Analyzing Art, Criticizing Culture: Writing Reviews with the New York Times

To learn more about all of our writing units, visit our Writing Curriculum Overview.

Before the digital age, writing reviews was largely the job of a small circle of elite flavor makers. That circle still includes critics of the Times, people like Ben Brantley or Pete Wells, who can make or destroy a Broadway show or a restaurant with a single review.

But these days we’re all invited to be reviewers – to rate and comment on everything from books and films to yoga classes and electric toothbrushes. While this type of casual writing provides students with a real audience and purpose, it often doesn’t require the kind of careful reading, deep thought, and meticulous craftsmanship that more formal classroom writing requires.

In this unit, we hope to bridge both of these and prove to students that writing reviews can be fun.

So why should your students read and write art and culture reviews? How can this fit into your curriculum?

First, think about what students need to know and be able to do:

  • A cultural report is of course a form of argumentative essay. Your class may write about Lizzo or “Looking for Alaska” instead of, say, climate change or gun control, but they still need to make claims and back them up with evidence.

  • Just as students must in the classroom for this classic, the literary essay, a reviewer of any genre of artistic expression must carefully read (or look at or listen to) a work; analyze and understand their context; and explain what is useful and interesting about it.

  • It goes without saying that review writers must grapple with the same questions that authors of any text grapple with – how to compose in a voice, style, vocabulary, and tone that fits the subject, audience, and purpose. But when you write a review it’s about influencing people and our unit offers an integrated authentic audience. From our informal writing prompts to our review contest, we encourage students to publish their work for a global audience of teenagers and adults to read.

  • Our competition allows students to write about any work from any of the 14 expression categories – including movies, music, restaurants, video games, and comedy. To participate, they need to think carefully about the cultural and artistic works that are most important to them and then tell others why. It’s not just a skill they need in school, it’s a mindset that can serve them for a lifetime.

Like all writing units we’ll be releasing this school year, this one brings together a number of flexible resources that you can use as you wish. While you won’t find a rhythm calendar or daily lesson plans, you will find plenty of ways to get your students to read, write, and think.

Here are the elements:

While the teenagers you know may be able to talk passionately about music, movies, food, and fashion, they may never have the formal practice of communicating the complex observations and analysis behind those responses. It is also possible that they have never been pushed to experience forms of art or culture that are new to them.

We hope these four prompts invite you to do both, and encourage you to use our website as a kind of rehearsal room for public reflection:

Whether or not they end up taking part in our contest, we hope your students will have fun answering these questions – and then enjoy reading other students’ papers, commenting, and maybe even pressing the “Recommend” button if you a. read answer that they particularly like.

Students 13 and older are welcome to comment on all of our prompts, and each comment will be read by the Times editors before approval.

Published on an earlier version of our website in 2015, this lesson will help students understand the basics.

  • What is your experience with reviews?

  • What role does criticism play in our culture?

  • What are some guidelines for reading a review?

It can be taught as a whole, or you can just use the elements you need to get your students started.

Our related review mentor texts feature 10 pieces, five from Times critics from across the arts and culture departments and five from youthful winners of our previous student review competitions.

Each one focuses on the key elements of this type of writing and is based on the criteria in our competition section:

Like all of our editions of the Mentor Texts series, these include instructions on how to read and analyze the texts themselves, as well as a “Try Now” exercise, which students can use to practice a particular technique or element.

We also have over 25 additional mentoring texts both popular culture students and likely already familiar with – from Ariana Grande to Apple AirPods – review. as well as other works that we think you might like.

The aim of this series is to demystify what good writing looks like and to encourage students to experiment with some of these techniques for themselves.

At the end of the unit, your students will have read several mentor texts, practiced with each and every element of the review writing and hopefully thought carefully about the role of criticism in our society in general.

Now we invite you to play critics and write a polished text that brings it all together.

One reason we launched this competition is to encourage young people to expand their cultural imaginations. We hope they choose a new and interesting work, be it a book, a movie, a TV show, an album, a game, a restaurant, a building, or a live performance. We hope that you will make a careful note of your experience and tell us about it in a committed manner and that you will represent your arguments with voice and style.

All student papers are read by our staff, volunteers from the Times newsroom, and / or educators from across the country. The winners’ work will be published on our website and possibly in the New York Times in print.

For quick reference, here are some particularly useful resources that are already embedded in the device but that you may want to use on its own:

  • All of our previous student winner ratings from 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015.

  • This handout of insights from three Times critics about writing reviews.

  • Finally, you can sign up for our on-demand webinar, How to Teach Review Writing With The New York Times, or view an edited version below.