Look, there’s only so much grading you can do. And when you assign writing, you might as well resign yourself to a long week of commenting. After such an assignment, I offer up work that is easy and quick to grade.
One such assignment is to find an author interview. Students choose a book or author they really, really like and find an interview with the author. Text, video or audio, the interview has to be focused on the creative process. Nancie Atwell has written about the importance of students identifying themselves as writers, and seeing themselves as peers of their favorite writers. I find this assignment does the trick.
For assessment, I have created a Google Form where they submit their name, author, book/series and the URL of the interview. Next time, I’ll add a check box for content being mature (the interview with the author of “The Kite Runner” is a tad graphic, considering the subject matter). At the due date, I can look at the responses and see who did and who did not. Then, I post the spreadsheet and use it as a resource for a later lesson.
While creating an “exemplar” (a word I try to sneak into every conversation, because it is so edu-speak), I read a series of interviews with Robert Cormier. ‘The Chocolate War’ is one of the first YA books I saw, as an adult, as being real Literature (capital L). I still love it for its honesty and violence and serving a theme and never letting the reader go from it. The ending is still the best YA ending ever (it was tied by ‘The Giver’, but then Lowry ruined it with the sequels. But, I guess, Cormier did the same thing with ‘Beyond the Chocolate War’, so….) In scanning one site, I read his other works and saw ‘The First Death’. I have a vague memory of this being an After School Special that still sticks with me, but that might have been another kids-surviving-in-a-school-bus movie. Then, that same week, I happened to be reading some Atwell (which I do every few months when I feel insecure about my program) and she mentioned reading this Dylan Thomas and connecting it to the book.
All of which leads to the obvious class activity: What is the significance of the title of your book? An old saw, but one I love. So simple. So concrete. Yet, complex and deep. Support with evidence, blah, blah. You can push them beyond the literal (‘Yes, they are selling chocolates, but what does the ‘war’ indicate?’)
You can/could also have them find a new title. Have it come from a poem that matches the theme.
Reworking book packaging can have many lessons. Redesign the cover (the one above is great, even if the dog is a poor role model). Rewrite the copy on the back (a lesson in summary writing, details and creating writing that hooks the reader). Even crafting a quote from the book–THE quote from the book–into a bumpersticker.
A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London
Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.
Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.