In this lesson, we invite students to explore the cultural offerings around them — from architecture to books, dance, fashion, film, food, music, theater, TV and video games — and write reviews about what they experience. We use Times models along with advice from current Times critics to help them through the process.
You might teach this lesson, or aspects of it, to get students ready to enter our Review Writing Contest (Oct. 22 – Nov. 24, 2015). It could also fit into an ELA or journalism curriculum as an exercise in learning to write vividly and persuasively for a real audience. In fine arts classes, it could encourage students to explore new forms of culture, or teach them to better observe and communicate what is important about work they are already studying.
Materials | Advice from Three New York Times Critics (PDF), “Reading Reviews With a Critical Eye” Worksheet (PDF), Student Review Contest Rubric (PDF)
Understanding the Genre
Ask your students, How do you choose what movie to see, book to read or video game to play?
Before tackling their own reviews, students should consider the role the genre plays in their lives in general. Invite them to discuss the following questions:
- Do you ever read reviews of movies, music, books, games, restaurants or anything else? How much do they determine whether you will or won’t choose to experience something?
- Have you ever reviewed something online? What was that like?
- Where are you most likely to read reviews? Do you tend to turn to professional critics, like those you find writing for The Times and other newspapers, or do you tend to read user reviews on sites like Amazon, Yelp, GoodReads or Rotten Tomatoes?
- Is there any difference between professional reviews and the kinds of user reviews you find on those sites? Why do newspapers pay critics to write about culture? What role do you imagine New York Times critics in particular play in shaping public opinion about the things they review?
- What responsibility do you think reviewers of all kinds have to the subjects they are reviewing, or to their readers?
The Role of Criticism in Our Culture
If you would like to delve further into the role that criticism plays in the culture at large, you might invite students to begin with one or more Times essays on the topic.
For instance, in “Is Everyone Qualified to Be a Critic?” Adam Kirsch argues “Everyone, upon encountering a work of art, has some kind of response. In this sense, everyone really is a critic.” In the same Bookends column, however, Charles McGrath makes the case that “If we insist on taste and discernment, then the number of valuable and useful critics dwindles pretty drastically.”
A 2010 edition of the Sunday Book Review asked six essayists to consider the question: What is the role of the critic today?
Sam Anderson writes:
I like to think of the new world order (the iPocalypse, whatever) not as a threat to criticism — or not only as a threat — but as an opportunity. It will cure critics, of necessity, of some of our worst habits. For one thing, we can no longer take readers’ interest for granted. This should create a healthy sense of urgency — it should prevent critics, in other words, from producing the kind of killingly dull reviews that seem intended for someone trapped in a bus shelter during a giant rainstorm, circa 1953. This is not an approach we can get away with today, when every reader is half a second away from doing 34,000 other things.
And Katie Roiphe writes:
I have seen students rush out to buy “Anna Karenina” because an essay by James Wood made them feel that Tolstoy was essential. If it’s even just these couple of students, alone on planet Earth, who have read that essay and rushed out, those couple of students are to me sufficient proof of the robustness and purpose of the eloquent critic, of his power to awake and enlighten, of his absolutely crucial place in our world.
An accompanying feature, “Masters of the Form,” asks “Does criticism even matter?” and answers that question with a collection of quotes from eminent writers defending the genre, for example, this one from Oscar Wilde:
To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticizes. The one characteristic of a beautiful form is that one can put into it whatever one wishes, and see in it whatever one chooses to see; and the Beauty, that gives to creation its universal and aesthetic element, makes the critic a creator in his turn, and whispers of a thousand different things which were not present in the mind of him who carved the statue or painted the panel or graved the gem.
As students read one or more of these pieces they might consider:
- Is everyone qualified to be a critic?
- Does the proliferation of user-generated review websites eliminate the need for professional critics?
- Do sites like Amazon, Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes threaten the very genre of literary and artistic criticism?
- Does criticism even matter?
Note to Teachers on an Organizing Structure for This Lesson
Before continuing, decide what your students will be writing, since each of the next steps will be determined by that.
Do you want them each to choose their own piece to experience and review? Or, will they all be reviewing the same work, such as a whole-class novel? You could also have them each review different works from the same genre — photography exhibits, say, or classical music. Or, students could divide themselves into groups based on a common interest, so that one group is reviewing restaurants, another architecture and a third video games.
If you would like them to participate in our review-writing contest, we ask that students choose a piece that is both new to them and of personal interest, since part of our goal is to encourage teenagers to explore culture on their own. However, the logistics are up to you: Groups of students can choose to experience the same piece, as long as that piece is both new and compelling to everyone in the group.
Reading Model Times Reviews to Understand the Form
Depending on your purpose for this lesson and how you’ve organized your class, assign students to work alone, in pairs or in small groups to read model reviews and discuss them.
You can pick from our list of Times reviews below, or, via Times search, find your own based on students’ interests or reading levels. Or, go beyond The Times to read reviews in a local or school paper, or on a favorite website. At the bottom of this post we list a number of other sources, including places to find reviews written by teenagers.
If your students use Times search, they can look for reviews of works that have mattered to them growing up — whether “The Fault in Our Stars” or “Call of Duty.” Or, they can simply explore the current Arts section to find new reviews they would like to read.
The list below is, of course, just a start:
- Scary New World | Review of ‘The Dead and the Gone’ and ‘The Hunger Games,’ by John Green
- New! Improved! Shape Up Your Life!, by Dwight Garner
- Just a Book? No, More Like a Trusty Companion, by Dwight Garner
- Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Gives Atticus Finch a Dark Side, by Michiko Kakutani
- An Epic Showdown as Harry Potter Is Initiated Into Adulthood, by Michiko Kakutani
- Children’s Bookshelf: Halloween, by Maria Russo
- Watch Your Language, by Maria Russo
- ‘Gone Girl': The Lies That Buoy, Then Break a Marriage, by Janet Maslin
- 1951 ‘Catcher in the Rye’ Review | Aw, the World’s a Crumby Place, by James Stern
- A December Surprise, Without Whispers (or Leaks) | Beyoncé’s New Album Is Steamy and Sleek, by Jon Pareles
- Review: Panda Bear’s Bloops and Swirls Usher In Another CMJ Music Marathon, by Jon Pareles
- Review: A. R. Rahman, Full of Bollywood Hits at the Beacon, by Jon Pareles
- Kendrick Lamar, Emboldened, but Burdened, by Success, by Jon Caramanica
- A Farewell to Twang: Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’, by Jon Caramanica
- Benjamin Grosvenor, Boy Lord of the Piano, Takes Carnegie Hall, by David Allen
Video Game Reviews
- ‘Hamilton,’ Young Rebels Changing History and Theater, by Ben Brantley
- Missionary Men With Confidence in Sunshine: ‘The Book of Mormon’, by Ben Brantley
- Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘Hamlet’, by Ben Brantley
- ‘Fun Home’ and Other Quests for Self, by Ben Brantley
- In ‘Elements of Oz,’ Smartphones Enhance a Celebration of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ Film, by Charles Isherwood
- In ‘Be More Chill,’ a Nerd Finds Popularity in a Sci-Fi Pill, by Charles Isherwood
Art, Architecture, Fashion and Dance Reviews
- A Soaring Emblem of New York, and Its Upside-Down Priorities | Flawed 1 World Trade Center Is a Cautionary Tale, by Michael Kimmelman
- Gucci’s 600 Years of Inspiration, by Vanessa Friedman
- Picasso, Completely Himself in 3 Dimensions, by Roberta Smith
- Mondrian’s Paintings and Their Pulsating Intricacy, by Roberta Smith
- Sneaker Culture at the Brooklyn Museum, by Ken Johnson
- Art That Lets You Walk on Water, by Carol Vogel
- Ballet Hispanico at the Joyce Theater, by Gia Kourlas
- New York City Ballet’s ‘Jeux’ Lets Sara Mearns Shine, by Alastair Macaulay
Questions to Think About While Reading
Ask students to answer the questions below, reproduced on this student handout (PDF), before sharing their observations and opinions with their groupmates.
- What is being reviewed?
- What factual or explanatory information does the reviewer provide to inform the reader about the subject? How does he or she avoid “spoilers,” if that is relevant to the review?
- What is the reviewer’s opinion of the subject? How do you know?
- What supporting evidence or details does the reviewer provide to support her or his opinion?
- What do you notice about how the reviewer structured the review and organized her or his ideas?
- Do you think the review is informative? Is it entertaining to read? Does it make you want (or not want) to experience the subject? Explain.
- Underline or highlight a few lines from the review to share with your group that illustrate the critic’s approach to her or his subject.
The Writing Process: Advice From Times Critics
In this handout (PDF), and in quotes excerpted from it below, we share advice three Times critics offer students who are crafting reviews.
Jon Pareles, who writes about popular music, Maria Russo, who reviews children’s books, and Neil Genzlinger, who writes about TV, talk about the importance of knowing your audience, about the challenge of melding an experience and ideas into words, and about a critic’s responsibility to both the subject and to readers.
As students read, have them annotate with the goal of pulling out at least five pieces of advice they think will be useful as they begin to write their own reviews. They can then discuss those as a class.
The Writing Process
Step 1 | Brainstorming: What do you want to review?
Finding the right subject to review is essential. Students should pick something that they feel strongly about, and that they will be able to experience in person.
Students might brainstorm subjects by discussing or writing about questions like these, then compiling ideas on the blackboard or online as a whole class.
- Look at the list of subjects The New York Times reviews, below. What are the categories that interest you most?
- What can you choose for this project — whether a movie, a concert, a show, a local restaurant or art exhibit, a book you’d like to read or a game you’d like to play — that you would both enjoy and know you can experience in person?
- Which of these do you think other students would most enjoy reading about?
- What recent creative work have you had a strong reaction to in the past, either positive or negative?
For the purposes of our Student Review Contest, students can choose from anything The Times reviews:
- books (fiction, nonfiction and children’s books)
- video games
- music (albums and events, popular and classical)
- TV shows
Step 2 | Experiencing and Taking Notes: What Is Your Reaction and Why?
Once your students choose their subjects, they need to experience it as critics. Jon Pareles explains that complex task:
Reviews are where an experience meets ideas. You go to a concert, a movie, an art exhibition, a restaurant, and it makes you think. Maybe the experience is a catalyst for a brand-new idea; maybe it crystallizes something you’ve been thinking about for a while. It becomes something worth writing about.
The job of the reviewer is to get both the experience and the ideas into words — and into proportion. In some ways, a review is the same as reporting: The facts have to be correct and presented in a coherent way. And in some ways, a review is very different from reporting: Your subjective experience and your reactions — intellectual, emotional, visceral — are a big part of it.
Even before students get started, they may want to think about what kinds of details matter in their reviews. They’re most likely used to analyzing literature in English class, so elements like plot, character and tone in a book review might make sense to them. But even though they have eaten in restaurants, students may not have thought analytically about all the qualities that make for a good dining experience beyond the food itself — the service, the restaurant decor, the menu and the presentation of food.
Remind them to take notes as they go on whatever it is they are experiencing, concentrating on the details they notice. They are likely to remember overall impressions and opinions when ready to write, but the details that bolster them can get lost. Tell them to write down as much down as they can without note-taking getting in the way of the experience itself.
Step 3 | Writing a Draft: How do you get started?
There is no specific formula for writing a review — and that’s what makes a good review so interesting to read. Mr. Pareles explains:
The best criticism merges the details of the individual experience — the close-up — with a much broader picture of what the experience means. It’s not just about that concert or art exhibit. It’s about how to listen or how to look. It’s about changing the perception your readers will bring to the next experience because your ideas awakened theirs.
Yes, that’s a tall order. You need to select your details. You need to make sure your ideas are clearly expressed. You need the writing itself to be engaging, to be worth that reader’s attention. It can be serious, a little poetic, even funny — whatever communicates the ideas.
But if we are going to suggest any place to start, it would be to think about your audience first. Neil Genzlinger says he always keeps these two things in mind: 1) Who am I writing this for? and 2) Who is the movie, video game, etc. that I’m reviewing made for?
Ms. Russo offers some general suggestions: “The first job when writing a review – what you will usually do at the top in the first few paragraphs – is to make it clear you know what the book was about, you understand the book, you understand what the author was trying to do.” But she cautions, “You don’t want to give away the entire plot. This is a big rule of reviewing. It’s true for movies, TV, but especially for books. People get really angry about spoilers. Readers like to be able to be surprised by the turn of events.”
Ms. Russo also points out something we think is especially important for students to know:
As far as I can tell, teachers often give a lot of rules about stuff like transition sentences and topic sentences. The writing can be really cut and dried that way.
When you’re writing a review, you should think of it as a literary form. Literary criticism is an old and storied literary genre in itself. You should feel that you can be creative. You can make your sentences start with unexpected words. You can make short paragraphs. You can create lists in there if you want. You can really play around with the form, in a way that your teachers sometimes don’t let you, but you should feel free to do because writing a book review is purely about the pleasure and excitement of reading. You don’t have to prove anything to your teacher, you just have to express your own passions, opinions and perceptions.
Ask students, Who are you writing for? What will they already know about the genre and the individual work? How can you “express your passion” and have fun with the form?
Step 4 | Revising and Editing: How can I make review as informative and entertaining as possible?
We recommend students handing their drafts to a teacher, classmate, friend or family member to get reactions. Did the writer describe too little or give away too much? Did he or she assert an opinion clearly and provide details to support it?
As students revise, they can use our Student Review Contest Rubric (PDF) to help.
Step 5 | Publishing: How can you share your opinions with the world?
We believe a review should have an audience beyond a teacher. We encourage students to submit to our Review Contest before the Nov. 24, 2015 deadline. But we also think reviews can get out into the world in other ways: school newspapers, student blogs, bulletin boards and websites such as Teen Ink.
One thing we noticed when we searched the Web for sources of teenage reviews? There aren’t many. So if your students enjoyed this assignment, they might even consider starting their own school or community site for reviews by and for people their age.
A Few More Resources for Teaching, Finding and Writing Reviews
21stCenturyLit.org | Review Writing: Writing Film & Restaurant Reviews
Mensa for Kids | Book Review Writing
BookTrust | Tips for Writing Book Reviews
School Library Journal | Young Adult Reviews
Teen Ink | Reviews
This resource may be used to address the academic standards listed below.
Common Core E.L.A. Anchor Standards
1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.
4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
5 Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.
6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.
10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.
1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
2 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.
3 Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.
In 2015, when Netflix debuted Bloodline, I didn’t think I was taking much of a risk by investing my time. Here was a moody crime drama set amid the lush visuals of the Florida Keys, starring Sissy Spacek, Friday Night Lights’ Kyle Chandler, Broadway legends Sam Shepard and Norbert Leo Butz, and ‘90s cult icons Linda Cardellini and Chloë Sevigny. What about this show doesn’t sound like a winning formula? Everyone, of course, would watch this show with me, I thought. It would be A Thing to watch Bloodline.
As it turns out, no, it won’t ever be A Thing. After the third season (scaled back from 13 episodes to 10) drops on Netflix today, it won’t be coming back. That’s rare for a Netflix show, and puts Bloodline in weird company. The only other Netflix originals to be canceled so early are Hemlock Grove,Marco Polo, Richie Rich,and, recently, the extraordinarily expensive Baz Luhrmann joint The Get Down.
Netflix is infamously stingy with viewership data, particularly when releasing it doesn’t function as a brag, but its renewal decisions seem to err on the side of “well, someone is watching it.” There’s no way that every original content experiment finds a huge audience, but almost all of them get lengthy runs, the kind reserved only for bonafide hits on traditional TV. The streaming company has now made four seasons of the god-awful Grace and Frankie, for no reason that I can glean other than Lily Tomlin’s serial Emmy nominations. Fuller House got renewed, though critics far and wide called the first season a joke. Bloodline, on the other hand,has gotten mostly positive reviews andnetted one Emmy win for Netflix last year (a supporting actor nod for Ben Mendelsohn). For it to get canceled, we can guess, there truly must be nobody watching it. Except me.
(Netflix did not return a request for comment.)
Bloodline’s tiny Reddit community gives us another hint that that’s the case: the subreddit has 3,300 subscribers, many of whom post only to say that they aren’t watching the show anymore. For reference, the subreddit for Better Call Saul, another good show no one watches, has 111,000 subscribers. But it’s okay. I’m not here to mourn the loss. Apart from, you know, enjoying the TV show, my main reward for sticking with watching Bloodline has been getting to make jokes about sticking with watching Bloodline. Though I love it, the show’s cancellation doesn’t disappoint me — it relieves me. Honestly: good riddance to Bloodline, a Dexter spiritual successor that stars many of my favorite actors and regularly thrills me. It’s so lonely now, to watch a TV show that nobody else cares about.
In Superfandom, a 300-plus-page exploration of how fandom has evolved alongside the internet, Zoe Fraade-Blanar and Aaron Glazer write, “The image of a secret fan acting alone with no outside influence or interaction is largely a myth... True solitary fandom rarely survives for long.” Mine might not even make it through Bloodline’s final season. I know, because this has happened to me before.
Taking it back to 2005 for a minute — the tail end of the era defined by Friends and ER, the last generation of shows thatpeaked with viewerships made up of double-digit percentages of the US population — the first “grown-up” drama I ever obsessed over was Grey’s Anatomy. It wasa show that, as a middle school student, I should probably not have been allowed to watch. The only people I discussed it with were my parents, and, later, in high school, one co-worker at the mall food court. My friends did not watch it, and, at the time, I wasn’t really using the internet for anything beyond the Kim Possible browser game and gossiping in Facebook Messenger. In the fall of 2011, I moved out of my parent’s house, stopped working at the mall, and missed the season 8 premiere.
It almost doesn’t matter that Grey’s Anatomy went from objectively solid prime-time soap opera to a boring, tangled mess somewhere around that time. It wasn’t why I stopped watching. I stopped because it was too lonely. Instead, I turned my allegiance over to AMC’s Mad Men, a show that didn’t even air a single new episode in 2011, but was nevertheless opined about in the Arts section of my college paper almost daily, and referenced constantly by my extremely hip contemporary literature professor. I watched so much of it, trying to catch up before season 5, that I got more than one email from IT saying I’d exceeded my allotted campus internet usage for the month. (I was very cool in college!) Without really thinking about it, I gravitated to a show I thought would serve the same social function Grey’s Anatomy had, back when my social world had been primarily my nuclear family.
Once upon a time, a television show was a one-way conversation, a thing that came into your house at a certain hour and, if you were there, you watched it. And if someone was else was there, then that was who you watched it with. Somehow, that felt like enough, though I’m barely old enough to remember it.
In any case, appointment TV, beyond the Sunday night events that HBO has managed to make out of Game of Thrones, does not really exist anymore. You can always DVR or stream later. Bingeable Netflix series (aside from the mega-hit Stranger Things, unavoidable online and off for all of last summer) oftenfeel like they exist in a space, completely separate from the rest of the world. The streaming-era practice of dropping a whole season at a time, with no schedule dictating when anyone watches each episode, means that even people who are fans of the same show aren’t necessarily synced up in a way that lets them discuss it. (Hulu has recently tried to fight that with weekly releases of The Handmaid’s Tale. I fell off after episode 3, and I’d love to see that viewership data.)
Grey’s Anatomy premiered just before TV culture fragmented endlessly and irreversibly, by way of premium cable, then streaming services, then Netflix’s behemoth syndication catalog, then Netflix’s daunting roster of original content... then Netflix competitors’ rosters of original content. All that happened alongside most of cable TV realizing that specificity and diversity could be profitable, that making many shows with smaller, fiercer fan bases could be as valuable (and much easier) than making one hit that appealed to everyone. More importantly, it was before the height of live-tweeting, Tumblr fandom, Reddit communities, weekly online recaps, and critical analysis that can be as fun and interesting in themselves as the TV shows they engage with. All of the extras that make a piece of entertainment feel like something more, something participatory. We expect those now.
Since 2012, Netflix has gone from a DVD-rental service with four pieces of fledgling original content to a production giant with well over 100. All of these changes pull at each other. From one side, the promise that the internet will always provide a fan community for anything you could possibly want to be a fan of, and on the other side, a content creator with an output that has grown over 3,000 percent in five years, splintering the zeitgeist further with each new well-made offering. And that’s just one company.
As a result, “Am I the only one watching this show?” has become its own genre of writing, defined by a tone of “Am I crazy? Does this show only exist in my mind?” and pleading, sales-pitch language. “Why is nobody watching Schitt’s Creek with me?”; “Why did audiences forget Better Call Saul so quickly?”; “Obsessed: Am I the only one watching this show?”; “The Americans is the best show on TV. So why isn’t anyone watching it?”; “Why is nobody watching ABC’s critically acclaimed drama Nashville?”; “You’re the Worst is the best TV show you’re not watching”; “HBO’s The Leftovers is the best TV show you’re not watching”; “Am I the only one still watching Empire?” It never stops.
It’s not always clear why a just-okay show like Stranger Things takes off in the popular imagination and an also-okay show like Bloodline doesn’t. But entire TV shows now function like viral videos — endless options and endless conversation about which of these options is worth the time means a little bit of buzz turns into a lot of buzz if it happens at the right moment — but if the timing’s off, it goes mum. It’s a much more fickle environment than the already distant-feeling era of Breaking Bad and Mad Men, when a show could assemble a reputation and audience slowly, brick-by-brick. You can easily bet wrong, like me, and find yourself here, counter-intuitively wishing your favorite show would disappear and give you some peace.
Watching something alone has never been more likely, and — now that we’ve come to expect community and discussion and blogs and backchannel for everything we care about — it’s never been lonelier. We’re social creatures. We want to share things with people! And in a TV environment with infinite options, we want to be affirmed that the choices we’ve made represent good taste.
When a TV show provides neither, it’s awfully hard to hang on.