Analysis Shmanalysis: Making Analysis Accessible for All Students

Man, I haven’t published anything in a while. I let life get in the way. And Netflix. Lots of Netflix (New Girl, anyone?).

I also think that I’ve been a little burnt out on writing, and I know I’ve been burnt out on teaching. It’s been difficult to bring myself to spend brainpower on anything aside from lesson planning, grading, and all of the administrative tasks required of teachers. Basically, I haven’t wanted to spend any time on anything extra. Hence the Netflix.

But perhaps I’m leaving that strange funk because I’ve been thinking a lot about analysis lately, specifically about why my seniors are struggling with it so much. I started this school year thinking that they would already know how to analyze a piece of text. Isn’t it something that they’ve had to do since sixth grade? I mean, check out the progression of textual evidence and analysis in the RL. 1 standard:

  • The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts (ELA) specify that by the end of their sixth grade year, students should be able to “cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” (RL 6.1)
  • When they get to seventh grade, they should be able to “cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” (RL 7.1)
  • The eighth grade standards are even more specific, specifying that they need to “cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports analysis of” blah blah blah. (RL 8.1)
  • When they get to high school, they need to “cite strong and thorough textual evidence…” (RL 9-10.1)
  • And by their junior and senior years, they should be using textual evidence for everything mentioned before, but they should also use it to determine “where the text leaves matters uncertain.” (RL 11-12.1)

Whew. That’s a lot of fluff, don’t you think?

So, why are my students struggling with analysis so much?

If you’ve been paying any attention to anything related to education in the United States (which I’m assuming you have since you’re reading this), then you’re already aware that this is the Big Scary Year for teachers and students living in Race to the Top states. In just four short weeks (hot damn, that’s soon!) my students will be taking the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) assessment for the first time. Never heard of PARCC? Other Race to the Top states opted for the Smarter Balanced Assessment System. Same difference.

The whole point of the CCSS and the PARCC assessment is to prepare our student for college and choice careers. The fact is, American students have already fallen behind many international students, and it’s freaking everybody out. Ergo, the CCSS and the accompanying assessments (born of the grand Pearson Demon, but that’s a bedtime story for another day) have graced American educators with their unwelcome presence.

Don’t get me wrong; I support the CCSS for English Language Arts. I like how the standards build on each other, how the standards are designed to support student learning. I think they make sense. Sure, they’re super rigorous, and yes, the Math CCSS are ridiculous, but I truly believe the ELA standards will do good things for our students as long as ALL teachers, not just ELA teachers, are given the tools, resources, and professional development necessary to teach the standards well. Hopefully, my analysis of teaching analysis (HA!) will be helpful for other teachers, not just myself.

Now, back to analysis. Check this out: I plugged all of the anchor standards for reading literature and reading informational texts into Wordle to create a beautiful word cloud. After eliminating the common words, the image below is what popped up:

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 5.56.33 PM

Notice that the most commonly used word in the reading standards is “text.” Well, duh. So, after eliminating “text,” along with some other unnecessary words such as “two” and “e.g,” I created the lovely little cloud below.

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 5.58.26 PM

It appears “analyze” is the most commonly used verb in the reading standards, followed closely by “determine.” Let’s dive deeper into the reading standards though to make sure we really understand just how much today’s high school students have to analyze a text.

The first two Reading Literature Anchor Standards state:

  • 1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
  • 2: Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

Both of these standards require students to “determine” something, yet the standards seem to use the verb “determine” as a synonym for “analyze” in order to avoid sounding too repetitive and redundant. You can’t “determine” a theme of a text without some degree of analysis.

Analysis: meaningless buzzword, or meaningful skill?

Since the CCSS have come out, the concept of analysis – whether used as a noun, a verb, or an adjective – has become a popular buzzword for teachers, administrators, and politicians alike (well, maybe not politicians), yet it is the skill that challenges students the most. This is unfortunate considering it is also the number one skill required by the standards. In order to remedy this problem, we must ask why the problem even exists.

I believe (and I don’t have any scientific proof to back this up, just my own experiences) that despite their best intentions, many teachers don’t actually know how to articulate what analysis is. They know how to do it, they know what it looks like when they see it, but they cannot actually articulate what it is and how to do it in kid-friendly language.

– OR –

They think they know what analysis is because they’ve never had to define it before. Considering the standards require the students to start analyzing a text in the sixth grade, it’s possible that teachers in the later grades assume that the students already know what it is and how to do it. I certainly did at the beginning of this year. Then, students turn in “analytical” papers that mostly contain plot interpretation, and because that is a step above plot summary, the teacher is satisfied. I’ve done that before too.

I’m not trying to cast blame on America’s teachers, but it is a hard fact that we have to accept if we hope to make progress. Society expects teachers to be experts in their fields, and it is very unforgiving of teachers who don’t “know everything.” When I first started teaching, my friends would give me a hard time for not knowing specific historical facts or for not being able to recall obscure grammatical rules off the top of my head. They would say, “You should know that! You’re a teacher!” Many people don’t understand that teachers often have to review and relearn the material they’re planning to teach the week before the lesson. It’s almost as if people forget that we are human, and then they punish us for reminding them of that unfortunate fact.

I think that’s why many teachers are afraid to admit when they don’t know something or when their understanding of a concept differs from their colleagues’, especially something as heavily stressed as analysis. I’m not blaming teachers for not knowing how to distinguish it from plot interpretation or how to teach it, I’m blaming society for creating a culture in which teachers are afraid to admit that they need help with something. Instead of acknowledging the problem and confronting it head on, with support, they ignore it, hide it, and struggle to resolve it on their own.

How can our students hope to learn what analysis is if their teachers can’t figure out how to explain it to them? I don’t know about other teachers, but I was never taught how to teach analysis in college. I don’t remember being taught how to analyze a text. I just remember writing a paper for English 201 and everything fell into place. Someone must have taught me how to analyze though, right?

Not necessarily. Tulane University’s article titled “Teaching Analysis” suggests that analytical skills come naturally to people who read a lot:

“What is it that enables English teachers to find so many interesting things to say about something we’ve read? The simplest answer is this: all the other things we’ve read. More specifically, strong readers are those who have read a very great deal and who can thus carry into every act of reading something like a vast catalogue of memories of other texts. When we look at a new piece of prose, we do so ‘through the lens’ of the many dozens of other things we’ve read, texts that are at once very similar and very different from the one at hand. When we look at a new text this way, all sorts of unique features in the piece we are reading become visible, all sorts of ways that this particular piece is saying something new or making an unfamiliar move – or, conversely, repeating ordinary messages in fairly standard ways. In the simplest sense, experienced readers are able to supply the sort of context necessary to make a text seem more and more thickly dotted with meaningful moments and significant turns.”

Does that mean that only our avid readers will be able to dive deep into a text and use analysis to tease out the subtle nuances that make it worth reading? No. I refuse to believe that. It just means that teachers need to collaborate with each other to make sure their expectations are consistent across the curriculum, and that they know how to break down the concept of analysis in a way that is accessible to students.

Okay, so what is analysis?

Google’s Definition of Analysis

When unsure about what something is, many of our students rely on the handy dandy Google machine to give them more information about it. The problem is if Google doesn’t give them a useful answer, they tend to give up right away. Shucks.

This is a problem because Google’s definition of analysis is like flat fountain soda: watered down and boring: “Analysis: A detailed examination of the elements or structure of something, typically as a basis for discussion or interpretation.” Okay. Well, yes, that does seem to be a definition of analysis, but is it useful to our students? Does it tell them how to analyze something? Not really.

Dictionary.com's definition of analysis
Dictionary.com’s definition of Analysis

I found Dictionary.com’s definition of analysis to be much more useful, with three relevant definitions to academic analysis: “1. The separating of any material or abstract entity into its constituent elements; 2. This process as a method of studying the nature of something or of determining its essential features and their relations; 3. A presentation, usually in writing, of the results of this process.”

I really like Dictionary.com’s definitions because they all relate to the steps of analysis. In order to analyze a text, you must first separate it into its constituent elements: theme, character development, tone, etc. Then, you have to consider how a particular element relates to something bigger within the work. For example, how does Fitzgerald use the setting of The Great Gatsby to make a statement about the political or social issues of the time in which it was written? It goes beyond the obvious socioeconomic statuses of East Egg, West Egg, and The Valley of Ashes. Students must also consider how the characters’ behaviors change from one setting to the other. They must consider why Fitzgerald decided to place the car accident in the Valley of Ashes, why Tom’s infidelity occurs in New York, and the significance behind Daisy’s infidelity in West Egg. What does this suggest about the differences between the two affairs? What does it suggest about the pains and desires of the characters themselves? Finally, the students must be able to present their analysis to others. Usually, this is done through an analytical essay, but it can also be done orally in a discussion, or through a presentation.

While exploring the concept of analysis, I stumbled across this wonderful resource from Austin Peay State University that explains the difference between plot summary, plot interpretation, and literary analysis. Upon reading the words “plot interpretation,” I was first confused, then excited. I had never heard of plot interpretation before. Check out the differences between the three types of writing below, or read the entire article here.

  • Plot Summary: A condensed description of the basic plot points of a text. Plot summary does not address the deeper meaning, nor does it contain opinions. It simply explains what happened in the text.
  • Plot Interpretation: This is when a student describes details they’ve had to infer from the text, yet they still haven’t reached the deeper meaning. This is like picking up on someone’s body language or subtle sarcasm without understand why they’re acting that way. For example, students may infer that Lady Macbeth is experiencing extreme guilt because she is sleepwalking and having nightmares of blood-soaked hands that cannot be cleaned, yet they don’t take it further by connecting her guilt to the overall theme or the work or to the unchanging human condition.
  • Literary Analysis: Literary analysis requires you to first break down a text into its constituent parts, and then look at how each part contributes to the deeper meaning of the whole. You must first be able to comprehend the text (which is required to write an analysis), make connections within the text (which is required to interpret the plot), and then finally consider how one piece of the text contributes to a deeper or hidden meaning. Often, this deeper or hidden meaning relates to the human condition in some way.

Now that we know the difference between plot summary, plot interpretation, and plot analysis, let’s revisit the questions I posed about The Great Gatsby for the prompt, “how does Fitzgerald use the setting of The Great Gatsby to make a statement about the political or social issues of the time in which it was written?” A student who is at the plot interpretation level would simply discuss the obvious socioeconomic statuses of East Egg, West Egg, and The Valley of Ashes, and the corresponding characters’ attitudes about money. In order to reach the literary analysis level however, students must also consider how the characters’ behavior changes from one setting to the other. They must consider why Fitzgerald decided to place the car accident in the Valley of Ashes, why Tom’s infidelity occurs in New York, and the significance behind Daisy’s infidelity in West Egg. What does this suggest about the differences between the two affairs? What does it suggest about the pains and desires of the characters themselves? Now, how does this all relate back to the prompt, “how does Fitzgerald use the setting of The Great Gatsby to make a statement about the political or social issues of the time in which it was written?”

Literary analysis is as much about asking the right questions as it is about making connections between the elements. Ideally, the questions will require you to make connections between the elements. The Great Gatsby questions might lead a student to discover the relationship between setting and characters, and that relationship will then tie into a theme that is applicable to the political or social issues of the time in which it was written.

In literature, everything is connected, like a series of roadways. Students just have to discover the roadways. The question is the on-ramp; the connection is the road. Sometimes, a connection will be like a large, twelve-lane highway, easily accessible to everybody. More often, students will have to take the smaller streets or the tiny back roads to discover the connections. They may explore a possible connection before realizing it dead-ends far from where they hoped to be, but it may lead to something even better if they remain open-minded and willing to explore the unfamiliar.

How to Teach Analysis: A Step-by-Step Guide

Teaching analysis this year has been like building a sand castle with dry sand. I’ve had to break old habits while developing new ones: not an easy task when teaching high school seniors who think they know everything already. But it has forced me to rethink and redesign my practice, and I’m grateful for that.

  • Comprehension: As we already know, before students can analyze a text they first have to comprehend it. This simple truth is evident in the CCSS elementary standards. Tracing the RL 1. Anchor Standard back to grades one through three reveals a great deal of questioning, recalling, retelling, and summarizing. These skills lay the foundation for our next step: plot interpretation.
  • Plot Interpretation: Looking again at RL. 1, students in grades four and five are expected to start making inferences about plot, but first they must be able to identify the cause and effect relationships within the text. Initially, they have to be able to recognize basic patterns, using key details from the text as evidence of these patterns. As they progress through the grades, they need to recognize more complex patterns within the text, as well as across multiple texts and across disciplines.
  • Literary Analysis: Once students have a solid understanding of the plot and its inferences, they must then break the text down into its constituent elements. This includes theme, character, setting, plot, conflict, imagery, diction, symbolism, etc. Most prompts identify the element for students to analyze, but others are less restrictive. After choosing an element (or elements), the student must then refer back to the text in search of tangible, text-based clues that indicate the abstract, intangible concepts. When looking for clues, it may be necessary to forge connections that don’t already exist. Analytical essays are persuasive, after all.
  • Articulation: Finally, students must be able to articulate their analysis in a way that is both clear and concise. What’s the point of all the great analysis they’re doing if they don’t have the language to express their complex thoughts? I believe that organization is essential. Students need to know what concept to introduce first, where and how to use textual evidence to support their claims, and how to support their textual to their claim by writing support or analysis sentences.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 2.38.17 PMWhen first introducing students to analytical writing, it is helpful to give them a formula to follow. Think of it as writing training wheels because without it, their writing is going to fall back into in the comfortable familiarity of plot summary. I like to use the eleven-sentence paragraph outline format in which every sentence serves a specific purpose. Not only does it scaffold the organization process, but it also provides a great opportunity to segue into sentence structure which the kids will eat up because they are learning it out of necessity, not because it’s on a to-do list. Vocabulary acquisition will also come much more naturally to the students at this point, and this is when I like to review lists of abstract nouns and transitions. Finally, when it is time to transform the outline into a rough draft, show the students how to embed textual evidence.

By the end of the unit, your students will have meticulously written something they’re proud of both because they’ve delved deeper into a text than ever before, and because they were able to articulate their complex thoughts in a way that makes sense to others. Basically, they’ll feel like a bunch of smarties, and they’ll have evidence of their intelligence! Isn’t that a great feeling?

So, next year when I get the chance to teach literary analysis all over again, with a (somewhat) clean slate, I’m going to start by identifying where my students fall on the plot summary, plot interpretation, literary analysis spectrum so that I can scaffold their learning appropriately without having to backpedal. I’m going to start with the ALA Protocol on the word “analysis,” explain the differences between plot interpretation and literary analysis, and force my students to forge connections where they don’t already exist with conceptual analogies. I’m going to focus on the skill of analysis rather than the product, because if the skills are strong, the products will be too.

But first, I’m going to finish watching New Girl on Netflix, because holy crap, I wrote way more on analysis than I originally thought I would. Thanks for sticking with it through the end!