English teachers’ usual approach into literature is inductive. They read a poem aloud — usually two or three times — perhaps ask students to mark it up or analyze it in pairs or a group, and then wonder if they might write a thesis statement that includes the theme. Thus, to determine the author’s purpose, students must first consider the details within the work before thinking their way up the ladder of abstraction to a thematic balcony.
For a switch, teachers could create a sense of balance by occasionally taking deductive forays into literature. That is, either give the students a theme in advance, or provide the purpose of the work as given by the author himself. In this scenario, the heavy lifting would be done before anyone mutters ready, set, or go. With the “gift” of a thoughtful, abstract statement already in hand, students could begin an Easter egg hunt for literary evidence that will directly line up with the author’s own reflection on the work (or the provided-rom-the-get-go thesis statement).
To test drive this theory, I give you one of my favorite, student-friendly poems: “Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too” by James W. Hall. On his blog, Hall provides not only the poem (at the end of his entry) but some insight into the work. Taking his direct words, teachers can fashion a thesis statement that looks something like so:
In his poem, “Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too,” James W. Hall uses humor and some harsh truths to show that “it’s a hard thing to… recreate yourself, reinvent yourself. Become someone different, someone new. Throw away one identity (and mask) and put on another. We all struggle with [this] in some way or another. We want to change, to grow, to abandon one set of personality features for better ones,” but this is not as simple as it sounds.
With this statement, much of it from the poet’s lips, students in groups could determine importance by marking up the poem’s key textual evidence — words and lines that will support the claim in the provided thesis statement. This deductive angle might be considered a type of scaffold, but it is simply an equally-legitimate approach with the same learning goals — getting students to connect abstract to concrete as they analyze literature for author’s purpose (in this case, with author’s purpose).
Highlighting important lines and writing comments and inferences in the margins during small group discussion or paired academic conversations, students will be better suited (if you’ll forgive) for the perils of such venues as a Socratic Seminar. Why? Because they will not have to “find the grail” (in poetry, so often a “hopeless cause” in their minds), but instead will have to explain how the provided grail has any bearing in the first place.
Will this bestow confidence in young literary speakers? I would wager yes, much more so than with the inductive approach. Should teachers abandon inductive analysis altogether, then? Hardly. Students should see deductive as Castor to inductive’s Pollux, Scylla to its Charybdis, and (to bring it down a notch) pepperoni to its pizza. They need practice at both.
In short, teachers should see if providing themes upfront now and then leads student discussions to more interesting (and vertigo-inducing) places where they can build on each others’ ideas (or challenge them) until they wind up confronting one of the pieces of evidence they are sure to dredge up head on: the burning suit.
Note that, in his blog, Hall claims “‘buining’ one’s suit is the punchline of the poem.” This, according to the poet, is paramount among other important lines. Will students see it that way, emboldened as they’ll be by having “the answer” up front and “for free”? Will they compare the “fwame-wesistent” suit to jobs, to personalities, to economic classes, to themselves? Will they make metaphoric leaps and bounds that have their teachers swooning with deductive joy?
Time (and Elmer Fudd-like dramatic readings) will tell how this approach might work. Still, students’ “spidey sense” should be tingling, as they say. In my teaching days, mixing deductive with inductive approaches brought strong results.
Nota bene: For other poetry ideas for the classroom, simply search “teaching poetry” on this website.