The Alan Review
Current Editor
Wendy Glenn wendy.glenn@uconn.edu
Volume 24, Number 3
Spring 1997


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Opening Texts: Student Writing Based on "Priscilla and the Wimps"

Gwen McAlpine, Dawn Putney, and Janice Warren

For several years we have used dependent authorship in English classes at the middle grades through the college level. Developed by Peter Adams, dependent authorship is a term used to explain student writing that is based on a published literary work. Students use the published work as a foundation for their own creative writing (Adams, p. 121). Many people recognize its most popular form, the rewriting of the ending of a story; however, this technique also has many variations unknown to most teachers. While beginning with a rewrite of an ending, the writing activities described here include more complex versions of dependent authorship assignments.

The best way to begin this assignment is with a plot-centered, short short story (five pages or fewer). Most intriguing are those easy, contemporary stories that have a surprise ending, that is, high-interest, low-vocabulary stories. Our favorite is Richard Peck's "Priscilla and the Wimps." The basic plot is that a high school bully and his gang find themselves pitted against a surprising adversary for a cliffhanger ending. This fast-paced, vigorous story appeals to students at any level. Figure 1 is an example of a student's dependent authorship draft. The procedure for teaching this lesson is in Figure 2.

From the middle grades through the college level, dependent authorship is an excellent assignment for teaching a recursive, literature-based writing process. The very act of reworking the original text teaches students editing skills they will use in every discipline. This activity also requires frequent reference to the original text, encouraging the intensive reading favored by many English teachers. Though rewriting a professional literary work is challenging and time consuming, this editing process is not associated with penalties. The teacher does not correct the first few drafts but rather collaborates with student-writers in early drafting stages, emphasizing content rather than correctness.

Furthermore, this literature-based writing should be more meaningful to most students than the usual assignment, which requires answering questions from a text. They are writing for a real audience, their peers, and will publish or perform the finished product.

Our primary allegiance is to the teaching of reading and writing as processes, not to the published work of literature. Each teacher needs to decide how much divergence to permit from the original professional work of literature. We do not restrict our students to the original work. Faithfully following a recursive writing process, our students feel free to write as many drafts as they need in order to create a unique draft. Sometimes that means allowing students to begin from scratch at any point during the process.

We also employ another variation of the usual dependent authorship process. Typically teachers introduce this concept with individual seatwork, but the version of dependent authorship presented here occurs mostly in groups. This practice should achieve these important goals: building trust among students and helping those who have trouble generating ideas to develop short, tentative drafts into complete, publishable drafts. We have found that group work usually sustains reluctant writers through a writing process that sometimes spans several school days.

Collaborative dependent authorship also encourages novice writers to engage in more creative writing, introducing the concept of writing as discovery and surprise. Those group members who write vivid character depictions and exciting endings demonstrate for their peers the sheer joy of writing as invention. As Robert Frost reminds us, "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader" (qtd. in Murray).

Another advantage of dependent authorship is that this reading-writing process reaches many students who are unenthusiastic about traditional English instruction. Published literature becomes porous and malleable. For those students who have trouble getting started writing, dependent authorship assignments provide the structure of a published literary work acting as a sturdy foundation for their hesitant early drafts. To showcase their finished writing, students sometimes choose to create illustrated booklets. Others sometimes stage the group's draft as a play.

We have found this a rewarding activity that automatically connects reading as a process to writing -- and even acting -- as a process. Students always surprise us with their fantastical endings for these stories. Often when students at any level write a draft based on "Priscilla and the Wimps," the new ending is highly implausible, with the troublemaker character having been scooped up by aliens from another planet or involved in a drive-by shooting. Sometimes students end the stories in a manner that they find psychologically satisfying, exacting vengeance on the villains or, occasionally, placing the villains in therapy. We have come to expect a few groups in college classes to write this kind of satisfying denouement.

In college classes, preservice teachers have expressed a great deal of interest in using this flexible assignment in their own classes, for it can lead into many other lesson plans. Even elementary students can understand "Priscilla and the Wimps" if the teacher reads it aloud. Also this story is excellent for working on predicting skills, which enhances reading comprehension, according to Early and Ericson (p. 39). While reading a story aloud, teachers stop a few times to ask students to write down their predictions of the story's next events. By the end of the story, the teacher needs to be sure that the class has tapped into their personal experiences several times, stimulating their interest in reading while strengthening their reading skills. With "Priscilla and the Wimps" most of the children should easily be able to relate an experience with bullies or class clowns.

This structured reading and writing assignment typically results in final drafts ranging from the fantastic to the realistic, all based on the original text yet originals in their own right. Student groups create a story they can feel proud of. The reading-writing connections lead to insights into character development as well as an understanding of how to write believable dialogue. After working with a few structured writing assignments like this one, many students learn to relax more as they write and begin to draft inventive prose. As Janice Warren's students explained on their project evaluations:

More group projects!

More writing about the stuff we like.

More short stories we can finish reading at school.

More fun!

Works Cited

Adams, Peter. "Writing from Reading -- 'Dependent Authorship' as a Response." In Bill Corcoran and Emrys Evans (Ed.). Readers, Texts, Teachers. Heinemann, 1987, pp. 119-152.

Early, Margaret, and Bonnie O. Ericson. "The Act of Reading." In Ben F. Nelms (Ed.). Literature in the Classroom: Readers, Texts, and Contexts. National Council of Teachers of English, 1988, pp. 31-44.

Murray, Donald. "Writing and Teaching for Surprise." Highway One 8, 1985, pp. 174-181.

Peck, Richard. "Priscilla and the Wimps." In Donald R. Gallo (Ed.), Sixteen: Short Stories by Outstanding Writers for Young Adults. Delacorte, 1984, pp. 42-45.

Gwen McAlpine is an assistant professor in the Middle Grades and Secondary Education Department at the State University of West Georgia in Carrollton, Georgia. Dawn Putney is an assistant professor of Early Childhood Education at the State University of West Georgia in Carrollton, Georgia. Janice Warren is a middle grades teacher at Central Middle School in Carrollton, Georgia.

Copyright 1997. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.

Reference Citation: McAlpine, Gwen, Dawn Putney, and Janice Warren. (1997). Opening texts: Student writing based on "Priscilla and the Wimps." The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 3, 40-41.

A First-Draft Ending for "Priscilla and the Wimps"
written by an eighth-grade student, Beth Schoerner
(used with permission)

By the time school started again after the snow storm, everyone at school knew about what Priscilla did. They knew that she had crossed the line, and she was definitely in for it. Even though she was a girl, there was nothing that would stop the Kobras from getting back at her.

Throughout the morning, more and more rumors were starting. Most of them about how bad Priscilla was beaten up. Some told that she was still stuck in the hospital while more dramatic ones told that the Kobras had gone after her the night that it all began. After beating her up, they stuck her in a locker and she's been locked up the whole week school was out.

At lunchtime everyone found out differently. There was Priscilla seated at her usual table with Melvin and not a single scratch on her. But no one had seen Monk all day. There weren't anymore black plastic wind breakers either. They didn't know it then but they had seen the last of the Kobras.

Figure 1

Procedure for Teaching Writing through Dependent Authorship
the source of a few of these ideas: Peter Adams in Corcoran and Evans'Readers, Texts, Teachers

1) Students read a short story and then reflect on it for a few minutes.

2) Each student jots down at least three different endings for the story, writing a line or two for each ending. Student-writers may change the original story in any manner they wish.

3) In small groups (with three to five members), students compare their ideas for endings and develop one complete ending. This first draft is published for their classmates, with at least one student acting as a recorder. Individual students may also write their own drafts.

4) Groups may volunteer to read their drafts aloud. Also booklets of the new versions of the stories may be Xeroxed to show to other classes or to post on bulletin boards or to put in the school library.

Figure 2

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