa Huff had already introduced me to TPCASTT (weirdly, this TPCASTT post on my blog is the one that consistently receives the most traffic). If you know who invented any of these strategies, let me know so that I can give proper attribution. I do not know who created them, but they’re widely shared.

Students worked in groups to use the literary analysis tool to analyze a poem of their choice, create a presentation using Google Slides explaining how to use the analysis tool, and demonstrate their application of the tool to their own poem analysis.

In between using the literary analysis tools and learning critical lenses, students discussed Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor.

Students created a second presentation using critical lenses to deepen their poem analysis. They could use the same poem as before or a different one. Most students chose a different poem, again from the Box of Books by Living Poets or one of their own choosing. Again, students analyzed the poem using one of the literary analysis tools and added the layer of the critical lens.

Some of my takeaways from the change:

Students were much more engaged in this unit this year. It’s probably obvious, but the reason why I think they enjoyed the unit more was the selection of poetry. They had an opportunity to either analyze poetry they really like or they were introduced to poetry by living poets, with the immediacy and relevance of those voices bring with them. Students were really enjoying Clint Smith’s poetry. They were excited by the fact that José Olivarez’s book had been released just weeks ago, and they were probably some of the first students to analyze his poems.

Students were reading more poetry than they had in previous years. They had to find the poems they wanted, which in itself was a process. Students also shared their poems in presentations, reading the poems they were analyzing before sharing their analyses. Because of the large variety of poems available, students were simply reading more of them.

Students were able to bring in literature that was important to them. One student lamented in a recent discussion that she didn’t feel represented well in our school’s curriculum. She had read one major text by an author with her background, and to quote her commentary, “It was weird.” Because of these projects, she was able to bring in poets with backgrounds similar to her own background and share those poems with her classmates. Another student brought in her own poem to analyze. Two other students brought in a poem by a student their age at another school (video).

Students understand the literary analysis tools better. They are better able to articulate why they selected certain tools. For example, they noted the diction was interesting, and it prompted them to use DIDLS. If tone seemed really important, they chose TWIST. They loved TPCASTT for its versatility.

Students understand the critical lenses better. Purdue OWL has revamped their pages on critical lenses, and they are amazing. Having really good introductions to the critical lenses made a huge difference. Also, I think choosing their own poems asked students to think more about which lenses could be used to interpret the poems. For example, students with experience reading Clint Smith’s poems for the first presentation knew he would work well for critical race theory in the second. A student who loves Eminem knew his song “The Monster” was ripe for a psychoanalytical analysis. As a result of having to select their poems, students had to use higher-order critical thinking skills of application and evaluation to do their analysis as opposed to the past, when I selected poems I thought would be good to use for the critical lenses.

I was more engaged in the classroom, too. No, it’s not about me as the teacher, but I was way more interested during the students’ presentations because their own engagement and interest showed through in their work. Watching the presentations this year was really a lot of fun.

My prediction is that students will use both the literary analysis tools and the critical lenses more this year than they did in past years. I am hoping to grab a few minutes to ask their feedback on the unit in the upcoming week, but one student remarked as she left class Friday that “this is fun English.”

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How I Changed My Mind Once

John Moore, Getty Images
John Moore, Getty Images

Literature is a powerful means of helping us understand things we don’t understand otherwise. It can offer us new perspectives. It can reflect ourselves, certainly, but it can also help us understand others who are not like us. It offers us an opportunity to see things from a perspective besides our own. It’s incredibly obvious to me that our current president doesn’t read because he lacks that important perspective.

We have all, at one time or another, been blind to others’ perspectives. For instance, I have been thinking a lot lately about homelessness. I have held some beliefs about it that I am questioning, and I’m also questioning why I believed these things when I admit now that I didn’t have certain information. My information about who becomes homeless and why was woefully incomplete. I have had an opportunity to get to know some young people who found themselves homeless, and not for reasons I would have thought.

I was watching some videos last night when I was having trouble falling asleep. Because I went to a U2 concert on Thursday night, my ears are still full of their music, and I’m still feeling that post-concert energy. (I had a really hard time going to sleep Thursday night after the concert.) I was really just clicking through different videos, feeling 80’s nostalgia big time with some of them, and I happened upon this short interview with the Edge in which he describes working on a documentary about homelessness and how he had begun interrogating his feelings about homelessness. It’s fairly candid. It’s hard to admit you were not open-minded about something in the past or that you held political or social beliefs in the past that you now disagree with. Watching that video, in which someone I admire a great deal admits to a certain blindness about a situation—I blindness I shared—helped me figure out what I wanted to say about the current crisis at America’s southern border. We all change. As Taylor Mali says in “Like Lilly Like Wilson,” “changing your mind is one of the best ways / of finding out whether or not you still have one.”

As I have learned from others, I have changed my mind many times. It’s not “waffling,” it’s adjusting based on information you didn’t have before. In order to adjust, you have to be open to that information. Many people reject information that conflicts with what they believe. Cognitive dissonance is not a rare phenomenon. People confronted with information that contradicts beliefs they have held will do one of several things:

  1. Change their mind or their behavior based on the new information.
  2. Justify it in some way.
  3. Ignore or dismiss the new information.

We should interrogate the source and strength of the information, of course, but if the information is both strong and comes from a reliable source or data, we are lying if we do anything except change our minds or behavior. Climate change is a good example. A lot of people are choosing either to justify not doing anything for the climate or to ignore it and say climate change is made up.

A long time ago, I believed every person coming into our country should follow the legal channels. What is the big deal? If you want to become an American, I thought, fine, but do whatever paperwork you need to do. I changed my mind after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Bean Trees. What made me change my mind is that Kingsolver opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of people cannot follow legal channels and come to America for a variety of reasons: their governments are so corrupt that they will never be able to complete the required paperwork and go through official channels or their lives are in danger (often because of their corrupt government). Obviously, there are a host of other reasons.

In The Bean Trees, the protagonist Taylor Greer meets a couple, Estevan and Esperanza, who are undocumented immigrants from Guatemala. Taylor’s friend Mattie runs a sort of “underground railroad” for undocumented immigrants out of her home. Kingsolver allows Taylor to stand in for the uninformed reader. Her naivete about what is happening in the world around her mirrored my own, despite the fact that I watched the news, and I knew about the rampant corruption and violence in Central and South America. I didn’t see it because I didn’t know anyone who had experienced it, and one thing novels allow you to do is live vicariously through the characters.

Getting to know Estevan and Esperanza changed my mind about undocumented immigrants. They were fleeing a civil war in Guatemala. Their lives were in danger. Their child was taken from them in Guatemala. Kingsolver gets at the heart of the issue many Americans have with refugees and undocumented immigrants through Estavan. After the character Virgie May Parsons declares that immigrants should “stay put in their own dirt, not come here taking up jobs” because “before you know it the whole world will be here jibbering and jabbering till we won’t know it’s America” (143), Taylor feels she should apologize to Estevan for Virgie’s comments. Estevan says, “I understand . . . This is how Americans think. You believe that if something terrible happens to someone, they must have deserved it” (157). We blame victims of oppression instead of looking at policies and systems that created oppression.

Later when Taylor learns that Estevan and Esperanza’s daughter Ismene was kidnapped because Estevan was a member of an underground teachers’ union in Guatemala. Esperanza’s brother and friends are also in the union and are killed in a police raid. Ismene, Estevan and Esperanza’s daughter, is abducted as a form of “ransom.” If they will give up the information they have about the union, the government will return Ismene to them. Giving up the information they have will mean death for union members. Taylor is horrified when she finds out that Estevan and Esperanza had to choose to leave their daughter behind, and she says, “I can’t even begin to think about a world where people have to make choices like that.” Estevan replies, “You live in that world” (184).

I lived in that world, too, and like Taylor, I didn’t know. I didn’t know because I had the privilege not to know. The way I handled the cognitive dissonance that came with learning that not everyone can follow the proper channels when they are seeking to come to America is that I changed my beliefs. I don’t feel threatened by people coming to America to seek a better life, but I understand that for one reason or another, many people do feel threatened.

I had the opportunity recently to hear Clint Smith speak as part of the Multicultural Teaching Institute in Weston, MA. I didn’t attend the entire institute; I have attended in the past. The only part of the institute I attended was Clint Smith’s talk. One thing he said really resonated with me. It isn’t indoctrination to teach the truth. Present the information to the students and let them decide what to do with the information. For example, he cited the statistic from a Southern Poverty Law Center study that found that only 8% of high school seniors name slavery as the cause of the Civil War. This, despite the fact that many primary source documents written by secessionists name slavery as their reason for wanting to break from the union. Smith says that it’s not our job as educators to convince students to agree with us. Present the information in its totality, however, and let them grapple. It is our job to complicate the narrative, to show the complexities and contradictions. But the students will need to cope with the potential cognitive dissonance. And they have a few options. They can accept the new information and change their minds or behavior. They can justify it in some way. Or they can reject it. But we need to make sure students have the information they need to make that choice. They need to read books like The Bean Trees. Check out the work in #DisruptTexts on Twitter to learn how to share multiple, diverse perspectives with students.

“Home” by Warsan Shire seems appropriate to share.

Thank you to my friend Glenda for 1) reminding me to write about The Bean Trees, which has been much on my mind lately, and 2) to challenge educators to write about this issue.