Using Diagrams & Infographics in Synthesis Essays

Using Diagrams & Infographics in Synthesis Essays

Last year, one student was struggling to formulate her topic for her final synthesis essay (I ask students to use at least 4 texts and combine them in a larger argument about some element of being human).  She stayed after class one day and I asked her if she could somehow graph out what she wanted to say about making decisions.  We talked for almost an hour, and she drew a number of different iterations of a graph.  This was one of the final ones she designed, and it ended up in her paper:

decisions graph

What adding this graph allowed her to do was then explain how it applied to each of the four books she analyzed.  It was a remarkable moment for both of us, as we both understood how the image allow her thinking to crystalize.

This year, as students began to draft synthesis essays, after they all thought they had solid topics, I asked them to draw an image that depicted their topic. It could be a spectrum, a graph, or some other kind of image.  For a few students, it served the same purpose as my student last year: it helped crystalize their thinking.

One student realized the more characters desired something, the more insane they seemed:

Another student made a gradient for what she termed “consumption,” and whether there was an obsessive element to the consumption. This helped her decide where to place different characters (like Hamlet, Ahab, or Frankenstein)  and allowed her to craft her essay around this concept. 

Another student used a graph to show the different kinds of archetypal figures he saw in the texts we read.

While not every student used these graphs in their papers, at least 20% of them did find them useful enough to incorporate into their final paper. As a reader, I also found them useful to refer to as I read their arguments.

So the next time you ask students to write an essay, consider having them translate it into an image. The act might help clarify their thinking and improve their writing.

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

Using Diagrams & Infographics in Synthesis Essays

Book Review: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Book Review: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

I picked this book up at NCTE at the HarperCollins booth.  I admit, the cover and the title got me (be honest, you judge books by their covers, too). Roxane Gay’s name seemed vaguely familiar to me, and after reading Teju Cole’s book of essays, I’ve been on the lookout for more modern essays that I might use in class or just read for my own edification. I’m so glad I picked this book up to read. From the introduction to the closing, I found it engaging, thoughtful, and relatable.

I particularly enjoyed how Gay arranged the book into sections. She begins with ME, then moves to GENDER AND SEXUALITY and then RACE AND ENTERTAINMENT, followed by POLITICS, GENDER, & RACE, and finally BACK TO ME.  I already copied the essay titled “Feminism” and gave it to my senior who is president of the Feminist Club at school. In the introduction, Gay writes:

“I am a bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I am not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to have all the answers I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying–trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in the world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky, and sometimes dances her ass of to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.”

So I know that was a long quote, but honestly, that long quote epitomizes why I fell in love with Gay’s writing and why I’m recommending this book of essays. As a woman the same age as her, I understand the reasons she says she’s a bad feminist. I struggled in my teens and twenties to avoid wearing pink because I didn’t want to undermine my strength as a woman. Now, I wear pink because I like it. I grapple with liking songs containing misogynist lyrics and I’ve often just let men fix things for me because it is easier.

imgresAll the essays are powerful for different reasons. Whether it is about a TV show like Girls or Orange is the The Black or whether it is about her own experiences in life, Gay’s voice prompted me to keep turning the page. She talks to the reader like the friend we all want to have: she’s honest, she’s smart, and she’s willing to examine ideas carefully and challenge us to do the same. I particularly enjoyed her essays about entertainment because she put into words some of the things that bothered me about popular culture that I hadn’t been able to articulate. I wish I was young enough to be going to college because I’d (attempt to) matriculate at Purdue and take one of her creative writing courses.

The good news is, I can still hear her speak about her new book, Difficult Women  (which I bought immediately upon finishing Bad Feminist). I posted on twitter how much I loved reading her book, and a former student replied she was going to see Roxane Gay speak. It turns out, she’s speaking only 3 hours away during my spring break, so I immediately bought tickets. If you want to see her, she has many upcoming tour dates. If you can’t make those dates, at least pick up one of her books, you won’t regret it.


posted by Kate, PCTELA Blog Editor

Book Review: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Friday Five: Transforming Traditional Literary Analysis

This week I collected essays for my Moby Dick unit, and I’ve been encouraging students to consider transforming their essays and writing an argument about the book that may not fit a typical traditional literary essay. I’ve been impressed by the creativity of my students, and how they maintained a high level of writing and rigor while still pursuing a creative idea.

Here are five examples of the types of transformed essays I received:
1. Moby Dick on trial: the student wrote as the court reporter, and put Moby on trial for murder of the crew of the Pequod. He even figured out how to format the document like an actual court document.

2. Psychologist’s report about Ahab’s PTSD: the student wrote as a doctor who consulted other characters and proved Ahab’s seeming insanity resulted from the trauma of losing his leg to the whale.

3. A letter as a potential professor to a department about a proposed course on influence in Moby Dick: This student presented an argument about the importance of Shakespeare, the Bible, and mythology.

4. An essay comparing Moby Dick to Mad Max: Fury Road: This student notes the parallels between the two texts and how it points toward archetypes and collective unconscious in our culture.

5. An essay explaining why Moby Dick would make a great opera: This student, an opera aficionado, argues which type of songs each character would sing and why based on the evidence in the book.

screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-3-04-31-pmthis whale image was made by a student in my class 

Posted by Kate, Blog editor PCTELA

Friday Five: Transforming Traditional Literary Analysis

Book Review: Up Late with Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things

Up Late with Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things

So I still have that literary crush on Teju Cole, but it may have turned into full-blown fangirl status with his latest book, filled with brilliant essays, titled Known and Strange Things. I would argue Teju Cole’s work represents the voice of a generation–but more than that, the voice of our time, regardless of age.  His essays include personal narratives and travel writing and analysis of art and current issues and in each one I found myself scribbling notes furiously. Sometimes it was a turn of a phrase, somethings an insightful observation, and sometimes (most times) I found myself creating a list of authors, artists, and texts I needed to read/view/research immediately.

Teju Cole is like your super-smart well-read friend who always refers to books and ideas in a non-pretentious way and makes you wish you were as smart as they were. But you can’t be jealous of their brilliance, because without them, you wouldn’t know about all the interesting things they share with you.  Cole does not hold back on his criticism of those he finds lacking, but his work is fresh–unlike those he chastises here: “There are many standard formulations in our language, which stand in place of thought, but we proclaim them each time–due to laziness, prejudice, or hypocrisy–as though they were fresh insight.”

His credo is hard not to agree with: “What do I believe in? Imagination, gardens, science, poetry, love, and a variety of nonviolent consolations. I suspect that in aggregate all this isn’t enough, but it’s where I am for now.”

And his observations are compelling, and yet make sense–they are ideas we have not yet discovered we even had, until he utters them and makes us aware of our thoughts. For example, his comment that “All technology arises out of specific social circumstances” leads to his question “What is the fate of art in the age of metastasized mechanical reproduction?” And I want to know, what is the fate of art in this age?  You might find one answer by following Cole on twitter, which, I would argue is just as artistic as any of his full texts.  As he himself notes, “curation and juxtaposition are basic artistic gestures,” so the way he curates his social media is thus, by extension, a work of art. Sadly, he’s been on hiatus from twitter after his brilliant World Cup tweets in 2014.3e4c2106-58ef-11e6-89cf-11d50d057da5-300x464

You might find his thoughts about voting particularly important in this election year: “we participate in things not because they are ideal but because they are not,” or perhaps you might be transported by his idea that placing ourselves where our artistic forebears went before us can connect us in deep ways: “When I’m moved by something, I want to literally put myself in its place, the better to understand what was transformed.”

Finally, reading his writing was like immersing myself into deep water, trying to hold my breath longer in order to see the underwater delights: I had to keep surfacing, take a breath, take a break, take some notes, and then inhale deeply and dive back into the essays–which make this pausing a little easier than if this were a novel. Cole even writes about composing with a similar metaphor:”Writing as diving: an exhilaration, a compression, a depression.”

Reading this book, I found myself wanting to copy different essays to share with colleagues, students, and friends. Do yourself a favor and get your hands on a copy to read immediately–you won’t regret it, and you’ll probably end up adding a bunch of books to your to-read list based on his recommendations.

Posted by Kate, VP Secondary, PCTELA

Book Review: Up Late with Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things