Students know more than they think they do. Last week I started a new unit about War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, not with a set of facts about the text but with a question designed to tap pre-existing knowledge about its genre. What alien invasion texts do we know (the list was impressive) and, based on these, what are the genre’s typical settings, characters and complications? This activity, adapted from a resource by Ticking Minds, generated a coherent set of ideas about what we expect from Martian-related novels, and increased our desire to start reading. It also gave us material to create our own invasion scenarios, some eerily prescient of the book we hadn’t opened yet. [FYI, characters likely to appear in alien invasion texts according to my year 9 students are wimp, villain, hero, non-beliver, saviour, concerned relatives, farmer, stupid cops, lead good guy, lead bad guy, scientist, secret government organisation people, reassuring people, damsel in distress, President, love interest and innocent victims.]
Genres can be remarkably stable. Many students expressed surprise (and pleasure) that a book from 1898 could include elements still recurring in their own reading and viewing. But the joy of genre fiction is also found in points of difference. Sure, it’s a crash-landed alien, but what does it look like? I invited students to describe their own typical alien to a partner, who doodled accordingly. No two Martians were the same.