Syntax and Semantics Through Serenity and Genre

The film Serenity is a amalgam of genres and provides the perfect opportunity to discuss the syntax and semantics of genre conventions.

This 25 minute lesson teaches the syntax and semantics through an examination of genre and the way it works for the film Serenity.
(Estimated Running Time: 28 Minutes)


Students will be able to define syntax and semantics by identifying the syntax and semantics of a genre of their choice in a short journal entry.


Required materials are normal text, recommended but not required materials are italicized

Essential Question(s):

How do syntax and semantic change the way we read something?

  • Semantics is how the words/meanings/visuals function within a genre.
  • Semantics is needed to create meaning.
  • Syntax is the grammar and structure that separates each genre.
  • Syntax is needed is needed to separate and make understanding easier.
  • In combination, the two work together to create or break expectation and narrative.
  • Both exist outside of language.
  • Both can be applied to difficult issues to see how misconceptions are created and perpetuated.

Inquiry Exercise:

(2 Minutes)
What elements do you expect to see in a western? How about a science fiction story? Write their answers in list form on a whiteboard or large post-its. We’ll need this list later.

Introduction to New Material:

(3 Minutes)
Genres function a lot like language. We’re going to watch a quick video and then we’re going to look more closely at the ideas of syntax and semantics:

Watch the video from 1:02 to 2:04. Pause to identify syntax and semantics of genre.

The video just defined them for us. Let’s write that down.

Semantics: “The visual markers of established film types. These are the icons and images we associate with each distinct genre.”
Syntax: “The grammar and the structure that makes each one distinct. These are the thematic and narrative conventions we associate with the genre in question.”

Alright. We have our list of things we expect in each genre. We’ve just defined syntax and semantics. Now we’re going to see if we can connect the definition to our list.

Guided Practice:

(10 Minutes)
Go down the list and label each item syntax or semantics. Converse about why is fits each one. Ask if other genres use that item or convention.

Once the list is complete, ask them for specific examples that weren’t listed to expand the list.

Continue the video to 10:06 so they can see the long list of conventions covered and the ways in which Serenity uses or break away from them.

Individual Practice:

(10 Minutes)
So you can see that the semantics of a genre is the iconography and what, in any given moment, would let you recognize the genre. The syntax, meanwhile, are the elements of the plot, the tropes, and the pieces of narrative that set that genre apart.

For the next five minutes I’d like you to choose another genre: horror, romance, vampire stories, coming of age stories, adventures, whatever you like. You can work with a partner or alone. Brainstorm the syntax and semantics of the genre and create a few sentences that identifies each in your journal. If you’re working with a partner, you both need to have it written in your journal and you need to list your partner.


(3 Minutes)
We had a chance to look at the syntax and semantics of genre today. These ideas, the way something can be broken down into it’s parts, allows us to see the actual meaning beneath the words and structure. It also allows us to play with the meaning, words and structure.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at semantics and syntax related to language and the specifically the language of racism in regards to the arguments about Syrian refugees and the way they mirror the same arguments against Jews in the 1940s and other minorities and refugees in years past.

Critical Literacy and Co-Constructed Meaning

Since reading is a conversation between the author and audience, critical literacy allows a reader to gain more control over the context of texts. In this Qwantz Dinosaur Comic, "ryoma" is defined wholly through context clues and the reader's critical literacy.

This 25 minute lesson gives students a basic sense of how critical literacy and awareness help a reader gain more control over the meaning of a text by reading and creating Dinosaur Comics.
(Estimated Running Time: 25 Minutes)


Students will be able to demonstrate some or all of the four suggested techniques by constructing and analyzing Dinosaur Comics.
Students will be able to critique each other’s comics by examining how critical literacy techniques affect their reading.


Required materials are normal text, recommended but not required materials are italicized

Essential Question(s):

How can a reader’s sense of control help them?

  • Critical literacy can offer readers control
  • Having control is empowering for readers
  • Readers are more likely to engage with a text if they have a sense of control
  • As teachers, we can create a sense of control
  • A text is controlled by different factors including the language, the author, the reader’s background knowledge and the reader’s skill
  • A reader can have control of a text
  • A reader can never fully control a text
  • The more control a reader has, the more engaged they’re likely to be

Inquiry Exercise:

(3 Minutes)
Lay out a series of Dinosaur comics. Pick one. Read it. After reading it, consider whether or not you understood it, whether you found it funny, and what you think someone would need to know in order understand it. If you didn’t understand it, think about what you feel you were missing. Share your comic with a partner. Allow them to read it as you read theirs. Explain how you felt about each one and what you felt you needed to understand it.

Choose another comic, lather, rinse, repeat!

Introduction to New Material:

(5 Minutes)
Chapter 3 of Teaching Students to Read Like Detectives focuses on the types and features of narrative texts. It offers several examples of simple routines to engage with a text. Each routine attempts to fulfill one of the four steps of critical literacy.

TSRD defines Critical Literacy as “the practice of evaluating information, insights and perspectives through an analysis of power culture, class and gender.” TSRD suggests four techniques to do so:

  1. Question the Commonplace in a Text
  2. Consider the Role of the Author
  3. Seek Alternative Perspectives
  4. Read Critically

Since we’re working with these four questions, let’s look at one of these comics and dissect how each technique can be applied to Dinosaur Comics.

Firstly, what’s the “commonplace?” What’s commonplace in a comic? What’s commonplace in these comics? How do you think Dinosaur Comics plays on the commonplace in comics?

Next, the author, Ryan North, chooses what text goes in these comics and how that text relates to the images. What can you tell us about North based on your comic?

Each comic has a topic that’s different. What is your comic about? What in your background allows you to read or not read the comic? How was your partner’s reading the same or different?

Finally, what does it mean to read critically? How does Dinosaur Comics require or encourage you to read critically or not? How are you involved in creating meaning when reading the comic? Do you feel included in the process?

Guided Practice:

(5 Minutes)
Take a copy of a blank Qwantz comic. Today, we’ll be making our own comics. Because we want this to be focused around our control and sense of agency, I would like you to write the four techniques of critical literacy on the comic, one outside each of the four edges. Keep these techniques in mind as you make the comic, since the people reading your comic will need to either experience them or experience the lack of them.

We’re going to choose a common theme. Brainstorm a theme. What elements do you think we need in the text to make the comic about this theme?

(If this hasn’t been established during the intro/inquiry) Because Dinosaur Comics uses the same image over and over, how can we use that repetition, that representation of the commonplace, to our advantage?

Now think about the theme in relation to your life. I want you to brainstorm silently for a minute a few things you think you’ve experienced in relation to the theme that others may not have. Think about how you would include that.

One of my favorite things about puns or jokes is that they often use double meanings for the humor. Find a term or two from our brainstorm list and think about possible alternate meanings and whether you can use them to add depth or make a joke.

Finally, the majority of comics, especially Dinosaur Comics are referential. Do we need to do anything more to bring us to thinking critically?

Individual Practice:

(10 Minutes)
Now that we’ve written up a comic together, we can already see that even variations on a theme come out differently.

This time, I want you to go through the process on your own. Afterward, we’ll trade comics, and as we read each other’s comics, I’d like you to think about how much control you have over what the comic means and how much control you feel your partner allowed you in reading this comic.


(2 Minutes)
Critical Literacy is really a means to create agency and grant control of a text to a reader. The techniques it suggests and the routines TSRD recommend allow students to gain that sense of control. The best authors and books allow the reader at least some control, but by expanding beyond the text and using the four techniques, the reader can effectively take more control and therefore engage more fully.

Expository Texts, GIST, and No Irish Need Apply

By understanding expository texts, students can overcome misinformation such as the campaign to rewrite the anti-Irish history of the US and their No Irish Need Apply signs.

This 30 minute lesson is intended to introduce students to expository texts, the GIST model, and the fact that understanding expository texts can equip them to make a difference in the world.
(Estimated Running Time: 30 Minutes)


Students will be able to use the GIST model to summarize an expository text.


Required materials are normal text, recommended but not required materials are italicized

Essential Question(s):

How does understanding expository texts equip us to think critically?

  • Understanding how to read an expository text allows us to critique the information imparted.
  • Expository texts provide factual information.
  • Expository texts sometimes pick and choose the information they offer for a reason.
  • Being able to compare multiple sources gives us a better understanding of the information.

Inquiry Exercise:

(3 Minutes)
What is an expository text? How does it work? What things do you usually see in expository texts? Why?

Introduction to New Material:

(3 Minutes)
As we’ve discussed, expository texts come in multiple forms and have specific features that help us know how to read them. Because of our limited time, I’m going to walk you through one of them: Summarizing, using the GIST methodology.

GIST stands for “generating interactions through schemata with text.” Being an acronym is really just a way to keep all the letters capitalized. By breaking the text into parts, perhaps a paragraph at a time or a few paragraphs at a time, we can summarize the text part by part to create a better sense of the whole. Students who attempt to summarize after reading a full text, especially a dense one, will often forget parts, facts, or become confused before they get to summing up. By breaking it up and summarizing as we move along the text, we will lose less information and build a better understanding of the text. The important things to remember with the GIST model is to limit each summary sentence to no more than 20 words, and to keep the chunks of text roughly even.

Guided Practice:

(5-8 Minutes)
Hand out the GIST bookmarks or guide. If you have a dot projector, it’s a good idea to annotate and work along with the class on that so everyone can see and/or copy. Make sure if you do so that you check for understanding on the annotations and that your students can reproduce or explain the annotations you make together. I highly recommend doing the first paragraph together and then letting students take the reigns for the remainder.

Let’s look at this article from the Smithsonian about Rebecca Fried, an eighth grader who published a scholarly paper and made a fool out of a renowned history professor. It’s seven paragraphs long. We’ll read through it together breaking it up into two paragraph chunks for each summary sentence. Every chunk, we’ll pause and formulate a summary sentence in the worksheet. When we finish, we’ll combine the sentences into a summary paragraph and see how we feel about it as a summation.

Individual Practice:

(10-12 Minutes)

This article is a longer, more involved piece from the Daily Beast, a more entertainment-angled online publication. I want you to try doing this on your own for this article. This article is 6 pages long. Do a summary sentence for several paragraphs instead of every two paragraphs. Get as far as you can in the next 10 minutes; it’s ok if you don’t finish.

Try to have no less than five summary sentences and no more than eight. Remember to limit sentences to no more than 20 words. In addition, as you’re reading through, I want you to consider the differences in tone, information, depth, and purpose in this article from the last.

Give students time to work. Remind them of their time constraints. Check in with individuals on their progress and offer help if needed.

Partner up with someone else and compare your summaries.

While they’re comparing their summaries, here are some questions you can ask the students as they chat, especially if their comparison stalls.

  • What did you miss that they got? What did they miss that you got?
  • How successful do you think the GIST model was?
  • What were the biggest differences between the two articles?
  • When you read on your own, especially non-fiction, do you find yourself pausing, contemplating and summarizing in your head if not on paper?
  • When you run into expository texts from non-scholarly publications, how do they differ?
  • How do you think a variety of texts on the same or similar subject can help teach critical thinking about the nature of sources and the accuracy of information imparted by authority figures?


(5 Minutes)
Kindly hand in your summaries. As we move forward, consider how you might need to adjust the GIST model for fictional texts. How could you compare an expository text to a fictional one? Remember that Rebecca Fried was able to take down a professor who was pushing a racist agenda simply because she knew how to read and analyze expository texts. As the X-Files says, the truth is out there. If you keep at it, you can find the truth and expose it.

If you can I assign readings, you might ask them to do the same task for a variety of different texts and share their summaries the following day. This encourages learning new information rather than remaining stagnant. In partners, they could also analyze how well they thought their classmate summarized their text by reading the summary, then the article and discussing it.

Given that this is a routine to be used over and over, it would be something we’d need to come back to regularly in a classroom. Ideally, I’d want to present this strategy over a week or two, and then several others in their own segments, and finally allow them to choose their strategy individually on a more independent project after they’ve tried a variety (the dartboard method of teaching technique, as I like to call it).