is highly poetic—made up of images and rhythms and sound without traditional punctuation, grammar,
or capitalization). More than anything, Shange’s choreopoem is attempting to give voice to those who (in
the 1970s) were largely voiceless: black American women. Shange chooses an avant-garde form in order to
mirror the “outsideness” this group felt (and continues to feel) against the American mainstream. What a
provocative and experimental form she created—one choreographed, poetic, yet dramatized, too.
So, as you write your own monologues and collaborate on the choreopoem, you will be taking certain
aspects of Shange’s form and revising them to fit a common idea: what is the “outside” experience of being
a high school student in contemporary America? “Outside” here can mean any aspect of a high school
student experience that is not mainstream: music, dance, relationships, sexuality, clothing, being dependent
on others for finances (family, friends, the government, banks, out-of-school jobs), being “outside” the
American dream, which may also include a teenage sense of not being listened to, not being valued, not
having “rights.” The adult world expects a great deal from teenagers, but often teen voices are muted,
What you are required to take from Shange’s form is the following:
You must have a series of monologues given by characters who symbolize certain aspects of the high
school experience (each of you will write two monologues);
You must have at least two collective group moments in which everyone speaks (probably at the
beginning and at the end, although you are not limited to that structure);
You must attempt to connect the monologues and collective moments thematically (you might
consider all-group choric responses that tie together the individual monologues, while allowing a
unification of voices);
You must incorporate the speeches into the play, and you should think about how to break down
traditional forms of grammar, punctuation, etc., in order to accommodate your speeches;
You should deal with music and/or dance in some way—by having music as part of your
performance, or dance, or by using music lyrics and rhythms as part of the monologues and/or
collective group moments; and, finally,
Your performance should be about 20 minutes in length (no shorter than 18 minutes, no longer than
You will be working in groups of four or (at the most) five people. The group needs to consider together
the symbolic nature of the characters (teen types or individualized names created by the group to represent
what’s important about teenagers for your group). This will occur in class. Part of your decision will also be
to conceive of the connective thematic for the group.
Once these are decided, each person in the group selects one of the representative teen types or group-
named individual teens. Out of class, each of you must write two poetic monologues. As with Shange, the
poetry must fit the purpose: How a person speaks is indicative of what he or she wants to communicate.
One of the poetic speeches will be specific to a situation in which the type/name finds self; the other will
relate to the collective needs of teendom as part of the connective thematic chosen by your group. Finally,
you’ll work together in class to meld the parts together, decide on movement, sound, rhythm, etc.
In terms of what must be turned in to me, each group member must have written two monologues
(between four and five single-spaced pages total or two to two-and-a-half per monologue) and,
collaboratively, the group must have cowritten two collective group moments (again between four and
five single-spaced pages) that will be intertwined in the final project with each of the individual
monologues. In other words, I’m looking for choreopoems between 16 and 20 single-spaced pages total.
We will stick roughly to the following schedule:
Day 1: Discuss Shange’s choreopoem as your model: Review each of her “ladies” and how they
present themselves, where in the choreopoem, and what they symbolize.
Day 2: Finish discussion of Shange and spend time in class creating a connective thematic and
deciding what types or individualized teenagers you wish to create. Assign each teen type to members
of the group.
Day 3: Begin drafting individual monologues.
Day 4: Share what you’re thinking about in terms of your individual monologues and begin thinking
about the all-group choric moments and also how each of the teen types might be organized.
Day 5: Bring individual monologues to class and share with the class.
Day 6: Put the choreopoem together as a draft and finalize all-group choric writings and other
all-group writing materials.
Day 7: Engage in individual group work on connecting finished monologues. Practice.
Day 8: Begin presentations.
(3) Sudden Fiction Assignment
It’s time for you to try your hand at this genre: the short story. Specifically, I’m asking you to write the kind
of story MacLeod viewed with a certain amount of disdain, what is commonly called “sudden fiction” or
one of the various synonyms: flash fiction, very short fiction, the short-short story.
Sudden fiction doesn’t mean fiction that catches the reader unaware by using a lot of the construction
“and then, suddenly” (which is a construction that always makes me feel as though I’ve stepped in
something). Instead, sudden fiction means brief fiction—a story that’s been honed down to no more
than 1,000 words or so (roughly three double-spaced typed pages of 12-point-font prose). Think of the
four sudden fiction pieces we’ve read: Raymond Carver’s “Popular Mechanics” (two pages long), Jamaica
Kincaid’s “Girl” (basically one page long), J. Annie MacLeod’s “A Very Short Story Begins on a Farm”
(again, two pages), and Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” (once again, two pages).
In addition to the requirement that it be brief, sudden fiction should be troubling. Disquiet—humorous
or sad—is the desired effect. (Hence all those disturbing endings.) Even if the story achieves resolution,
it cannot be an easy one, and it should not give the feeling of permanence. Remember Raymond Carver’s
ambiguous denouement, “In this manner, the issue was decided,” or Jamaica Kincaid’s admonition, “You
mean to tell me you’re going to be the kind of woman the baker doesn’t let near the bread?” In both of
these examples the ending is left open: The ending closes the story at hand at the same time that the ending
opens up the possibility of new stories. Another way to say this is that what’s broken isn’t going to be fixed
by the end of these stories.
Unlike the traditional short story or its longer cousin, the novel, sudden fiction does not create a world
but, rather, inhabits a larger world, which it must take care to evoke. What I mean is that sudden fiction
does not have the time to invent an entire world—a whole family, a lengthy relationship, another planet or
time period, an ongoing visitation from generations of ghosts, or an apocalyptic end-of-the-world scenario.
Instead, sudden fiction assumes the world that it enters and then, through very careful choices, shows
but one tiny moment from that world. “Familiar material,” says Charles Baxter of sudden fiction, “takes
the place of detail. Oh yes, the reader says: a couple quarreling in a sidewalk restaurant, a 9-year-old boy
stealing a Scripto in Woolworth’s, a woman crying in the bathtub. We’ve seen that before. We know where
we are. Don’t give us details; we don’t need them. What we need is surprise, a quick turning of the wrist
toward texture, or wisdom, something suddenly broken or quickly repaired. Yes, we know these people.”
Now, Atwood and I would add, tell us what they do, and why and how.
At its most basic, then, the requirements of this assignment are to:
Write a short story that’s no more than three typed, double-spaced, spell-checked pages; and
Make sure that the story’s aim is to be troubling.
I am going to go a bit further and require that you use both traditional and nontraditional forms for telling
this story. Of the following elements that must be a part of your story, two must be used in the “traditional”
way (like the stories by Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, or Flannery O’Connor) and two must be
used in the “nontraditional” way (like the stories by Jamaica Kincaid, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García
Márquez, J. Annie MacLeod, or Margaret Atwood). In other words, you must use all four elements below,
but two should be straightforward/traditional and two should be funky/nontraditional:
Incorporate realistic dialogue in a dramatic scene (traditional—Hemingway is your best model)
or dialogue within what is actually internal monologue, and therefore is not in a dramatic scene
(nontraditional—Kincaid is your best model);
Incorporate a third- or first-person point of view that is not meant to be obvious in and of itself
(traditional—O’Connor, Carver, Hemingway) or a third- or first-person point of view in which
a narrator or character is intrusive and tells the reader how to read the story (nontraditional—
MacLeod or Atwood);
Incorporate everyday, natural objects as symbols (traditional—Hemingway, Carver, O’Connor)
or use self-conscious, overt symbols that are pointed out to the reader by either a narrator or a
character, or are so melodramatic that they are farcical or magical (nontraditional—García Márquez
or MacLeod); and
Use a plot form that is chronological and that follows the Initiating Circumstance–Rising Action–
Climax–Denouement traditional form (Carver and O’Connor are your best models) or a plot form
that calls attention to itself as a plot and that doesn’t follow the traditional IC–RA–C–D form
(Atwood and Borges are good models here).
Note that I give you models on purpose. I expect you to borrow approaches from these writers that
might work for your individual story. While I do not want you to steal language, characters, or setting from
these writers, why not steal a certain idea about approach? The dual act of learning how to read and write
fiction well is all about studying and mimicking models.
Of course, like all out-of-class formal assignments, this one must be typed, double-spaced, and spell-
checked. This time around, I want you to keep your story to three pages—no more—and make sure it’s not
less than two-and-a-half. Part of this assignment has to do with the discipline of the form itself (which is,
of course, about being brief).
Sample Syllabus 3
Northern Highlands Regional High School
Allendale, New Jersey
School Location and Environment: Northern Highlands draws its students from four local sending
districts in suburban New Jersey. The towns, located about 30 minutes from New York City, are
predominantly affluent. Class sizes are usually no more than 25 students; with five classes each, teachers
typically are responsible for 100 students. The school always ranks among the top 10 in New Jersey, a
selling point among realtors in the area.
Type: Public high school
Total Enrollment: 1,300 students
Ethnic Diversity: 12 percent minority (9.3 percent Asian Pacific Islander, 2.6 percent Hispanic, 0.1 percent
College Record: More than 95 percent of the students attend four-year colleges after they graduate.
I teach AP English Literature and Composition because I enjoy talking about books, words, and ideas with
students who, I hope, are willing and able to engage in such discourse, and I relish the occasional fresh
insights that AP students bring to their writing. I enjoy the intellectual challenge.
I usually have three sections of AP with a total enrollment of 45–55 students (in addition to two other
regular English classes). Our school schedule is divided into eight periods, but only six periods meet each
day, on a rotating basis. This means that each period is 55 minutes, each class meets four times in a five-
day period, and no one class will meet every day during the same time frame.
I do not follow the exact sequence nor teach the same books outlined here each year, and I add or subtract
texts as the year progresses. My thematic organization (“The Tragic Figure in Literature,” “The Search for
Identity”) is broad enough to allow for substitutions and additions. Students are never without a reading
assignment or an outside paper due date.
Our year is divided into nine-week quarters. Students may expect to write two to three papers (three
to six pages each) outside of class as well as two to three in-class essays (rhetorical or literary analysis), and
complete a variety of quizzes/short test assignments per quarter.
I prepare students for both the AP English Literature and Composition Exam and the AP English
Language and Composition Exam in one year. Students choose which exam(s) they will take when they
sign up in the spring.
Course Planner/Student Activities
Topic/Unit: Writing with Style
Approximate # of weeks: 2
After a few days of informal discussion of the summer reading, I begin the year by having students read
John Trimble’s short book, Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, two chapters per night.
Most problems with student writing, Trimble says, stem from the failure to think well. If students don’t
have something to say, they produce what he terms mumbo jumbo, writing only for themselves.
Each day, students complete exercises associated with the chapters. For example, after reading his
chapter titled “Openers,” students will critique and revise sample openers, working in pairs or groups.
I also use quizzes to assess students’ understanding for chapters such as “Punctuation” and “Diction.”
The benefit of beginning the year with this book is that I am able to establish what I expect for all
writing during the year, from critical analyses (chapter 3) to personal essays. Often I will suggest that
students “see Trimble” when I write notes on their papers.
As students finish with Trimble, I distribute the Brief Bedford Reader and assign their first paper. (See
“Bedford Reader-Based Writing Assignments” below.)
Approximate # of weeks: 4
Although students use Laurence Perrine’s Sound and Sense for nightly reading assignments, I supply
individual photocopies for poems we read and discuss in class. Some of these poems have appeared on
past AP Exams, and many I have collected over the years. While I do give a fair amount of attention to
pre-nineteenth-century writing, I will also slip in a poem from the most recent issue of the New Yorker,
which may be difficult in a different way, to help students feel comfortable with writing that at first seems
daunting (and to prepare them for reading King Lear).
To help guide students as they read and explicate poems, I use techniques from Helen Vendler’s Poems,
I use a simple technique to encourage close reading, one that works with both poems and prose
passages through the year. I ask students to read a poem and answer multiple-choice questions based upon
the poem (these are taken from past AP Exams or from the WordMasters Challenge program for which
I help prepare materials), recording their individual answers on the actual page and on a Scantron sheet.
After collecting the Scantrons, which I later score and use for quiz grades, I have students form into their
groups (about six to eight per group) and reach a consensus as a group. At the end of the period, one person
from each group posts the group’s answers on the board. If any group achieves a perfect score, each of its
members will be given an extra quiz grade of A for the marking period. Since students have a stake in the
outcome of the activity, they quickly focus on the most difficult questions and help one another answer
them. I walk around and listen in on their deliberations so that when we review the answers I can refer to
specific comments I’ve overheard.
Another activity also involves groups. I give each group a packet of six to eight poems and a night or
two to read them closely and mark them up individually. Group members then help one another explicate
each of the poems in their packet during a class period or two. When they feel they understand all of the
poems, I distribute one poem from their packet to each member of the respective groups and ask them to
write an in-class exegesis, which counts for a test grade. On another day, students will teach a poem they
have selected from their packet to the rest of the class using the overhead projector.
I also ask students to write poems in the course of this unit and to share them with one another and
revise them. I write along with them and share my work as well. The poems are not graded, but I encourage
students to submit their best ones to the school’s literary magazine.
Topic/Unit: The Tragic Figure in Literature
Part I: King Lear and A Thousand Acres
Approximate # of weeks: 4
I distribute the Jane Smiley novel A Thousand Acres about a week before we begin reading King Lear in
class and ask students to read the first half of the novel by the time we are a week into the play. Students
automatically make the connections as they are reading both works.
As we read the play in class, with students volunteering to read parts aloud, I gloss the text and stop
frequently to raise discussion questions. For example, I ask them to consider why Cordelia refuses to play
along with her sisters in the opening scene and whether she is right in doing so. Discussions that follow
often supply insights and force students to examine the text closely. Short in-class writing assignments also
ask students to show their understanding of the text. I might ask students to read Lear’s “Reason not the
need” speech (II, 4, 267-89) and to define, in writing, what Lear is talking about by finding examples from
their own experience or reading. (Many will choose to compare Larry Cook’s loss of his driving privileges
to Lear’s loss of his followers.)
I assume a certain familiarity with the basic characteristics of the tragic figure as outlined by Aristotle
in The Poetics, but I take time to review them as we read the play. I emphasize that Aristotle says that the
tragic figure is one of some renown who, through some error or frailty, suffers a fall. It is the action of
the figure, not the character himself or herself, and the universality of the experience that inspire fear or
pity for the members of the audience. Students apply these criteria to King Lear and Larry Cook in class
Many students are also familiar with the theories of leadership put forth by Machiavelli in The Prince.
I review these as we read the play and ask students to consider Shakespeare’s character of Edmund in the
subplot of the play as Machiavelli would assess him.
Although students will make references to A Thousand Acres as we read King Lear in class, I don’t have
a full discussion of the book until after I have asked them to respond to a past AP Exam (or an AP Exam–
type) writing prompt in class. For example: “Often the setting in a piece of literature adds meaning to the
work, almost serving as another character. Compare and contrast how Shakespeare and Smiley use setting
to enhance meaning.”
Bedford Reader–Based Writing Assignments
I’m inserting the following description here so there won’t be any confusion about the “Approximate
# of weeks” listed for the units that follow. Only a small percentage of class time in the four weeks
listed, say, for The Mayor of Casterbridge is spent going over the text. I typically assign a book by
halves; after the due date for the first half, I assess students’ understanding, normally using passage-
identification questions (“tell why the passage is significant”), and then we discuss that portion of the
novel. Similarly, but using a particular AP Exam prompt for an assessment, we discuss the book as a
whole after they have given a fresh response, untainted by my or others’ observations.
I use the Brief Bedford Reader as a framework for writing assignments students complete
through the year. The book is organized according to the traditional rhetorical strategies—narration,
description, exemplification, cause/effect, definition, comparison/contrast, and argumentation.
Students must read the chapter and the sample selections, choose and articulate a controlling thesis
statement, and then write a three- to six-page paper using the particular strategy of the chapter
and their personal experiences or observations. For example, a student writes a narrative about his
first day volunteering at a camp for severely disabled children and adults; his thesis: A good deed
doesn’t necessarily leave anybody feeling particularly good because charity turns out to be surprisingly
complicated and difficult. (Students often find they will be able to revise and condense the narrative
personal essay for their college applications.)
We do a good deal of talking about what makes a strong personal essay and how being able to
articulate a meaningful thesis (having something to say) is most critical. I share student samples from
past years and we critique these. I encourage students to share first drafts with me, but I do not mark
them up; instead we sit after school and go over them. (My recurring question during these sessions is
“What were you trying to say here?”) While these papers might seem more directed toward preparing
students for the AP English Language and Composition Exam, I think the practice of writing and
thinking clearly serves them well. Students write literary analysis under timed conditions in class and
when they do the research assignment (see “Research Assignment” below).
It is important to return papers as quickly as possible. Students, like all of us, are anxious to see
how a reader responds to their words. A strategy I use is to divide all of my AP students into four
groups, by lottery. I then set four due dates for each paper, stretched over a two-week period. During
the first quarter, students in Group 1 must hand in their papers first; in the second quarter, Group 2
students are first, Group 1 last, and so on. I set a goal for myself to finish all the papers of one group
before the next papers come in; students usually get their papers back within three days.
Topic/Unit: The Tragic Figure in Literature
Part II: The Mayor of Casterbridge
Approximate # of weeks: 4
Essential Questions: How does Thomas Hardy treat the classical principles of the tragic figure in his
nineteenth-century novel? To what extent do the mores of a particular time period define the tragic
Through writing assignments and class discussions, students will be able to show that they can draw
parallels and distinctions between Michael Henchard and King Lear (and Larry Cook). They will also
discuss how the element of fate (or chance) works in leading to Henchard’s ultimate downfall. From
evidence they glean from the novel, students will determine what was the world view of people in Victorian
England and be prepared to compare it to our world view today.
From a past AP Exam (1994):
In some works of literature, a character who appears briefly, or does not appear at all, is a significant
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