In Literature 2, students are learning to engage with different view points in their writing by putting other scholars’ ideas into conversation with their own.

Students started by developing their own ideas, completing extensive pre-writing to come up with an original argument about Kafka’s intriguing novella The Metamorphosis. These brainstorming assignments focused on using close reading of the text to develop and then refine questions for further exploration. In class students practiced these brainstorming skills: in small groups they identified a topic, found and interpreted passages to explore that topic, brainstormed patterns, and then posed a question to the class and led their classmates in discussion. Afterwards, the whole class worked collectively to articulate a more nuanced version of the question at hand based on the ideas generated in discussion.

This practice in listening and adding to each others’ ideas respectfully and productively in class discussion helped prepare the students to begin their engagement with literary criticism—with other scholars’ ideas about The Metamorphosis. The students learned to annotate an argumentative essay, paraphrasing the claim of each paragraph and looking up unfamiliar words and concepts. We went over the first essay as a class, with small groups of students each in charge of explaining one section of the argument. Then individually they wrote up an explanation in their own words of what the scholar was arguing and how—what sorts of evidence he had used to prove his ideas.

The students also identified moments when the scholar referred to someone else’s ideas. I explained three of the most common maneuvers for engaging with outside sources in a literary essay, and they identified which of these maneuvers the scholar had used. We looked together at an example of a student’s use of literary criticism and discussed how she had fit these outside ideas into the structure of her own argument. Finally, students brainstormed ways they themselves might incorporate ideas from one of the articles we had read into their own essays.

In all of this, we worked on reading an argument to understand it rather than to judge it, whether in skepticism or adoration. We practiced understanding not just the claim it’s making but also how it makes that claim. We worked on not allowing other people’s ideas to completely eclipse our own, which can happen when we agree so completely that we lose track of our own original thoughts or when we disagree for the sake of disagreement and thus simply tear ideas down rather than creating anything new. Instead, we looked for and explored points of connection to our own ideas that would help to move our own arguments forward.

To end the block, as the students finish writing their essays, we’ll be discussing why these sorts of skills might be important outside of Literature class, even outside of school altogether. At a time of deep political polarization in this country and in the world, the ability to understand differing opinions, each based on different assumptions and systems of logic, and to engage with others in respectful and productive conversation is essential. Throughout their lives the students will need to be able to think creatively and in new ways while also drawing on what others have thought before them. They’ll need to think independently while also working with other people and understanding how their own thoughts add to and affect their communities.

-- Sydney Cochran