Theme for English B

by Langston Hughes

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If you were the instructor in "Theme for English B", what grade would you give Hughes' submission and why?

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Although there isn't any direct evidence that “Theme for English B” is an autobiographical poem, it's interesting to imagine the poem as a response to a real prompt. The prompt asks the speaker to write a page of text reflecting on personal experience without specifying what form the student is expected to write in, and it is somewhat trite in it's approach to inspiring creativity and it's simplification of “truth.” The speaker expresses suspicion of the notion of individuality and objective truth. The opening line, “I wonder if it's that simple,” (Line 1) offers a beautifully open-minded objection to this simplification of truth before relating relatively objective information, demonstrating an awareness of more advanced literary techniques and theory. The speaker is twenty-two, born and raised in Winston-Salem, attending college on a hill above Harlem as the only black student in the class, and residing at the Harlem YMCA. The speaker explores the subjectivity of their experience and the role of place and society in determining their subjective reality. They acknowledge that while “being colored doesn't make [the speaker] not like / the same things” white students might like, the assumption still exists. Ultimately, the speaker asserts that their “truth” or experience of reality depends on their relationship with place, society, and other individuals.

A fair amount of mystery surrounds the appropriate rubric for grading creative writing work. My personal rubric would take the form of a few questions: Did the student respond to the prompt? Does the student develop/explore the complexity of their ideas? Did the student organize their text in some way and follow (or thoughtfully call into question) the grammatical and syntactical standards for the class? With these questions in mind, I would give the student an A+. They responded to the prompt earnestly despite their suspicion of the assignment. The student explored the complexity of both what the prompt seeks (“truth”) and what elements compose the narrator's identity (personal background, place, and social reality). The student demonstrated an impressive expression of free verse and poetic literary techniques. Finally, the student's paper appears to have been edited and free of any unintentional grammatical or syntactical standards.

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