The Pedagogical Power of Play
by Derek Newman-Stille
Play is an important way to help students (of any age) learn. When you evoke student emotions, they remember things more effectively since memory acquisition is linked to emotional responses. By using an element of play in your teaching, your students are also more willing to take bigger risks, and do things that seem too stressful in a classroom that takes itself too seriously. When playing, students become more active learners. They know that the rules are somewhat suspended, so they are willing to take greater risks, think further outside the box. Once you are able to get students to think outside the box, they are able to think more critically about what they are doing. Not only will they remember the ideas you are covering, but they will also be more willing to question things, engage deeper with ideas, and be more inspired.
A lot of instructors use questions about the text (memory exercises) as a way to help students learn. They will create activities geared at helping students remember facts, but students remember facts best through using them, and being emotionally attached to them.
The most important thing to do is to let the texts themselves lend different ideas for inspiring students. Applying ideas from outside to various texts ends up feeling unnatural to the students. Look for entertaining ideas that stem from the text itself. For example, when I was teaching Stephen King’s Misery to my students, character Paul Sheldon discusses a game that he used to play with his friends where they would tell a story and then vote about whether it was believable or not. I adapted this for an activity for the classroom, having the students share in telling the story of Annie Wilkes (the villain of the story) in pieces and then vote after each segment whether the tale was believable for the Annie Wilkes that King created. By playing at giving Annie a background, students were able to explore narrative potentials and they were able to look deeper and more critically at the character King had created.
A Few Activities:
1. Fan Fiction
Have students search for those narrative gaps in the text, those areas that the author didn’t explore and are rich for exploration. Fan fiction allows students to get deeper into the narrative and do an analysis beyond the surface reading. When students write fan fiction, they need to understand the text deeply in order to write a story that feels authentic to them. They tend to mine the text for incredible amounts of detail to support their ideas… which is great preparation for later essays and examinations. When students write fan fiction, they look for narrative gaps, which means they look at the text critically, searching for what is missing, for problems in the text.
Make sure to provide students with a few examples of fan fiction (it is best if it comes from texts outside of the course so that they don’t feel like they are too limited)
(Thank you to Kelly McQuire for inspiring this)
2. Title Mash-Ups
Have students chose the titles of two different books from the course and then mash their titles together. Provide them with a few examples (of titles outside of the course). Then ask students to do an “elevator pitch” about what that novel will look like. Let them know that an elevator pitch is the pitch for a new novel that you would give in the few minutes that you have between floors when you are in an elevator with a publisher – make sure that they limit it to about 5 minutes.
This activity will help students to start making connections between the texts and thinking about them comparatively. This allows them to work out some ideas about the conversations between the texts and the overall themes of the course. Once they begin looking at things through a comparative lens, it makes it easier for them to do comparisons between texts later in essays and exams.
Here are a few examples of title mash-ups:
The Twilight Games
(Mash up of The Hunger Games and Twilight)
Vampires from each of the districts of Panem have to enter into an (eternal) life or death match with other vampires. Each of them has to protect a human companion from vampiric attack by their other opponents and battle their own hunger for human blood in order to keep their human alive in a world where everyone else and even the land itself is out to get them.
And some Canadian SF examples:
(Mash up of Tanya Huff’s Blood Price and James Alan Gardner’s Expendable)
After developing Retinitis Pigmentosa, Vicki Nelson, detective for the Technocracy loses her position and is made a member of the Explorer Corps, or, as they call themselves, Expendable Crew Members and sent on all of the dangerous missions that other, able-bodied crew members aren’t sent on because the Admiralty knows that people with disabilities aren’t mourned as much as able-bodied crew members. When the Admiralty sends her on a mission to a planet that is known to be a place of certain death, a planet where it is rumored that people frequently die of blood loss, she finds out that her only ally on this planet is a vampire. She learns that she can heal her body if she choses to become a vampire, or she can embrace her Retinitis Pigmentosa and try to change a society that rejects its disabled members and views them as expendable.
Bitten by a Turn of Light
(Mash up of Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten and Julie Czerneda’s A Turn of Light)
The small valley of Don is an odd pioneer settlement on the outskirts of Toronto where there are elements of magic like house toads, wells that fill up with sweet-tasting water whenever it is desired, fields that suddenly lay down during harvest, and where the woods are populated with strange beings. After being bitten by her friend, a mysterious, invisible entity named Wisp, Elena Nalynn discovers that something has changed in her body. She discovers that she is cursed, stuck between the human world, and the world of her friend. While trying to control her new hungers, her ability to turn invisible, and the impulse to fly, she has to confront whether she wants to try to make a normal, human life for herself in Toronto or venture into the Verge to join Wisp and live with the dragon pack.
3. Monster Mash-Up
In the wake of Mash-Ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Mash-Ups have become really popular with readers. A mash-up is a work of fiction that combines a pre-existing literary work with another genre – essentially an injection of a monstrous bite into an existing literary work. In a work like this, students are encouraged to use somewhere between 60-85% of the original text and adapt other parts of it to suggest monstrous figures like zombies, vampires, or werewolves.
This can be a great activity for teaching a course that combines traditional Can Lit with Canadian genre fiction, for example, inviting students to mash up Anne of Green Gables with the monstrous. But, it can also be used to mash up other works of genre fiction, combining aspects of the monstrous with other narratives – for example, taking Canadian SF stories and injecting in a bit of monstrous characteristics.
You can ask students to do a full novel Mash Up, a single chapter, or even just do an elevator pitch about what the Mash Up would look like. If you decide to do an elevator pitch, ask student to think about how monsters would be integrated into the novel’s world, what challenges the narrative would face, which characters would be (or become) monstrous, and what elements of the story would shift with the monstrous introduction.
To begin, introduce students to a wide variety of Canadian monster short stories and/or novels.
Some Examples of Great Canadian Zombie Short Stories or Anthologies:
Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction Edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“The Ethical Treatment of Meat” (in Objects of Worship) by Claude Lalumiere
“A Visit to the Optometrist” (in Objects of Worship) by Claude Lalumiere
Some Examples of Great Canadian Zombie Novels:
Husk by Corey Redekop
Zombie Versus Fairy Featuring Albinos by James Marshall
Some Examples of Great Canadian Vampire Short Stories or Anthologies:
Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead Edited by Nancy Kilpatrick
Evolve 2: Vampire Stories of the Future Undead Edited by Nancy Kilpatrick
“Stories With Happy Endings” (in This Strange Way of Dying) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“Cemetery Man” (in This Strange Way of Dying) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
Some Examples of Great Canadian Vampire Novels:
Blood Books (series) by Tanya Huff
Blood and Chrysanthemums by Nancy Baker
A Terrible Beauty by Nancy Baker
The Night Inside by Nancy Baker
The Embrace of Life and Death by Liz Strange
The Night Wanderer: A Native Gothic Novel by Drew Hayden Taylor
Enter, Night by Michael Rowe
Some Examples of Great Canadian Werewolf Short Stories or Anthologies:
“Out of the Light” (in Chimerascope) by Douglas Smith
“Spirit Dance” (in Impossibilia) by Douglas Smith
Some Examples of Great Canadian Werewolf Novels:
The Wolf at the End of the World by Douglas Smith
Bitten by Kelley Armstrong
Naked Brunch by Sparkle Hayter
Think about how much fun your students could have writing Anne of Green Pustules!
4. Write a review on GoodReads or another review site
Introduce students to a review website so that they can get a sense of what book reviews look like. Then, ask them to write their own review of one of the books on the course or one of their own books for a later essay. By asking students to check out GoodReads or other review sites, it introduces them to the notion of literary media sites and allows them to begin participating in literature communities. This will allow them to engage with a wider community of literature fans and prepare them for writing their own critiques of the books they are reading. By having them post their reviews on GoodReads or a similar site, students will feel engaged and will also feel the social pressure to write good reviews for others who might be interested in the book. It also allows them to feel more responsible for writing a good review since they will be responsible to a whole group of other readers.
I like to introduce GoodReads to students as “It’s like Facebook for people who love books”.
By having students review Canadian SF material, you are also contributing to Canadian authors by making sure that there are more reviews available for a genre that is traditionally under-reviewed.
(Thank you to Adam Brittain for inspiring this)
5. Now You Go There
Have students think about what it would be like to suddenly be in the world of the novel they are reading. What would their experience be? How would they survive in this world? What challenges would they face?
This activity will help students to deeply explore the role of setting in the novel – the social, political, and environmental context of the novel. This is especially effective for fantasy, science fiction, and some types of horror since students will have to examine the world-building of the author and try to fit themselves into that world. By asking the student to enter metaphorically into a new world, you are helping them to become (quite literally) personally involved and students often remember things better when they somehow relate back to themselves.
I find an effective accompanying text for this (in addition to whatever novel you are teaching) is Gary W. Renshaw’s “Vacation” in OnSpec #92 Vol. 25, No. 1 since it explores a sci fi author who ends up crash landing on an alien world (as well as the accompanying issues and frustrations that come from living on that world). You can find a review at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/09/25/sci-fi-author-in-space/
Have your students write a series of emails or letters between various characters at various key points in the narrative. This will help the students to explore character psychology and interaction. They can interrogate the intentions of the characters as well as the way they want to represent themselves to other characters, and how they manage their identity portrayal.
7. Comic Book It!!
Have your students think about how they would adapt the novel they are reading into a comic book. I would suggest limiting their comic books to a 5 comic book run to cover the material from the original novel. Have them think about what they would need to include, what they would have to remove (while still making certain that they text conveys all of the relevant parts of the novel), ask them to think about their audience and in which ways they may have a different audience.
Ask students to do character layouts for each of the characters, considering the personalities, motivations, desires, flaws, strengths, and quirks of each of the characters. Following this, ask them to write out titles for each of the 5 comics and write a short description of each comic, considering the action of the scene, what to highlight, the fundamentals of the dialogue, and which parts of the novel they will cover. Then, ask them to think about the essential dialogue of the text and choose some key quotes that would appear in word bubbles to capture the action of the scenes.
You can introduce students to an adaptation of a Canadian novel into a comic by having them first read Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten and then have them explore the comic book adaptation of the novel by Angilram at http://angilram.deviantart.com/gallery/6373443 .
8. Interview the Author
Have students develop questions for the author of the book that they have just read. This will allow them to delve into the narrative gaps, the missing or unexplored parts of the book. In order to help them to prepare, you can introduce them to some interviews that you have found particularly interesting (hopefully, perhaps, like those on Speculating Canada). Consider using interviews that do deeper interrogations rather than ones that just ask the author “how did you sell your first book?”
9. Dating Profiles
This works particularly well for novels that have a romantic component. Ask students to choose three characters from the novel and write a dating profile for each of them. Have them consider the personalities of the characters as they are laid out in the novel and think about what they would write in a dating profile.
Here are some key areas that you can direct them toward:
-I am Looking For: Marriage/ Dating/ Relationship/ Casual/ Friendship
-Looking for a Person Who is:
-Likes in a Partner:
-Dislikes in a Partner (Deal-Breakers):
You can also have students write a dating questionnaire from the perspective of their characters with questions like:
-Describe any frequent types of barriers or patterns you encounter in your search for relationships:
-Please describe any circumstances or conditions in your life that you are concerned about regarding your relationship search and/or ultimate relationship success:
-What is your greatest achievement?
-What is your greatest disappointment?
-What is your best attribute?
-What is your worst attribute?
-If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
-What is your greatest passion?
As a really fun way to finish this activity, you can ask students to engage in a speed dating activity, having them play the part of the character trying to date one of the others. I find it really entertaining to have them speed date random other characters from the novel (other than the one the author intended to be their ideal partner).
You can, of course, use these activities for any literature course (not just for Canadian Speculative Fiction), but I hope they will inspire you to consider proposing a Canadian genre fiction course at your university or high school, or at least to include a few Canadian genre fiction texts on your syllabus.
These activities lend themselves particularly to literature courses, and the activities in the course assist students to develop confidence in creative writing, so can be quite effective for a creative writing course.
Remember, the more skills your students develop, the better your marking experience will be!! Well-written, interesting papers are much MUCH easier to mark. So, when you inspire your students to develop their skills, you also save yourself time, energy, and headaches. Plus, playing when you teach also means that you will look forward to your own classes instead of dreading the boredom that comes from repetitive, replicative teaching.