So, I’ve been thinking about my senior English elective, YA Literature, and what is interesting and engaging for the students. I don’t mind working, but I do mind doing all the work and harassing students to do their part of the work.
In this unit we read The Phantom Tollbooth all together (and I did a really good job with it, IMHO), and then the students went to their literature circles reading either Haroun and the Sea of Stories or The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The discussions that the groups managed to have independently were a very mixed bag. That combined with some serious senior-itis lead to a rather disappointing end to the week. When I planned out my assessments for the semester, I had imagined a comparison paper at this point. However, as the time got closer to assigning it, I got more and more convinced that a paper was not the thing that would actually produce good thinking and a solid product. Several students happened to have mentioned presentations over the course of the semester, and I had skipped a planned presentation earlier in the semester, so I decided to think about changing my assessment to some sort of presentation.
I still wanted to maintain the goal of having students think about this type of story. We compared general plots arcs of all three books, in addition to some other similar stories that they knew, and I wanted them to wrestle with both the similarities of the big events and the wild variety in the specifics. I also realized that with my podcasting experiment not working as well as I had hoped, I could use another creative assignment. So, I put all that together and came up with an assignment that required thinking (always good), involved presentation (which the students need to practice) and was creative.
The Remix/Remake/Create project was born. Here are the particulars, as I shared with my students:
You have now read The Phantom Tollbooth and either Haroun and the Sea of Stories or The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making. You may also be familiar with the Narnia series, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, or the Wizard of Oz.
Think about the common characteristics of these adventure tales. You will plan and present a concept for a new book in this genre. Your concept must include information about the following:
Title: title and brief plot outline. No need for a summary of all the events, but a basic outline or flowchart of events is fine.
Cover or interior image: design either a cover or image for a chapter heading or major event
Protagonist: some description of this character and background; major character traits; ways these traits will be demonstrated not just stated.
Companion(s): who will travel with the protagonist; what do we know about this character; what traits does he/she bring that are valuable and challenging; is this character from the world of the character or the new fantasy world
Fantasy world: in what sort of place does the adventure take place; in what key ways is it both similar to and different from home; who is in charge; what sort of people/animals will our protagonist meet; how is this place connected to or known, or not, by others in the real world
Mission: what brings our protagonist to this new land; what adventures do you imagine once he/she arrives
Lessons to learn: what key lessons about life; about being an adult; about being a child; about living a meaningful, purposeful, true life will the character learn
Use of Language: what symbolism might you employ; consider the literal and nonliteral use of words; pay attention to the names of people and places.
Optional-Societal issues: will your book idea be addressing any particular societal concerns of the day?
Presentation (10 minutes) that clearly and enthusiastically shares your vision for this story concept. This should include the following:
- outlines of ideas about the topics above
- Several paragraphs of sample text from a few key points in your proposed book: first paragraph and two consecutive paragraphs from later in the story.
- Note: Do NOT make a Powerpoint with all the information above and simply read from it. This will be beyond boring no matter how interesting your ideas are. You should be necessary to your presentation. You must present. What and how you present is up to you.
- Brief written explanation of your inspirations for the decisions you have made. How have you taken ideas from the books you have read and reworked them, remixed them, to create something unique and new. This should include your target audience and reasoning behind your choice. Please put your concept in the context of other works. (~600 words)
In addition, I made this evaluation form that the students and I filled out after each presentation. I shared this with them in advance.
I explained the assignment on a Friday, and the presentations were the next Wednesday and Thursday. Classtime on both Monday and Tuesday was devoted to working on the project. I checked in and had good conversations with each group each day.
What I noticed right away was the energy level and engagement in the room. This was the 4-day week (with 4 Spirit dress days!) before Spring Break, not traditionally a time of great seriousness. People were talking about their ideas immediately. And because the students had ideas, my conversations with them could be so much more specific and individualized. I wasn’t giving vague encouragement, I was able to have particular discussions about the details of the project:
- Was a storyline veering too far into PG-13/ R rating when I had set PG (maybe PG-13) as the upper limit?
- Yes, I was familiar with Captain Underpants and could see the appeal of bathroom humor for a certain demographic, but were there lessons to be learned?
- How much background knowledge of today’s rappers was necessary to understand this storyline? Would it be dated instantly?
- Yes, I get the humor in the name of the king, will other characters’ names also have double meanings?
- Has the group thought about whether the protagonist can return to this fantasy land?
I also wanted to be sure that the presentation days felt a little different and more serious, even if students were in odd attire (Spirit Week!). In a bold move, I invited the English department chairperson before I even introduced the project to my students. I also invited the Head of Upper School, who turned out to be busy. On the days of the presentation, I rearranged the room into 2 rows of tables for those listening and a table for the presenters at the front. I am a big believer in the importance of room resign to signal what is expected. Presenters could project their presentations and speak from the table or stand. Each day there were 3 presentations (10 minutes each).
While not all groups came up with books that would be snapped up by publishers, every group had a solid plan and outline. Several of the ideas were quite complex and well-fleshed out. The students thought about the intended audience and wanted to balance life lessons with a light touch. The assignment accomplished by three stated goals of requiring serious thought, including presentation skills, and stressing creativity. All that during the week before Spring Break. There’s room for improvement, but this assessment is a keeper.