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Using Creative Reader Response to Make Personal Connections and to Establish Community in the Classroom
Diane Rodman
Department of English

One of the biggest challenges we face in teaching is getting students involved with the course content, both in independent study and with each other in the classroom setting. Whether we are teaching history, English, economics, or theater, we constantly ask ourselves how we can encourage the students to engage with their readings. As we all know, students must make a personal connection to the content if they are to derive any meaning or value from it. The question is how can we encourage students to make personal connections that spark their interest and that enliven class discussions?

For an answer, we often turn to traditional reader response, which typically consists of students answering questions directly posed by the instructor. While such questions certainly test the students’ comprehension - frequently calling for analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, most excellent methods all - it is fair to say such questions do not always engage the students in a way that we wish they would. Often, we see, even in the best of answers, that students are not connecting with the content in a deep and meaningful way. Sadly, this truth is often revealed in the lackluster class discussions that follow. 

To counter this effect, I frequently turn to creative reader response. (While I am certain this concept is not novel—a bit of research may well turn up a host of variants—the approach and activities that I describe below are original to me.) Creative reader response relies on the same thought processes (analysis, synthesis, evaluation) of the more traditional reader response; however, it adds a dimension of creativity, which is highly effective in engaging students’ interest in the course content. This interest is reflected in the stimulating class discussions that follow, as well as in improved test and essay grades.

So how does creative reader response work? The answer is simple: by designing assignments that invite students to make personal connections. Most often, creative reader response assignments fall into two categories. One category encourages students to see from other viewpoints, an important skill in critical thinking. Typically, students are asked to put themselves in the place of a character in the story, essay, or poem and to see from that character’s eyes. An example would be choosing a minor character in a short story and describing a key scene or event from that person’s point of view. In order to complete the activity, students must pay careful attention to details as they read the story. In other words, the activity gives the students a reason to read other than to simply memorize details for a quiz.

For instance, in a previous class, I assigned “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” by Willa Cather, which is a story about the funeral of a sensitive young man named Harvey Merrick. Harvey was misunderstood by his family and townspeople and subsequently left home to move to the city to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. Prior to reading the story, the students receive the following assignment: “From the viewpoint of Harvey Merrick, write ‘A Defense of My Life.’ Directly address, or indirectly address, those who criticize you, as well as those who support and admire you.” In order to defend Harvey’s actions, students are required to closely read the story to interpret the reactions of people who knew him, both those who failed to understand him and those who sympathized with him. When I used this writing activity in a recent class, it generated a tremendous amount of response from the students, as well as a deeper level of understanding. Discussion of the short story began before I arrived and continued during class, with several students volunteering to read their work. As their instructor, I had very little to do in the way of directing discussion, as students had picked up on the nuances of the story, analyzed the characters, and were eager to discuss their interpretations of Cather’s theme.

The second category of creative reader response assignments also gives students a reason to read beyond simply preparing themselves for a quiz. In this alternate method, I ask students to take one or more elements of a work and relate it directly to themselves. For instance, Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” is a story about two very different sisters. One sister, Dee, wants an heirloom quilt to use as a trendy, decorative item. The other sister, Maggie, values the quilt for its intended “everyday” purpose. Before I assign the story, I have students do a pre-write in class: “If you could pick one object that represents your family and your family’s history, what would it be and why?” After sharing and discussion of these responses, the students are eager to read the assigned short story to see how it connects to their discussion.

The students then receive the following assignment to accompany their reading of Walker’s short story: “In the short story assigned for tonight, ‘Everyday Use,’ you will read about a hand-stitched quilt made of pieces of material, some of it clothing, stretching back to the family’s great-great-grandmother. Each square of material could tell a story about its place or use in the family history. If you could choose three pieces of material to be sewn into your family’s quit, what would they be and why would you choose them? Also, would you value your quilt for the reason that Dee does or that Maggie does, and why?” This writing activity is another one that generates a tremendous amount of response. Some the items that I can remember students choosing for their quilts include their baby clothes, their grandmothers’ aprons, their fathers’ work clothes, the skirt for the Christmas tree, a sibling’s baby blanket, their mother’s choir robe, their prom dress, a Little League uniform, and a favorite pet’s pillow. In choosing their own items, the students are able to see why the quilt in the story was awarded to Maggie instead of to Dee. The students quickly pick up on the shallowness of Dee’s character and the real love of family that Maggie represents. The subsequent discussion of the story in all of its particulars was in-depth and lively.

Another creative response activity that works well can be called the crossover approach. In this method, an activity that is used in a previously assigned work is repeated in a slightly different format with a new work and thus extends key features of the content. For instance, one crossover activity that I have used begins with the assignment of a 1928 essay entitled “How it Feels to be Colored Me” by Zora Neale Hurston. In the conclusion of the essay, Hurston states, 

But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a wall in company with other bags, white, red, and yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small things priceless and worthless. A first-water diamond, an empty spool, bits of broken glass, lengths of string, a key to a door long since crumbled away, a rusty knifeblade, old shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, a dried flower or two still a little fragrant. In your hand is the brown bag. On the ground before you is the jumble it held – so much like the jumble in the bags, could they be emptied, that all might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the content of any greatly. A bit of colored glass more or less would not matter. Perhaps that is how the Great Stuffer of Bags filled them in the first place – who knows? (2100)

Prior to reading the essay, the students receive the following assignment: “In Hurston’s essay, she gives a list of items that she would include in her ‘brown bag.’ For each item listed, explain its significance and why you think she chose to include it in her bag. Second, select five items that you would place in your own brown bag. Explain their significance and why you choose to include them in your bag.” This activity encouraged the students to become personally involved with the text of the essay, and it helps them to see from Hurston’s point of view. 

The subsequent crossover activity begins when the students are asked to read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People.” Prior to reading the story, students receive the following assignment: “Recall Zora Neale Hurston’s cataloguing of items in her personal ‘brown bag,’ as well as the items you selected for your own bag. Think of this same concept as you read ‘Good Country People.’ List three items that you would put in Joy/Hulga’s bag and list three items that you would put in Manley’s bag. Be sure to explain the significance of each item and why you chose to include it.” This activity resembles a typical character analysis, but it extends the analysis and requires some invention on the part of the students. Subsequent discussion reveals a much deeper understanding of the characters than typically noted with traditional reader response.

Another creative reader response activity can be called extensions. In this activity, students are asked to extend a story, poem, essay, or historical event beyond its defined boundaries. This activity encourages students to think about the repercussions, consequences, or rewards of particular actions. For instance, in an English 1200 class, students read two essays in their text, one supporting the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the other criticizing the action. The essays are complex, including a fair amount of detail and research. In order to keep the students interested and engaged in the reading, I gave them the following assignment: “The essays you will read tonight detail the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One essay argues that the military action was necessary, and the other argues that it was not. When you have finished reading, reflect upon the information in these essays. Then put yourself in the place of President Harry Truman, who authorized the military action. Write a diary entry in which you record the thoughts and emotions you experience in making this difficult choice. Defend your actions.” After a thorough discussion in class, including an examination of the evidence in each essay as well as several volunteer readings of the diary entries, I assigned an in-class creative extension activity. I asked students to write another entry as Truman, dated ten years later, answering the question, “How do I feel about my decision now that ten years have past?”

Creative reader response works well in group settings, too. Quite often, as an in-class activity, I randomly placed students in small groups (3-4 students each). The students are given time to write a collective response to a work. In order to write the collective response, students must first discuss the assigned work. Next, they select a scribe (to record the collective writing) and a reader (to share the group effort with the class). Students enjoy such activities, and they extend their understanding of the work by learning from each other. For instance, after reading and discussing in class Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” each group was asked to think of a current societal problem and to write a solution for it in the style of Swift’s famous essay. I recall that class as particularly fun and memorable. On the final exam, students had excellent recall of the Swift essay as well as its implications and how it fit into the particular time period. In addition, Swift’s essay was often chosen in a poll of the students’ favorite works of the semester. 

Another work that the majority of students placed in their Top Five in an English 2100 Major British Writers class was Christopher Marlowe’s poem “A Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” In the poem, written in 1638, the speaker is a shepherd who attempts to woo his lover with promises of jewels and finery. After discussing and explicating the poem, students were asked to put themselves in the place of the shepherdess and to write a response to the passionate shepherd’s declaration. Many students volunteered to read their responses aloud. Some were serious; others were humorous. All were memorable. In fact, part of the final exam consisted of passage identifications from various works assigned during the semester. Every student correctly identified a passage from Marlowe’s poem.

The amount of pride that students take in their creative reader responses is measureable, as well. In my English 4950 Literature for Children classes, I create special folders in Bb called “Read and Enjoy,” which contain responses that students have granted permission to “publish” for our class. One particularly memorable assignment asked distance learning students to select any work we had read up to that point, to select a minor character in the work, and to write a version of the work from that character’s point of view. Among the “publications” were two versions of Pippi Longstocking from the viewpoint of the policemen who try to apprehend Pippi and relocate her to a proper home. Another student wrote his piece from the viewpoint of the scoundrel tailors in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” humorously adopting the tone and language of the original tale.  A particularly poignant response, based on The Final Journey, was written from the viewpoint of a grandfather who is accompanying his grandchild on a final journey to extermination in the death camps of WWII. The student eloquently captured the grandfather’s sadly deft efforts to protect his granddaughter from knowing the truth of their destination.

All of these examples demonstrate that, in order to complete the assignments, students must engage with the work in a significant way. In addition, because the students are often expressing the voice and views of someone else, they do not feel they are risking personal ridicule. For instance, in a 3300 Women and Literature class, a student who barely spoke at the beginning of class, volunteered to read a poetic response she had written in the voice of a character in the assigned short story.

Creative reader response presents an attractive feature for instructors, as well. Responding to these assignments does not require the meticulous grading that we associate with traditional assignments. Students know in advance that their work will be graded for effort and level of completion only, not by the usual standards of judgment, which frees them to write from the heart and frees us, as instructors, to reward students for using critical thinking skills in an imaginative and risk-free format.

Certainly, the creative reader response grades do not –and should not –carry the weight of  traditional assignments, such as essays, exams, and tests; however, the responses can carry some minor weight that encourages the students and rewards them for freely engaging their thinking processes. Another benefit comes in the way of improved grades on quizzes, tests, and essays, which result from the close reading that creative reader response requires.

Finally, the creative reader responses open the door for more traditional discussion. As we all know and have experienced, a question like “What is the author’s theme?” posed at the beginning of class discussion often evokes total silence. However, when the same question follows a sharing session of creative reader responses, the students are quick to volunteer their answers and to engage with each other in extended discussion. By creating an environment that is open and relaxed, we see that students are much more likely to participate in substantive analysis and to experience a more meaningful level of learning, both on their own and within the community of the classroom.

 

Works Cited

Hurston, Zora Neale. "How It Feels to be Colored Me." The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Shorter Sixth Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2003. 2097-2100.