Modeling Lit Analysis with Audio

In my neverending quest to find methods of modeling deep literary analysis with high transferability practice for students, I have recently started experimenting with some different lesson designs. In taking a cue from my STEM colleagues who rely on Khan Academy to do inverted lessons (when students learn the material independently and then teachers monitor the practice in class), I have started pre-recording my own guided analysis activities; then, in class, while students listen with headphones and answer questions about what they are learning, I can focus on what they are producing instead of on my delivery of the lesson. I like this format because it allows me to model for students what strong textual analysis looks like while also freeing up my focus and energy in class to focus exclusively on student understanding.

There are a few criteria that guide this lesson format for me:

  1. Students need to have pre-read the text for homework. This includes completing their own annotations and thinking. If they didn’t complete the reading, they need to do so in class before they begin listening to the recording. I don’t spend a lot of time summarizing text or reading it for them on the recordings, so I need them to have a preliminary understanding of the text before they begin the analysis activity.
  2. Students can work at their own pace through the lesson, but they need to complete everything by the end of the period. While the recordings tend to be about ten minutes long, they are broken up by short questions throughout that they need to respond to before moving on. I make a companion worksheet for students to complete as they listen and cue them in the recording when to pause and answer questions. Their written answers allow me to assess in real time if students are understanding and pacing themselves well. If their response is accurate, I’ll silently give a check next to questions. If their response reveals some misunderstanding, I’ll ask the student to listen to a section of the recording again or do a quick reteach on the spot. In all, the lesson takes about 45-50 minutes for most students to complete.
  3. At the end of the activity, I ask students to synthesize what they have learned by responding to a longer written prompt. The prompt is frequently structured to push students’ thinking further than what they heard in any one part of the recording. This is vital because I still want students to be doing the intellectual heavy lifting; even though my analysis has raised the floor on how they might think about the text, I want them to use the interpretation I provide to go further than the clues I give them.

In terms of preparation, it takes me about 45 minutes to write up a script for a ten-minute recording and then another 30 to record and make the corresponding worksheet. However, this prep time is invaluable in the classroom as it allows students to work at their own pace and I can focus all my energy in class on checking for their understanding (instead of delivering or guiding the lesson live).

Overall, students like the format. I’ve asked for their feedback after each time I use this structure and it is generally positive.

Here is an example of a full script I write for myself before recording.

The materials for this lesson including the student worksheet, audio recording, and a magical realism reference sheet are available on my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

This is a recorded activity to guide you through an analysis of Meat, by Virgilio Piñera, a Cuban writer who uses magical realism. As you listen, follow along and annotate your text. At certain points in the recording I will ask you to pause the recording and answer the questions on your worksheet. Do not go ahead in the recording until you have answered the required question.

Let’s get started.

In Meat, by Virgilio Piñera, the characters are forced to go to extreme measures because they are starving. The solution they find is to cut off, cook, and eat parts of their own bodies. When I see something that obviously is magical realism, since it does not make sense in the real world, I immediately start asking myself: what point is the author trying to make by introducing this magical element? In Gabriel García Márquez’s story, Light is Like Water, the magical realism is both a tribute to the relationship between a grandfather and his grandchildren as well as a warning about the power of the imagination. So, with Meat, we have to ask ourselves as we read: what point is the author trying to communicate to us by using magical realism? Pause the recording here and answer question number one on your worksheet.

The magical realism is introduced at the beginning of paragraph 2. Take a careful look at these first two sentences in your text as I read them aloud: “Only Mr. Ansaldo didn’t follow the order of the day. With great tranquility, he began to sharpen an enormous knife and then, dropping his pants to his knees, he cut a beautiful fillet from his left buttock.” In these sentences, the magical and the ordinary are treated the same. In fact, look at the words used to describe what Mr. Ansaldo is doing. I first notice the word “tranquility” – he is clearly calm as he takes a knife and cuts off a piece of his own back side. Find one other word in this sentence that seems odd to use as part of this description of Mr. Ansaldo’s actions and reflects how the magical and ordinary are treated the same. Pause the recording while you find the word and write it on your worksheet under number two.

The author, Virgilio Piñera, plays with verbal irony throughout the story. I’ll point out and explain one example and then I want you to look at another example on your own. Look about half-way through paragraph 2. Find the short sentence that says: “The facts were laid bare.” This is the author’s idea of a joke. This expression: the facts were laid bare, usually means the facts are obvious. But in this context, the word “bare” has a second meaning. In the sentence before, Mr. Ansaldo drops his pants and exposes his bare backside to his neighbor. The author is playing with language, using this verbal irony to remind readers of the absurdity of the story. He doesn’t want us to take this story too seriously. Now it’s your turn. Go look at the first sentence in paragraph 6. How is this sentence an example of verbal irony and what is the author’s purpose for including this? Pause the recording while you respond to question 3.

One of the most interesting elements of this text for me is the relationship between the characters and their bodies. In the real world, our bodies are our part of our identity; they are who we are. They also must remain healthy enough for us to continue living in them. But in this story, the characters’ bodies become objects. They actually become meat, and technically, this is true of our bodies as well. At the end of the day we are animals like all others. Let’s talk for a minute about this word: meat. The story was originally written in Spanish and given the Spanish title, “La Carne.” In Spanish, the word carne means both animal meat AND the flesh of people. But in English, we would never use the word meat to describe human skin as carne is used in Spanish. The translated title makes this story almost horrifying to imagine as English speakers because we associate the word meat with animals and food. But the Spanish title, “La Carne,” plays with the double meaning of the word in a more subtle way since it can mean either food or human flesh. This is a great example of how the connotation of words can change in different languages and different contexts. Pause the recording while you answer question 4 about the title of this story.

Aside from becoming meat, the characters’ bodies also become objects in another way. They become food. While we would normally be disturbed by the idea of eating our own bodies, the author makes this act something to be celebrated. In paragraph 1, the bodies begin as objects of starvation and suffering and by paragraph 2, they are transformed into a resource of nourishment and energy. In paragraph 3, Mr. Ansaldo teaches his neighbors how to cut meat off of their own bodies. Re-read paragraph 3 to the bottom of page 99; then find two phrases from this section of text that celebrate the discovery that the characters can eat their own flesh. Pause the recording while you re-read and answer question 5 on your worksheet.

It is important to note that the most critical aspect of magical realism used in this story is that cause and effect are subjective. Eating your own body would be painful. Moreover, it actually destroys your body. And this brings us to the main situational irony of the story. Mr. Ansaldo and his neighbors are starving to death. Although eating their bodies solves the problem of starvation, it creates an equally – if not moreso – complicated problem of no longer having a body. Either path results in death. Given the absurd logic of this situation, we have to ask ourselves, what point is the author trying to make by using this magical realism?

Here are some of my theories. As you listen, record my thoughts on number 6 on your worksheet.

Eating your own body gives you control over a desperate situation. Starvation is a slow and painful way to die. It is also a passive way to die – it happens to you. By eating their own bodies, the characters are able to take active control over their destiny. That said, they seem unconcerned that this choice still results in their death. Which leads me to my next theory.

Eating your own body is not meant to be taken literally; instead it is symbolic. Since the characters so easily embrace the act of eating themselves and don’t appear to be crazy, the story actually is trying to deliver a message about how people make choices that end up harming themselves. We are not meant to interpret “eating” as literal eating but rather figurative or symbolic eating. For example, people might smoke cigarettes knowing the damage they can do to their lungs. By smoking, they are harming their health in a similar way that the characters in the story are destroying themselves. Pause the recording and answer question 7.

For this final part of the recording, please follow along with number 8 on your worksheet and fill in the blanks as you hear them.

Whenever we see magical realism in a text, we should always be asking ourselves: What point is the author trying to make? Magical realism often is used to highlight the irony of a situation. It also forces us to look at a situation in a new way because we see the magic that the characters in the story do not.

This is the end of the recording. Please finish responding to the questions on your worksheet and then follow directions on the board.


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