A few years ago, I had the great fortune to be able to attend Kenyon College’s Writing Workshop for Teachers. My instructor was Dr. Emily Moore, who teaches at Stuyvesant High School in New York. She shared a writing assignment with us that Stuyvesant English teachers use. It’s a form of writing that marries the literary analysis with the personal narrative, and she referred to it as a “Rumination Essay.”
The instructions are as follows (very much adapted from those shared by Dr. Emily Moore):
- Choose a single quotation from the text—about 1-3 consecutive lines [note: this is negotiable, but the point is to choose a short passage rather than a really long passage]. You might choose a passage that captured your attention, moved you, or felt connected to an experience or emotion in your own life. You might reflect on a key message or theme, conflict, or character from the play as a starting point, and look for a quote based on that.
- Begin your rumination by discussing the context of the quote clearly, but avoid unnecessary plot summary. Instead, simply give the reader enough information so the quote will make sense. What situation has led up to the quote? Who is speaking?
- Introduce the quote smoothly with a strong transition, so that it is incorporated into your own writing. Make sure you format the quote correctly and cite it properly. Don’t forget a Works Cited page.
- Analyze the quote. What is its significance in the play up until this point? How does it help us understand a message or theme emerging in the play? What does it suggest about the character’s experience, or the conflicts and characters that drive this story?
- Next, transition into personal writing. In this section, you will write in the first person about an experience of your own that relates to the quote you’ve chosen. The experience doesn’t have to be exactly the same—these characters have their lives; you’ve had yours—but there should be a connection. Your personal experience will reflect something about the quote you’ve chosen, and it will echo an idea that stayed with you from your reading.
Note: In this section, you’ll write in the first person. Work like a storyteller, and think about the techniques storytellers use. In particular, you’ll want to do more than just tell us what happened.Use details (concrete imagery, dialogue, character, etc.) to show us something about your experience, and reflect on it as well.
- Now that you’ve considered how the message or themes suggested by your chosen quote connect to your own life, reconnect to the literary work in your last paragraph. How does the experience you had help you understand the work? Your understanding of the quote and key message or theme you’re discussing will be deeper now, because you’ve enriched it with a story from your own experience. Use that to conclude your rumination.
This assignment can be used with a variety of texts. I have previously used it with teaching King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I have also allowed students to select a work of their choosing.
Students generally enjoy this assignment and find it engaging because it asks them to make a direct connection to a work of literature. However, they also find it challenging to use first person, mainly because somewhere along the line, someone told them never to do that. The structure is a bit different from what they’re accustomed to.
I usually save the exemplars from each year and share them with students so they can get the idea. I am embedding an example of the instructions I share with students. You can use the instructions and modify them for your own texts and needs.