The other day it came time to give the students in my year 8 English class their assessment task to finalise their study of the class novel The Dons by Archimedes Fusillo. It is a novel about a boy who lives with his mum and his Italian grandfather (Nonno) and his coming to terms with the difficulties and joys of his life as it changes in adolescence. In previous years I would have given them questions designed to engage the students in thought about the issues that come up: the experience of migrants, single parent families, growing up, grandparents and so on. This year, after a conversation with Sylvia, a teacher of French and head of the LOTE department (Languages other than English) and a member of the MYP team (Middle Years Program), I asked the students to work in pairs and come up with two assessment tasks of their own for the novel. I gave them some ideas to start with, including the plot and characters as well as the themes mentioned above. It was a very engaging period with lots of talk about the novel and at the end I had about 14 or 15 different ideas ranging from "Make a confession in any form of Paul confessing his love for Tracey (e.g. video, podcast, love song, love letter)" to "Draw a Venn diagram showing what Paul and Dan have in common and their differences" to "Nonno is Italian. Picture yourself in his shoes and write a detailed journal entry of 150 – 200 words of his experiences. Imagine him reflecting on his life and how it has changed" to "Choose a character other than Paul and do a character profile. Include first and last name, a hand drawn (or in Paint) picture of the character (head shot), one thing you have common with the character, and one thing different, three likes and dislikes, hobbies, personality traits, a paragraph explaining what you think of the character. Choose from: Dan Declan, Zia Rita, Theresa, Tracey Reynolds, or Nonno. When you have done this choose an actor to play the part of the character you have profiled. Who would you choose to play Paul?" I was so amazed at how much the students enjoyed this and how proud they were at the results. I later typed this up and gave it to them to choose any two of the tasks for their mark. Off they went and the interest continued as they made their artefacts. I'm looking forward to what they produce.
There is a side note to this. A few students couldn't get into the novel at all and none of my tricky little ideas worked for them. I have a principle that I want to students to read for pleasure so I took a risk. I offered these students an opportunity to choose a novel from the collection of Literature Circles books which means that we are not all reading the class novel. Fortunately, only one student questioned the fairness of this. (I definitely agree that there is a fairness issue here). I talked to her privately about my decision and the reasons for it. She was fine with it as long as those students assessment tasks were of comparable difficulty (which, one way or another, they will be).
I have been reading English writer, Claire Senior's book Getting the Buggers to read recently and so rather than forcing the issue I had decided to try an alternative, knowing that this may well be my last chance to give my reluctant readers at the tail end of Year 8 the experience that may get them hooked on reading for life. We are still going to have class novels next year in order to have a common discussion with the students of the issues and themes they will have all read and explored together, so creativity will have to be the order of the day to keep the whole class focused on the one book. This will be interspersed with wide reading and free voluntary reading as well. There are many helpful ideas in Claire Senior's book and I do recommend it, and isn't it a great title?