This, of course, is completely the opposite of how most English classes work. And to be perfectly clear, the other way isn’t wrong; we’re arguing that you need to teach both ways. Students should be able to pick apart a text as a reader--they should be able to parse meaning and understand content, even in tricky texts. But students should also be able to read as writers; that is, they should be able to see what the author is doing to them and how she is doing it via her structure and diction.
The big picture purposes of learning to read like a writer are twofold: you want students to be able to see what writers are doing to them as readers (to pull back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz); and you want students to be able to achieve those effects in their own work. The most complicated part of writing is the simple fact you are trying to transmit bundles of emotions and experiences via words, onto a page, in such a way that the reader can come as close as possible to feeling those exact feelings and experiencing those events as the writer did.
That’s really freaking hard to do.
To achieve this “teaching students to read like a writer” thing in class, we use a lot of mentor texts, most of them short, which model specific stylistic characteristics. We have students find patterns, and then we have them write their own short pieces which mimic the author’s style, which helps internalize the concept (and hopefully adds another stylistic flourish to our student writers’ repertoires). I know this sounds all Creative Writer-y, and it kinda is.
But that’s how I learned what chiasmus was, or the power of listing using asyndeton, or any number of fancy parallel structure-ish rhetorical devices. I assure my students that while it is cool to be able to name the devices, it was less important than being able to wield them for dramatic effect in their own writing. When students are given Writing Power Tools, they make big messes to start with (as do we all), but eventually grow into building spectacular sentences.
Here’s an example from Updike’s “A&P,” which I used to do in senior English classes (and will probably resuscitate this year as well). If you’re not familiar with the story, you can read it here. Quick plot frame: young man (late teens, early 20s) watches three younger teen girls come into the grocery store where he’s working, wearing only bathing suits. We get to hear his thoughts about them, along with seeing his single, final action. Anyway, here’s a piece of text:
“She had on a kind of dirty-pink - - beige maybe, I don't know -- bathing suit with a little nubble all over it and, what got me, the straps were down. They were off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms, and I guess as a result the suit had slipped a little on her, so all around the top of the cloth there was this shining rim. If it hadn't been there you wouldn't have known there could have been anything whiter than those shoulders. With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty.”
Here’s a partial list: dirty pink; beige; with nubble all over it; cool shining rim; white(r); this clean bare plane of the top of her chest; shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal.
The purpose of this post is not to delve deeply into the point Updike is making here, but suffice to say that the narrator’s descriptors of this girl do not match up with the stereotypical descriptions of female beauty. His words are harsh, angular, flat, in many ways kind of masculine-- like he’s describing a car-- and this serves to contradict his implicit claim at the end of the paragraph that she was attractive to him (and, if you want to push it further, makes the narrator’s actions at the end of the story even more bizarre). This activity would be followed by the students trying to write a short piece in which a narrator’s word choice contradicted in some way what he thought he was saying,
I find many students have a visceral reaction to “A&P” (and many other pieces we read), but have a hard time articulating why the pieces make them feel the way they do. And honestly, that’s not a question of literary analysis or making inferences. That’s a question of craft. That’s a question of “OK, this piece makes me feel (x). How does the writer do that to me? I want to be able to do that to other people, too.”
When you have that kind of buy-in, then the things we once thought were really freaking hard get maybe a little less so. We teach our students to watch skilled experts use power tools so that they can start to pick up the technique. And when you get to the level of sophistication required of an AP student, you’re not just cutting boards in half. You’re beveling the edges and hanging crown molding.
This is also something that could happen in a typical English class. On the surface, it’s reading something and doing character analysis. But because it is pushed to the deeper level of examining the way words are put together, it becomes something far more. It is not so much about character. It’s about the way the author presents the character and the impact on the reader.
I know which essay I’d rather read.