206: Paradise Lost: Book II: John Milton

Common Core a bit overwhelming?

One afternoon, I was going to do the hard work of going through my ELA Common Core standards line by line and pulling out the recurring verbs–dull stuff–when I figured that, in this computer age, there must be a better way.  

And it hit me: Wordle.

Like Xerox, a Wordle is a specific site and not a generic noun or verb, so let’s call them “word clouds” because…. we care about words and being exact.  Plus, my chosen word cloud renderer is called ABCya!, as Wordle demanded I download a program that I didn’t have time to install, but you can find half a dozen sites that do the same thing.  Word cloud.

This is a word cloud of the English Language Arts Standards: Reading: Literature: Grade 7:



Of course, that doesn’t tell us much (too many words), but ABCya! lets you adjust it a bit.  It came to this:


ABCya! also allows you to delete specific words, so “eg” and “CCSSELALITERACYYRL73” can be deleted as they are probably not very important in designing lessons for next year.  But, looking at the word clouds above, you can see the patterns: Analyze, text, story, compare, contrast, determine, etc.  Theme, on the other hand, is less important.  And while “poem” makes the cut, “verse” does not.

It is a quick way to cut through the clutter.  You can drop all of your standards in there (both Reading and Writing, for whatever multiple grades you teach) and see what the big ideas are.  Then, hit those concepts again and again.

This came up in a unit on symbolism.  Besides the fact that I love symbolism, I wanted to have kids break down text so that they could understand how it works.  Since as long as they remember, students have been drilled on how to write, but in middle school they start to wonder how it all actually works.  Nancie Atwell embraces this, inviting experimentation and reflection as a reader and writer, but in this age of NCLB those types of programs are rare.  Why do we write in five paragraphs instead of four?  Six?  Hmmmm….  But important questions to ask if we want kids who can really write.

In this unit we also looked at experimental writing and criticism.  Let me give you a few links before I continue:

It was this last presentation where the issue of textual analysis, formalism and semiotic criticism came up.  It so happened that Slate magazine did a piece on the frequency of certain words, sentences, adjectives and adverbs in popular YA literature.  One of the lists was this:


My Google Presentation for this can be found here.  Looking at the lists above, you can see the clear difference between the “Twilight” series and “Harry Potter”.  My students could see it, too.

Which brings it all back to poetry and text.  If textual criticism can be used on YA novels and the Common Core, why not use it to analyze poetry?  Using Book 2 from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, here is the results of Stanford University’s WordSift:


Not only did it give me a word cloud, but it began graphing the words and offering up visuals that might (or might not) go with it.  I don’t know if the results are useful in a real, critical sense, but they can get kids thinking about hard texts.  More important, it can get them thinking about text in ways other than the traditional lines of a poem.

Below are the first few lines from “Paradise Lost: Book II”, where Milton makes the devil a really interesting character (William Blake’s knock on the poem), but also sets up his doomed fate that plays out through the rest of the poem.  Ask the students about the images they see in this wonderfully over-the-top chapter.  Can they picture it?  Then, throw it through a word cloud.

Paradise Lost: Book II
John Milton

HIGH on a throne of royal state, which far
Outshon the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,
Satan exalted sat, by merit raised 5
To that bad eminence; and, from despair
Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires
Beyond thus high, insatiate to pursue
Vain war with Heaven; and, by success untaught,
His proud imaginations thus displayed:—



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