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Help with Literary Criticism Essays

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For our rhetoric stage ancient literature class we are mostly doing WTM suggestions, but adding Great Courses (Vandiver) to enhance our readings.  Also, instead of writing a book report/response on every text, I wanted my kids to write four literary criticism papers over the year.  I'm having trouble finding a good guide/rubric for a high school level critical lit essay.  We are also doing WWS3, and there are two weeks of literary criticism (wks 9 and 31) so we could use week 31 as a guide.  Does that seem appropriate?  Or does anyone have a good guide as to what process my kids should go through to write these papers and what the content should be?  Also a rubric on how to grade them?  Thanks!

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Welcome! I see by your post count you are new. ?

I've not used WWS3, but I have it on the shelf as a possible resource for my Lit. & Comp co-op classes. Just now skimmed weeks 30-31, and I would guess that if you've been using WWS all along, and if that is "clicking" for your students, then I would guess that by the time you hit those weeks, the program will have built up the student in the skills needed in order to do a literary analysis essay. In comparing what I do in my classes with WWS, I give a lot more detailed assignments and guided questions to help my students think through how they are going to approach the assignments. But I totally get why WWS is so general -- lessons 30-31 have to be more of an overview of the process so that the student can pick *any* work (while my assignments are geared specifically towards a specific work we've read/discussed in class).


I know you're looking to use the resources you already have, but one of the clearest, step-by-step "how to" instruction for literary analysis essays that I've seen is the chapter on this topic in Leisha Myers' Windows to the World, a 1-semester program that focuses on: how to annotate; how to write a literary analysis, using your annotations as support for your thesis; and then covers 8-10 major literary elements and how they work in literature. Because you want to focus on literary criticism (analysis) essays this year, you might find it worthwhile to go through this program to help scaffold your students by reading and digging into and writing about the 6 short stories that WttW focuses on for your first semester, and then transfer that knowledge to picking 1 or 2 works from your Ancient literature to analyze and write about in the second semester. Just a thought!

One thing I have found is that literary criticism (analysis) is probably the toughest type of writing for many middle/high school students to do. It requires 2 types of critical thinking:

1.) "big picture" thinking -- coming up with a "big idea" (thesis), which has 3 parts to it:
- your topic (the work and the area or aspect of that work you are writing about)
- your "claim" or "position" or "take" on that topic (your thought, contention, conclusion, or opinion about the topic)
- your direction (overview of the major points of your argument of support

It is often very hard for the students to come up with the "claim" part of the thesis. For example, if doing a comparison, they can come up with great points of comparison for the paper, but have a "thesis" along the lines of "there's more 'pro' than 'con', which is not an arguable thought, but just a statement.

 2.) building an argument thinking -- coming up with the points of your claim and supporting evidence for that thesis
What's esp. hard here are the 2 "commentary" aspects of every body paragraph, one of which explains how/why each supporting example supports this paragraph's point, and then the "concluding commentary" which explains how/why this point supports the claim of the thesis. While the specific examples of support are usually pretty easy for students to come up with -- supporting examples come straight out of the book -- explaining HOW these examples support this specific point is hard, as commentary has to come out of their head. Commentary is about connecting the dots between supporting examples and the points of the essay, and in turn, the points argue for the validity of the thesis claim.

(Side note: and this is why literary analysis is a form of persuasive writing -- holding an "opinion" (in this case, a "position" or "big idea" about the work of literature -- the "claim" of the thesis statement), and arguing for your opinion with support from the text to "persuade" the reader of your essay of the validity of your thought about the work of literature.)

For my co-op classes, I do a lot of scaffolding. I have them do 5-6 short (1-3 paragraph) reader responses and several different types of analysis essays in the semester, before spending about 6-8 weeks on completing a multi-page literary analysis essay. For the longer essay, I have them turn in the different stages (the outline or structure, rough draft, revision, final version) and grade/comment as they go, but mostly so I can provide support and input to help keep them on track and provide feedback. And at the beginning of each assignment, I give them a very detailed checklist (rubric) of both the steps needed for writing, but also what needs to go into each paragraph (i.e., building their argument). And I give them a choice of questions to response to, or, a list of ideas to spark thinking to help them figure out what they want to say (i.e., coming up with a thesis). For example, I give them a list of several dozen ways to go about finding a theme in the work. Or a big list of ideas about how to find things to discuss for a character analysis.  I also give them a short example essay (usually a fairy tale, or some work other than the one they are assigned to write about), just so they can see where all the "parts" go and have an idea of how to structure an argument.

For grading, I start with the assumption of 100%, and then deduct points for what is missing, or incomplete, using the detailed rubric I give them, that lists the assignment, the stages of the process, and what needs to be included in the essay. I just want to stress that, even though I have to grade for students in a class, I still put the emphasis on *commenting* and *mentoring* the students into revising until they have a solid essay -- so it's all about helping students get solid in the process of writing, rather than handing it off to be a solo/independent project to be graded at the end. Even more with homeschooling my own DSs, my goal was to *work with them* and have them work on the writing until it was well-done, and I really didn't worry about *grades*.


In answer to your original question about using WWS3 as a reference for writing 4 literary criticism essays this semester -- without knowing you or your students, my guess is that if your students are not natural writers, or if you will be using these weeks of WWS out of order (before your students have "built up" by doing the rest of the book), or if your students have not previously done much writing that requires this high level of critical thinking, that there will be a lot of tears and frustration for the first essay or two. You can help reduce that by planning now to pour a lot of time into scaffolding them and walking them through the process with a lot of guided questions, suggestions, plus giving them a detailed outline of what needs to be in each paragraph of the essay.

Also, if your students have never done this type of writing before, rather than doing 4 longer (multi-page) essays, I'd suggest starting with several short essays (1-3 paragraphs) and then several slightly longer essays (3-5 paragraphs) to practice *thinking* and getting all the parts needed into a short essay, and then do 1 longer (multi-page) literary analysis essay at the end of each semester -- or just 1 at the end of the year. It depends on how strong your students are in writing and where their brains are in the process of maturing in the critical thinking areas.

You may also want to help scaffold by giving some guidance by narrowing the type of essay a bit -- having "boundaries" in the form of choice of writing prompt questions, or type of literary analysis essay (examples: character analysis, explain how a literary element is working, discuss a theme, explain a personal application or insight gained from the work, etc.), can actually make it easier for a student to come up with a thesis. When the field is totally open ("write about your choice of anything you see in the work"), a lot of students draw a complete blank about what to write about.

I find that sometimes literature guides can be a good source for essay questions -- either the guide has some essay questions, or you can use more meaty discussion questions in the guide as essay prompts.

Here's a handout I found online that might have a bit more detail for you on writing a literary analysis essay and what needs to be in one. For my students, in addition to a specific checklist of what needs to happen at each stage of the writing (brainstorming; organizing/outline; rough draft; revision; proof-editing) I provide an outline/checklist that details what "parts" need to be in the essay and where -- usually something along these lines:


- "hook" (optional) -- something to "catch" the reader's attention
- "intro info" sentence(s) -- contains the title and author of the work, plus a broad overview/summary of the work in light of what your topic is (in just 1-2 sentences)
- sentence(s) of explanation (optional) -- definition of terms or additional background information needed to understand what will be discussed in the essay
- thesis statement (which has 3 parts):
1. topic (aspect of the work focused on)
2. claim (your position, take, or big idea on the topic)
3. direction (major points of your argument to support your claim -- points the body of the essay will cover)

- transition (smooths moving from one point to the next) (can combine with the topic sentence)
- topic sentence (states what point of the essay "argument" this paragraph will cover)
- sentence(s) of explanation (optional) -- added information or explanation about the point, if needed
- support #1 -- specific example from the text, with 1/2 - 1 sentence of context
- sentence(s) of explanation #1 (if needed) -- details about the specific example
- commentary #1 -- telling how/why this specific example supports this paragraph's point
- support #2 -- specific example from the text, with 1/2 - 1 sentence of context
- sentence(s) of explanation #2 (if needed) -- details about the specific example
- commentary #2 -- telling how/why this specific example supports this paragraph's point 
- concluding commentary -- telling how/why this specific point supports your thesis claim

- transition / topic sentence  -- (1-2 sentences) smoothing from last specific point of your argument to general overview of the essay
- wrap it up -- brief overview (1-3 sentences) "big picture" of your overall argument -- not just a restatement of your thesis and points, but a summing up *in light of* your overall essay argument
- put a bow on top -- concluding statement (1-2 sentences), leaving readers with your final "conclusion" or something to think about; often ties back in with initial hook or essay title; again, this is not just a restatement of your thesis claim, but adds a little something extra to finish off the essay


Just my 2 cents worth, and hope something in all the ramblings is of help. BEST of luck in your high school literary criticism essay adventures! Warmest regards, Lori D.


As far as what types of Literature to write about... just my experience with my own DSs and co-op students, but most have NOT had enough exposure to poetry and teaching info/explanation about poetry to have a good understanding of poetic sound devices, structure, metaphor and imagery, etc., to be able to write an in-depth analysis of poetry. Short stories can be a good place to start, as they are very focused, the "scope" is limited, and re-reading for annotation or thinking is much easier than with a novel. Short stories are esp. good for those initial short reader responses and short essays (1-5 paragraphs) to start "thinking" and figuring out all the parts that need to go into a literary analysis, but can also yield enough for a longer essay. "Meaty" / discussion-able films, young adult fiction, and classic plays and novels are great for multi-page essays. In contrast, it is usually very difficult to a literary criticism essay on a non-fiction work, such as a history, biography / autobiography, philosophical argument or theological work.

Some general analysis essay ideas for Ancient literature:
- comparison essay between two characters, or several myths, or two works such as the Biblical and Babylonian flood stories
- discuss the ways a theme appears or is supported throughout an ancient work
- analyze a character in a play or epic
- explain how imagery or symbolism or irony or other literary element shows up in an epic or play
- analyze how an Ancient Greek idea such as the tragic epic hero, or fate vs. choice is working in a myth, epic, or play

You may also find ideas as you listen to/discuss the Vandiver lectures, or that your students find ideas in these lectures or other support materials that spark "big ideas" in their thinking about the ancient classics that they want to explore.

Edited by Lori D.
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This is wonderful.  Thank you so much for taking the time for such a lengthy response!  Yes, I don't post much on this forum, but I do come occasionally to read and be encouraged by the wealth of information here.  I've been homeschooling for four years and this is my first year with kids (twins) in high school.  

The Windows to the World book looks great, but we live overseas and don't have any upcoming visitors to bring me new supplies!  I will look deeper at your suggestions above (outline & handout) and see if I can come up with something that will guide and support them well.  I'm thinking we'll try writing an essay once we finish The Odyssey-- there's so much wonderful information highlighted by Vandiver in her Iliad & Odyssey lectures.  I will guide them in choosing a topic and see how they do.  If it is too stressful or hard, then we can back up and try smaller essays.  

Thanks again, 


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Ah yes, I see where there is a difficulty in using other suggested material beyond what you already have. Hopefully working through those lessons in WWS3 on literary analysis will help. BEST of luck, and enjoy your high school homeschool adventures with your twins! Warmest regards, Lori D.

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@Lori D.  I had my twins use the handout you linked me to as their guide for their literary analysis papers.  WWS3 wk 31 was going to be too difficult for them, I thought.  Thank you for your help.

I just posted their papers in the high school writing workshop forum if anyone has time to give me feedback, that would be great.  TIA.

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