Introducing Literary Theory

Literary theory is a great way to help students more closely engage with their reading; however, literary theory sounds overwhelming unless it is introduced meaningfully.  I like to indirectly introduce literary theory the first day of school by asking students to complete a critical approaches survey (also provided to the right.  This questionnaire asks them to evaluate what they like to look for when analyzing a text and what they think is important in a story.  When taking the survey I encourage the students to be as particular as possible and avoid labeling everything as important.  They need to be able to distinguish between important in reading and important to them when they are reading.  I tell them this is about them being true to themselves as readers and accurately reflecting their beliefs.  The survey has three parts: 

1.)    “ Statements about Literature:” this section asks them to read bold assertions about reading and asks students to label if they “strongly agree” all the way down to “strongly disagree.” 

2.)    “Elements of literature:” the students are given a variety of elements (like symbols, power, and text-to-self) to rank in order of importance.  If a lot of students place a 6 next to symbols then it informs how much and in what way I teach archetypes and motifs in the classroom).

3.)    “Focus:”  this section provides students with a variety of “tasks” people complete when reading.  They check only the things they tend to do when reading on their own without any teacher assistance. 

I then analyze their answers using an critical approaches survey key to determine which lens I think best captures each students’ reading interests.  Each question is coded to match one of the primary critical lenses we will utilize during the year:  Marxist, Gender, Archetypal, Reader Response, Historicism, and Psychological.  The survey is set up to make identifying the connections students have to particular lenses easy.  I always keep the answer key folded up next to their responses and a quick skim of the “Statements about Literature” section will eliminate a variety of lenses.  Then, if there is any question about which lens to assign students I use their ranking of the elements to help me even further.  Students typically fall into similar groups:  usually those who respond favorably to the Marxist theory also reflect interest in Historicism.  Students who respond favorably to the Psychological lens often closely identify with the Gender lens. 

This first step isn’t even really an introduction to literary theory.  It is about them thinking about what interests them as a reader and a student.  Then I analyze their results and determine the 1-2 lenses it appears they most closely identify with.  Tomorrow I will be posting on how I distribute their literary theory lens and how I introduce them to the concept of critical theory.  Even if you don’t teach literary theory this survey is an excellent way to get to know your students as readers at the start of the year.

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