10 Assignments to Cultivate Authentic Writing in an English 4 Class (World Literature)

To avoid students’ cutting and pasting in response to writing topics/prompts, design is crucial.  Students often need to be coaxed out of regurgitation mode (lethargy, comfort zone, apathy) – at its worst, this mode takes the form of cutting and pasting or direct transcription.  In Stolen Words, Thomas Mallon writes these compelling thoughts about this transcription mode:

For student, especially, the Internet may sap the very need to create, it’s all there already, or so it seems; all the knowledge on a given subject, and all the competing viewpoints, in a machine you can carry around like a book.  What’s there to add – and why dig a well instead of turning on the tap? (246)

Alice should go down the rabbit hole rather than pass through the looking glass that merely represents the environment. The experience must be a journey, in order to be meaningful.  She must interpret rather than merely report. She must take intellectual risks and shape understanding from primary source information. Students today are inundated with the secondary: immerse them in the primary.

For example, Meursault in The Stranger (primary source) makes for an excellent character analysis discussion board posting and if students search online they will come up with ample e-resources (secondary sources, for the most part) to integrate into their response.  And there may be some genuine dialogue among students in the asynchronous forum, substantiated with details from the novel, the primary source.  But often — because students lack confidence and then find information readily available, as Mallon points out — they may merely report the findings of — at worst — the diluted study guide sites or —  at best — scholarly sources (secondary materials).  Authentic interpretations may be few and far between.  Consider other ways of getting an authentic response.  Encourage them to wade in the primary only and take interpretive risks.  Later in the process open up access to a variety of e-resources, when they are prepared to meet them eye to eye: to recognize that some of these scholarly ideas validate their own authentic responses, while others challenge them (they will find points of intersection and paths of divergence).  The foundation for research and exploration must be established by allowing students to think for themselves so when they encounter the ideas of the outsider (scholars/specialists) they better understand them because the student has been through the journey him/herself.

My topics are somewhat broad to allow students to find a path into the topic on their own:  an authentic journey.  Students are encouraged to document their own interpretations using primary sources only.  I am constantly working on designing assignments — as I travel through life: in art museums, at the movie theatre, listening to music, reading (literature, history, science, social science).

The following may be used as topics for blogging or for discussion forum postings. I encourage students to free write responses rather than have them work toward constructing formal compositions in their blogging or posting. I think an informal response imposes fewer parameters to constrain their ideas and is better suited to blogging and forum posting (conversations).  Quality of ideas/interpretations and substantiation (details from the primary source only) are assessed.  I do not emphasize writing structure in these assignments. (In my next blog, I will include a sample rubric.)

  1. Compare/contrast Meursault of The Stranger with Munch’s subject in The Scream.
  2. Referencing Machiavelli’s The Prince, determine whether or not the fictional Prince Hamlet would be praised or upbraided by Machiavelli.
  3. Study Madeline Usher of Poe’s story and Beloved in Morrison’s novel.  Note points of intersection and paths of divergence in a synthesis response.
  4. Synthesize Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, with particular focus on Godot and Hamlet.
  5. How is the ending of the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink en homage to the epiphany scene in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?
  6. Write a dramatic poem from the point of view of one of  photographer Diane Arbus’ subjects.
  7. How is the tarn in “The Fall of the House of Usher” like the pond that Flora crosses in “Turn of the Screw”?
  8. In what ways is Roderick Usher’s character somewhat derivate of Prince Hamlet’s.
  9. Collaboratively, using a google document, write a short play adaptation – one scene of 10 pages only (10 minute play is a legitimate genre) of Camus’ The Stranger or Kafka’s The Trial.
  10. Consider the broad theme of the flesh versus the spirit as it emerges in Dostoevksy’s  Brothers Karamazov and Hamsun’s Hunger.

*My book, (Preventing Plagiarism: Tips and Techniques NCTE, 2007), explores the topic of authentic writing (cultivating an authentic voice and vision in student writing) in greater depth.

Read Chapter 1 of the book using this link: https://secure.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Books/Sample/45937Chap07_x.pdf



  1. Thanks for writing this post. I am also looking for great ways to encourage students to write authentically and ethically. One strategy I like is to use Diigo to engage in conversation with the reading they find on the Internet. This encourages interaction rather than repetition. We are doing Socratic Circles to train students how to discuss texts and the Diigo activity takes that out of the classroom.


    1. Thanks so much for commenting. Not familiar with using Diigo — would love to learn more. Are students reading nonfiction or fiction accessed from the Internet? I am trying to integrate more nonfiction into my English classes (10th grade & 12th grade students).


  2. I agree that the regurgitation of ideas that have been discussed to death doesn’t really inspire higher-level thinking. I love your ideas for synthesis writings–in particular, I hadn’t considered your comparison between Madeline Usher and Beloved, and I’ve taught both texts for the last couple of years! I also tend to create assignments that ask students to explore themes or techniques across multiple texts, and more recently I’ve been asking my students to write about how the themes in their readings apply to the world they live in. For example, I’ve had my students look at the final lines of The Great Gatsby and then find modern-day proof (either from scholarly sources, newspapers, or sources that examine popular culture) that Fitzgerald’s assessment of the American pursuit of success is either applicable or archaic today. I’ve gotten essays on everything from a student’s own experience with the recession to an analysis of Tony Soprano to a look at hip-hop culture, and in every case, the students engaged with Fitzgerald to synthesize an authentic reading with something THEY observed, not something I’ve given them. In a similar vein, I’m teaching Wuthering Heights in my AP class this year, and I’m planning to ask them to synthesize the evolution of the Romantic/Byronic hero from the nineteenth century to now. I’d love to hear more of your ideas, if you’re interested!


    1. Thanks Aileen for commenting. Love your ideas in connection to Gatsby. I am teaching 10th grade English this year (haven’t taught that level in about 5 years) and Gatsby is on my reading list. Great assignment — would you be okay with my adopting it?
      Your synthesis of WH and Romantic hero is brilliant. These are the kinds of assignments that cultivate thinking because students have to forge their own connections among texts. They are creating original bridges and these lead to fine student insights and often to sophisticated thesis ideas.

      I like to use Gothic Lit’s broad definitions and have students apply the elements of gothic literature and prove that James’ Turn of the Screw, Hawthorne’s Minister’s Black Veil, Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, and Morrison’s Beloved are all gothic texts. I do this as a collaborative exercise via a shared conversation on a discussion board. Students take risks and challenge each other’s ideas and make mistakes but all of these responses require thinking even when they are misinterpreting. It is nice because students correct each other and work toward discovery together. .


  3. Mrs. Desena,

    Thank you for sharing this post… Though I am teaching 7th grade language arts and your topics are much too sophisticated for my students, I love (and fondly recall!) your take on authentic thinking and writing tasks. I find that students connect better inherently when they are really forced to think, not just regurgitate ideas that have already been thought of. I am enjoying following you on twitter and reading about your newest endeavors. Keep posting and get in touch…




    1. Thanks, Melissa! How kind of you to respond. I am happy to hear that you fight the good fight against mere regurgitation and that you are coaxing students to think (always the harder but more rewarding route for students and teacher). Thanks for following me on twitter. Love to get together for lunch or something over the summer?


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