Making the abstract visible

Literary analysis often lives entirely in intellectual space. When I talk about analysis, however, I often rely on physical metaphors: put the pieces together, hold a magnifying glass over the text, identify the threads that run through the text.

For my recent unit on The House on Mango Street with 8th graders, I made the abstract visual, particularly the concept of thematic threads. Here’s what I did.

Before students arrived in class, I cut out some yarn and made some labels of thematic threads in The House on Mango Street, like the role of gender, sexuality, innocence, the Other, social class, etc. I taped up the threads and the labels on the wall.

At the beginning of class, I asked students to grab a Post-it and write something specific they noticed during the previous night’s reading, ideally including some textual evidence.

Then, I had students stick their Post-it on one wall of the classroom. Because I have multiple sections, by the end of the day, I had quite a sea of Post-its. (And when I ran out of Post-its, I used index cards.)

Students place their Post-it on one central wall

Next, I had students choose a Post-it from the wall and place it on one of the threads. Then, if they thought that I hadn’t listed their thematic thread, they drew a thread and label on the whiteboard. Because I had so many Post-its, students had multiple chances to place Post-its on threads.

I had students silently examine the other Post-its on the thread.

Students silently examine the Post-its and threads

Finally, I had students answer this question in writing: What do you think Cisneros is saying about your specific thread? What interesting connections did you notice?

I see so many options here for many different texts: On what other thread could you place this Post-it? Why? Where do these threads intersect? How do individual readers create the text based on they assemble the pieces? What else should we add to this thread?

Yes, this activity is gimmicky, but it’s a gimmick that works (and that requires little set up). Even my more students who tend to be more concrete made sharp observations. Students can visually see the different threads and how they overlap–and maybe even weave together. (Plus, students move, which is always a plus.)

What techniques have you used to make the abstract visual? Add your thoughts in the comment section below.


  1. Wonderful blog you have here but I was curious if you knew of any user discussion forums that cover the
    same topics discussed in this article? I’d really like to be a part of community where I can get comments from other experienced individuals that share the same
    interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know.

    Appreciate it!



    1. I actually haven’t found a resource like this, which is why I started Rigorous Lit. I do like AP Lit Help (, which is geared towards teaching AP but still features solid teaching strategies.



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