But how do you start a unit of analytical writing?

SunshineOne of my colleagues just went out on a limb and had her sixth graders compose graphic essays. I’ve wanted to do this for years but haven’t had the nerve; I had a million questions! She gave me her rationale, her goals for the unit, the methods she used to scaffold the work for her students, the final products.

And yet, I still had one more question: “But what words did you say to start this?”

A reader had a similar question for us recently — “How do you start a unit of the kind of analytical writing you advocate for in Beyond Literary Analysis?” —  and it’s a really good question. How do you start? What do you say day one, minute one? What language do you use to communicate to your students what they are about to do — especially when jumping into something as challenging as analysis and as wide-open as Analyze-Anything-You-Want-In-the-World.

Although we spend the biggest chunk of Beyond Literary Analysis providing lessons for your class, we never do address the very first day or what a unit of analysis study might look like. We made this choice in part because it looks very much like the way we proceed in any unit of study (I’ve written about it here, and it gets a whole chapter of Writing With Mentors). Where our mini-lessons typically go, I use mini-lessons on passion, ideas, structure, and authority from the book based on what I think my students need most at that moment.

But I thought it might be worth spending a moment talking just about gearing up and getting going, including the language I use to explain to students what they are about to embark upon when they are writing free-choice, wholehearted, passion-driven analysis.

Article of the Week

This year, I spent the month before our first analysis unit secretly, undercover prepping students by choosing pieces of analysis for our Article of the Week. Here are the four I used:

After reading one of these pieces, I’d ask, “What would you call this kind of writing? What’s its genre?” And students struggled. Some called it information writing because it was giving us information about Shaun White and Black Panther. Some called it opinion writing because it was giving us an opinion about the quality of A Wrinkle in Time as a book versus the film.

Every week I asked. Every week I told them, “This is a piece of analysis. In analytical writing, a writer explores a text.” Then I’d ask, “What text do you think the writer is exploring in this piece?”

Note: for the time being, I was keeping it simple. I didn’t say, “Well, you know, traditionally a text is considered to be something written in print, but I submit to you that a text can be more than that. Indeed, a text can be anything that has temporal boundaries and can be broken apart and studied in smaller pieces.”


I tossed the term “text” into the pool, let it float around and bump up against student thinking, and let them begin to figure out what that meant. And that was weeks one through four.

Tour of Analysis

When I was ready to begin our writing unit in earnest, I said, ” We have been reading a lot of analytical writing recently, and you’ve seen it’s everywhere. Writers analyze athletes and movies and books and even people! Let me show you some more!”

And then I took them on a tour of analysis from yesterday. (I spent 15 minutes of planning the day before grabbing screenshots of titles from my favorite sites: The RingerThe New YorkerA.V. ClubVultureBleacher Report). As I flip through the headlines, I give them the briefest, 10-second narration (“Oh, this is a piece that analyzes the trend of boyfriend-style clothing”, “This looks like a piece that is analyzing a team’s chances based on their draft picks”, etc.)

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My kiddos running amuck around the school, discovering their passions through exploration activities

Passion-Exploring Activities

Then I tell them, “You are going to write a piece of analysis on something about which you feel strongly and know a lot!” We will spend the next few days figuring out what some of those things might be!”

And then I launch a couple of days of activities designed to help students discover their passions — those they are already aware of and those that have laid dormant for years! (You can find these in chapter four of Beyond Literary Analysis.)

Turning Topic to Text

Hopefully,  after a few days of exploring their passions even your most uninspired, slumped-in-her-seat writer will have a topic in mind about which she feels strongly and has lots of content knowledge. But that might not yet be a text ready for analysis.

So now I tell my students, “We need to find a text buried within that topic you’ve discovered — and don’t worry, we can find a text in anything. A text is anything with a beginning, middle, and end that can be broken down into smaller pieces so that we can understand them and understand the whole thing in a different way. Let’s play a little game to see if we can tell what is a text and what is not a text!”

Here are my Text or Not a Text slides!

Y’all, kids catch on quickly! I have done this with seventh graders and with college-level high school seniors. With a few examples, 99% of students can bring their topic into a text. The key is almost always simply making it smaller and more specific.

The students who are still stuck can quickly become unstuck with a writing conference or by simply talking out their ideas with their peers.

Ready to Write

When everyone has a text, we are ready to start drafting in earnest, dipping into mini-lessons and feedback along the way.  Take a breath —  this was a hyperspeed fly-by. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Uhhhh…that’s it?” Yeah, it really is. You and I have been set up to believe that analysis is big and serious and scary, but when we begin by showing students what analysis looks like in the real world they will instantly recognize it. This is what they’re reading before they buy a new video game and after last night’s concert, and in anticipation of the next professional sports draft. They might not have the lingo yet, but they know analysis. And if we let it be fun and casual (and also smart and nuanced) they will be able to dive in, unfolding their brains and sharing what they know most about.

What do you think? Ready to jump in? Do you have different words you use that makes the work of analysis clear to students? Please share in the comments below, with me on Twitter @RebekahODell1, or on Facebook.



1 Comment

  1. Thank you! This post was so, so helpful. After some trial and error, I had to add that a text must also be accessible to the general public (so anyone could, theoretically, familiarize themselves with the text and analyze it). Without this piece, I had students wanting to analyze personal memories or experiences and I was struggling to explain why they didn’t qualify.

    Does that seem like a fair addition?

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