Struggling with helping students understand commentary

Dear Dr. D',

I am still struggling with helping the students understand commentary.

You always will! Don’t be too hard on yourself. I’ve been doing this for almost 22 years, and I still find myself at times shaking my head. The reason you struggle is because true commentary comes from the kid’s head, a scary thought with teenagers! You mustn’t put the words into the kids’ mouths, either. Never tell a student what to write in the commentary! Rather, ask question after question after question. Jane taught me when the student responds to your question, scribe his/her answers on a 5x8 Post-it™ sheet and hand it to him/her, saying, “There’s your commentary!” The kid will say, “Did I say that???” That’s when you nod with a gleam in your eyes!

The questions you ask to prompt the student’s commentary, of course, depend on the type of writing you’re doing. For example: Persuasive - Why do you think your CD is an important one? How does that CD help your topic sentence? How does that CD support your thesis statement? What do you want your reader to think by writing what you just wrote? How can you identify with your reader’s attitude or opinion toward that subject? What can you say to alleviate your audience’s disagreement with your argument? Expository: When that happened, how did you feel? What was going through your mind when you saw that person? Why was it important for you to give that concrete detail? How does that support your thesis? Response to Lit: How does the character feel? What lesson do you think the author wants you to learn by having the character do that? How does that CD contribute to the overall meaning of the story/narrative? Style Analysis: What tone is created by that device? What tone is created by that dialogue? How does that device contribute to the overall meaning of the piece? What was the author’s intent? What was the author’s purpose?

Be patient with yourself and with your students. Commentary is high-level thinking. Keep asking questions—from every angle.