Down These Mean Streets Reviewed: Hate, Heart and Self-Discovery

Down These Mean Streets, Piri Thomas, 1967Down These Mean Streets

Warning: This book contains extreme language, violence, drug use and scenes of a sexual nature. Reader discretion is advised.

Despite—or perhaps because of—its explicit content, Down These Mean Streets seems honest and in earnest. It is the memoir of author Piri Thomas, a man who knew that “since the Reconstruction days following the Civil War, racists in white hoods or dressed otherwise have worked very hard to return things to their version of the good ol’ plantation days,” but also believed that “love [was] the barrio’s greatest strength” (334-335). These ideas are among the many rooted in Thomas’s memoir.

The story begins in 1941 when Piri is just twelve years old and, as Thomas writes, “the Great Hunger called Depression was still down on Harlem” (8). Thomas’s authorial voice is natural—born in the streets—and his diction seems to echo the language of struggle and strife. On page one, for instance, Thomas writes: “The streets of Harlem make an unreal scene of frightened silence at 2 a.m. Like everything got a layoff from noise and hassling. Only the rumbling of a stray car passing by or the shy foraging of a cat or dog make the quietness bearable (emphasis added).” In addition to this skillful use of language, Thomas peppers the memoir with Spanish words, giving it its own sound.

At just twelve years of age, Piri, whose mother describes him as a Puerto Rican moreno (which translates to dark brown, almost black), begins to consciously experience racism. The Italian boys on his block call him “n*****” and pick fights with him. Piri even feels isolated on the basis of color in his own home because his mother and his siblings are several shades lighter than him. Only Piri’s father’s skin is as dark as his own, but Piri cannot connect with him because he is distant and rejects his own African blood. Although Piri initially clings to the idea that he is “Puerto Rican” and not black, one of his friends, Brew, engages him in a serious conversation about his appearance and his racial identity, causing the two to venture down South. While the trip helps Piri better understand his identity, it sharpens his hatred of white people and the pain they have caused both in his lifetime and throughout history.

Piri’s pain and rage drive him to street fighting, drugs and armed robbery—a downward spiral that culminates when he is sent to prison for shooting a police officer at twenty-two years of age. Yet Piri’s heart, which is often conceived as steadfastness in conflict despite its going way beyond this, is not exhausted by the hardship he endures.

Down These Means Streets is a tour de force, which touches on subjects as great and universal as racism, alienation, poverty, hate, love, friendship and sexuality and others as specific as the WPA, Jim Crow law, the hypo-descent rule, “passing” and the Nation of Islam. It is a gripping story, a literary phenomenon and, as written by The New York Times Book Review, “a linguistic event.”


Alternate Book Report – American Born Chinese

(Posted by CK)

Since this was a graphic novel, I felt that the Alternate Book Report should involve a fair bit of writing.  However, it doesn’t have to be traditional boring-old-book-report style…

Talk Show Interview Book Report

Instructions to Students:

Create a script of a Talk Show interview with a character from American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. Then, with a partner, perform the Talk Show for the class.

You must:

  • Select one main character OR two minor characters to interview
  • Include the dialogue of you (the show’s host) and the character(s) written in the format provided
  • Work with a partner in presenting your Talk Show to the class. You will read the part of the host for your script; then, you will read the part of the character for your partner.

The transcript of your interview should contain:

  • The character’s description of 3 main events from the story
  • How the character you interview relates to other characters in the story
  • Specific evidence from the book in the form of quotations
  • An indication of the overall theme of the story

Assessment Rubric: (25 Points Total)

A. Plot (5 pts): 3 main events

B. Character relationships (5 pts)

C. Evidence (5 pts)

D. Theme (5 pts)

E. Form and Performance (5 pts)

Common Core Standards:

Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Potential Difficulties:

Students may face difficulties with the form of a transcript/screenplay, so I will provide them with my example to act as a model. Throughout our reading, I will include the writing of scenes based on certain images from the text to build towards this project. Students may also have difficulty identifying a theme that is not confined to one word; a deeper understanding of theme will allow students to express theme as a short phrase or sentence demonstrating the depth of the author’s work.

The Fault in Our Stars Alternative Book Report

For the Alternative Book Report Assignment, I created a “character map” in which the interactions of the major/minor characters are plotted are plotted out like a map, in order to show the course of the story. The one caveat for students is that the map must fit one page, which emphasizes the importance of being able to pick out essential details of a novel while eliminating the more inconsequential ones.

Students will also be given quite a bit of freedom with this assignment; if they don’t consider themselves artistic they are welcome to create a more simple timeline or even a scientific map of sorts.

The assignment doesn’t have a specific grade level in mind as it could be altered to be more complex or simple. Additionally, this activity could also be altered to fit any novel.




A Spin on the Book Report !

Chapter Covers – PDC

Instructions to Students: Create four chapter cover illustrations with a summary of the chapter attached or behind the illustration. Illustrations can be, but not limited to: drawings, paintings, comic strips, or collages: The summaries can be written academically or creatively, for example: a poem, song, or a rap.

Include the following:

  • A cover page with an illustration with the book title and author’s name
  • A back page (illustration optional)

o   Should include a synopsis of the entire book

  • The title or number for each chapter cover
  • A written summary for each chapter
  • Summaries should reference characters and accurate main events in the chapters with details
  • Projects should be bound together like a book by using but not limit to: string, bind clips, staples

Assessment rubric:

o Cover page (1 pt)

o Back page (1 pt)

o Synopsis of book (1-4 pt)

o Includes four chapters (1 pt )

o Accuracy of chapter summaries (1-4 pt)

o Relevance of illustrations (1-3 pt)

o Bounding of the book (1 pt)

 Common Core Standards (Grade 7):

  • Reading Standard 2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text
  • Writing Standard 4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Here is my example:


Alternative Book Report: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Book Cover


We’ve all heard the adage “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” However, there are questions that are presented in this idea. Namely, why not? What’s missing that would make this such a bad idea? This project allows students to delve into the world of creating a cover that reflects on the book, the author and what critics have said about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, while allowing them to demonstrate their creativity in a book-centric manner. This semi-autobiographical book is ideal for this activity, as it incorporates the context of the author’s background in the assignment.

Placement in Unit:

This project would be assigned towards the end of the unit studying this novel. We would have spent time in class discussing the novel in depth, as well as trying to isolate the themes in the book.

Instructions to Students:

Once you’ve finished reading your novel, you’re going to create your own complete Book Cover/Dust Jacket (including front, back, and 2 side flaps) to the book. You should look carefully at the cover the book currently has, and think about how you could revise this and make it more accurately reflect what the book is about. Make sure your full book cover includes the following:

1.     Your own back cover summary of the book outlining the main events, main characters, setting and what you deem to be the most pertinent relevant details. Do NOT give away any of the story’s surprises, though!

2.     At least 3 critiques by professional sources, found independently online (credit will not be given for sources currently already cited on the book cover). You should include the name of the reviewer as well as the source at which you found the review.

3.     A brief summary of the author’s biography, paying special attention to those details which you feel are most relevant to this text.

4.    Your own cover art work! Make sure it differs from what is already on the book’s cover but is still relevant. If the relationship of the book’s new cover art to the text is unclear, I will ask you to write a brief explanation for why you chose it.

NOTE: You may either design your own using your own sources, sites and supplies or you may use the book cover creator on the website

Assessment Rubric (20 points total):

⃟     Book title/author (1 point)

⃟     Back Cover Summary (1-5 points)

⃟     Author Biography (1-5 points)

⃟     Cover Art Work (1-3 points)

⃟     Three Professional Source Critiques (1-2 points each)

Common Core Standards:


Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.


Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.


Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question . . . or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.


Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research.

Foreseen Challenges:

Creating this book cover may be a challenge for students who have difficulty with the creative aspect of the project. Students will be encouraged to utilize the Book Cover making tool if they are having great difficulty with this project.


Alternate Book Report: Facebook Account

Alternate Book Report: Facebook Account

Introduction: Many students have social media such as Facebook or instagram so I wanted to connect their school work with something that they enjoy doing on their own time. The assignment would require for students to use their knowledge of Facebook and of their assigned book to create a fictional account of their character of choice and use the page to tell their story.

Instructions to Students:

Create a Facebook account to illustrate a character from the book Maus.  I have created an account on and will provide you with the code to make your own page of the character you’ve selected.

Include in your Farcebook/Facebook account:

  • A picture of the main character and include all of his information on his page account.
  • In the about me section, provide an in depth summary about the character’s journey.
  • Please provide at least  a quote.
  • Provide images.
  • Be creative, make inferences on the character base on his action in the story.

Assessment rubric (15 pts total):

o   Mention  the book on the page account (1pt)

o   Character basic information (1-3pts)

o   A least a quote from the book (1-3pts)

o   Plot summary (1-4pts)

o   Images to depict the characters (2pts)

o   Creativity (1-2pts)

Common Core Standards (Grade 8)


Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.


Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, and reflection, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.


Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas efficiently as well as to interact and collaborate with others.

Forseen Difficulties:

Students may not be able to set up a proper account on so I would have to take a class period and have the class go to a computer room to set up their account together. Once their accounts are set up, the students are able to work from home.  Ideally I would like to use this activity for students who are reading  books by their own choice so they can share it with their classmates. In this scenario a student picked the book Maus and is displaying the character’s personality on the page. Students would have to pay close attention to the characters in order to make their pages. Students may have  difficulty finding quotes, images, and being creative but I will allow enough class time to assist all my students in the process. JA


Here is a sample of alternative book report. JA



An Alternate Book Report: The Comic Strip Report


Book: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) by Sherman Alexie

Targeted Grade Level: 8th

Comic Strip Report Instructions:

This comic strip report is designed to make you think about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in a new way. By creating a comic strip featuring the characters in the novel, you will think analytically about the characters, events and themes we’ve explored in our reading. You should choose six key scenes, design a graphic that fits each scene and compose or quote related dialogue. You may not copy cartoons from the text, but you may use them as your inspiration and explore the same themes they explore.

To make the comic strip, follow these steps:

1.   Create a front cover that includes the book title, the author’s name and your name.Image of Cover Sheet

2.   Use the six-frame comic strip template provided, or create your own.

3.   Highlight at least six thematically significant scenes from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. That is, each frame should depict a key scene that somehow deals with one of the novel’s themes. You do not, however, need to choose scenes that deal with six different themes. Nor does the theme need to be explicitly stated in the frame, but you should know which theme each frame involves since you will need to describe this during a presentation of your comic.

4.   Choose at least four quotes from the book that you’ll include in your narration or captions.

5.   Make sure that each frame contains the following:

  • A thematically significant scene or event that occurs in the novel
  • A caption or narration that tells the reader something important about the scene
  • Relevant graphics (which do not need to be hand-drawn)
  • At least one character from the novel

6.   Make sure that your comic does not reveal the end of the novel. We don’t want to spoil it for future readers!

Rubric for Comic Strip Reports:

Note: The list below reflects the criteria for evaluation, but it does not match the format of the rubric I’ve created. I’ve created a rubric using a table, which shows what 4-, 3-, 2- and 1-point work would look like.

☐ Cover Sheet – The cover sheet includes the book title, author’s name and your name. (2 points)

☐ Choice of Scenes – The comic includes six of the novel’s most thematically significant scenes without revealing the novel’s conclusion. (4 points)

☐ Captions or Narrations – The captions or narrations incorporate at least 4 quotes from the book. They relate to the scenes and the novel’s themes so the connections are easy to understand. (4 points)

☐ Graphics – All graphics are effective in telling the story of the comic. There is clear evidence of whom the characters are and what they are supposed to be doing. (4 points)

☐ Characters – The main characters are clearly identified, and their actions and dialogue are well-matched to their actions and dialogue in the novel. (4 points)

☐ Attractiveness – The comic strip is neat and aesthetically pleasing. The colors and design of the comic are fitting for the style/genre of the book. The reader is drawn in and excited to read. (4 points)

☐ Spelling, Punctuation & Grammar – There are no spelling, punctuation or grammar errors. (4 points)

Relevant Common Core Standards:

RL.8.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.

W.8.9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Foreseen Challenges:

When presented with this assignment, students may feel apprehensive about the prospect of drawing. For this reason, I will permit the use of pre-drawn or photographic images in comic strip design. I will also provide these types of images.

Limited knowledge of comic book formatting may present another challenge. And so I will introduce sample graphic novels, comic books and a model of the assignment. Also, during the planning period I will enact a mini-lesson about the key elements of comic strips. It will address questions such as:

  1. What are the important characteristics of a caption? What do the words in the captions tell you about the scene depicted?
  2. What kind of landscape makes sense for the scene?
  3. What props can you associate with the scene?
  4. What kind of dialogue bubble makes sense for the interaction?
  5. What connects one scene to the next in a comic strip?

Hopefully, this mini-lesson will address the concerns of students with limited knowledge of comic book formatting.

Choosing appropriate scenes from the novel may present another challenge to students. Although I will avoid helping students choose scenes, I will check their choices during the planning period so that teacher feedback may guide their decision-making.

Finally, since some students may have trouble addressing each of the evaluation criteria, I will provide a “Comic Strip Planning Sheet,” which will help students address each aspect of the criteria prior to comic strip work.

Posted by SD