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Explaining what it means to analyse to secondary English students
One for the English teachers
Students struggle with what analysis is. But the reality is we do it all the time. I’ve found that showing them images and asking them what they are images are of helps. Take these two images:
Some students say, ‘hands’ or ‘fist’, but most don’t — most say things like ‘aggression’, ‘tension’, ‘generosity’, ‘openness’, ‘begging’. When I looked at these images with Year 11, one student (without any prompting), said that they represented Scrooge’s Stave 1 and Stave 6 selves respectively, drawing on ‘tight-fisted hand at the grindstone’ and comparing it to his open-handed generosity.
The point is: we think analytically. We look at things, material things, and we use them to talk about other things. Most human metaphors are so commonplace they pass by unnoticed:
I’m on board with this.
That broke me.
I couldn’t see it from her perspective.
Analysis stems from this fact of human interaction: language used in perfectly literal form seldom does the job. The trick is to get students to notice.
I was looking extracts from near the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale with Year 9, and I started with images that related to the extract. I wanted them to understand that the way they spoke about the images was the way they should think and write about the text. This was the first image:
The first student said, ‘This is an image of sacrifice.’ I asked him how he knew this. He said that it was also an image of pain, but it was a pain on behalf of others.
I asked if it wasn’t just a crucifix.
‘Yeah,’ another said, but to most people it’s so much more than that.
‘Yeah. It depends on who you are. Different things mean different things to different people.’
Exactly. And this is what I think we’re asking students to do when we’re asking them to analyse. We’re getting them to realise that language means different things to different people in different contexts, and that probing this is an interesting to do, because it’s how we make meaning. It’s how we learn. And, also, it’s fun.
We came up with a formula for how we might read analytically. Normally, I hate this way of doing things, but this seemed to work quite nicely:
Thing + how it’s used = idea
The key is that things in the physical world only really mean anything of any significance in the abstract. I asked the students to think about what our school actually was. We discussed whether or not it was the building, and we agreed that it couldn’t be, because we could knock the school down, build a new one, give it the same name and it would be the same school. The same? Well, they answered, the important bits would be the same. The school’s ethos, rules, reputation — they’d still be the same. And what do all those important things have in common? They’re all abstract: they’re things we believe in, things that exist in the realm of the mind but not materially. Does that mean that the material doesn’t matter? No: without the material, the concrete, there is nothing to anchor ideas to. There’s no common frame of reference. Nobody learns anything in a wholly abstract school.
Slowly but surely, I realised I was teaching my students about semiotics in order to get them to grasp what I mean when I ask them to analyse.
To analyse, then, is to probe the ways in which the concrete relates to the abstract. When noticing that the Commander’s Wife uses a ‘cane’, students were then able to quickly grasp that this has ideas attached to it which made sense when they thought about the thing and how it’s used:
She might feel fragile
Her movement will be limited, therefore she might feel limited in other ways
She’s trapped in ways that go beyond the trapping of a body in physical space
She might feel clumsy and awkward
And so on. All they did was realise that things relate to ideas: the concrete and the abstract team up to make meaning. Analysis, then, is one of the most natural things to do. I feel that framing it like this helped my students get past a lot of the dread, confusion and apathy that the word ‘analysis’ dredges up. It’s not the whole picture — there is much more to reading, thinking and living — but it’s a start.