Friday, January 31, 2014

American Author Search.

I'm in need of some help.

My culminating project in my American Literature classes is a research unit (we introduce them to the skills as sophomores and as juniors they write a full research paper). The first year I did it, I did it on a current event or "problem" that existed in the U.S. It went smoothly, but really didn't connect to the content of the class. Then we switched it over to focusing on American authors. With another teacher, we came up with a list of "classic" American authors that we hadn't studied over the course of the year. As part of the requirement, we had the students read a set of poems or a short story by the author first, then launched into research.

Last year (my first year as an official teacher), I revamped the project yet again and required the students to find a social issue from the time period and connect it to the story they read (I got rid of the was too difficult helping them analyze the poems on their own and I found that the short stories worked better overall). I really liked the addition of the social issues, especially considering that I always relate the literature we read to what is going on in America at the time of publication. Literature reflects life, right? The projects were excellent last year, but the biggest problem I had was when their chosen social issue wasn't evident in the piece I gave them to read.

This year, I want to revamp the project, yet again. First, I'm including more writing into their final product, and more creativity. I'm actually turning the project (which usually consists of an outline, works cited page, powerpoint, and presentation) into a blended genre study of their author and chosen social issue. I'm still requiring the same pieces (have to because it's a common assessment for the district), but they also have to find/create other pieces that reflect their research-pieces of art, photographs, original pieces they wrote, etc (you can find more info about blended genre projects here if you're interested).

So, here is where I need your help.

First, I'm looking for a more comprehensive list of contemporary American authors. I have a lot of "classic" writers down (for example, Twain), but I really want some newer writers for the kids to research. In particular, I'm looking for writers that definitely talk about social issues and ideas prevalent in modern-day American society. If you have some names for me, that would be lovely.

Second, I'm trying to decide how I should approach the issue of each author's work. In the past, I assigned the kids their author based on interest, then found a story for them, copied it, etc. All they did with it was read and summarize-seemed a touch pointless to the final project. But I think it would be difficult for them to find their own piece. We have limited do I bother? I'm not sure how to tackle that issue.

Third, I'm open to any other ideas on how to increase the creativity for this project. If you have any ideas for other products they can produced for their genres, I would love more ideas. I want to give them plenty of options and examples-they are sophomores and some of them struggle with the whole self-motivation business. Some of the ideas I already have include:
  • newspaper articles about their authors
  • letters
  • pictures (that they drew or that they found)
  • "Found" poems that they create from a piece of text by their author
  • a short biography of their writer (I think I'm making this a requirement)
  • journal entries
  • song lyrics that might connect to their writer or social issue
As you can see, the products can be varied-both things that are "found" in their research and things that are created based on their research (I'll be setting a limit for how much they "find" versus how much they "create").

If you have any ideas or suggestions, please leave them below! And please leave author names!

Thank you in advance!


  1. I don't read a lot of short stories, so it's entirely possible none of these authors will work for you: Tenessee Williams, probably because I loved reading him at school. Not modern, but more modern than Twain. I've heard good things about Phillip Roth, if you want current. When I did contemporary american lit at university it was Auster, DeLilo, Smiley and Silko but the only one of those I liked was 1000 Acres by Smiley.

    Oh - I liked Toni Morrison too. Did a whole module on her.

    Is there any reason you couldn't compile a list of authors & issues which go together and then let the students choose which pairing to go for? So you could tell them Twain & Slavery, Morrison & Poverty or whatever. It would mean you might get some students doing the same work/author/issue, I don't know if that would be a problem.

    As for creative things... Maybe an 'interview' with their author where they have to write the questions and the answers - using quotations from the text? A fake letter to a publishing house from the author explaining why they should publish the work? What a fan letter or hate letter to the author would look like?

    (If all of that is completely useless, then... uhm... Neil Gaiman writes short stories?)

  2. Kurt Vonnegut, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, John Updike, Michael Chabon, Donna Tartt, Paul Auster, David Foster Wallace, Audre Lorde

  3. (A lot of them have essays and some of them have short stories, but I'm not sure they all have short work... some of them may just be novelists).

  4. This looks like an excellent assignment. Sandra Cisneros, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Sherman Alexie . . . they all talk about race and hard social issues. Another plus is that they all have (amazing) novels for teens as well as amazing writing for "adults." And one of my biggest things is making book lists relating to specific issues. So if you want other suggestions based on specific issues, let me know.

  5. Three suggestions:

    1. August Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" of plays on the African American experience in the 20th century.
    2. "Clybourne Park," Bruce Norris's 2010 Pulitzer Prize sequel to "Raisin in the Sun."
    3. Tony Kushner's "Caroline, or Change," a play about the author's childhood in civil rights era Louisiana, is dramatic and non-controversial.
    Hope these suggestions are helpful..

    is dramatic and non-controversial [his more celebrated "Angels in America" is probably not suitable for your juniors].
    Hope these

  6. I was going to suggest the same idea as KindredLikeMe: produce a list of authors and social issues and let the kids decide. You're receiving so many excellent suggestions. Here's a few from me: Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Sandra Cisneros, Audre Lorde, Eula Biss, and Edwidge Danticat. Have you ever thought about going through past volumes of The Best American Essays or Best American Science Writing? I hope you let us know how the projects go.

  7. Ray Bradbury has several short stories, but I don't know if he would fall into modern, depending on what your parameters were!

  8. As far as more modern literary writers, I would highly recommend Danzy Senna for this project. Her writing is very focused on characters who are coming of age as multiracial people in America and she does write both novels and short stories. Her novel Caucasia is excellent and, from what I recall, appropriate reading for 10th graders. As far as short stories, there are a few that might work well from her collection called You Are Free: Triptych and You Are Free strike me as the most likely candidates.