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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Short Essays Responses To Elicit Critical Thinking and Concise Writing


     Brief essay responses to poetry and short fiction (or sections of longer works) make up the bulk of my academic writing lessons for ages 10-17. I do not believe that students always have to write the standard five-paragraph essay to convey their understanding of a piece of literature, or other art form. Quick "thematic paragraph responses" (as I call them) exercise students' writing skills by enriching the powers of conciseness and clarity of expression, and students who write these short analyses on a regular basis end up better prepared to take on full essays about longer forms of literature. While I never advocate "cookie-cutter" essay writing, I do provide my students with a mnemonic device--a silly musical allusion to "Old MacDonald Had a Farm"--to ensure a thorough, yet concise analysis of a theme (a format that is also applicable to each body paragraph of an essay): "E I-E-I O" or "E I-E-I, I-E-I O" (the longer version is for more experienced students and deeper analyses, with its repetition of the middle I-E-I section). Here is an explanation of that musical memory-jogger:


 E=Establish topic/theme

 I=Illustrate with a quotation or specific example (introduced in its context)

 E=Explain what the illustration (above) shows the reader

 I=Interpret the Implications of that illustration (why it shows what it shows)

 O=Overall statement related to theme in a broader way 


     To illustrate this kind of lesson prompt, I am sharing, below, a fifteen-year-old young man's paragraph response to a poem that I wrote. I will share the actual poem that he analyzed AFTER the paragraph, to further illustrate something I emphasize with my high school students: write essays about literature as if the reader is unfamiliar with the subject work. That ensures the clearest analysis. Here is the student's written response:


Essay Paragraph Response to “Behind the Armor”
by Enan, age 15

            In the poem, “Behind the Armor,” author Susan L. Lipson describes two different kinds of people through the use of knights and wrestlers. The author writes, “Knights... they battle insecurity loneliness, and weakness.” Knights often wear armor in battle, and when knights face a problem, they deflect them with their armor. Previously in this poem, the author talks about how arrogance is like a faceguard and how meanness is their shield. Through this metaphor, she is trying to convey the message that some people are too cocky to ruin their image. So instead of confronting their problems, they deflect them, and therefore put others down so that they can forget about their own problems. Later in the poem, the author transitions to talking about wrestlers: “Wrestlers engaged in hand-to-hand combat with emotions, building thicker skin through baring it.” When wrestlers fight, they have no protection; they use their bare skin. Although it may be more painful, in the end, the wrestler will grow to deal with the pain better than a knight would. The author is telling us that confronting your problems will make you a tougher person. Rather than be knights who deflect emotions out of their lives, we should be wrestlers who deal with emotions and therefore become stronger.


     And here is the poem he was writing about:

     Behind the Armor
     by Susan L. Lipson

Such clouded knights,
        with their vision obstructed
        by the arrogance they wear as faceguards, 
        the aloofness they don as protective suits,
        and the meanness they carry as shields;
        they battle insecurity, fear,
        loneliness, and weakness— 
        unlike wrestlers engaged in 
        hand-to-hand combat with emotions,
        building thicker skin through baring it,
        from struggle to truce
        from pain to healing,
        from sweat to sigh to 
  enlightened daze.

     Were you able to understand Enan's analysis before even reading the poem? And now that you have read the poem, does his analysis seem credible? (It does to me, and since I am the poet, that should have some weight!)
     

                               

Gadget

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