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Demonstrating Understanding with Creativity

Updated: Jun 5

There’s something amazing that happens in a class when you ask students to write creatively. As we finished up our unit on Emma today, instead of assigning a second literary analysis of the novel, I told them I wanted them to demonstrate their understanding of the text in a creative way. To show me that they not only understood the text itself, but its relevance. What are the implications of the text? What does it indicate about the world we live in?

These are all questions I usually try to get them to answer in their conclusions. The conclusion shouldn’t be a restatement of the thesis. It should be a conclusion. It’s where the writer expresses the power of the text to move beyond the page. Maybe the writer had a similar experience. Maybe they saw a movie or read a poem that expressed the same ideas or emotions. The conclusion demonstrates what can be done with the information laid out in the essay.

Whenever I think of conclusions, I think of what gives the text an extra layer of meaning in the modern world. In his introduction to Beowulf, Seamus Heaney describes thinking about genocide as he translated the text:

"The Geat woman who cries out in dread as flames consume the body of her dead lord could come straight from a late-twentieth-century new report, from Rwanda or Kosovo; her keen is a nightmare glimpse into the minds of people who have survived traumatic, even monstrous events and who are now being exposed to a comfortless future."

Suddenly, the passages with the dragon take on a new meaning:

"The dragon began to belch out flames

and burn bright homesteads; there was a hot glow

that scared everyone, for the vile sky-winger

would leave nothing alive in his wake.

Everywhere the havoc he wrought was in evidence."

A great conclusion gets you to rethink the world you live in. A politician concludes with a solution. A businessperson concludes with a more efficient process or product. A scientist concludes with a cure. A doctor concludes with a diagnosis. An architect concludes with a plan. Sometimes after interpreting a text, a writer concludes with an expression of what the text implies about human behavior and culture. Sometimes, the text inspires so many ideas that we need to create or imagine a new context for those ideas. A new world for those ideas. Literature allows us to imagine those new worlds. When you ask a student to conjure up that world, the results are nothing short of amazing. When a student interprets a metaphor, they get closer to the truth. When they create a metaphor for themselves, they’re in the driver’s seat.

I remember so many amazing stories and films created by students over the years. Teenagers really do have a deep understanding of the world they live in. Or of the world that’s given to them, because they’re children. The corruption, the folly, the greed, the mystery, the wonder, the resilience, the misguidedness, and the accomplishment.

For the creative prompt on Emma, they could create an adaptation, a short story or film set in 2020 in our high school. Just like in Clueless, the protagonist could experience a similar set of circumstances loosely based on the novel. Or they could compare Emma to a Kardashian or some other celebrity. I gave them the option of writing a blog on reputation, etiquette, gender, free will, language and body language, sophistication, or perspective. They could also create a satirical essay that exposes the folly of a persona, or a news vignette that pokes fun at reality television. They must see the world with Austen’s eyes. What would Austen think or say about our culture? What character would she create today? Through imitation, students learn to think like our greatest minds, and then think for themselves.

To see my prompts, download this free resource.

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