traci's lists of ten

Traci's 2nd List of Ten:
Ten Ways to Play with Literature

Posted to ACW-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk, and TEACH on 7/10/98.

I get tired of cardboard essays on literature that we're reading -- those general and uninteresting five-paragraph themes that are as boring to the students as they are to me. One way that I've found to get around these flat essays is by assigning paper and discussion topics that don't lend themselves easily to the five-paragraph theme but that still encourage critical and analytical thinking.

There are two parts to each of these ideas, but I'm only listing the first part below since the second part is the same for every essay. First, writers consider the work from some unusual perspective, producing a text of some kind. Second, I ask them to add a reflective piece that explains the choices that they have made in their essay. It's not enough simply to write the papers below -- they have to explain the interpretation and analysis of the piece of literature that led to the ideas in their writing.

  1. Have a character in a reading or the author of a piece endorse a product -- design a letter or short narrative where the character or author tells readers why the product is one they should purchase or support. With all the celebrity endorsements in mass media today, this assignment is fairly easy to set-up. Students have to think carefully about the endorsement -- it has to fit the character's or author's knowledge, and it has to be a product or service that the character or author would be likely to endorse. It makes sense for Huck Finn to endorse a travel agency, for instance, or a particular kind of boat -- or a brand of white paint. He'd be less convincing, however, endorsing denture creme.

  2. Begin a class discussion by asking students to brainstorm silently, completing at least three "what if's" for their reading. For A Raisin in the Sun, for example, students might write questions such as "what if Willy had shown up at the train station and he and Walter Lee had gone to Springfield?" or "what if Ruth weren't pregnant?" After they brainstorm, have them share their "what if's" -- if you have a computer classroom, you can have them post their responses in Mail or a real-time conference tool such as InterChange. In a traditional classroom, everyone can write on the board. Once the "what if's" are gathered, have them look for similarities -- are there questions that occur repeatedly? can they be divided into categories -- perhaps by the character they refer to or the plausibility of the question? Finally, writers choose one of the questions and write a narrative answering it. Alternately, students might participate in group discussion of three or four of the questions that appear most frequently.

  3. Consider a piece of literature from a different cultural perspective. This assignment works best for me after I've done some work with fairy tales from different countries -- I have several versions of Cinderella from different cultures. As a next step, students rewrite something they've read -- usually a short, short story -- from a different perspective. In ESL classes, you can have students rewrite American tall tales and Uncle Remus stories from the perspective of their native culture. Students might write narratives or even script scenes.

  4. Translate a section of something you've read into another style. This assignment does double duty -- helping you talk about writing style and analyzing the events that occur in the reading. Students might read Russell Baker's "Little Red Riding Hood Revisited" as an example. It's often more successful to work with a story that they know well -- having them translate a fairy tale, for instance, into a jargon-filled version as Baker has. But they need not stop there -- if you're working with Shakespeare, you might have students modernize a passage to "standard," modern version. Or get experimental, and have them write a rap version or an exaggerated and flowery version. To add fun, have students work on different passages (as groups perhaps); then, share the results and have them guess what the original passages were.

  5. One fun exercise is to ask students to think through the "movie version" of a piece they've read recently. There are several ways to set up the writing for this project: students might write individual pieces outlining how they would produce their movie version, groups might work together to outline their production plan, or students might actually script a section of their version. What makes the assignment the most fun is having students work with a range of kinds of movies for the same reading. You can set up several small groups -- one does the "big Hollywood blockbuster" version, another does the "Disney" Version, yet another works on the "PBS/Merchant Ivory" version, and a fourth might work on the "made-for-TV" version. They choose actors, settings, and so forth. Once they've worked out their versions, you can have them share -- then compare and contrast the productions.

  6. Another way to ask students to consider different perspectives on a piece they've read is to ask them to write a newspaper report of the events that occurred in the reading. You can ask all students to write the same kind of newspaper report, or mix it up by letting them choose among several options. They can discuss the differences between a newspaper report on the events in The Scarlet Letter today and those that would have been included in the report written in a newspaper at the time. You can add a twist to the assignment by letting them write the National Enquirer version, the Entertainment Tonight version, and so on.

  7. Write a letter to the author of the work or to a character in the piece. This assignment is pretty standard, but you can make it more lively if you play with it. Try combining the letter assignment with the "What if" assignment (#1) -- asking students to write to the author about how they think the story might have been different. Or you can have students give the author or character advice -- You might have your students set themselves up as advice columnists for a newspaper who respond to characters in their reading. A two-part assignment could have students first assume the role of a character in the piece who writes a letter an advice columnist; then, they exchange papers and assume the role of the advice columnist by responding to their classmates' letters. Another possibility is having students assume the role of the character in the reading, and having that character write to the author (or vice versa).

  8. Have students choose a scene that isn't included in the reading and write their version of the events that might happen. Students can concentrate on events that are referred to, but that aren't explored in the piece; or you can have them focus on a time period that passes without comment. What happened the night before the events that open A Raisin in the Sun? Describe a scene from either Othello's or Desdemona's childhood -- that is, before they met. What happened before Mr. Mallard went to work in "The Story of an Hour"?

  9. If you're also teaching technical or business writing, have students write a resume for a character in a story they have read. Students can check a current newspaper for job listings, find a job that their character qualifies for, and write the resume or letter of application that shows that their character is the best one for the job. The exercise asks students to analyze their characters carefully, looking for all the skills and know-how that they demonstrate. And at the same time, it gives them a chance to think about how to cast the characters experiences so that they support the implicit argument that the character is the best one for the job. Working with characters who have no given job can be best -- concentrating on the kind of job Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer might apply for allows more creativity than writing a resume to help Willy Loman get a new job. You'll get 99% sales applications for Willy, and students won't work far beyond the "known" details. With characters such as Huck and Tom, they have to do more analytical thinking.

  10. Where will the characters be in twenty years? A series of invention questions can help students think about the range of options. The specific questions depend upon the story you're working with, of course. A brief piece such as Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool" can work well because it gives students a lot of room. For Brooks' poem, you might ask students to answer questions such as these: did the character you've chosen get married? go to school? end up in jail? Do they really "Die soon"? What might happen if they dropped by the Golden Shovel twenty years later -- what has happened to the place? Once students think through their characters' experiences, they can write a narrative, a letter to another character, or perhaps something such as an address to their high school class at the 20-Year Reunion.

Originally Posted July 13, 1998 on the Daedalus Website.