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by Abigayle Farrier, Ph.D., professor of English at University of North Texas
This is the fourth post in an occasional series affiliated with the Writing Innovation Symposium (WIS), a 2-day annual event hosted online and in Milwaukee, WI. Learn more below and in posts tagged “writing innovation” and “symposium.”
I arched my eyebrows at the text I received, double checking that the sender was, in fact, my best friend from grad school – a fellow college writing instructor – and not one of my friends who teaches elementary school. It didn’t take long for my friend, Katelyn Thompson, an instructor at Kilgore College, to explain that she was giving her students a day to do arts and crafts. In the middle of their major research paper, Katelyn asks her students to take a break from writing and draw pictures that correspond to their topic, color outside the lines, and generally return to behavior we typically relegate to our elementary school days. “Kindergarten day” has now become a permanent part of her pedagogy, and she credits improved metacognition and student engagement to this strategy.
As the semester continued, I often returned to the idea of crafting in the college composition classroom and found myself wishing I had asked students to create artistic renditions of their first paper, a personal narrative. Pairing an assignment that requires students to reflect on who they are and where they came from – a topic that often results in papers on their childhood – with an arts and crafts day seemed like a perfect fit. I was eager to implement this idea of composing with art supplies, but struggled to find another obvious opportunity in my curriculum.
My class that semester, in the fall of 2021, was a Monday/Wednesday class that ended at 6:50pm. For many of my students, this was the first time they had been in-person since their junior year of high school. I sat alone in my deserted office hours, looking at the lesson plan I didn’t quite feel like teaching, and knew that attendance was unlikely to be high after a draining day back from the longest vacation of the semester. I suddenly remembered “kindergarten day!” In a rather frantic dash, I gathered up old magazines the department had sitting in stacks, grabbed all the scissors, tape, and glue sticks I could see, and found – by some miracle – exactly twenty abandoned folders that could serve as canvases. I hurried to my class, expecting to encounter approximately five students who had made it back on campus. To my surprise, fifteen pairs of eyes greeted me. “Welcome to kindergarten day!”
My students watched with befuddled amusement as I put only two sentences on the board: “Using the materials provided, find at least 5 images and a couple of phrases that represent your writing, writing process, and/or who you are as a writer. Create a collage in the folders provided.” Over the course of the next hour, my students chatted energetically with one another as they created works of art that spoke to not only their work in our class but to who they are as people. One student captioned an image of an opened pill with glitter spilling out: “I uncap the mess that is my brain and see what sticks.” Another wrote, “(What happens halfway through)…Things Fall Apart” and “I was flying (by the seat of my pants)” as he blended article headlines with his own descriptors of his writing process. This activity – which was intended to be a low-stakes creative assignment, ended up generating thought-provoking and quite beautiful representations of students’ identities and their relationships with writing.
As I concluded the class, I asked my students to come to the board and write their own “Why I Write” statement, inspired by Terry Tempest Williams, and the reflection motivated by their collage work.
We all stood there in silence for a minute after the last person finished. I generally pride myself on having an inclusive, community-based classroom, but I had never felt anything quite like this before. What had begun as a filler activity on a down day had become the most meaningful activity we did all semester. There was now a connection between the members of my class that had not existed before. This experience left us with a renewed sense of the importance of writing, of composing, of connecting with ourselves and with others.
Now, I teach this activity towards the end of every semester. Students reflect on how their writing processes have changed over the course of the semester, how connections – to their homes, their communities, themselves, and our class – shape their writing, and how writing has shaped and been shaped by their identities. To be sure, our in-person, hands-on activity contrasts sharply with the digital forms of communication that are now part of our writing lives, from online meetings to AI-generated writing. But perhaps there’s something we can all learn from a return to “kindergarten days.”
What other hands-on activities are you incorporating in your writing classrooms? Do you integrate creative or artistic activities into your lesson plans? Have you found this to be successful in your own classroom? I would love to hear from other instructors who have incorporated similar activities – and those who have chosen not to.
If you’re interested in learning more about the WIS consider joining us in Milwaukee at WIS 2024! Read our CFP here.
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