Common Core Standards: ELA
9. Research to Build and Present Knowledge: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
If there’s one thing that English teachers ask of their students over and over again, it’s: “Support your answer!” Someone should invent a rubber stamp saying just that! No one calling himself or herself an English teacher would be happy with their students passing off just the words “Yes” or “No” for answers.
So, what are some strategies you can use to help your students understand that they need to support their answers using evidence from the reading and through their research? Well, it’s all in the details. Ideally, they will learn to pick up on words and phrases from their reading (evidence from a literary text) to explain (reflection and analysis) how the writer uses the elements of setting, diction, characterization; they will also think about the writer’s use of literary devices; then, they will reflect on his or her biographical details and think about what impact this had on the work. Does that seem like a lot to ask? Pfft. Try the following exercise and watch your students attack a literary work like an army of tiny PhDs!
It’s Halloween time, and, though you’re well past the trick-or-treat phase, this is still one of your favorite holidays and you’re planning how you can get your hands on your little siblings’ candy this year. Yes, you can taste the Twix now. You play Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, just to get yourself in the mood. You bounce along with rhythm, do a little moonwalk in your bedroom, and try your ghoulish faces on your little brother. When you get to school, you discover that even your English teacher is in a Halloween mood, and you think you might actually enjoy the day when she announces you will be studying Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” which is her way of celebrating the occasion.
Now, poetry might not be your thing, but when it comes to Poe… well, everybody loves Poe. The concept for the day is figuring out the mood of the poem. That’s really easy: it’s dark and creepy; it’s Poe being Poe. But then your teacher throws a wrench into your well-oiled response – you’re expected to SUPPORT your answer. You’ve got to go back into the text of the poem and find evidence – words and phrases – that create the mood. Here’s your teacher’s question: How does Poe create a Gothic, or dark, mood in “The Raven”?
After making a note to yourself to go to Hot Topic at the mall after school, you’re happy you’re going to work with your elbow partner on this assignment. You both agree on the answer, but you’re not quite sure how you came up with it. You decide to follow the directions and just LOOK. You re-read the first stanza, and almost immediately find some clues there. It’s midnight, dreary, and bleak December. You note the phrases dying ember and ghost upon the floor. You think about what Poe is doing here, and you have that “aha!” moment. The poet is using SETTING to create a Gothic mood. Making a bulleted list of other setting words and phrases, you add: sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain and Deep into that darkness.
You notice as you’re looking for references to setting that sometimes there are individual words Poe uses that seem to add to the darkness. You make a new list: curious, forgotten, fearing, mystery, terrors, silence, stillness, sad, grave, stern, grim, unhappy, unmerciful, melancholy, and dirges. Though there are more, you decide to conclude your list because clearly, Poe is just out of control here. Weak and weary, you and your partner try to come up with the word that escapes you both. What is it? What is it? Diction! That’s it. Poe’s WORD CHOICE helps create that Gothic mood.
And that’s not all! Your partner noticed that the two characters in the poem are equally creepy. The speaker of the poem describes himself as “filled with fantastic terrors” while standing there “wondering, fearing,/ Doubting.” The talking black raven, too, is described as an “ebony bird” with a “grave and stern decorum,” leaving the speaker “thinking what this ominous bird” wanted. That, you both declare simultaneously with a high five, is CHARACTERIZATION! Poe describes characters that are dark, or Gothic, which adds to the overall mood of the poem.
With great excitement, you finish reading the poem. You read faster and faster to get to the finish line. Certainly, the repetition of the word nevermore is worth mentioning. It’s in the title, and you count that Poe has used it 11 times. You ask each other why he would do this, since English teachers point out that YOU should never use the same word twice in the same sentence. You notice the fevered pitch that the speaker reaches as he fires off several questions at the raven: Will I ever find peace at Lenore’s absence? Nevermore. Will I ever be able to forget Lenore? Nevermore. Will I see her in heaven? Nevermore.
The tempo of the poem picks up as the narrator becomes more and more frustrated by an answer that he wishes nevermore to hear. Considering this, you triumphantly declare that the poet uses literary devices, such as repetition, to create the character’s spiral into insanity. Those punctuation marks seem to add to the suspense as well. Any poem with craziness such as that has to be Gothic.
This all makes sense to you when you remember that, according to your research, Poe, too, experienced the same kind of loss as the gentleman in the poem. Poe had mourned so many important female figures in his lifetime -- his mom, his foster mom, his sister, his fiancée-- that it is no wonder the speaker’s loss of Lenore reflects the poet’s own experience. Whew, that took a lot of thinking, but your answer stands supported. Hurrah!