The truth of my seismographs is the story of my life, in a much smaller, compact form.
A couple years ago, I was looking for a new way to teach poetry and nothing was really speaking to me – So I did what most do, I pulled together an amalgamation of different things until I had created a beast that I could experiment with until it was tamed.

I called it a Seismograph, as I wanted something that measured the impact of words – how a poem affects us at the most base, emotional level. Does it shake you to your core? Or just give you a little goosebump?

When I finally fleshed out my idea and sent it out into the classroom, I was overjoyed. It worked! It made sense to the kids, and I began to use my seismographs regularly in my classroom.

Then, last summer, I attended an AP Literature training. One day the instructor pulled out a short story called “The Lifeguard” by Mary Morris and said, “Today we will be doing what I call ‘Literary Seismographs.’”

Whelp, I thought, another brilliant idea that turns out not to be mine after all.

But don’t fear, dear reader, for I did not let this stop me from continuing my love of the literary seismograph. My version looks a little different than the one the instructor at my training used, so I continue to consider it my own (I’ve even joked about renaming them ‘Parke-mo-graphs’).

How does it work?

Seismographs are useful for close reading, and can be used with poetry or prose. With prose, I wouldn’t use more than a couple pages of text- the point is to understand the author’s choice of words and wording. Therefore, it makes it an excellent activity for trying to reach standard RL.2.4.

First, students are assigned a passage. In the examples below, students read the first three pages of Atonement by Ian McEwan. Those students then star or highlight the lines that really stuck out to them. I usually ask them to keep the number of lines they choose to 5-7.

After they find the lines that affect them, I have them rate the level of impact on a scale of 1-10. Then, they plot it on a graph similar to the one below:


On each point of impact, they write the quote that impacted them.

After plotting all their quotes, they then have the hard task – discovering what the author has done to make this impact happen. Is it foreshadowing? Alliteration? More importantly, what does it do for the piece? What is the purpose of those lines in the larger scale of the work?

Here are some examples from Atonement:

And some examples from “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou:

After the seismograph activity, students can use the quotes they analyzed to springboard into analytical writing – how do these lines relate to the work as a whole?
Overall, students in my classes seem to like the activity – some even get excited when they see it listed on the agenda. One student told me that she enjoys seismographs because “it’s easy and I get it, I don’t feel like I’m struggling for the answer.” I also like that it helps reinforce that what a reader gets out of a text differs from person to person, and that’s okay!

I’ve noticed that essays that spring from these activities use stronger evidence and elaboration, and I encourage my students to consider using seismographs as a planning activity when trying to suss out an essay.

Questions? Suggestions? Feel free to comment below!


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