I love teaching literature. The literature classroom is a space where we can talk about big ideas and small words. One of the pleasures of teaching is not knowing where the day’s discussion will go. Yet, I often find students perplexed by the disparity between what happens in the classroom and what they are asked to do in written assignments, which take concentrated focus and deliberate rhetorical moves. For some time I have been working through this gap in the classroom trying to figure out how I can make students more prepared for their papers without losing that excitement and spontaneity in the classroom.
I have tried a variety of informal writing assignments that lead up to formal papers; some have worked and some have been train wrecks. For a while I was asking students to post a paragraph response about readings to Blackboard. After posting they also had to respond to another student’s post, but these interactions felt forced and compulsory, which, of course, they were. I’ve also asked students to write page-length response papers to readings, which are informal in the sense that they write about any aspect of the reading that intrigues them. These papers varied in quality and focus, and I found 100-level literature students confused about what they were supposed to write about for an entire page. (I’m constantly reminded that one page does feel long for freshman. I remember it feeling long to me back in the day.) I also found that students leaned primarily on summary and generalizations instead of the careful analysis needed for their impending close reading papers, which meant that the response papers failed the litmus for preparing them for their larger assignments.
When discussing student responses with my wonderful colleague Ann Ciasullo about a year ago, she introduced me to Reaction Charts as a student reading response technique. She’d borrowed this response strategy from Lisa Ede (thanks Lisa!), and I have subsequently borrowed it and used it as my primary tool of written response in my lower-level literature classes. I’ve made some tweaks over the last few semesters. Now I ask students to write in the ways I expect them to write their first close reading papers. This works well as a scaffolded assignment, and it also raises the bar for in-class discussion since students have thought carefully and analytically about the reading before coming to class. Here’s the surprising thing: after students get the hang of it, they actually like Reaction Charts. At the end of the semester, they list it as one of the tools that helped them best process the material.
As someone who’s constantly stealing ideas from other teachers (thanks again Ann and Lisa), I’ve included the Reaction Chart assignment below with a few annotations. For each genre I teach, I give students slightly different guidelines, but I always start with poetry so that’s the chart I’ve included below. Over the past few semesters these charts have become more and more prescriptive. I wouldn’t do that for more experienced literature students, but I find that freshman appreciate directed assignments.
Reaction Chart Assignments
The reaction chart assignment, which is a reader-response to and analysis of texts, serves several purposes. One is to ensure that you have completed the assigned readings and thus that you are prepared for class discussion. The reaction chart will also help you delve deeper into the readings, giving you the opportunity to organize and articulate your understanding of and response to the assignment. Finally, the reaction chart may help prepare you for writing your formal papers.
Below are the directions for reaction charts. Please use the chart directions for the specific genre to which you are responding. All reaction charts are worth 20 points, must be typed, use bullet points, single-spaced, and must be uploaded to Turnitin before class begins on the specified due date. Be sure to obtain a receipt from Turnitin that verifies you have submitted your work on time.
Reaction charts will be graded accordingly. 20-16 points: assignment is thorough, thoughtful, and carefully written. 15-13 points: assignment is thoughtful but not thorough, or thorough but not well written. 0-12 points: assignment is incomplete, does not follow directions, or is sloppily written.
If you are unsure about how to cite the text in MLA format, please look up this information online at a writing source such as Purdue OWL: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/
POETRY REACTION CHARTS
Label each section of your chart and use the following format to give me a general sense of your response to and understanding of the reading:
(1) Discussion Points (DP)
- In your first discussion point describe your experience of the poem. In other words, what was your personal response to it (emotionally, intellectually, etc.)? You may use 1st person here.
This is the place where students can perform their reader response. They’re familiar with this from high school, and it’s useful to ease them into the more challenging parts of the assignment below.
Then, move on to ANALYSIS and 3rd person writing.
I’ve recently added this directive. Here, I make a distinction between personal response and analysis to get students into “literary critic” mode.
- In the next three points, make claims about three different aspects of the reading you found particularly engaging, interesting, or worthy of discussion. In each point, refer to and/or quote from specific lines in the text for illustration, and explain how that illustration proves your claim. Cite quotes accurately using MLA format.
What I do here is ask students to write paragraphs in the way they will need to for their close reading papers. When I teach writing, I oftentimes use the Point, Illustrate, Explain method so students are explicitly tying the quotations back to their claims. Oftentimes they stray away from this because it seems too obvious to them since they’ve already made the connection in their heads. I make it a requirement of the assignment to get them used to this practice.
By the time you have completed the DP section, you should have four bullet points with commentary.
(2) Passage Analysis/Close Reading (CR)
For poetry reaction charts, I will give you a specific passage from the assigned reading that I want you to analyze in depth. You will present me with a line-by-line reading of the passage, noting what’s important in terms of language/diction, symbolism, etc.
By the time students get to this section, they know the poem quite well and are prepared to move slowly through the chosen passage. I typically select 4ish lines in the poem that form a full syntactical unit, image, or impression.
(3) Discussion Questions (DQ)
Formulate two questions for class discussion that provoke thought in some way: about diction, alliteration, speaker, setting, figurative language, theme, form connections between texts, etc. Make sure these are NOT questions about the text’s content (i.e. what happened) but are instead analytical questions about how the poem works. DQs should NOT repeat points you’ve already made in the DPs.
These questions often bring about interesting and unique readings of the poem we can discuss as a class.
(4) Instructor Questions (IQ)
Here, list any questions you have about the text (i.e., points you need clarified or explained, things that confused you, etc.). NOTE: You are not required to complete this part if you have no questions.
If students have questions for me, they can pose them here in a private way and I’ll respond directly when grading their assignment.
In addition to providing students with a foundation in analysis, one of the other benefits to this assignment is that it’s manageable to grade. When I look at a reaction chart, I know exactly what to expect and can pinpoint what skills need praise or constructive criticism. They also let me check in with students to gauge their responses to readings they may not feel comfortable talking about publicly in class. In addition, I learn about student writing preparedness; if it appears they need extra help before formal papers are due, I ask them to work with me in office hours.
I will say that the charts get better over time, so this is an assignment that should be assigned several times over the semester. Depending on course load, learning objectives, and class size, that number can vary quite a bit. I typically assign one chart per genre so students get practice analyzing texts in poetry, fiction, drama, and nonfiction.