Rethinking Critical Responses to Literature

This is a guest post from Ms Madeline Raynolds, our High School English Department Head. Together with her English 10 teacher team, she worked on a different approach to a critical response to Catcher in the Rye. Below, you can read Ms Raynolds reflection about this project and the amazing results in terms of students’ insightful and creative work.

Because of the richness of students’ work, Ms Raynolds came to me asking about how we could share their perspectives on the book with a larger community. So I worked with Ms Raynolds to help the students “package” their critical responses as a Blogfolio post. Below you will also see my account on how I approached Sharing on Blogfolios. You will also see a link to the list of students’ Blogfolio posts that include not only Ms Raynolds class but also Mr Lou Trajano’s class.

Photos by Guilhermo Gonzalez as part of The Caufield Photo Gallery

A Different Approach: Insightful and Creative Responses

From Ms Madeline Raynolds:

With over 65 million copies of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye sold and a 250,000 more every year, it is amazing to think that the 1951 American Classic still speaks to people around the globe.  Back when we read the book in high school, the conventional interpretation about Holden was that he represented apathetic youth.  Somehow this was the root of Holden’s problems.  Today students are much more aware of the subtext, and realize in fact, that Holden may be suffering from caring too much.  Students today appreciate how Holden Caulfield’s internal machinations reveal so much about how our minds are overrun by a torrent of incessant thoughts.  As we have said in class, Holden is not having his thoughts, his thoughts are having him.  With Salinger’s breakthrough stream of consciousness style, it is easy to see that he was emphasizing how Holden made sense of his reality, not what actually happened to him.  The narrative perspective is more significant than the plot.

Great books, like Catcher, bear reading again and again for the new depths of understanding that can be gleaned in different time periods in different contexts.  Thank goodness our discipline has changed to recognize that the teacher does not propagate a text’s “meaning”, but rather affirms that meaning is created through the reader’s subjective experience of the book.  There are any number of ways to connect with a text, therefore different themes emerge as a result.

The challenge for teachers who have taught books like The Catcher in the Rye for so long is how to create assignments which encourage students to engage with the text in their own unique ways.  For years, we asked them to write literary essays.  However, the academic form is antithetical to Salinger’s purpose, so that assignment may have helped students write the required essay, but seemed sterile and needlessly formulaic in contrast to Salinger’s deeply human portrayal.  Then, almost at once, classes all over the world began writing pastiches imitating Holden’s voice and thought patterns.  The internet was flooded with them which became a deterrent for individual engagement as it seemed the exercise had already been done so why should students be motivated to repeat another iteration.  Last year the grade 10 teaching team decided to open up the assignment even more, and this year we realized how valuable the exercise has been. The brilliant critical responses the students have written would put the elementary thinking of Sparknotes to shame.

The depth of insight the teachers saw in the responses across the grade was noteworthy. One student saw the connection between Salinger and Holden, after reading the book and watching the most recent documentary about the author.  She created a number of Salinger artifacts: notes, diary entries, music and transcripts of conversations to further explain the psyche of Salinger and Holden.  Another student wrote a missing persons police report about Holden disappearing a year after. This piece highlighted the absolute parental neglect Holden suffers which this scholar believes causes his downward spiral.  A third student found an excerpt from an actual Salinger prequel to Catcher and he integrated this into a further elaboration of what the lives of the Caulfield family were like before the death of Aliie in order to show the devastating impact of his loss.  This kind of critical thinking goes beyond the application of literary considerations into the complexities of the human experience.  Afterall, as Socrates said, “(t)he unexamined life is not worth living.”

Catcher in The Rye Blog Post Links


The Catcher in the Rye Assignment

Part 1. Generate a piece of creative writing (800-1000 words) through which you display an academic understanding/interpretation of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  As you brainstorm, consider the multitude of perspectives and angles from which you can write.  As well, survey a variety of possibilities in terms of “text types.” See list below.  Please do not write an “essay” for this assignment.

Part 2.  Write a rationale (200-300 words) that explains the creative choices you’ve made and how such choices are representative of “interpretation.”
Possible Text Types:

Letters or Emails (single or exchange), Opinions or Features Article, Added Scene, Dramatic Monologue, Diary Entry, Short Story, Poem, Song, Parody, Imaginary Interview, Cartoon, Screenplay, Film/Video, Digital Media Project, Travel Writing, Professional Report, News Report, Manifesto, Instructions/User’s Guide….

Consider the perspective from which you will write.  Will you be an author, a critic, the main character, a different character in the story, a filmmaker?  You get to choose, but make that choice deliberately.
Also, consider which text types are most conducive to a solid interpretation of The Catcher in the Rye and which texts types are ones that you are interested in trying out.

Sharing on Blogfolios

From Ms Silvana Meneghini, Teaching & Learning Coach:

My work with Ms Raynolds and Mr Trajano’s classes was to stress the importance of Network Literacy and how important it is to believe that your work is worth sharing, not only to contribute to the community but also to get feedback. So in order for students to share their critical responses to Catcher in the Rye in blog post format, a certain “packaging” was necessary. It is very common for “projects” to be posted on student blogs in its entirety, as a copy and paste. This approach represents what is called a Substitution stage in the SAMR Model, which describes levels of technology integration to support learning. To avoid a simple “substitution” from one media to another, I provided a blog post model for students to “fit in” their projects, called “artifacts”.

In the blog post example below ( see full size here) you can see the different elements that help “encapsulate” the project. The student provides a meaningful blog post title, then introduces his work to the audience with a rationale for his approach to the text (context). At the end, there is an invitation for audience engagement.

We then invite you also to choose one student blog post to read and provide a feedback comment. Our next step will be to contact other schools and work on small peer feedback groups. Let us know if you are interested! Contact Ms Meneghini at


by Silvia Tolisano



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