Growing Student Voice and Ownership with Literary Analysis in a Heritage Class

Hello friends! I hope you are doing well and hanging in there until your Spring Break! I’ve really been enjoying my heritage classes lately. Usually this is the time of the year they start to hate me (lol…hopefully I’m not the only one that happens to), but they have really been making a lot of progress lately and they are really starting to come into their own. I wanted to take a few minutes and share what we’ve been up to lately.

Recently I wrote a post on our first unit of the year, narrative writing, and how powerful I had found it. You can find that post here if you’d like to read it. I had some great positive feedback on it, and I’m excited to share that other teachers have embarked on a similar unit and they and their students have also been enjoying it. I hope they plan on sharing their amazing experiences!

If you missed it, my school district recently adopted Lucy Calkins’ and Teachers College Reading and Writing Project curriculum called Writing Units of Study. I teach 10th graders (with some 9th graders mixed in), and we have been using the 6th grade materials with them. The curriculum is pretty rigorous (because the Common Core ELA standards are quite rigorous), and in our case, most of our students haven’t had any formal instruction in Spanish (besides some heritage classe in the last few years), so it seems to be a great fit for them. If you are interested in looking at the materials, you can request a sample here. The narrative blog post I mentioned earlier explains my take on the narrative writing unit. This post will focus on my adaptations and experiences teaching the second unit, Literary Essay (a type of argument writing). Some of the materials I will not be able to share because of copyright, but my goal here is to share some takeaways and student samples so you might be able to use or adapt them in your own classroom, even if you haven’t purchased the materials. (By the way, if you do choose to go ahead and purchase the materials, please let me know! We have a Facebook group for collaboration.)

Unit goals

My goals in the literary essay unit were:

  • teach my kids that they CAN understand and start to love short stories, even when they are challenging
  • review the basic 5 paragraph essay structure with kids, and review the structure of body paragraphs, especially the part about analyzing or explaining their evidence
  • grow their confidence in their ability to analyze a text, and
  • help them easily make a plan for a literary analysis.

Lesson overview

The lesson overview is basically this (I’ll explain details below, feel free to scroll to just the parts you’re interested in):

  1. Read all 5 short stories and make sure everyone understood them
  2. Quick review of 5 paragraph essay
  3. Free-write about a text to explore their own ideas about it
  4. Develop a claim to analyze a character in the text, then look for evidence of claim and create a plan (or vice versa: plan then look for evidence)
  5. Write and revise, fill out justification sheet, turn in
  6. Make their own tool about the steps we’d gone through, in their notebooks, to use for the next part of the lesson
  7. Develop a claim to analyze a theme in the text (the same short story), then look for evidence of claim and create a plan (or vice versa: plan then look for evidence)
  8. Write and revise, fill out justification sheet, turn in
  9. Test – students receive a new text and analyze either a character or a theme

Wow. It sounds so simple when I write it out like that!! 🙂 In reality, it actually took us a long time. There are a few fantastic logistical ideas from TCRWP that I’d like to suggest: first, make sure that you have one short story that you are using as a mentor text (all students have read it, but no students are using it to write their own pieces on). This makes it easy for you to demonstrate strategies and write an exemplar literary analysis essay without being scared they will want to use it themselves. The idea is they practice the strategies on a different text. The other logistical gem that I’ve learned from TCRWP is the idea of doing two “bends” – that is, the first essay we worked on (character analysis) took a long time and was a little bit challenging. But the second essay (theme analysis), was a chance for students to go through a very similar process in a much faster, much less-scaffolded context. The result was my kids really started to own their analysis, their writing really improved, and they really started to feel confident literary analysts in a very short period of time.

Reading the short stories

One challenge of using the 6th grade materials is that a) there aren’t always mentor texts suggested for Spanish speakers, and b) the available mentor texts are not usually age-appropriate. Finding mentor texts is really a challenge because first, I had to read the TCRWP materials to know what the students had to use the texts for (ie, find short stories that lent themselves to character and theme analysis), and then I had to find task-appropriate and age-appropriate texts.

For this unit, I chose 5 short stories. My plan was the hardest one would be my mentor text (Casa tomada), and then students would choose from the other 4 for their analysis. You could easily read only one together, and then have students only read 1 additional story. However, I’m always looking for ways to embed more reading into my classes. Plus, these short stories are all GREAT and have fun surprises in them, so I thought they would enjoy them all. Not to mention, taking time to read all of them and do and go over comprehension questions for each, gave me a little down time in class, which I used to do some clean-up work around spelling patterns. It was a nice change of pace after our giant narrative unit. Not to mention, a few of them are on the AP Spanish Literature reading list (bonus!!). Below are the short stories I used, all of which are available online, with links to the comprehension questions on my Tpt store, if you’re interested.

  1. Casa tomada (Cortázar); questions here
  2. No oyes ladrar a los perros (Rulfo) – on the AP Spanish Literature reading list; questions here
  3. Almohadón de plumas (Quiroga); questions here
  4. Espuma y nada más (Téllez); questions here
  5. El hijo (Quiroga) – on the AP Spanish Literature reading list; questions here

Reviewing the five paragraph essay

Most of my kids studied 5 paragraph essays in their 9th grade heritage class. The goal, then, is to do a quick review of the format, and introduce the idea of character analysis. I chose a 5 minute video on YouTube (in Spanish) with a well-known fairy tale, and after watching it, we analyzed the main character. I went ahead and gave them the claim, “X is an admirable character.” Together we brainstormed three reasons this was true (three adjectives – X is brave, smart, and hardworking) and then brainstormed where in the story we saw evidence of each. Finally, we wrote the intro (just the thesis) and the first body paragraph together. Then, they wrote the other two body paragraphs and the conclusion (just the thesis) on their own. And that’s it! Short and sweet, but a good review.

Developing a claim about the character

This part, obviously, was the biggest challenge. For me, the most valuable part of this unit is teaching students replicable strategies and processes that they can use when they have to come up with their own claim in a different class, different context, different assignment. Remember, I was demonstrating all of the strategies with the class mentor text (Casa tomada) and then asking students to do the same with the text they’d chosen to work with. After days of noticing details, writing to explore our own ideas, and marking up our texts, the students were challenged to come up with a claim (an idea) that was not only true for the character, but also important. For me, this has been the missing link in all the literary analysis work I have done before with students. The difference between writing about something true and writing about something true AND important is the difference between a boring, mediocre essay and a real piece of writing.

In order to come up with some ideas for claims, I had the students work in small groups with other students who were also analyzing the same character. (Especially in this first bend, there is quite a bit of scaffolding). And as I conferenced with small groups of students, I coached them away from boring, “true” statements into more interesting, “true AND important” claims. The ownership that they started to show was amazing: the students were actually invested in their pieces. They were interested. They cared. They felt like their ideas were valuable and they wanted to share them.

The next part was a little challenging: once students had a claim, they had to come up with a plan for the essay (ie, the three supporting points). There are two options to go about this, I recommend doing the first way together, and if students have a hard time, then coaching them a little bit trying the second option.

  • Option 1: Kids already have a claim. They go back to the story and underline or highlight all the evidence in the text to support their claim. Then, they come up with a logical way to organize all that evidence they’ve highlighted. First, I gave them time to try to come up with an idea on their own to organize their evidence. But, after a few minutes, an easy scaffold is to offer is the idea of doing “in the beginning, in the middle, in the end” as a way to organize their evidence. Many students leaned on this scaffold pretty hard the first time around.
  • Option 2: Kids already have a claim. Instead of mining the story for evidence first, they instead think of three parts or areas to use to support their essay first. This could be three reasons that support the claim, three contexts, or even three places in the story (beginning, middle, end). Then, the students return to the text to find the text evidence for each body paragraph.

I required that students have at least 2 quotes or pieces of text evidence per body paragraph. At this point, I was conferencing with kids and making sure I’d signed off on their plan. If you do this as they finish with their plan, it works out pretty well – kids who are already signed off seem to help others, and kids who need longer can keep working while you conference. There was some down time (I think it took at least 2 class periods), but it was definitely worth it. I wouldn’t recommend going forward as a class into drafting until you’ve signed off on everyone’s claim, plan, and evidence.

Lightning draft

Once I knew everyone had a decent plan, we were ready to move forward together. One thing to note: some kids had the exact same claim, even the exact same plan (3 points), and some even had the same text evidence as other students. But, when they start writing, everyone is working on their own essay. The point is to give them enough scaffolding to be ready to write without stopping, so no one can say “I don’t know what to write” or “I’m not sure what to do next.” Then, I asked to them actually write the essay. I usually have them do the first draft by hand and then the second draft on the computer; there seems to be something powerful about them writing it by hand. Also, I think that when they take out their computers, there is a whole other level of distraction.

For the intro and conclusion, I just had them write the thesis and the parts of the essay, but nothing fancy. We tackled that later. They wrote the body paragraphs for their own claim in one 80 minute block period. (Later, you will see how their stamina improved.)

Revision process

Next, I handed out mini-checklists, shrunk just enough so they could glue them into their notebooks. I can’t share them here, because they are copyrighted, but I can share the process. After they glued in the checklists, I went through each thing, and what it meant and what it would look like. The students did a self-evaluation on each point as I explained it, and kept a running “to-do” list of things they wanted to revise or improve. After we had done that, I had them type a new draft into Google classroom. I really challenged them not to just type exactly what they had written in their notebooks, but to work on improving the things on their to-do lists. This is another reason I like them having do the first draft in their notebooks, because I know they at least have to write a whole second draft again when they type it. This whole process takes at least 1 class period (80 minutes, in my world). Students also had access to my sample essay analyzing a character from Casa tomada, using the ideas we had come up with in class, as a mentor text. You can use my sample linked above in your own classroom as a benchmark if you’d like.

The next class period, I hand out what I call a “justification” sheet. On this sheet, I have little snippets from the rubric, and then there are specific questions for the students to answer to justify their score on the checklist/rubric. For example, if the rubric says, “I organized the three body paragraphs of my essay in a logical way,” I might ask 1. What are the three body paragraphs about? 2. Why are they in this order? And 3. Where in your thesis or topic sentences do you explain why they are in that order? The justification sheet is a way for students to really process what the checklist is asking them to do, and give me a chance to see what they think they’ve done (or tried to do) as I grade. Students are notorious at just checking “yes” for everything; this way, I am holding them accountable for showing me that it really is a “yes” (or prompting them to ask me, “What does this really mean?”). I like to give them a whole other class period to fill in this sheet, because most students will find things they haven’t done yet, and revise as they go. At the end of this period, the final paper is due, with the justification sheet.

Student created tools

This was such a fun, meaningful part of this unit. I attended a training for ongoing implementation of the Units of Study materials, and one of the suggestions they had was allowing students to develop student-created tools. If a student creates their own anchor chart or visual representation of a process or concept themselves, it means much more to the student and they are much more likely to remember it, refer back to it, and start seeing their notebook as a place for their own learning.

So…I decided to give it a try. Because I was right in the middle of the unit (we just did the character analysis, and next we were planning on doing the theme analysis), it made sense to me. I wanted them to see that the things we were doing in class were replicable, transferable, portable – something that they could use again and again.

We started by a quick review of the steps. Together, we recounted all the things we’d done to write our essay. The kids jotted down a list of steps while I talked (eventually, I did have to type them up for the kids who were absent). Then, the kids helped themselves to the “art” supplies I had on hand (nothing fancy, just colored post-its, markers, pens, pencils, etc.), and started working. Guys, it went so well. The kids enjoyed it! It was fun for them, and it was a good way to reflect on all the things we’d done. I was surprised at how many of the steps they didn’t remember or couldn’t articulate. It was SO much more valuable than me running off a paper with the steps and them gluing them into their notebooks. At the end of the class period, some students hadn’t finished – it was just homework for them. The next class period, we did a quick gallery walk and I took pictures of all the final products – some kids were so creative!!

Same song, different verse

So, off again, we dived back into a second round of literary analysis. Again, the idea of doing a “part 2” section is pure genius. After a pretty long, pretty scaffolded essay on character, we moved on to an essay about theme. As I mentioned before, this part of the process went by super fast. I think we completed it in about 5 class periods. I was very explicit with students that they would be repeating a lot of the work form the first part of their work, just towards a different claim.

I love the way the TCRWP helped students identify the theme: Think about a lesson a character in the book learned; that’s probably a lesson the author wants the reader to learn, too. So, I demonstrated what I thought the lessons in my short story (Casa tomada) were, and how I could write them in universal terms as a theme. Then, the students worked in small groups (all students working on one story were in one group) to brainstorm lessons from their text. I was able to visit each group and make sure that all students had a theme to go forward with. By doing small groups, I saved a ton of time on conferencing in this bend.

After students had a theme, they had to decide how to organize their essay (again, a challenging part). Many chose the easy scaffold I shared during the first bend (in the beginning, in the middle, in the end), but some pushed themselves to find different reasons or contexts that made sense for their essay. For this essay, they only had to have 1 piece of text evidence for each body paragraph. They did not need much time to identify the text evidence they wanted to use for their essays; most of them, by this time, knew their texts extremely well. Both the small group work to develop a theme as well as deciding how to organize the essay and find text evidence for each part was done in one class period.

The next period, they wrote a lightning draft, with a basic introduction and conclusion (both with simply included the thesis and parts). As I mentioned above, this was written in their notebook.

The following class, we studied strategies for sophisticated introductions, and they wrote their own. Not only did I demonstrate the strategy with my intro for my essay on Casa tomada, they also had many demo texts they could look at. For the conclusion, they were given a list of strategies to try and asked to write a conclusion with at least two of the strategies. Again, these sophisticated introductions and conclusions were written in their notebooks.

The next class, I repeated the process from the first section with the checklist. Since we were using the same checklist as the first time around, they didn’t do a self-evaluation, but they did listen to me describe the skills again and make a to-do list. Then, they had the remainder of the period to type up their essay, while making revisions as they went. Again, they had access to the mentor text I wrote from the work I’d done in front of the class. You can access that mentor text on theme in Casa tomada (and use it as a benchmark) here.

The next class, they completed a justification sheet again as they revised. It was slightly different than the first time around, asking for more difficult skills to be proved, including depth in both their introduction and conclusion.

The culminating exam

At the end of a unit, I like to do an on-demand test. For this unit, I felt like I couldn’t use the generic argument writing prompt provided by TCRWP; I really wanted something more specific to literary analysis. I decided to give kids a new text (that was short and pretty easy to understand), and I used a fable because I wanted the theme to be fairly clear. I gave students one class period to read the text and write an essay (4 or 5 paragraph) analyzing either the character or the theme. They did amazing!! I used the fable you can find here. I wanted to share some of the great examples with you! You can read them here.

Some closing thoughts

Again, I am in awe of the quality materials available from TCRWP. However, that being said, I think there are a lot of amazing strategies here that can applied to any writing classroom. I love this unit because not only did my kids really get excited about some pretty cool, classic short stories, they really developed some serious literary analysis muscles. It was really exciting to see how quickly they were able to turn out their theme essay, and the day we took the test – it was amazing! They read that text and churned out a literary essay, complete with text evidence and analysis, in an hour!! I could tell their confidence as both writers and as literary scholars had soared.

I am especially aware of all the heritage teachers out there that are on a journey of becoming better literacy teachers, better Language Arts teachers, and better writing teachers. This post is for you guys! Thank you for listening as I describe this part of my journey as a writing teacher! I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. Keep fighting the good fight, friends!


PS – Have you joined our mailing list yet?? Let’s connect! We’ll send only great heritage stuff, I promise! Join here!!

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