By Katie Mitchell, Instructor at University of Colorado Boulder’s International English Center.
Although not all of our students have the digital literacy to be part of what Angwin (2009) called the “remix generation,” I have certainly witnessed students’ creativity and their ability to reinvent material. At university, this reinvention is sometimes met with skepticism as faculty worry about intellectual property rights and plagiarism. However, I wanted to capture students’ desire to create, modify, and personalize existing content in my ESL reading class and allow them to “remix” a novel in order to improve their reading and writing skills. The results of the project were surprisingly creative; students reimagined the story with vivid details and entertaining plot twists while also remaining true to the world of the novel and its characters.
As in many intensive English programs around the country, my students are generally 18-22 and come primarily from China and the Middle East. Most hope to earn bachelor’s degrees in the United States after improving their English. For this project, I was teaching a high-intermediate reading class which met two hours a week. One of the course requirements was that students read an authentic novel; other teachers had had success with The Giver by Lois Lowry. The Giver is a young-adult, dystopian novel. While the novel’s themes seemed engaging, I was concerned that reading it might be a daunting and somewhat uninteresting task for students.
I wanted to encourage students to react, remix, and recreate the novel. I designed a project where students wrote a choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) story as they read the novel. My hope was that the writing project would hold them accountable for the reading. It might also encourage deeper thinking by transforming them from mere consumers of literature to what Murphey and Falout (2013) term “prosumers” where students co-create work and in doing so produce community and learning. While CYOAs have been previously used in world language instruction (see Murray, 2015; Ferlazzo, 2009), it’s uncommon to have students recreate a novel in the CYOA format. This combination of summary and creation proved especially fruitful in my class.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Unlike the novel’s traditional linear plot, students were encouraged to ponder alternative choices that the protagonist might make and to write a branching choose-your-own-adventure version of The Giver. As shown in Figure 1, CYOAs have a different structure; they invite the reader to play the protagonist and propel the story in different directions, thereby allowing the reader to customize the story.
In the class project, a path was created through their CYOA that mirrored the plot of the novel, but they also introduced three to five decision nodes where their stories could depart from the original. Therefore, when the protagonist approached an important decision or plot point, students wrote alternatives that allowed the reader to choose the direction of the plot. One of the choices was the original path from the novel, but they also invented and wrote alternatives. To put it in context, for example, after reading a quarter of the book, students summarized what they had read. At that point in The Giver, the main character had received his job assignment; that assignment shaped the rest of the novel. In the students’ CYOA, the job assignment became a choice. Students wrote about other possible careers for the main character and allowed the reader to choose the character’s career. Continuing the story, students then predicted how the story might have progressed if the character had been given a different profession.
Students then voted on whose summary or plot expansion was the most interesting, and it was posted on our google site. Each page had part of the story followed by links where readers could click depending on how they wanted the story to continue (See Figure 2 for example links). Once everything was written and posted on the website, students were each assigned a different editing or proofreading role. Some students were the language editors and improved the grammar and vocabulary of the entire CYOA story. Other students were the style gurus. They added to the design of the website, inserting pictures and making things more concise. Another group had the big picture role and worked on cohesion and coherence. The final group wrote our “about us” page on the website and introduced the class and the project. In total, we visited the computer lab two or three times to work on the project. Otherwise, most of the CYOA work took place outside of class.
Over the course of the project, they practiced predicting, drawing conclusions, and other reading skills. These are key skills that are transferable to more traditional academic reading and writing tasks.
Reading and Writing Skills Addressed
Like the students’ writing itself, this project took an alternative route to teaching traditional academic reading skills. Looking at the college and career readiness standards and university assignments, the ability to write texts that reference, respond to, and synthesize information is essential for students’ future studies. In a creative way, this project helped develop those necessary skills.
This section will outline some of the important reading skills addressed during the CYOA project. For K-12 educators, when possible, the relevant Common Core State Standard will be listed. Educators might also notice that the term “reading skills” here is being applied more generally and includes, for example summarizing and paraphrasing, where the writing task hinges on reading comprehension.
- Summarizing: While it may seem that writing a choose-your-own-adventure story focuses more on creation than retelling, in this story writing project, summarizing was essential. One path of the CYOA story parallels the novel’s plot, so students were required to accurately and concisely summarize. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2)
- Paraphrasing: In summarizing the plot of the novel, students at times paraphrased key points. For example, the main character in The Giver must follow a list of rules. These rules become central to both the novel and students’ CYOA story. In writing their CYOA, they paraphrased the rules and took care to do so accurately since their story hinged on those same rules. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.8)
- Analyzing Character and Plot Development: In writing their own stories, the students had to understand how the characters and events related to each other in the original novel so that when they made changes to the plot or characters in their CYOA, they could understand how that might affect the storyline. For example, in the novel, the Giver transmits the memories of the past, both positive and negative, to the main character Jonas. However, in the CYOAs, the reader chooses whether he received good, bad, or mixed memories (See Figure 2). Each of those statements leads to a branch of the story. In writing those branches, the students had a clear reason to analyze the characters and understand their motivation and feelings. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.3)
- Comparing: Since the novel was read and the story was written concurrently over several weeks, once they were completed, students could compare and contrast them. For example, they noticed that some characters in the book were almost completely absent in their stories and reflected on the implications of that. Similar to paired readings often used in traditional reading classes, this step encouraged comparison and synthesis. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7)
- Drawing Conclusions: When creating their own story arches, students had to draw conclusions based on evidence in the novel. They had to infer how characters would act in different (often imagined) situations. For example, in The Giver, the main character in the novel isn’t allowed to ask to be executed or “released” as it’s called. However, as students discovered, the character’s death may actual benefit the entire community in the novel, so students found a way to kill the main character without breaking the novel’s logic. Using textual evidence, they drew a conclusion that the main character could drown and that might cause similar effects as being executed. While this is a grim example, it shows how the students creatively drew conclusion based on information in the novel. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1)
- Predicting: Since the CYOA was written as they were reading the novel, this allowed students to write about what they thought might happen in the novel. Both the correct and incorrect predictions came to life as different paths in their CYOA story. Additionally, since the novel didn’t have a clear ending, students were able to create an extension of the novel and continue the story. They predicted whether or not the characters survived and what happened to the city. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1)
- Being Coherent: Since the stories were written in several rounds by different people, the transitions were sometimes inelegant. As a reading and editing task, students were able to work on their CYOA story’s coherence. They were able to analyze how the parts of the story fit together and how those connections could be more cohesive. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.5 and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.5)
- Responding: This assignment asked students to imagine themselves as the protagonist and to question the characters’ choices. One of the reading course’s objectives was to prepare students to write response papers, and although the CYOA writing is of a different genre, students were learning transferable skills. In essence, they were critiquing and responding to the text. The underlying critical thinking skills involved in that task are similar to those needed in traditional academic response papers. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.9)
I administered a survey about the CYOA project after the class had ended. Unfortunately, the response rate was low (around 40%); some questions only had four responses. However, combined with my informal observations and students’ oral feedback, I can comfortably say that students generally had a positive view of the project. They were able to see a positive effect on specific reading skills (predicting, drawing conclusions, and summarizing) and also on their writing skills. Additionally, since their CYOA story was published online, they thought the project encouraged them to focus on the content and accuracy of their writing as there was an authentic audience for their stories. I saw this firsthand as they wrote interesting, engaging, and detailed stories for the project and proudly shared them with friends. One of the students wrote about their final CYOA story, saying “This story is even better than the book and the movie!!” Students also reported that working in a group and doing a project alongside the novel encouraged them to read The Giver more closely.
This project could be done with many different novels. To ensure a novel is appropriate for this project, teachers should try to map out the plot and decide where possible choices could be introduced. If there are at least three places where the story could branch, then the selection might be a good fit. Additionally, my class only had twelve students, so they wrote one CYOA as an entire class and voted on which writing should be put on the website, but this could easily be done in small groups. This might be more appropriate in a reading/writing course, compared to my reading-focused course. In reverse, students could also read a CYOA novel. They could choose their unique path through the novel and then write a traditional linear story summarizing and retelling what happened in their personal “adventure.” Some CYOA novels from R. A. Mongomery’s Choose Your Own Adventure series have been adapted for the ESL audience; teachers have successfully used these in their classrooms (Murray, 2015). Another possible series is Fighting Fantasy” by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Students could explore their books and summarize their “adventures” in them.
In conclusion, the students’ writing for this project was inspiring. It was engaging and detailed. At the same time, it cleared demonstrated their comprehension and critical thinking skills. I have refined this project over two sessions but can see using it in its current form for years to come. It allows students to creatively demonstrate their reading comprehension and develop important academic skills.
Angwin, Julian. Stealing myspace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America. New York: Random House, 2009.
Ferlazzo, Larry. “The Best Places to Read & Write “Choose Your Own Adventure” Stories,” Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day (blog), May 2, 2009.
Lowry, Lois. The Giver. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
Murphey, Tim, and Joseph Falout. “Critical participatory looping: An agencing process for mass customization in language education.” Linguistik online 54, no. 4 (2013).
Murray, Adam. “Choose your adventure: Mystery of the Maya.” The Language Teacher 39, 6 (Nov. 2015).