As I stated in Part I: The Use of Narrative Assignments in Introductory Literature Courses, using a narrative, or chronological format, as the main assignment requirement in the study of literature has "saved" my classes and my sanity. As suggested by Sheridan Blau in his book The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers, using the narrative essay assignment in lieu of the argumentative or expository essay assignment has given the students the chance to explore their own thinking and analytical processes, making the papers rich and exploratory. But, how do we get students to do it?
An Experiment in Reading a Short Story
The first step is to slowly introduce to the students the idea that there are things they need to do, actions they need to complete, in order to understand a poem or story better. Reading is a great start, but it isn't enough for deeper analysis. I emphasize that lesson many times throughout the course, integrating analytical actions into class time leading up to the narrative paper assignment: They must engage with active reading. The course becomes a lot less lecture and a lot more workshop.
For example, on the first day of class, I hand out a worksheet called "An Experiment in Reading a Short Story." When we begin the poetry unit, I hand out a worksheet called "An Experiment in Reading a Poem." The worksheets prompt the students to read a (very short) story or poem three times and complete different actions each time they read it. They are then given permission to discuss the work with one another, ask questions, and even complete research, given time.
At the end of the process, I ask the students for ideas about additional actions they could take to understand the story or poem better. If we complete the workshop early, we complete the actions they think would be appropriate to understanding, or I introduce preplanned activities.
The second step is allow students the chance to practice explaining their actions in writing, actions they have decided to complete on their own. I set this up as a short writing assignment completed as homework so they can get the hang of reporting their step-by-step analytical reading processes. Their narrative paragraphs generally follow the format of the "An Experiment in Reading" worksheet. They write about each of their consecutive readings, in order. I ask them to write about what they did, what they learned by doing it, and how what they did and what they learned helped them understand something deeper about the story or poem. For my students, non-majors, it's more important that they can tell me what they did to understand the story better than it is for them to understand the "expert" take on the story. Many of the students, however, will use "complete literary research" as one of their actions, often including expert interpretation in their paragraphs without being asked to do so.
To help the students a bit, I also provide them with a list of action verbs based on actions we practice completing during workshop.
From narrative paragraphs we move on to the narrative essays. Writing the essay, working through the reading and writing processes, is a big "step three," but students, if steps one and two have been successful, can tackle this paper effectively.
Students complete a paragraph or two per reading of a story or poem, then create a narrative frame to add context to the essay. I ask them to weave a research question (based on a literary theory and prompted during the second read) into the introductory paragraph and answer the question in the conclusion of the paper. In this way they cannot possibly complete the essay until they have completed enough analysis to have worked themselves into answers to their research questions. The process requires them to think deductively and come to an interpretive conclusion by the end of the paper. Again, each paragraph must cover three things: what the student did to understand the story better, what he or she learned by completing the action, and how the action and what was learned helped the student understand the deeper meaning of the story better.
So, what do you do when no matter what else you have done, no one is doing what you want them to do? You focus on the doing, asking and answering again and again, "What did you do to understand the story or poem better."