Today’s guest blogger is Monica Miller, a Marion L Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in the school of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech, specializing in digital pedagogies and multimodal composition. She received her Ph.D. from Louisiana State University in 2014, where she studied American literature, with concentrations in Southern Literature and Women’s and Gender Studies. Her work focuses on the intersections of region and gender. Her current book project, Don’t Be Ugly: The Ugly Plot in the Work of Southern Women Writers, examines the ways in which ugliness marks fictional characters who are excluded from traditional gender roles of marriage and motherhood.
“My friend said that his 1101 class was the best, because they watch videos all day—but he doesn’t get to play with Play-doh like we do!” –Overheard in my first year, multimodal, “maker culture”-themed composition classroom.
The students in my class were to some extent open to the idea of playing in the classroom, as the course theme of “Maker Culture” was one which encouraged play, seeing it as a key to innovation. “Play” is actually one of the guiding principles of Mark Hatch’s Maker Movement Manifesto, as important to his philosophy as other guiding principles such as “Share,” “Learn,” and “Tool Up.” Hatch encourages makers to “Be playful with what you are making, and you will be surprised, excited, and proud of what you discover” (2). Although there is much less awareness of maker culture in FYC pedagogy than there is in STEM classrooms, I have found that maker culture’s emphasis on digital tools, play, and collaborative learning make it an ideal approach to the multimodal composition classroom.
Let me clarify, however, that this kind of “play day” is not the same as the “safe space” featured in a recent New York Times article which has been subject to much debate. While students in such safe spaces play with Play-doh, crayons, and bubbles in order to find emotional security, in my classroom, these craft supplies served very specific pedagogical purposes.
- To learn and reflect upon collaboration.
- To introduce the concept of affordances.
Background reading before class
Ask students to plan for the presentation by reading relevant content from your handbook or rhetoric:
- The St. Martin’s Handbook, section 4m, “Reflecting”
- The Everyday Writer, section 11b, “Reflect”
- Writing in Action, section 5i, “Reflect”
- EasyWriter, section 2j, “Reflecting”
In small groups, construct “creatures” from Play-doh and other “play” materials.
The students worked hard on their presentations, and many of them had been terrified by the public speaking. To reward their efforts, the class period following their presentations, we had a “play day.” I gave students Play-doh, construction paper, yarn, glue sticks, and scissors, with the vague instruction to “make a creature.” The only parameters I set were these: each group was to collaborate on one creature; the creature had to be finished by the end of class; and they couldn’t mix the Play-doh colors, because other students would be using them.
When asked why we were playing with Play-doh in class, I said that I did have some pedagogical motivations for the day, which I would reveal on Thursday, but I asked that they trust that there was a pedagogical foundation to the exercise and try to immerse themselves in the play. As the photographs throughout this post show, it was generally a fun day—something about the smells and textures from childhood coupled with relief from having a big project behind them allowed most of them to really let go and enjoy themselves. (Also, engineers have some skills with craft materials!)
Reflecting on the Activity
The class period after our play day, I began by focusing on the collaborative learning aspect of the exercise. My students were used to frequent collaboration in their assignments, whether brainstorming, peer review workshops on drafts, or more formal group projects. That day, I started class with a writing assignment, in which I asked students to reflect upon the following:
- The nature of their group dynamics while making the creature, comparing the experience to their group presentation project as well as the other group work they’ve done, both in English 1101 as well as other situations.
- How the nature of the project affected how they worked as a group.
- How their group dynamics had changed over the course of the larger project.
We then looked at the photographs I took of the different creatures. Each group explained their process, what media they used for the different parts, and how their vision changed over the course of the construction. As we looked at the pictures, I asked students to think about what different purposes were served by different media. Yarn works well for hair as well as for being crocheted or knitted into clothes; Play-doh is good for larger body parts; construction paper can be used not only for details, such as eyes, but also for construction–several groups used it to make tabs to attach tails to bodies, for example.
These observations allowed me to introduce the concept of “affordances” to the class. By first talking about the affordances of Play-doh in creature creation, I could then transition to a lesson in digital tools: a discussion of the affordances of different media—whether photos, video, or written text—in website design, which was their final project in the class.
I was quite pleased with the results of our play day. Maker culture is on to something—play encourages not only innovation, but also an atmosphere of openness which helps bring about the kind of community I strive for in my classroom. Playing in the classroom not only gives students a chance to catch their breath but fosters an environment of trust and (dare I say?) fun which I believe ultimately produces happier, more engaged students.
Want to collaborate with Andrea on a Multimodal Mondays assignment? Send ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org for possible inclusion in a future post.