A new Best American Nonrequired Reading is out today, and as I glanced through it, I noticed that they decided to include one of the most interesting assignments that I’ve ever seen, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Form of Fiction Term Paper Assignment”:
FORM OF FICTION TERM PAPER ASSIGNMENT
November 30, 1965
This course began as Form and Theory of Fiction, became Form of Fiction, then Form and Texture of Fiction, then Surface Criticism, or How to Talk out of the Corner of Your Mouth Like a Real Tough Pro. It will probably be Animal Husbandry 108 by the time Black February rolls around. As was said to me years ago by a dear, dear friend, “Keep your hat on. We may end up miles from here.”
As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. “This above all …”
I invite you to read the fifteen tales in Masters of the Modern Short Story (W. Havighurst, editor, 1955, Harcourt, Brace, $14.95 in paperback). Read them for pleasure and satisfaction, beginning each as though, only seven minutes before, you had swallowed two ounces of very good booze. “Except ye be as little children …”
Then reproduce on a single sheet of clean, white paper the table of contents of the book, omitting the page numbers, and substituting for each number a grade from A to F. The grades should be childishly selfish and impudent measures of your own joy or lack of it. I don’t care what grades you give. I do insist that you like some stories better than others.
Proceed next to the hallucination that you are a minor but useful editor on a good literary magazine not connected with a university. Take three stories that please you most and three that please you least, six in all, and pretend that they have been offered for publication. Write a report on each to be submitted to a wise, respected, witty and world-weary superior.
Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art, nor as a barbarian in the literary market place. Do so as a sensitive person who has a few practical hunches about how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flatly, pragmatically, with cunning attention to annoying or gratifying details. Be yourself. Be unique. Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows.
Since there are eighty of you, and since I do not wish to go blind or kill somebody, about twenty pages from each of you should do neatly. Do not bubble. Do not spin your wheels. Use words I know.
I really appreciate your prompts and was very excited to see your recent response about how you use these in class. I'm new to teaching writing and have been tasked with a group of struggling high school writers (mostly 9th and 10th graders). I've been searching for the types of grammar/foundational writing skills that you mentioned in your response. Do you have any of those shared? My special education students and I would greatly appreciate your help. Thanks so much!
I don’t have much to share, but I can say a bit more about what I’ve used. I borrow from a ton of different resources to come up with the five-minute lessons I use, and I change it up a lot depending on what my students seem to need. That said, here are the two that come to mind first:
Don and Jenny Killgallon’s sentence composing book is great in that it teaches writing through mimicking great sentences. My students seem to get a lot out of this. I think its effectiveness has to do with mirror neurons. But I could be wrong on that.
I just discovered your tumblr and I am in LOVE! I think these are such great ways to strike students' creativity! I just switched grade levels and now teach 8th grade (scary shift from 3rd!). Anyway, I was wondering if you could share how you use these in class. Are they warm ups? Are they whole period activities? Do you collect and grade them?
I use them this way: I do some sort of five or ten minute writing lesson with my students. They learn some style activities and grammar tricks and things like that. Then we do a writing prompt, in which they attempt to implement the writing lesson. They have a little less than ten minutes, and their goal is to write at least half of a page, depending on the handwriting (mine are freshmen and most have no problem with this). After they’re done writing, they go immediately into a time of reading for twenty minutes. During this reading time, I collect their writing work (both the lesson activity and the prompt are on the sheet), and I read it. When they are done with reading time, I then give feedback to the whole class about what they wrote about, and I read a few of them out loud that I really liked and then explain what I liked about them. I try to connect this to the Six Traits or to our standards. Sometimes if I notice a mistake that is being made by a few them, I’ll do a quick bit of instruction on that. But these are not graded for grammar at all. These are a chance to practice the process of moving thoughts from their heads to the paper. They do get a grade in the gradebook on these, but the grade has to do with the standards that are about matching audience to purpose and writing routinely over time. Basically, if they are in the ballpark and gave it a good attempt, then they get a proficient score on their writing prompts.
I really like this way of doing it because it allows me to read most of them every day and give feedback right away about how it went. Giving feedback, especially timely feedback, is pretty much the best way to help someone’s writing get better. That’s what I’ve discovered anyway. This also creates a culture where they’re trying to write really great things because they want to hear their prompt read to the class — even though I do this anonymously. And for those who struggle… well, every day they get to hear some examples of good writing. Also: I do try to read something from everyone’s out loud every so often.
I used to do more pair sharing and group sharing about them, but I like this method so, so much more.
They have a folder and all their writing goes into that folder. I have the nicest TA in the world who does all this filing. They can then check out their folder to see what I’ve written there. Also, many of them want to keep working on a certain prompt, so I give them a chance to come back to favorite prompts and work on them to turn them into polished, final pieces.
Hopefully that was enough explanation. Please feel free to ask more questions.
I’m putting together a food unit for this upcoming year, based largely on this unit (warning: links to PDF) by Lauren Goldberg. I’ll also supplement it with some writing prompts to get students thinking about the food they eat and how it affects them. This post is my placeholder for collecting those prompts as I get them made. Here’s what I’ve got so far… teachers beware… many of these were made a long time ago and need some major overhaul…
This is just a quick interruption to your regularly scheduled programming to note a few things of trivial importance. If you’re just here for the prompts, skip right over this, but if you’d like to know a bit more of the behind the scenes stuff, read on.
Thing of note #1:
100,000+ followers on Tumblr. This happened a few weeks ago:
That’s pretty cool. Thanks to all of you who follow.
Thing of note #2:
Have a great idea for a prompt? I’d love to hear about it. Have you seen a great picture that should be a writing prompt? Have you read a great book that has a premise that people would want to try out? Know a great quote? Please let me know. There are a few ways:
I even have my email address over on the side of this site somewhere, if you’d like to try that option.
I’d also love ideas for how to make this site better. Since the school year is done and summer is here, I actually have some time to fix some things up. What would help you? What kinds of prompts do you prefer? I have some plans and some ideas, but please let me know.
Thing of note #3:
Even though it’s summer, a few really nice people have gotten books for my students from our classroom wish list. Thank you so much. You’re amazing people. I’m sad that a quite a few of these have shown up lately without a slip that tells me who they’re from. I don’t know if that’s an Amazon thing or what, but either way, I’d really like to be able to thank you by name. If you sent one, please let me know. Thanks to the anonymous individual who got us these two books that showed up this last week. I’m stoked that I’ll be able to share these with students in the fall.
Thing of note #4:
There’s now a PayPal Donate button on the side of the site. Honestly, I kind of feel weird about it when blogs have those on their sites. It just doesn’t feel right to me for some reason. But a few different people asked about how to chip in without going through Amazon, which I totally understand, so I gave in and put the PayPal link on there. I don’t know. We’ll see how long it lasts on there.