E T S Praxis Series

Middle School English Language Arts (0049)

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Sample Question: Literary Analysis

"Why, thank you so much. I'd adore to."
I don't want to dance with him. I don't want to dance with anybody. And even if I did, it wouldn't be him. He'd be well down among the last ten. I've seen the way he dances… Just think, not a quarter of an hour ago, here I was sitting, feeling sorry for the poor girl he was dancing with. And now I'm going to be the poor girl.

"The Waltz," a short story by humorist Dorothy Parker, opens with the lines above. Explain how Parker establishes tone and uses perspective in the excerpt.

Sample Response That Received a Score of 3:

Dorothy Parker tells the story in the first person with two contrasting perspectives: what her character says and what she is really thinking. This sets an amusing and intimate tone throughout the excerpt.

Contributing to the sense of intimacy with her character is the conversational tone of her thoughts. Immediately the reader identifies with the character. Also, the use of present tense, so we are overhearing the character's thoughts as she is having them, contributes to the intimacy of the internal dialogue. When she says that she didn't want to dance with anyone, and even if she did "it wouldn't be him," it feels like the character is having a private conversation with the reader.

Finally, the reader is left with a feeling of ironic amusement. The character who so politely agrees to dance has just been feeling sorry for her partner's previous victim: "Just think, not a quarter of an hour ago, here I was sitting, feeling sorry for the poor girl he was dancing with. And now I'm going to be the poor girl." Again, the reader identifies with the intimate tone the character uses since at one time or another most of us have also agreed to do something we would have preferred not to, just to be polite.

Comments on Sample Response That Received a Score of 3:

This is a successful response because it addresses and analyzes the aspects of tone and perspective thoughtfully and in depth. Not only does the response identify the first person perspective, but it also recognizes the duality of the perspective in "what her character says and what she is really thinking." These "contrasting perspectives" reveal the outwardly proper and polite narrator, while the internal comments reflect the "ironic amusement" that she is now the "poor girl" who is the next "victim" of the awkward dance partner.

The words "amusing" and "intimate" accurately describe the tone of the piece, and the writer further analyzes how the tone establishes a connection ("the reader identifies") between the character and the reader, which adds to the intimacy and ironic humor of the piece.

Sample Response That Received a Score of 2:

The tone of the story is humorous. Dorothy Parker does not want to dance with the man. While she says yes, she is thinking just the opposite. It’s funny because in the first line of the story she says she would like to dance; "Why, thank you so much. I'd adore to." But in her mind, she is thinking about how much she does not want to dance with him. He would be one of the last people she'd dance with; "down among the last ten." She also makes fun of the "poor girl" that he danced with before her. She believes that when she dances with him, she will look as bad as the "poor girl," she does not want to look that bad. The story is funny because Dorothy Parker gets put in a tricky social situation.

Comments on Sample Response That Received a Score of 2:

While recognizing that the excerpt is intended to be humorous, the response is limited and provides only a superficial analysis of the subject matter. The writer identifies the fundamental conflict in Parker's excerpt: the speaker does not want to dance, but she cordially agrees when asked. However, the response does not go on to provide an in-depth analysis of how Parker uses first person perspective to establish a humorous, ironic tone in her short story. Furthermore, the response demonstrates a crucial misreading of the excerpt by positing that the speaker is also making fun of the "poor girl." In truth, the speaker was in sympathy with the "poor girl" and finds it ironic that she will now be the "poor girl" dancing with the young man.

Sample Response That Received a Score of 1:

In the above passage, Parker establishes tone with short, precise sentences, gradually getting longer. She used perspective in dealing with the fact that she does not want to dance and especially with him. She also was putting herself in the other girl's position.

Comments on Sample Response That Received a Score of 1:

This response reveals a weak understanding of tone and perspective. It is severely underdeveloped, lacks analysis, and moreover includes a glaring misread of the piece.

The explanation of how Parker establishes tone is limited to merely describing sentence style, and the writer's analysis of perspective is wrong. The response restates the central premise that "she does not want to dance and especially with him." This is followed by a misread of the ironic moment, as reflected in a reference to "the other girl's position" that misses the point that Parker is now in the position of the girl she earlier pitied.

Sample Question: Teaching Writing

Introduction

Students in a seventh-grade class were asked to write a descriptive essay, for an audience of their peers, in response to an assignment about a favorite person. What follows is the final draft of one student's response to this assignment. Read the student's response carefully, paying particular attention to the features of writing listed below, and then complete the three tasks that follow the student's response.

Features of Writing

  • Focus/Thesis
  • Organization
  • Content/Supporting Ideas
  • Sentence variety and complexity

Student Response

There are a lot of people that are important to me. My family, friends, and many more, but I know that my Aunt Pat is high on the list.

My Aunt Pat is someone I truly care about. Aunt Pat is always there for me. She makes me happy when I am sad. She also cheers me up when I am sad. Another reason I care for her is because we have the same interests. Pat likes to sew, scrapbook, and march in parades.

Pat is a great role model. She always tries to do the right thing. She is also very enthusiastic. Pat has many traits. She is reliable, cool, funny, and most of all she is creative. I love that she is a creative person. Currently she owns the costume shop in town. She also likes fall. She thinks it is pretty. Most people like winter because of Christmas, or summer because of the heat, but she has her own mind. She likes fall. I also love that she isn't afraid to be different.

In the end there are many reasons why I love her. She makes you feel like you are the most important person in the world and nobody can take that away from you.

Tasks

  1. Identify one feature of the student's writing as a strength. Be sure to support your response with examples from the student's writing. Do NOT discuss facility in the conventions of standard written English (grammar, punctuation) in this part of your response.
  1. Identify one feature of the student's writing as a weakness. Be sure to support your response with examples from the student's writing. Do NOT discuss the errors in the conventions of standard written English (grammar, punctuation) in this part of your response.
  1. Describe one follow-up assignment you would give to this student that would build on the strength you described in Task 1 OR address the weakness that you identified in Task 2. Explain how the assignment would help the student.

Sample Response That Received a Score of 3:

One strength of this student's descriptive essay is attention to the task of writing about a favorite person, which is established in a nicely stated (albeit structurally flawed) opening paragraph. my Aunt Pat is high on the list. All subsequent discussion is about Aunt Pat who cheers, who shares interests, who is a "great role model," who is creative ("Currently she owns the costume shop in town."), who likes fall when winter and Christmas or summer are the more typical seasonal preferences.

However, the weakness in this essay is that this defined focus is not well elaborated with illustrative examples. Aunt Pat is a great role model, but how? "She always tries to do the right thing" but in what way or ways? When the student offers support — "…we have the same interests. Pat likes to sew, scrapbook, and march in parades" — the illustrative details are lacking. Sentences are simple, leaving the reader wishing for those supporting details.

The suggestion for revision, therefore, would be to build on the clear focus, which captures a genuine appreciation of this favorite person by extending the sentences to build interest. The student's respect and love of "Aunt Pat" is charming. The hints at her character (marching in parades, owning the costume shop, "she isn't afraid to be different") are intriguing. But, for example the simple, repetitive statements, "She makes me happy when I am sad. She also cheers me up when I am sad" do not reveal HOW "she is always there for me."

Illustrative examples literally "color in" the lines to make the portrait come alive.

The purpose of the essay is to "describe" a favorite person. The follow up assignment encourages the student to address this purpose. The essay is definitely about one favorite person, but the descriptive details are limited. Adding in one or two stories and a brief example for other points would enhance the fullness of why Aunt Pat is special.

To extend the example above: The student could consider, "When was one specific moment when Aunt Pat cheered you up?"

Comments on Sample Response That Received a Score of 3:

This is a successful response because it addresses all three tasks with strong evidence of understanding the features of writing and how to support a student in strengthening an essay.

The response to Task 1 correctly identifies one strength as the focus on a favorite person, as required by the student’s assignment. Examples are provided of how the essay centers on descriptions of Aunt Pat’s personality and interests. The response to Task 2, identifying one weakness of the essay, notes the limits of those descriptive details: (“…is not well elaborated with illustrative examples”). What follows is an analysis of specific points in the essay that make a statement without explanation or examples. Task 2 is thorough in this analysis.

The response to Task 3 then pointedly addresses what could be done to provide the needed elaboration. These suggestions for revision are very strong, including both what should be done and why these additions would improve the essay: (“Illustrative examples literally ‘color in’ the lines to make the portrait come alive”). One specific task—directly related to the weakness identified in Task 2—is suggested that would hone an appreciation of descriptive details and enhance an awareness of the concept of “complex sentences.” The response shows a clear understanding of how actions by the the teacher could support the student’s skills and appreciation of writing.

Sample Response That Received a Score of 2:

The student who wrote the essay has great focus and gives lots of details. She describes her Aunt Pat and how much she likes her. Then she goes on to provide details: her Aunt Pat “cheers her up” and is a “great role model.” The student also describes things that Aunt Pat likes to do: “sew, scrapbook, and march in parades” and says that she “owns the costume shop in town.” I would say that a strength of this essay is how the student keeps the focus on Aunt Pat while also giving so many details about what her Aunt is like and what she does. The content and supporting details are what make this essay so enjoyable to read.

The weakness, however, is that the essay isn’t very organized. The statements about Aunt Pat do not follow a logical pattern. The student should have made an outline before writing, each paragraph should have contained a separate supporting detail about her aunt. For example, the student could have had a whole paragraph about the costume shop and what kinds of costumes her aunt sold. It would have been very interesting to know whether she only sold Halloween costumes or whether she sold costumes for other parties. Also the writer could have had a whole paragraph about what kinds of parades her aunt marches in and why she likes parades.

For a follow-up assignment, I would ask the student to describe another favorite person and to give plenty of details about why that person is special. It wouldn’t have to be a family member, this time it could be a friend. It would be interesting to read about someone who is the students’ age and has the same interests as the student. Then the student could also talk about his or her own likes and dislikes. That would give readers a picture of the student; then we would know the student and her favorite people.

Comments on Sample Response That Received a Score of 2:

The response above identifies both a strength and weakness of the student essay; however, they are only superficially described. For example, the response does identify a lack of organization as a weakness of the essay, but the analysis is not very strong. Adding entire paragraphs about the costume shop or about parades would not address the focus of the piece—why Aunt Pat is important to the student. While the response does provide a follow-up assignment, that assignment does not address the strength or weakness described in the response. Furthermore, the response also fails to explain why the assignment would be useful in building on a strength or improving a weakness. In summary, the response received a score of 2 not only because it provides a superficial analysis of a strength and a weakness, but also because it does not fully address the questions posed in the three tasks.

In doing this revision with a topic close to the student's heart, the student will gain a better understanding of the value of including descriptive details/supporting ideas when making a point, and, therefore, what is meant by "complex" sentences. The student will gain an understanding that complex sentences that include illustrative detail are applicable in all writing, whether in a descriptive essay or when making a case in a persuasive essay or when addressing a topic in an expository essay.

Sample Response That Received a Score of 1:

This student really loves her Aunt Pat! She sounds like a fun person. As a scrapbooker, I know how much creative energy is needed. Aunt Pat is creative. The student says, "most of all she is creative" and she backs this up with the detail that the aunt owns a costume shop! And Aunt Pat loves fall, even when most people like winter "because of Christmas" and summer "because of the heat." These are good details of how Aunt Pat "isn't afraid of being different."

The essay makes a good case why Aunt Pat is a favorite person.

However, it is not perfect! I would have this student fix the fragments, like in the first paragraph. For example, "Some of those important people are my family, friends and many more, but I know that my Aunt Pat is high on the list." It is important to have the verb in that sentence to make it a sentence and not a fragment.

It is really important to write in complete sentences. This would be important to help the student become a better writer.

Comments for Sample Response That Received a Score of 1:

Though one strength of the essay is noted (“The essay makes a good case why Aunt Pat is a favorite person”), the student’s response is given too much credit for “good details” that are actually underdeveloped.

The attempt to respond to Task 2 addresses a grammatical weakness—fragmented sentences (“It is important to have a verb in that sentence…”)—even though the prompt specifies NOT to discuss errors in grammar or punctuation.

The response to Task 3 is weak, because it addresses remediation of grammar ("write in complete sentences") and because the example cited ("Some of those...high on the list") is incorrectly listed as a sentence fragment. Compounding the weak response is its lack of a recommended teacher-directed remedial activity or counseling. Enthusiasm for the student’s response does not by itself provide a basis for helping the student strengthen this essay.