The Case for Creative Assignments in the English Classroom
Here’s one problem I’ve become aware of over the past few years: there can be a lack of variety in the types of work students are asked to produce in their General Education English courses at Dawson. Most courses demand that students write two or three academic-style literary essays. Multiply that by the four English courses students take over their time here, and that works out to 8-12 literary essays.
These essays certainly teach useful critical thinking and writing skills that are transferable to any form of writing. They teach writers to read deeply into texts, and to make inferences based on these texts. They teach writers to organize their thoughts logically, and to crystallize and develop an argument. They teach revision and other good writing habits.
But, is the literary essay the only way to teach our students these important skills? Can we offer more variety in the types of assignments we give out?
I’m becoming more and more sensitive to the importance of motivation in learning. Susan Ambrose and her co-authors devote an entire chapter to motivation, and how to foster it in the classroom: “If a goal is valued and expectancies for success are positive and the environment is perceived to be supportive, motivation will be highest” (How Learning Works, 79). I’m noticing that my enthusiasm for the goal of writing several essays over the course of a semester is waning. If I’m less motivated to engage in several iterations of the same type of assignment, it becomes difficult to inspire my students to produce their best.
If I’m less motivated to engage in several iterations of the same type of assignment, it becomes difficult to inspire my students to produce their best.
This has led to creative assignments playing an increasing role in my classes.
What do I mean by creative assignment? Simple: an assignment that employs anything besides essay-writing. So, more creative types of writing: short stories, poems, scripts. But, also working in different mediums: visual (paintings, comics, etc.), sounds (song, sound design, etc.), tactile (sculptures, 3D models, etc.), video, and so on.
Let’s take a 101 course I’m teaching this semester as an example. Now, at this level, it is crucial to teach students how to write college-level essays. This is the main point of the class. There is one major essay that my students wrote over the course of about 10 weeks. This was their summative assessment for the semester. I went into the minutia of essay writing: integrating citations, writing sentences, organizing paragraphs, transitioning between ideas, etc. We explored the bigger ideas as well: developing interesting thesis statements, being convincing, considering your audience, etc. My students created brainstorms, outlines, guided revision activities, self-reflections, and several drafts. The ministerial guidelines for the class demand a 750-word essay. Rather than write a couple of these throughout the semester, many of my students wrote excellent 1,000-2,000-word essays.
This process was rigorous and challenging, but it didn’t take the whole semester. There was room for one other major assignment. Here’s what I cooked up.
Building on the standard writing assignment, creatively
I asked students to start by identifying a “real-world problem” in one of the pieces of literature we read this semester. For example: we read a play called The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds, by Paul Zindel. The play is about a small family where a single mother is emotionally abusive toward her two young daughters, one of whom finds salvation in the school’s science fair. Potential “real-world” problems include: our behaviour is often a reflection of our feelings for ourselves; children often internalize abuse they receive from their parents; the underfunding of public schools diminishes their abilities to provide transformative experiences for students, etc.
Students were then tasked with creating a “prototype” of something that the characters in the play could use to help solve the problem, or help bring awareness to it. One student proposed creating a prototype of an “emotional puffer,” similar to the puffer that asthmatics use, that can regulate a person’s emotions when in high-stakes emotional moments. Another proposed a set of tarot cards with the characters from the play on them, showing the possible outcomes of their behaviour.
Along with these prototypes, students also submitted a two-page piece of writing that explained what their creative prototype was, and why they made the choices they made. The written text linked the piece to the literature: it had to detail how this “problem” manifested itself in the story and how the characters in the story themselves might have used their prototype. Finally, there was a showcase where students presented their prototypes to the other students, and went into detail about the links between their work and the piece of literature it was based on.
But, does this really allow students to engage with the literature in a profound way, or is it just a matter of doing things differently for the sake of doing things differently? I’ll attempt to answer this question by taking a look at how it lines up with elements of the competency for the 101 course:
- Identify the characteristics and functions of the components of literary texts.
- Determine the organization of facts and arguments of a given literary text.
- Prepare ideas and strategies for a projected discourse.
- Formulate a discourse.
- Revise the work.
I believe this assignment neatly checks off numbers 1 and 2. This type of project (if it is done well) requires deep engagement with the characteristics and functions of the primary text. The project spans a good portion of the semester, and necessitates significant revision, ticking off number 5 above. The students do need to produce a thoughtful piece of writing, which satisfies numbers 3 and 4. In fact, I believe the project even expands the concept of discourse. This word, according to its definition, points more towards something expressed in words, either in writing or reading. But, discourse also points to a discussion, a conversation. These creative prototypes motivate students to engage in a different type of discussion and debate about these literary texts.
These creative prototypes motivate students to engage in a different type of discussion and debate about these literary texts.
Creative assignments help students produce knowledge and make connections
The research suggests there is great value in stressing creativity alongside critical rigour. Patrick Sullivan states, “If we theorize creativity as a highly sophisticated and valuable form of cognition, it must also, then, by definition, be regarded as a necessary and indispensable part of any curriculum in a writing classroom” (“The Unessay”, 19). He quotes something by Costa and Killick that really resonated with me: “We are interested in enhancing the ways students produce knowledge rather than how they merely reproduce it” (11). In asking students to produce something original, rather than repeating in essay form what we’ve said to them, we’re forcing them to think deeper and in a more genuine way about the texts they read.
Using creative assignments can also be a valuable way to get students to retain knowledge in lasting ways. Ambrose and her co-authors bring up the idea of connections:
[It] was easier for students to learn and retain multiple facts with a causal dimension (for example: Isaac Newton became emotionally unstable and insecure as a child, Newton’s father died when he was born, and Newton’s mother remarried and left him with his grandfather) as compared to a single, isolated fact. However, students only showed this advantage when there was a relationship among the multiple facts that allowed students to make meaningful connections. (“How Does the Way Students Organize Knowledge Affect Their Learning?”, 57)
In other words, if we can present material, and ask students to produce material, in the form of stories, it will lead to more profound and impactful learning. Creative assignments are a way for students to organize their knowledge as a kind of story.
My work with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has also reinforced my enthusiasm for these kinds of assignments. Simply put, UDL stresses the importance of choice for students to be able to customize their learning experience as much as possible. There should be options for how the material is presented to the student, but also options for how to engage students, and for how they can produce material. The factor that the UDL framework puts at the forefront, is that of engagement:
Providing options for engagement is critical for affective development because there is no one means of engagement that is optimal for all students. Igniting the learning spark and keeping the fire of enthusiasm burning is arguably the most important thing educators can do to enable learners to become experts. (UDL: Theory and Practice, 53)
And this is perhaps the biggest asset of creative assignments: they can spark student interest in ways that essays often don’t. Personalizing an assignment in this way leads to greater motivation, which leads to the possibility for more impactful and lasting learning outcomes.
Something else that I’ve stressed in my 101 course is that all energy in life comes from collisions: one thing slamming into another. This is the heart of literature: the pen colliding with the page. The character colliding with her world. The student’s ideas colliding with the rest of the class. Pat Pattison provides a different perspective on this idea:
All those specifics you learned to wade into can be even more interesting if they’re not only what they are, but become more than what they are— they can transform or be transformed if they are seen through the lens of another idea. Added weight. Added meaning. A metaphor is a collision between ideas, one idea crunched into another—which is itself a metaphor. (Songwriting Without Boundaries, 49)
Teaching metaphor is at the heart of what we do as English teachers. One thing standing for another thing. Identifying one thing with another thing. Making connections. Creative assignments are one way for students to create their own metaphors and to engage in deeper, more energetic collisions.
Ambrose, Susan et al. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. Print.
Meyer, A., Rose, D.H., & Gordon, D. Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice. Wakefield MA: CAST, 2014. Web.
Pattison, Pat. Songwriting Without Boundaries: Lyric Writing Exercises for Finding Your Voice. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 2011. Print.
Sullivan, Patrick. “The Unessay: Making Room for Creativity in the Composition Classroom.” CCC 67:1. September, 2015. Print.