Psst, This Poem Has a Personal Secret for the Reader: Composing the Reader Response Essay

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SWBAT compose a reader response essay that reveals the "transaction" that has occurred between the reader and the text.

Big Idea

"It takes a great reader to make a great book" --Natalia Garibian

Teacher to Teacher: Lesson Time Frame and Context

Our study of British poetry from the Romantic, Victorian, and Modern Periods is almost complete. Today's lesson is Lesson 8 of 9; we only have our presentations of the Illuminated Poem projects to present. In today's lesson students

  • Learn about Reader Response literary theory,
  • Read a reader response essay written by their teacher in the form of a blog post,
  • Compose a reader response essay as an in-class essay. 

A great resource for learning about the most common literary theories is Doing Literary Criticism by Tim Gillespie, which I introduce in Doing Literary Criticism.mp4.  I also included some questions to help guide your students in the last section of the lesson.

For the purposes of this lesson, I define Reader Response based on Louise Rosenblatt's transactional analysis theory. In The Transactional Theory Rosenblatt defines transaction as a condition in which each element in a relationship "conditions and is conditioned by the other in a mutually-constituted relationship." In reader response theory one views the text as "new" with each reading. Thus, each reader brings a new experience to the text via the reading experience. This new experience creates a "new" text. Thus, reader response sees the reader and the text as one: "Every reading act is an event, a transaction involving a particular reader and a particular configuration of marks on a page, and occurring at a particular time in a particular context" (4). 

Reader response criticism (writing an essay) requires the reader to analyze both the text and his/her response to the text. Too often the reader's response to the text becomes the focus to the exclusion of the "configuration of marks on a page." The teacher's challenge is to bridge the text and the reader so that the essay reflects the mutuality of the reading experience--the transaction between reader and the literary work. 

What's Reader Response? Understanding Louise Rosenblatt's Transactional Analysis

15 minutes

To help students understand reader response theory, I use the short version of "Reader Response Criticism for Students: Beginning with Personal Meaning and Social Context" from Doing Literary Criticism by Tim Gillespie. The book has an explanation of the theory and two student essays, the shortest one, which is designed for the non-honors students is here as  Reader Response.pdf 

I share some highlights from the essay, including the Denise Levertov poem "The Secret" in which the poet credits the reader with finding new meaning in her poem that she, the writer did not know. This, I tell students, is the beauty of reader response: We don't have to worry about author intent, which we can't really know anyway. We find meaning in the literature based on our own transaction with the text. 

I tell students that reader response means as readers we each bring a different experience to the text and essentially read it anew each time we read it. That's why we reread anyway and why the context in which a teacher teaches a work matters so much. 

Finally, I tell students that we we presume to know an author's intent and when we pigeonhole a text into only one right or wrong response, we do both the text and the author a great disservice. Yet as Gillespie says, that doesn't mean reader response is an "anything goes" method of textual analysis. Our job is to read and respond to the text faithfully with as much knowledge about it as we can gain. In reader response, we bridge ourselves with the text, so our essay must reflect this, too. 

"Hollywood's Grecian Urn Problem": An Example of Reader Response

10 minutes

The Oscars provided a perfect way for me to write a reader response essay as an example for students, which I posted on my blog as Hollywood's Grecian Urn Problem.

I explained the origin of my essay to the class and told them that had I not watched the Oscars, I would not have had this response to the poem. I put the essay up on the screen and read through it.Hollywood's Grecian Urn Problem blog post is the image I projected. 

Since I'm particularly concerned with how students weave their poems into their essays, I highlighted the portions of my blog post that specifically address the poem and projected it. Hollywood's Grecian Urn Problem highlighted shows the portions of the Keats poem in gray, although I used yellow in class. I pointed these out to students and drew their attention to the integration of lines and references from the poem.

In-class Essay Writing

50 minutes

Because sometimes it's better to give students a few choices rather than many, I share only a few of Gillespie's Reader Response prompts. I project these on the screen and read through them. Then I remind students that in their essays they may choose one of the prompts or respond in another way to the essay. I tell them that the prompts are only to inspire and not the main focus of the assignment. The prompts are from Tim Gillespie's book Doing Literary Criticism, and they are Reader Response Questions. I limit students to both give them some choice and not burden them w/ having to choose from too many competing options. 

One student who had a hard time deciding how to respond to "Eve's Apology to Adam" said, "I can't decide whether to explain the poem or take issue with ideas in it." I told the student that I'd prefer he argue with the text because that would make a more passionate response and finding explanations of the poem is easy. He decided to argue against some ideas in the poem. 

Still, another student writes about how multiple readings of the poem "Not Waving but Drowning" help him discover a deeper meaning to it than does a single reading: Student Reader Response Page 1 and Student Reader Response Page 2