I love student-designed projects. I love them perhaps more than any English teacher should.
Don’t get me wrong: I luxuriate in a nuanced and thoughtful seminar discussion or a well-crafted or ambitious student essay. But there is something special about making a physical thing that can be publicly displayed to celebrate our finishing a text – especially a difficult, rewarding text. And it’s equal parts exhilarating and nerve-wracking (for all parties) to let students design the form and content of that “thing.”
I’m emboldened in my love of projects by the continued work on project-based learning as it filters into standard ELA instruction like gallery walks, and I’m continually inspired by John Spencer’s Design Thinking Toolkit for Teachers.
When I teach novels with a complex approach to time – novels that include multiple flashbacks, re-tellings, and a fragmentary or disjointed narrative – I know up front that even the most attentive students will struggle to thread events together coherently. My standard approach is a collectively assembled, color-coded timeline.
When my middle school class read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for example, we set aside class time each week to write significant plot events on index cards, color coded by chapter. Then we reassembled the cards chronologically, plotting them on a long, unwieldy timeline spread across two classroom walls. The mix of colors helped us see the extent to which she tells Lacks’ story non-chronologically, moving back and forth in time to parallel Skloot’s investigative journalism. The whole activity is meant to engage us in a deeper consideration of form and structure – the way the text is built.
As we began our study of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon in AP Literature this year, I wanted to focus on the same goal while putting students in charge of the design. So I kept the parameters broad: visualize the structure of Toni Morrison’s novel using any medium you like. Here is the assignment sheet (feel free to use):
I provided suggestions, required kids to keep a journal of their ideas and attempts, and scheduled a workshop halfway through our study of the novel. Students knew we would present our finished products to parents and the school community at our holiday party.
Each student chose a very different approach, but all report understanding the intricacies and the craft of the novel more profoundly as a result of their work. One student pointed out that this kind of project is not appropriate for every work of literature; she said, “There has to be something to uncover.” In other words, it should be complicated enough to reward the kind of labor this project requires.
Two students were struck by Morrison’s use of color to link ideas, characters and events. Peyton, a senior, recorded every single mention of color in the novel and wrote code to render each a vertical, colored sliver in a chronological tapestry. When the cursor hovers over a sliver, the corresponding phrase and page number appear, reminding the viewer what the color references. The entire text of Song of Solomon is distilled into what looks like a digitally rendered scarf or quilt, marking the colors that tell this complex story.
Sophia, 9th grade, took a more interpretive approach to color in the novel, producing a painting and an analytical chart (below). She writes: “Morrison’s vivid imagery inspired me to discover the symbolic meanings of color in her novel. My painting helped me develop my ideas, which are displayed here. I chose the most important instances of color to represent in my painting, which filtered into these six colors.”
Katie, a ninth grader, kept a meticulous record of every event in the novel. She then coded each event’s relationship to one of the five major themes she identified in the text: names/family/history, power/status, love, life/death, and flight/freedom/travel. Her poster offers a quantitative analysis of themes by character and geographic location, and organizes events into a thematic timeline (pictured below). Pie charts are drawn to scale using a ruler.
Here is one of the nine (!!) pages of her writeup:
Tessa, a senior who wanted to convey the fragmentary and image-laden quality of the narrative, created dozens of small, poignant watercolors depicting key events relating to love. On the back of each, she wrote an analytical caption. She linked her paintings with a key chain (for me, evocative of the text’s focus on travel – and on cars in particular).
Students drew on their talents and interests to emphasize the aspects of the novel’s structure that they found most salient. Shailee, 9th grade, used Photoshop to create minimalist posters (in the style of traditional movie posters) visualizing core tensions and themes in the novel.
I will continue to add images or links to student projects as they are completed. Ultimately, my sense is that the combination of student choice and public presentation gave us the motivation to engage the intricacies of this novel in ways a traditional timed essay might not have. Instead of being exasperated by the complicated form of this work, students found its complexity a worthy design challenge – and came to understand how Morrison’s structural choices make the novel all the more impactful.