Beyond Literary Analysis: Teaching Students to Write with Passion and Authority About Any Text–A Review

 

It’s been a very long time since I’ve had a complete weekend to myself. The last several months have been a whirlwind of travel, project deadlines, and girls’ hockey games and tournaments. My youngest daughter is a senior this year, so we’ve been looking at colleges and weighing those options, too. Blogging has taken a back seat to my work on the ground and my need to savor every moment that remains in the company of my kid, before she’s off to start a thousand new adventures. She’s a writer, this child of mine, and she intends to use her words to make this world a better place.

And I want to pack this book in her suitcase.

It was waiting for me when I returned home from my study tour of Reggio Emilia schools last week (more on that soon), and I couldn’t wait for Friday and the snowstorm it promised, just so I could curl up and give it a close and careful read.

There are few books that I consider essential for all teachers, but this is one of them. And no one is paying me to say this. No one expected me to write this post, either. In fact, if you hit up my search box, you’ll see that I offer few reviews in this space, although I’m asked to quite frequently. It isn’t that I’m disinterested in what others write, it’s that reading takes time and honest reviews are challenging to craft. I’ve needed a good stretch of days and a whole lot of quiet in order to settle into the process.

I’m glad that mother nature provided both this weekend. Books make great company in a storm.

If you know me, then you know that I worry about print barriers. When readers confront inconsiderate text, it often creates a barrier that lowers the complexity of the entire learning experience.  I’ve worked in countless classrooms where teachers struggle to elevate the complexity and richness of a lesson or even an entire unit because kids are unable to make meaning from print. All too often, this limitation puts the breaks on all other learning. And while I’m all for being thoughtful about text complexity and letting learners wade into deep water before throwing them a life preserver, I also know that reading and writing are bigger than print.

Allison and Rebekah get this, too. The get this because they live it. Perhaps that’s why this book provides solutions that I’ve never encountered before.  They begin by challenging us to investigate and define what authentic analytic and argument writing looks like in today’s world. Then, they ask us to invite our students to do more than merely write what they know or what they are passionate about, but to do so with authority and a level of sophistication that cannot be achieved through teacher-directed methods, the use of rigid templates, or the repetition of worn out formulas.

Would real people want to read the essays that your students are producing? Would anyone subscribe to a blog full of their stuff? Would anyone wait in line at the bookstore for the latest release of it? Would anyone ever offer to publish it to begin with? Or is just for you? For a grade? For the test?

If your answers to these questions are making you as uncomfortable as they were making me, then perhaps its time to ask if our current expectations and approaches for argument writing are truly preparing writers for a world that truly needs their contribution. Those kinds of writers typically do well on tests, too.

This is tough stuff, but Allison and Rebekah have gifted all of us with a guide that is as practical as it is inspiring. The book is divided into sections that make for just-right and just-in-time navigation. I’ve already dog-eared and flagged the pages that I need to return to and the processes that I want to use in my own work.

They also anticipate our needs, as only experienced teachers of analytic writing can. Each section begins with an invitation to reflect on how young analytic writers struggle and a quick index of strategies that attend to the most common issues.

Then, they introduce a variety of strategies that scale, unpacking each with careful intention and providing plenty of student work samples that reveal just how potent each approach can be. My work with middle and high school writing teachers often finds me scrambling to locate mentor texts that are as accessible as they are beautiful, and I was so pleased to find that this book includes a bounty of them.

By providing peeks into processes that are as complex as they are creative and a road map that enables readers to take this journey themselves, Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell have not only made a priceless contribution to the field, they’ve given every teacher a gift that is certain to remain timeless.

I don’t encourage my readers to buy books that often, but I’m inspired to today.

This isn’t just a good book. It’s an important one.

 

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