Literary Essays

I worked today with some of my beloved fifth grade teachers as they’re pushing into a unit on Literary Essays.  We have been reading and thinking our way through Lucy Calkins book on Literary Essays from the Units of Study.  Today, we disagreed with Lucy (shhhh, don’t tell her).  And so we took Lucy’s stuff and built upon it and created something a little bit different and maybe, a little bit more.

First area of disagreement was the thesis statement.  We all felt like the thesis statements Lucy provided as models were too “summary-like”.  “This is a book about…. (insert one sentence summary here)”.  We’re really struggling to get our kids to talk and write about the book, not re-tell the book again.  They’ve had so much practice with re-telling and summarizing through the years, that they default to that setting.  No way did we want that as the thesis statement.

So, we used the conversations we’ve been having in our Read Aloud with Accountable Talk sessions.  We’ve been looking at large social issues and critical lenses to talk about themes and author’s messages.  We wondered what might happen if we asked the students to draft a thesis statement that posed a critical lens for the book.  So the thesis statement becomes “This is a book about… (insert critical lens here).” The remainder of the introductory paragraph seems to become easier to write because you have that critical lens to talk about.

“This is a book about powerlessness and an attempt to gain power that goes badly wrong.” That felt like a much better thesis statement to us.

Our second disagreement was with how to help our students deal with the body of the essay.  We brainstormed a quick list of ways in which authors elaborate in a literary essay (we got kicked off by one of our pet peeves, over-use of cliches).

  • expanding on cliches
  • connecting to classic or well-known works of literature or art
  • connecting to current events or major historic events
  • connecting to our own lives (less typical in an adult literary essay, but a choice we wanted to provide for our students)
  • morals or lessons to be learned
  • negatives about the text or even suggestions for improvements

That was our initial list.  I’m sure it will grow.

We’re thinking that we’ll have the kids “try on” each elaborative strategy during the workshop time.  Then assess which 3-4 strategies they feel work the best for them and for the text they’re using.  They can pull out those entries and revise and strengthen them and then essentially “assemble” their final essay.

We’ll see how it goes.

Anybody have any other thoughts for how authors elaborate literary essays?