Tuesday, October 30, 2012


A while back, Sisyphus over at Academic Cog was kind enough to share a really great assignment.  It's a short writing assignment, low pressure, but really useful.  The idea is that you give students a short pre-assignmed passage from the reading, and ask them to choose the most important word in the passage and write a paragraph explaining their choice.

I use these in pretty much all my lit classes these days because they're not that hard for students to write or me to grade, but they develop and reinforce all sorts of close reading sorts of skills that are way important.  Sisyphus is a genius, what can I say?

But I'm sometimes surprised at the words students choose, not because they're bad words, but because they sometimes choose adjectives without considering the noun it's modifying in their paragraph.  For example, let's imagine I've assigned this passage from Lear:
Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom: and 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen'd crawl toward death. Our son of Cornwall,
And you, our no less loving son of Albany,
We have this hour a constant will to publish
Our daughters' several dowers, that future strife
May be prevented now. The princes, France and Burgundy,
Great rivals in our youngest daughter's love,
Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn,
And here are to be answer'd.  (1.1.31-43)
The student chooses the word "great" in the line "Great rivals in our youngest daughter's love."  And then zie writes about how "great" is the most important word in the passage because Lear is a great king, and powerful, and he's doing this massively important action here, and so forth.  But they don't mention the rivalry.  And it's the fact that they're great rivals (rivals who are both great men, and also big time rivals, both meanings are there) that really matters.  How do you look at "great" in that passage and not start from the context of the noun it modifies?  I don't know, but sometimes they do, and it mystifies me.

And now, back to grading word paragraphs.  When I finish this stack, I will be officially caught up in ONE of my three classes.  As unimpressive as that sounds, it's a big improvement for my life.


  1. Yay, I am a genius! ;)

    Do you have them do these instead of reading responses and quizzes every week? Do you write comments, or just make a checkmark on the top?

  2. You ARE! I will write a letter to that effect!

    I have them do these instead of quizzes and such. For Shakespeare, for example, I have them do 10 of 15 choices, so about two thirds write any given one. I write short comments in the margins, mostly along the line of "interesting choice!" and "good point" "nicely put" and "develop further?" that sort of thing. Then a 1-10 grade at the top, out of 10 possible.

    They're pretty quick to grade, a great way to start a class, and good writing practice.

    You really are a genius :)

  3. Anonymous5:26 AM

    Hmm, I think I would choose the word purpose as it sets up the why he is taking the actions in the rest of the passage. And then I could expand on the how he was going to achieve his purpose.
    How'd I do, teach? ;)


  4. "Purpose" would be a super word choice! (I really don't care about the word choice my students make as much as I care about their paragraph explaining why.)

  5. I'd have taken "intent".

    And I am struggling just as you are right here and now...

    The problem is compounded--and all too frequently these last couple of years--when a student then goes on to confuse the word for a [near] homonym, thus building a house upon sand.

    Most recently, arguing the practice and purpose (and thus, not at all ironically, the INTENT) of "heaving" when the word is "HEAPING" (in Gary Snyder's "Civilization"). Makes. Me. Crazy. Geez, don't "close read" so freaking SHALLOWLY, you know??

  6. Maybe an added question you could ask is to have the students identify what part of grammar that their chosen word is (noun, verb, adj, etc). If they first chose an adjective, it might help them think about what noun their word is modifying. That might give them a framework for thinking about the chosen word in terms of both its function and meaning. Just a thought, and maybe not a good one, 'cause I'm just a musician! ;)

  7. That could work for some students, but most of my students aren't very certain of the parts of speech, especially once they get beyong nouns and pronouns (and conjunction junction, perhaps). But yes, for some students, that would work really well!

  8. Ooh, I'd forgotten about this assignment. Yes, Sisyphus is a genius, and Bardiac, I appreciate the reminder. I'm totally going to use this assignment!

  9. I do these kinds of things all the time with short poetry or with passages from Shakespeare and Chaucer (to get them past the dauntingness of it all). But yeah, the whole "I'm going to free associate with my word" thing is a frequent result. So I try to model for them -- and tell them I'm modelling for them -- how to "anchor your analysis in the text" (as I say). That cuts down on the free-associating. It doesn't get rid of it all, but it cuts down on it.