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"There Are Years That Ask Questions and Years That Answer": How to Improve Commentary Through the WOW Sheets


Dear Dr. D',

The confusion I'm having now that you might be able to help me with has to do with how deep to have [my students] go on the WOW sheet in the bubbles. Some students seem to write phrases that tend to define the single CM words as opposed to considering the internal workings of the character (thoughts, feelings, beliefs) that make the character act the way she does.


Dear Janice,

You are right; the students are not supposed to define the words in the first two spots to get the phrases for the clouds. But do not get frustrated, for commentary takes time and patience (from both of you).First, instead of calling them “bubbles,” I would like for you to call them “clouds,” and tell your students that the clouds represent lofty thoughts, not thoughts that can be found in a dictionary or thesaurus. They are called clouds because you can see them, but you cannot touch them. They are found in the sky, in the heavens, in the mind.I'm glad that you are starting to teach commentary using characters from literary works. Characterization is the best literary element to begin teaching commentary because it lends itself to asking the students to put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist or antagonist (as well as minor characters). We want students to delve deeply into the human condition--what makes us behave the way we behave; make the comments we make; act the way we act.  Ask them, "How would you feel if you were the character?" When they give you a one-word answer, say, "What do you mean by that?"For teachers, I like to introduce a little bit of Carl Gustav (C.G.) Jung here: C.G. Jung, a famous psychiatrist, depth psychologist, and student of Sigmund Freud, spent much of his life and career working with what he called the unconscious. You might have heard of the collective unconscious where the archetypes reside. Jung is famous for his study of the archetypes.  He also called the unconscious, the psyche. And you might find the etymology of that word interesting:

"psyche." n. 1 the soul; the spirit. 2 the mind. [L f. Gk psukhē breath, life, soul].

So, when we are talking commentary to the students, we are trying to teach them to go into that area of understanding and knowing of which Jung speaks. That's why teaching commentary is so difficult. We have to reach within ourselves and pull it out of those inner corners and crevices of our memories, dreams, and reflections about life. By the way, Jung's autobiography is titled Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

The best approach is to tell the students that commentary comes from three places: the head, the heart, and the gut. You cannot touch it like you can touch a table or rain or snow.  You cannot touch sadness, revenge, love, happiness, thoughtlessness, deceit, generosity. These latter words fall into the realm of commentary.

With the clouds, then, you ask the students to take one of the commentary words--let's say "thoughtlessness." Ask him, "What do you mean by thoughtlessness?"

"Well, Dr. Louis, the character thinks of no one but himself."

"Good, that's the definition of thoughtlessness. Now tell me what's going on inside of him that causes him to be like that? In other words, if you were he, what's going on inside of you?"

"Well, I don't want to get close to anyone."

"Good, write that in the cloud, but use the character's name. What else?"

"It's like he can't see or feel beyond himself."

"Good, write that in a second cloud. What else?"

"He's like an island unto himself, but it's sinking."

"Beautiful. Write that in a third cloud and take a nap for the rest of the period. Your brain is on overload!"

How Commentary Began (in Jane's words)

The missing piece, the “so what?” [commentary] was born one day during a one-to-one conference with a gifted junior. He was writing an essay in 1975 about how Lake Erie had changed since he had been a young boy living there. He brought his prewriting to the teacher at her desk. The teacher looked over the list of concrete details and told the boy to analyze his examples — pollution, dead fish, oil slicks on the beach, the fire when the Cuyahoga River burned. The teacher said, “These look good – now go analyze them.” The boy said, “I have no idea what you teachers mean by analyze.” This was a reasonable statement; he wanted to do the assignment but didn’t know how to begin or what it should look like when he was finished. Then the teacher asked him to say how the experience had changed or affected him. He thought for a few seconds and said, “I realized my past was lost. The cherished days of my childhood were ruined. The halcyon days were behind me.” The boy really said “halcyon.” Schaffer was speechless that a student knew the word and used it correctly. The teacher said, “You did it — what you said to me was analysis. And we’re going to call it commentary because you commented to me about your details.” It’s a far more user-friendly word for teenagers than analysis and interpretation. That day began a department conversation about what it means to analyze a topic and how to lead teenagers away from plot summary —the bane of English teachers’ existence — and toward deeper thought. Most teachers don’t remember how they learned to write. They often taught themselves and alone made the leap from plot summary to analysis. Some know a certain person who helped them, but most of us have no memory of the moment. We just did it.

That student’s reactions made us realize two points:

  1. Talking is the missing link in thinking. Students can say what they are thinking but need help getting it down on paper.
  2. We assumed far too much about both content and mechanics, and that has rung true ever since. We thought students knew about topic sentences and indentations and analysis, but we were wrong on every count. We like to think we’ve made unwarranted assumptions less frequently since then.

I've always loved the sentiment in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God that begins chapter three: "There are years that ask questions and years that answer." Commentary helps us to do both.

Keep writing (and reading)!

Warm regards,

Dr. D'

Works Cited

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. New York: HarperPerennial, 1998.

"psyche." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English. Oxford UP: Norwalk, 1990. 964.

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