My literature class at TCC delivered their final projects tonight, and it was a hoot.
Several semesters ago, I decided to forgo the typical final exam assessment in my literature classes favor of giving the students the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of the work done during the semester in ways that felt most authentic to them. I didn’t want to give them a test or make them write an essay, I explained, so I opened the assignment up to them and let them, within reason, put together something that proved to me that they had really gotten the work that we did together.
Their first reaction is to go positively apoplectic with panic. They want me to tell them what to do, they protest that they can’t think of anything that would be sufficient or appropriate, they worry that they’ll not tell me what I want to hear and will get a rotten grade. They claim to not understand what I mean when I explain to them what I’m looking for; they tell me that, even though they hate essays, they’d rather write a paper than have to come up with an idea for a comprehensive project on their own.
In the end, though, they almost always come through. I’ve been excited by what the students come up with as projects, and many of them have been memorable enough that I can still recall their ideas nearly a year later. My favorite by far, for example, was the student (the only man in the class, though I’m not sure that’s a salient fact) decided to imagine a postscript for Shelly’s Frankenstein in the form of a children’s story. He wrote, designed, and illustrated a book that had the Creature wandering the Arctic Circle, despondent and bereft after the death of his “father.” Eventually, he stumbles upon the Island of Misfit Toys (work with me, here) where he tells his sad story. So moved is King Moonracer that he brings the Creature to Santa, who sees a marketing opportunity. The elves get busy making Creature dolls, which they send to the toy stores in London, where Ebeneezer Scrooge buys one for Tiny Tim (thereby effectively tying two of the the major works we read that semester together). In the end, everyone is happy; Scrooge gets to buy a present for his “nephew,” and the Creature finds a home among the happy people of Santa’s village. It was genius.
My experience with this is that students either nail the final, or they utterly flame out – only one or two have hit true mediocrity. Of my eight students this semester, one was in California on a family emergency, five hit it out of the park, one was kind of so-so, and one was my token flame-out (he wrote a “fictional biography” of Poe and refused to deliver a presentation. He’ll pass the class by the proverbial skin of the teeth).
What thrilled me about tonight’s class wasn’t so much what the kids DID, but the realizations they made as they were delivering their presentations. One student, for example, made the realization about Brokeback Mountain (which I had the students read – they could watch the film too, but it wasn’t my primary delivery of the story). After Jack dies, Ennis discovers that Jack had kept a shirt of his from the very first summer they spent together. It was tucked inside a jacket of Jack’s… in the closet. “HEY!” the student said as she was discussing the importance of that symbol (her piece was about the despair that both Ennis and the narrator of The Raven felt after the deaths of their beloveds), “I never realized that – but Jack was hiding Ennis’ shirt inside his jacket – he was keeping Ennis safe inside him – and in the closet. That’s something I totally missed until just now! What’s more is that it was a closet in his parents’ house!! That’s an important symbol, isn’t it?”
Yes, Honey – it is.
I wish I had audio posting capabilities, because one student – hand to God/dess – wrote, recorded, and mixed a rap song about Cole (from The Sixth Sense) and Victor Frankenstein. I nearly died laughing – it’s a riot. Another student wrote a comparison of Victor (he was a very popular topic for this class) and Jimmy Cross from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. At the end of her paper, she wrote some haiku. These two are my favorites:
Becomes a new beast
his quandary does control him
he dies without change
Ending his mission
his childishness up in flames
a man walks away
By Jove, I think they got it!
*End note; If you’re interested, here’s the assignment as I gave it to them around week 7 (TCC goes for 11 weeks – I like to give them plenty of runway for this project, even though most of them end up scrambing the week before it’s due). I highly recommend this kind of final assessment; the kids come away impressed with how much they really do understand, and you’ll be amazed by some of the creativity they can demonstrate. Some of the connections they make will surprise you; I guarantee it.
I’m looking for you to come up with some way of synthesizing the work that we’ve done this semester in a way that’s meaningful to you, and then to present that work to the class. I’m interested in how creative and comprehensive you can be in this endeavor; I don’t want to tell you to do this or that because I want you to determine what means of demonstrating your mastery over this material is most right for you. Not everyone likes to write term papers, and I’m happy to expand my thinking to accommodate your creativity.
That doesn’t mean that you can cut pictures out of a magazine, paste them on to a poster board to make a collage, and call it even. There are some guidelines to this project that will be common to all of you; namely that the project MUST have a written component, you MUST incorporate between 3-5 of the pieces we’ve investigated this semester, and you MUST include some form of research with your work. Beyond that, though, I’m looking to you to be creative and energetic in your thinking about this final effort, and to ensure that it demonstrates your best work.
In the past, some of the more memorable projects have included students who have written prequels to novels, or written an extra chapter to explain something that happens after the original story ends. One student wrote a children’s book. One student wrote a play based on the life of a minor character in a film, and one student wrote up an FBI profile of a character. A student did an in-depth biography of one of the authors we’d studied that semester, and one student created a movie poster for a novel, complete with a story board for the film and mock reviews from newspapers. Each of these projects played upon the students’ strengths while challenging them to expand their thinking beyond the discussions we’d had in class, and each was exemplary in its breadth, detail, and fun.
My point is that I want you to enjoy this work – but that it IS work. We’ll talk more about this in class – and I’ll get a rubric to you that details the standards I’ll use to assess your project – as the semester progresses. The last Monday class will be the due date, with the presentations happening that same night. Everyone MUST turn in a project and everyone MUST present; if you know you’ll not be in class on the last day, you have to arrange to deliver your presentation on a week when you will be in.