Intentionally Bad

Teacher confession: I make my students write bad analysis. I give them a short excerpt from what we're reading and I tell them to just blow me away with ineptitude. It's a challenge. Make it horrible. The absolute worst they can muster up. Read-it-and-cringe kind of analysis. It can't be nonsensical, but it has to be abysmal. Come up with some sort of point, but don't you dare develop it. Don't explain, don't elaborate, don't dive deeper. Surface level only, guys.

Then, we make it better. I have them pick a few ways to bring it up a notch. Can we add some textual support with a mediocre explaining sentence? Maybe toss in a literary device? Or an element of style? Wait! Can we connect to a theme, a symbol, or maybe a character? Awesome. Do, say two of those things. Make connections, though, we don't want it too disjointed. But don't do too good of a job. Keep some tricks in your back pocket. 

Then, we give it a final whirl. How can we make one or two super solid connections between the writer's choices and their content? What's really going on? Channel your inner literary critic. Can we connect it to the work as a whole, maybe thematically? Gimme that quote again, but really pick it apart this time. Dissect that sucker (and please, please, please provide the page or line). Now you're done? Are you sure? Read it through one more time, make sure to correct those mistakes and tighten up those sentences. There ya go. Submit. 


But really, it works. I created a template for this exercise late during second semester last year and I made students do an assignment every week with whatever we were reading. They don't love it, but their analysis started improving. I score it out of fifteen on an informal rubric (fine, it's in my head, but they get it, I promise), and once they get a coveted thirteen they can skip the first two columns of bad and mediocre analysis and just wow me with their best attempt. If their score ever falls below that benchmark they have to start writing the bad stuff again, so there's a incentive to do well. I add plusses and minus to let them know what direction their headed in, as well. 

Think about it. Let's say someone told you to paint a room and do a really, really bad job (but don't get it on the floor). There'd be tons of white spots left, maybe some paint on the shutters, and areas where you could see through to the original color. You could look around and just see where you'd gone wrong, and then you could verbalize what needed to be done to get it looking better. While analysis might not be quite as obvious, and the student's current ability does matter, it's the same idea. Every single kid can improve from their intentional mistakes and there something confidence-boosting about it. They can look at their two beginning efforts and realize they didn't bring in the author's writing style or their ideas are disjointed, especially as we practice. 

I found that after several weeks of this their writing was improving as well. Sure, we're nowhere near perfection, but all I'm interested in is it getting steadily better. I have the same students this year and we're starting this exercise this week and I know that they'll all groan, but on the inside they love it. 

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