Today, students will be writing a quick paragraph explaining the symbolic meaning of the item they illustrated the day before and for which they have identified 4-5 quotes. I want students to pay attention to the language the author used describe this particular item because that is how they will arrive at an accurate description of the symbolic meaning. The day before, students spent time identifying the words in the selected quotes that are packed with meaning and they highlighted these on their paper. Today, I ask them to spend about 4-5 minutes looking over these particular words and thinking about the connotation of these words. Specifically, I want them to discuss this with the classmates they collaborated with to produce this assignment. What I am trying to do is give students an opportunity to focus on the language and to talk about it before they do the actual writing. It is an important step in that it forces students to engage in the thinking necessary to make sense of a symbol. Once they are finished discussing, I ask students to tell me whether they are confused about the symbolic meaning of the item they selected or whether they feel ready to start writing. If any of them are confused, I spend time helping them make sense of the symbol. Today, they all said they feel ready to start writing.
Before they begin writing, I remind students that a symbol represents something bigger than itself. Specifically, they represent a big idea that is important to human beings. This is the way I describe it to students because a successful analysis of a symbol discusses big, abstract ideas. I find that students need an explanation of what I mean so I ask them to brainstorm ideas that are significant to human beings. I do this with all my classes when we initially discuss symbolism, which I have been doing with many of my classes the past few days, so I have a running list that was started earlier today titled “big ideas that are significant to human beings” posted on a wall. Today, I ask this class to take a look at the items and to suggest any other ones we should add. They added everything from “religion” down. I find it useful to spend some time explicitly telling them that a symbol represents something big and significant like the items on this list because it avoids analysis that claims something like “The horizon represents the time of day.” Now students are ready to write. I give them 5 minutes to write a paragraph explaining the symbolic meaning of the item they selected. Although there is one illustration per 3 students, I want each individual student to write their own paragraph because they need to practice this. I make it clear to students that each one of them is writing their own and to turn it in once they are done.
Once student settle back in their seats, I announce playfully, “We are now ready for something exciting.” A few students ask, “A movie?” I say, “More exciting than a movie.” Students sense the sarcasm and begin to groan. Someone else says, “A fieldtrip?” I say, “More exciting than a field trip.” By this time they all figured out I am referring to an essay. Someone says it and a few cheer, mimicking my strategy. No one is happy about having to write an essay, but I managed to set a lighthearted tone to introduce this assignment.
My plan with this essay is to give them options in terms of the topic they are to address in the essay. Giving them options has the potential of increasing their investment in the assignment, which can lead to better writing. I communicate to students that they will have options and I walk to the board on which I have posted the different concepts we have addressed while reading Their Eyes Were Watching God. I tell them that these are their options. They are to write an essay that discusses autonomy or feminism or sexism or the type of life Janie was born into and what she was able to do with it. I tell them that the important thing is that they have to make an argument. We have talked about an arguable thesis in previous lessons so they have a very good idea what I mean by this. Having said this, I can now guide them through a process of writing their essay. I have a step-by-step process in mind and we are moving to step one today, brainstorming and selecting an arguable thesis. I ask students to take out a piece of paper and I tell them that I will be giving them about 5 minutes to brainstorm. I ask them if anyone already has their mind set on one concept they are interested in discussing in their essay. A few students raise their hand and I ask them to state the concept they have in mind. One is interested in discussing Janie’s quest for happiness, another is interested in discussing feminism, and another is interested in discussing autonomy. It is always useful to let students share their thoughts to inspire the rest. I now give them 5 minutes to brainstorm arguments. The purpose of this brainstorming session is to stimulate thinking. Students often feel that it is a struggle to push out one thought and make it fit into a thesis statement. I need them to learn that if they spend some focused time thinking, they can arrive at a thoughtful statement.
Once they finish brainstorming, I ask a few students to share their thesis, which is a working thesis at this point. A few share and I ask the rest of the class if they believe the stated thesis is arguable. We hold a discussion where students explain why they believe the stated thesis is arguable or not. For instance, a student’s thesis says that Janie’s autonomy is in other people’s hands. I ask the class if they believe that is arguable. Several say yes because they can imagine other people disagreeing with it. I ask the students who volunteered this if they believe in what the thesis says and they say yes. We do this with a few thesis statements. Through this process, students get to hear sample thesis statements, students who share get some feedback and we get to discuss what qualifies as an arguable thesis. I tell students that they now should have a few thesis statements brainstormed. I want them to choose one tonight and edit it following the guidelines I have been talking to them about. In this video, I summarize the guidelines for a thesis statement. Tomorrow, they should be ready for the next step of the process at the beginning of the period.