“Layering” Technique for Analysis

I remember it like it was yesterday – entering that poetry course in college on Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. The desks were in a U-shape, and the professor sat in a comfy chair leaned all the way back with his hands clasped in his lap. I was a little shy then.

I sat at the back of the room (farthest from the professor) and got out my notebook, textbook and my favorite pen. Class began, and we dug into analysis of “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost first. I smiled – I had read and prepped for this poem! It was SO easy. Right?

Approximately two minutes later, I had cold chills running down my back as I forced myself to breathe normally. Every single person in the room was making really, REALLY deep comments about a poem I had seen as basic. They had covered my “analysis” of the poem in the first fifteen seconds, and moved onto elements of it that my brain hadn’t even registered.

Did I dash from the room at the end of class? Honestly, I can’t remember. I just remember feeling totally, and utterly, worthless. Stupid. Incapable. And I had been the valedictorian of my class in high school.

After that day, I went on a mission to figure out techniques for analyzing poetry in a way that actually brought every aspect of it to light for me. So, I will share with you my technique that I dubbed, “Layering”. I hope it provides enough insight into analysis to aid you in your own journey through any poem you choose.

Layering

This analysis technique is performed much like its name implies – reading through a poem multiple times to find each “layer” of meaning. Each read through is deliberate, with a different focus each time. At the top of the page, make a KEY for each color marker used when layering.

Layer 1 – Gut Reaction

Print out your poem with room in the margins and between stanzas. I personally print my poems so that it is centered on the page, and I write my “Layer 1” notes on the left hand side of the paper.

This is the most relaxed layer. Taking a black fine point marker, I read through the poem (including the title) once.

As I read, any thoughts that pop into my head, any at all, I jot down in the margins near the line that incited the thought.

When teaching this to my students, I tell them that this is them writing down their gut reaction to the words. It is important not to “judge” our thoughts in this layer, but to get them out of our system. This clears the way for deeper analysis later, since we have acknowledged out brains initial connections.

Layer 2 – Author Angst

Layer 2 requires some brief research on the poem itself, as well as the poet.

I dig into Google and look up when the poem was written/published. Then, I do some research on trustworthy website that reveal the life of the poet. I especially pay attention to what was occurring in the poet’s life during the time the poem was published.

Oftentimes, any anxieties or personal issues the poet is grappling with can become apparent through their poems. By researching their life story, the meaning behind the poem can become more clear.

It is also crucial to find out what was happening globally during that time. For example, if a poem was published in 1950, the reader must know that World War II had ended merely years before. This may affect the analysis of the poem.

Then, read the poem again with this new understanding. Write notes about what surfaces in the left margin, but with a colored fine-point marker.

Layer 3 – Literary Whispers

At this point, you’ve read the poem twice. You will have noticed certain literary elements are present throughout. Choose one significant literary element, and read the poem again searching for the meaning behind its inclusion.

This layer can (and probably should) be repeated multiple times for different literary elements. Each poem is unique in its use of literary elements, and so it is difficult to make a concrete number for how many times this layer should be repeated.

For this layer, I choose a different-colored, fine-point marker and write on the right-side margin.

When teaching “layering” to students, I offer them this comprehensive list of poetry terms. They can scour the list and choose a literary element to use for this layer, or choose one that stood out to them while reading.

Layer 4 – Rhyme Shenanigans

With poetry, it is important to pay attention to the rhyme scheme that the poet chose when composing their literary work. With a new color marker, I go line-by-line and mark a, b, c, d and so forth for each rhyme. For example:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

BY ROBERT FROST

Whose woods these are I think I know.  (a) 
His house is in the village though;   (a)
He will not see me stopping here   (b)
To watch his woods fill up with snow. (a)  

My little horse must think it queer   (b)
To stop without a farmhouse near   (b)
Between the woods and frozen lake   (c)
The darkest evening of the year.   (b)

He gives his harness bells a shake   (c)
To ask if there is some mistake.   (c)
The only other sound’s the sweep   (d)
Of easy wind and downy flake.   (c)

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   (d)
But I have promises to keep,   (d)
And miles to go before I sleep,   (d)
And miles to go before I sleep. (d)

Frost’s rhyme scheme follows a very strict a, a, b, a scheme throughout the first few stanzas. It isn’t until the last stanza that all of the lines rhyme with each other.

Looking at this, I would dig deeper and try to make some meaning from this choice. The poem itself is talking about a man travelling at night through snow. The rhyme scheme may suggest the piling up of snow, and the last stanza is the culmination of the snow piles.

Layer 5 – Metaphorical Magic

After you have “layered” the poem enough times that you feel you have a deep grasp of the content, you must read the poem a final time.

Search for a metaphorical meaning to the poem, one that goes far beyond the “gut reaction” summary, and ties in elements of each of the previous layers.

This is where the true analysis is happening. The previous layers were the footwork, while this is the end result. You will find that your mind no longer entertains the simple ideas from layer one, and instead can form intricate and thoughtful responses to the meaning of the poem itself.

Did you find this useful? Please let me know! I enjoy hearing about your success stories.


I Am Your Teacher First, Your Cheerleader Second.

It took me nearly five years of immersed teaching to understand who I am as an educator. At first, I was rocked by the diverse opinions of my co-workers on how to handle student situations. I tried (and often failed at) new methods of instruction, classroom management, policies and time management.

Throughout those years, I would spend my hour commute absorbing the wisdom of motivational speakers such as Rachel Hollis (my spirit animal), Tony Robbins, Brenden Burchard, and Mel Robbins. I grew so much in those first years as a person and found myself able to weather any sort of situation thrown my way in the classroom. Though those years were often PAINFUL – it is evident now how crucial those growing pains were to my overall success as a shaper of young minds.

The one ideal that I have zero apologies for adopting? I am your coach, your mentor, your teacher FIRST. I will be your cheerleader SECOND.

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Rachel Hollis famously speaks on this and adopts this attitude (which is most definitely why I love listening to her podcasts). She iterates that a cheerleader is there shouting for you no matter what – even when you’re not doing what will make you successful. A coach is there to tell it to you straight and keep you on the right path.

This year especially, I have trained my brain to stop autopiloting to cheerleader mode when a student makes a mistake. It was my general nature to pat them on the back, even when they weren’t performing their best writing, and to gently encourage them to “try better next time”!

Ya’ll, it wasn’t working.

Kids will be kids, and if they think they can get away with turning in sub-par work for decent credit – that’s what they’re going to do. This doesn’t make them “bad kids” – it makes them adolescents who, if given the chance, will prioritize their social life or hobbies over perfecting a school assignment.

Look, I GET IT. Teaching gets tiring. Nagging them to do better, spell better, write better, read more, care more, show more of an effort gets OLD. Sometimes, it’s just easier to accept the crappy work and put a grade into the book. But that, “At least they turned in something” attitude is TOXIC. It permeates off of you like a vile stench that will, if you allow it, affect the remaining students in your class.

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If the teacher isn’t requiring effort, then why would any of the students work hard? If Susie can turn in a paragraph that only has three sentences, then why should Billy write six sentences and include a quote for evidence? The fact of the matter is, Billy won’t continue to push harder since the expectation isn’t there. As Tony Robbins says, RAISE YOUR STANDARDS, CHANGE YOUR LIFE (or classroom, in this case). If you raise the expectation, the students will rise with you.

Taking on a coaching mindset as a teacher does not mean that you are rude, intolerant, or sarcastic with your students. Let’s be real – you do that, you will lose the respect of your students REAL quick. Taking on a coaching mindset doesn’t mean you don’t offer encouragement as they work through tough assignments.

Instilling a coaching mindset means:

You place achievable, but challenging, standards for all of your students.

If your students are really on a role, have them HELP YOU create these standards for your classroom. Whatever you decide, the expectation for nearly everything you do in your room needs to be expressed – CLEARLY.

It is my solemn vow to spend the first two weeks of classes creating simple exercises that teach and reteach procedures for everything we do. I have FAR surpassed the mistake of “assuming” students know the correct way to do ANYTHING. We have no prior knowledge of their upbringing – thus, to avoid common behavior pitfalls, just make your expectations clear for everything. Place them in a syllabus or display them on your wall. Make them a part of the structure of your class.

You don’t accept sub-par performance or work. Period.

A piece of work gets turned in and it is clearly not that student’s best work? Create time during class to meet one-on-one with that student and calmly point out where they did well and where they fell short. Then send them back to their seat to revise. This is not optional. Even if the student is having a bad day, normally doesn’t turn in ANY work, etc. Be diligent in the pursuit of quality.

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A student acts inappropriately after you have set clear expectations? Ask them to step into the hallway (or an equally appropriate place). Coach them that WE don’t accept that behavior here. If you choose to act that way, you will have to leave so the rest of us can learn. We will try again tomorrow. The student will still be required to complete the work they missed, which in my classroom translates to staying after school (even if I have to mandate it). This will get old for the student, who will learn that this teacher means BUSINESS.

What you accept, will continue.

You hold students accountable for their actions and quality of work. Consistently.

This ties in nicely with the first two mentioned. If you set clear expectations, and never allow a student to “get away” with sub-par work or performance, this makes logical sense. The student must be made accountable for their actions. This is where the coaching part of teaching gets interesting. Often, students who turn in poor work (or none at all) will try to blame their actions on someone/something else. “My parents don’t come home until 1:00 AM, so I don’t have anyone to make me do my homework.” or “I didn’t sleep very much last night, so I don’t feel like doing the class activity.”

This are two reasons for sub-par work that I have heard in my classroom. The first one can be heartbreaking to me. Not having a parent at home to provide support really puts that students at a disadvantage. However, if we allow our students to use this excuse to “get away” with not doing their work, they start to believe that this excuse will get them out of doing the hard work forever. We must teach them to be responsible on their own, as one day they will be moving out of the house. Who will they blame their lack of work on then? Holding students accountable themselves will build a young adult who can rely on their own internal drive to get things done.

The second excuse mentioned is just a fact of life they will need to learn. It happens. At some point or another, sleep schedules get disrupted. That does not mean it is a free pass to float through life or their responsibilities for the day. Taking a coaching mindset in this moment will build stronger resolve in your students for later in life when things get tough outside of their high school halls.

You embody the qualities you expect in your students.

Lead through example.

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You want students to show up and be attentive? Dress sharp and take pride in yourself as a professional. Message to the students: this teacher cares a LOT about this content and this job – I should take them seriously.

You want students to read fluently and with inflection? Take time during class to read out loud certain sections of their class novel. BE CREATIVE with your voices, and fearless in your delivery. Message to the students: this teacher is CRAZY, but reading aloud with voices makes this SO much more fun. Maybe I can be brave one day, too.

You want your students to write using better vocabulary? Start using better vocabulary in your everyday journal prompts, notes on their papers, and in your lectures. Take time during the reading of a text to pretend you don’t know a large word, and show students your “out loud thinking” as you Google search it! Message to the students: Words freaking matter, and even my teacher has to look them up sometimes! 

You want your students to write passionately for their daily journal prompts? Set a timer and ask for quiet, then sit down with them and write your own! Share your own prompt with them, using varying vocabulary and sentence structure. Be vulnerable in your stories. Message to the students: Even the teacher has a hard time with some things! They admitted it to the whole class! I can do that, too!

You provide examples of quality work to shape their thinking.

I saved this for last because it is SO important for teaching writing. If your students are struggling to write thesis statements, paragraphs and essays beyond basic levels, the ONLY way they are going to improve is to show them multiple examples of writing done extraordinarily.

Period.

The human brain learns through seeing examples. Simply assign a writing task to your students. Take them home, sift through them and assign each one a tentative “level”. Level 6 writing is EXTRAORINDARY with hardly any mistakes. Level 1 writing was entirely off task or missing. We Only Do (2).jpg

I remove student names and if handwritten, I type up the shorter responses. Compiling one sample of each level, I print off enough for my students. As a class, we read each sample out loud, starting with Level 6. The students take about five minutes per paper to jot down what that student did excellently and to make three comments about what they could improve.

By the time we made it to the Level 1 papers, the students are all professionals at pointing out what is missing! Then, I hand back their papers and ask them to dig through their own assignment. We spend that class with red pens, rewriting their original. The next day, they get a fresh piece of paper, and try again. I cannot STRESS ENOUGH how effective this is. It does require a firm coaching mindset – no cheerleading allowed here. Students must be told what they did well, and what needs some serious rework.

 


 

If you’ve had a cheerleading mindset (or your student’s previous teachers did), you will experience some push-back at first. Stay the course, be fair as well as consistent, and I promise you that students will rise to the bar that you set. The annoying dance of “Teacher, is this good enough?” will slowly die away.

Remember – we are here to guide our students towards success. Do not be afraid to create firm expectations. Watch your students’ confidence in themselves rise as they push to reach goals. Then, make sure you CELEBRATE!