Monday, July 6, 2015

The "Reading Log" College English Composition Assignment

Keeping a journal of critical and personal reactions to literature can help a student study his or her own way of thinking.  

In order to facilitate thoughtful journal entries, faculty members can create journal prompts and hold students to a set of low-stakes standards.  The following are three literary journal prompts and accompanying responses. In my courses, I call these "Reading Logs."

Literary Theory and Interpretation: "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker 

Please tell me what "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker means to you.  Practice your theoretical interpretation skills.  Is there a moral lesson to be learned?  Is this story about culture or socioeconomics?  Is this a story related to the tenets of feminism?  Is it about family or personal psychology?  Pick only one approach to discuss. Check your syllabus for a due date, and be sure to check your response using the following checklist:

Quick Reading Log Checklist

1. Did you meet the 150 minimum word count and place it in parenthesis next to your
2. original title, centered, and in title case at the top of the post?
3. Are all quotations in quotation marks and cited in-text in MLA or APA style?
4. Did you run your post through Grammarly and correct all errors?
5. Did you underline your original thesis or topic sentence
6. and use moments or lines from the reading to support that main idea?

Here is an example that utilizes the moral approach.  Notice the response points out the choices made by the author, not just the characters:

Living History (240)

At the end of “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker (1973, p. 109), Dee and Maggie’s mother must decide which daughter will keep her heirloom quilts.  Each daughter represents conflicting values, and the mother must decide which value to uphold.  Walker uses that construct to help teach the reader a life lesson.  In the end, Walker teaches us that living artifacts are to be valued beyond archival novelties when she chooses to write the mother giving the quilts to Maggie.

On the one hand, the quilts have been promised to Maggie, who will put the quilts to use and give the objects the dignity of being used for what they were made to do.  On the other hand, her daughter Dee wants to preserve her personal heritage by preserving the quilts.   However, Walker nicely sets up earlier in the story that Dee is less concerned with her true heritage (not knowing the name of the relative who made the dasher, for example), and more concerned with the appearance of appreciation. While Maggie “lives” the family’s history, Dee looks at it as though a stranger.  The mother must decide whether or not she wants the items to be living artifacts put to use by Maggie, or dead, “museum” artifacts preserved by the stranger, Dee.  In the end, Walker teaches us that living artifacts are to be valued beyond archival novelties when she chooses to write the mother giving the quilts to Maggie.

Argumentation and Outside Research: "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien

Check your syllabus for the due date!  Following is a sample entry that cites outside research in APA format.  Notice the first sentence; this is the thesis statement.  It makes an argument about the story. The rest of this short essay supports the thesis statement with evidence from the story, reasoned argument, and outside research.  Again, be sure to check your response using the Quick Reading Log Checklist.

Distant Time and Place (360)

In the short story “The Things They Carried”  by Tim O'Brien (1986, p. 150), O’Brien crosses his reality with fictional elements to create a story that can touch any reader.  Though a very “close” memory for those who were a part of the time, and even “closer” for those who were a part of the place, the story evokes only memories of memories and depictions of descriptions for those of us who were not in Vietnam or part of the conflict at home.  The question, then, for a writer like O’Brien is how to make the memory real for readers separated from the setting by both time and place.  O’Brien does a fantastic job solving that problem.  Because the story is based on memory, he uses an episodic structure that evokes the feeling of memory.  Because he was there, he has been able to reconstruct for us an experience shaped as a story.  He tells us Vietnam can never seem real because it no longer exists as it did.  The truth is that it is now a distant place from a distant time.  It is a memory.

When Jill Taft-Kaufman wrote and directed a stage adaptation of the complete novel The Things They Carried (the novel) for the stage, she knew the actors involved in the production were too young to have been in Vietnam.  However, she invited fathers, uncles, and friends who had been soldiers during that time and asked them to speak to the cast and crew (Taft-Kaufman, 2000, p. 28).  Some of the veterans volunteered, while others had to be asked several times to speak (p. 29).  Hearing the true stories of the veterans helped the students become more knowledgeable about the truth of their memories, because no matter the length of the true stories, the students still had not been there.  As the student cast was reminded by a veteran named Frank at a rehearsal for the play, “One could control stories, not the vicissitudes of war” (p. 31).  


Taft-Kaufman, J. (2000). How to tell a true war story: The dramaturgy and staging of narrative theatre. Theatre Topics, 10(1), 17-38.

Poetry Form and Function: "Harlem" by Langston Hughes

For short stories, we were pointing out a line and explaining its importance to the meaning of the story, or we were utilizing a literary approach to find meaning and theme.  For poems, let's add another layer.  Please point out something the poet has done within the poem (name or describe the technique) that helps you come to a conclusion about the meaning of the poem.  Then, cite an example of that technique within the text of the poem.  Be sure to clearly state your interpretation of the poem.   In this way you will be stating how the form of the poem contributes to its function, or meaning.

Please notice how  the following example refers to specific lines and line numbers within the poem to support the writer's ideas. This post discusses the juxtaposition of concrete imagery.  Take notice of the phrase in the thesis, “Hughes uses . . . .”

Choices and Reactions (194)

Langston Hughes’s poem, “Harlem” (1951, p. 634), makes me remember a lesson my grandmother taught me as a child: The choices we make in life (or behaviors we exhibit) sometimes cause reactions we may or may not expect (like a swat on the behind).  In this poem, Hughes uses a juxtaposition of concrete imagery to discuss a dreamer’s choice to defer an action, a dream.

Of course, the lesson’s delivery in “Harlem” is much more mature a discussion than my example. Hughes depicts reactions in very visceral ways, some pleasant, and other repugnant.  For example, some “dreams deferred” (p. 634, line 1) become “sores” (p. 634, line 4), and others become a “sweet” (p. 634, line 8).  It makes me wonder if the difference in reactions stems from the dreamer’s personality, the dreamer’s particular dream, or simply the dreamer’s choices: to pursue or not to pursue.  In the definition of “defer,” I find my answer: It’s the dreamer’s choice to not act, or to ignore, his or her dream.   This poem uses concrete imagery to issue a warning to all dreamers to beware dreams that are not pursued, and therefore beware dreamers too, who choose to ignore dreams.


An effective approach for students studying literature is for those students to keep a literary journal. This "Reading Log" will not only document students' required reading for the course, but it offers students a place to record impressions of, responses to, and reflections on assigned short stories and poems at the conclusion of each reading. Furthermore, this type of journal provides students with a place to complete low-stakes writing, experimentation with critical approaches, and analysis and provides students with a reservoir of ideas to use for class discussion throughout the course.  

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Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

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