Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Playful Lesson for the Composition Classroom

Incorporating this playful lesson in the college composition classroom can spark insightful, passionate, and engaged student writing.

A sense of play and creativity encourages engagement in any activity, and college writing is no exception. Play helps “gratify desires that can’t be immediately fulfilled in order to relive tension,” states The Typist in an engaging blog post called "Creative Writing and Composition: Do They Go Together Like Peanut Butter and Thumbtacks?" The Typist's post, written by an English instructor from Springfield, Missouri, goes on to praise the introducing of playful and creative classroom activities and assignments in the composition classroom. To summarize, when students feel unfettered or free from the confines of the five-paragraph essay, their writing becomes more lively, passionate, and engaging.

The task, then, is for writing faculty to find ways for play and creativity to be incorporated into the composition classroom and its given learning outcomes.

It Starts With Something Students Love

My students love music. Not only do they love to listen to music, but they consistently choose, when the choice is available, to write about topics pertaining to music. In order to tap into this love, and in order to bring a sense of play and "emergence" into my composition classes, I have created a lesson that uses the folk music murder ballad to teach the concepts of unity, coherence and transitions in both narrative and expository writing. The same idea can be used with narrative lyrics from any genre of music.

Using Language for Play and Creativity

  • First, I introduce the murder ballad to the class, pass out the lyrics, and play the song or songs for the students. Their task is merely to listen.
  • Next, I ask the students to engage with the lyrics, and without using the term “active reading,” I guide them through the process. They circle, underline or star certain grammatical elements, they take notes, and I ask them to work together to make assumptions about the narrative.
  • I ask them to role-play, or to think like reporters or detectives and infer answers about the murder by writing down answers to the five “Ws.”
  • After they finish making some inferences, I collect the lyrics, cut them into pieces by verse, and return a few verses to each of the students.
  • I ask them to reconstruct the story in any order they choose by grouping up with one another. Trying to reconstruct the story as originally arranged is strictly forbidden.
  • Once the students pair up and group up, reconstruct the narrative, and add transitional devices that I’ve written on the board, their task is to prepare a piece of writing that details the order of events based on their inferences and reconstructed narrative.
  • They present their work to the class.

Engaging Results

In the end, some students present newsworthy journalistic articles, while others write film noir or witness-style monologues, and still others write first-person accounts or process analysis essays. The various genres and styles of writing generally surprise the entire class, and "the" question is ultimately directed to me, "Are we allowed to write like that?" And I get to tell them, “Yes!” because even though left without a structure or formula, the writing is unified, coherent, and engaging. So, at that point I can redirect and explain the concepts of unity and coherence by using their own writing as examples.  Furthermore, continuously returning to these pieces of writing as examples throughout the term makes it easier to reinforce principles of writing in a way that resonates with the students.

In order to bring play and creativity into the composition classroom, faculty can tap into something students love while incorporating bridging exercises that lead to engaging results. These creative classroom projects can be used to introduce new writing concepts while helping students see "old" lessons in new ways. The freedom to write in a way that meets the objectives of the assignment while allowing for unique voices and styles helps maintain the momentum of the class and inspire more effective writing.


Creative Writing and Composition: Do They Go Together like Peanut Butter and Thumbtacks? (February 29, 2008). The Typist. Retrieved from http://thetypistsblog.blogspot.com/2008/02/creative-writing-and-composition-do.html

Want to read more about pedagogy and writing?  Try

Strategies to Revise Student Writing: Revision Day
Using Anti-Plagiarism Software as an Assignment Requirement
Myths about Writing Essays
The Benefit of Play in the Composition Classroom

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.  Originally published Aug 25, 2011.

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