Writing about Various Media


Advertising Influence—Thinking and Writing about Cultural Influences

Purpose: This exercise encourages students to think about and write on their cultural influences and what makes them associate particular images and messages with specific groups using periodical advertisements – magazines, newspapers, etc. It is particularly useful for a strand dealing with cultural observations through media.

Description: Drawing from a variety of periodicals that cater to diverse audiences (i.e.Essence, Vogue, Maxim, GQ, Cosmo) students should discuss the ad as a visual text.

Suggested Time: This exercise could serve as an entire class period activity.

Procedure: Students can either bring their own ads and magazine to swap with another student or the instructor can do some research on their own and create a PowerPoint presentation for the students to review and discuss. Instructors should be prepared with questions about the ad as a visual mode of communication. Ask students to pay close attention to the construction of the ad (use of color, models, location, word font) and what they feel these characteristics suggest about the group being displayed. Encourage conversation about the impact of ads on our understanding of ourselves and communities that may not be as familiar to us. As students write, remind them to think about the expected outcome of the ad (what’s the message?) and how it is relayed to its audience.

Additional Information: This exercise is a great tool to open discussion about the role ads play in our daily lives and how we absorb their messages through visual rhetoric. It also challenges students to step outside their comfort zone and engage in texts they might normally overlook in the store when choosing or subscribing to a magazine that suits their interests.

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Classroom Blogging—Documenting Classroom Events

Purpose: This exercise demonstrates how various media and individual experiences can shape our interpretations of an event. This is also a great way to develop a body of student-generated class notes that students can access online (but with a healthy bit of skepticism).

Description: In this exercise, each student in the class will serve as “class blogger” at least once during the semester. The class blogger will be responsible for documenting all classroom events.

This exercise works best in computer-assisted classrooms.

Suggested Time: If blogging is done in “real time,” it requires the entire class. It could also be done after class as a writing assignment. Ideally, classroom blogging would continue throughout the entire semester.

Procedure: Set up a blog that all students can access and edit. Each student will sign up to be the “class blogger” for a particular day. The purpose of the classroom blogger is to record notes, summarize conversations, and narrate classroom action as best they can. They are also invited to take photographs and video footage; in essence, they are reporters documenting classroom events. After each student’s experience as a class blogger, they write a short reflection paper about their experience that answers the following questions: what aspects of the class did you focus on and why? If you chose to use other media, what did you use and why? How did occupying the role of “class blogger” change your perspective of the classroom?

In the second part of this exercise, students also write blog comments that reflect upon their experiences in response to a particular day’s blog—do the events documented in the post reflect or contradict your personal experience? In what ways is it similar? Dissimilar? Are there some details that someone outside of this class would misinterpret or not understand?

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Commercial Break!!: Creative Play With Media Influence

Purpose of Exercise: Works well to introduce a personal visual media paper, or other media analysis paper, because it encourages students to think critically about their childhood experiences with TV, etc in a personal, creative way. The exercise may become an early paper draft, or simply stimulate their thinking about the programs and commercials they have watched, and how these media affected them.

Description: Students will write creative narratives about a childhood TV experience, then trade papers with another classmate, who will assess the program, the narrator, and then complete the narrative with a commercial break description suited to the program and audience. You may want to have your own example written up to read to them before each step, just to get them thinking about what’s possible.

Suggested Time: 20 minutes to a full class period

Procedure: Ask the class what their favorite shows were as kids: cartoons, sitcoms, even documentaries. You may want to bring in a few stills or uTube clips to project (in a tech class), as a memory jogger (ex. The Cosby Show, Ren & Stimpy, etc).

Once you’ve discussed a nice variety of TV programs, ask the class to freewrite for 5-10 minutes (however long you wish to tell them) in first-person P.O.V. about their experience watching a show like these as a kid. They should be specific and detailed, writing whatever comes to memory about what’s going on in the program and their thoughts/reactions/and situation as they watch. Ask them to consider tings like: What are the TV characters doing? What does the animation, clothing, setting look like? Are you excited as the show comes on? What kind of viewer are you: young, girl, boy, etc? Be as vivid and in-the-moment as possible (you can make it up if you can’t remember). But, most importantly, JUST WRITE.

Reading your example may help get them thinking about how to approach it.

[Ex: I rush in the door from school, straight to the sofa - just in time to catch the first scene of Animaniacs. My 12-year-old younger brother is already there, digging into a bag of Doritos. “Hey, pass that over here,” I demand. Meanwhile, the three catty siblings, 2 boys and a girl in a skirt and a flower on her head (and I guess that’s supposed to be hair), escape from their water tower on the Warner Brothers lot on cue to the lyrics of their theme song. “While Bill Clinton Plays the Sax… We’re ANIMANIAAAAACS! And those are the facts!” The Animaniac’s cute, black and white bodies resemble cats, but I’m never sure. Sometimes I think we’re not supposed to know. I wait impatiently for the spiel to end and the skits to begin, hoping against hope that it’s NOT Rita the obnoxious singing cat, or that STUPID Dog and that ANNOYING baby – is that dog’s name Bubbles? Yeah, no Bubble, please. OH, YESSSS! “Pinky and the Brain” kick-off the program, a very promising start. Now all I need to perfect the mix is “Dot’s Poetry Corner,” and I’ll be set.]

Give them ample time to get into their memories, but try to catch them while they’re still writing. Then interrupt them with the following instructions: Now, STOP!! – It’s a commercial break. Exchange your TV Show with a neighbor. Quickly read the ‘memory’, keeping in mind how the show is presented and the audience that appears to be watching it – your own memories may help here, too. Now, describe an actually or otherwise appropriate commercial segment for the broadcast at this time. Try to match your ‘voice’ to the original author’s, so that your commercial break fits in with the narrative. What does the narrator do when the commercial comes on? How would they perceive it? Think fast!

Give the class about 5 minutes to complete their commercial segments before asking them to pass the freewrite back to its original author. Ask for volunteers to read their shows aloud, including the commercial break. Was this an appropriate commercial? Why do you think this commercial aired during this show time? Was the narrator’s reaction to the show and commercial typical? Why or why not?

Discuss the influence these media have had on us. Discuss target audience, and the factors that go into programming: time of day, gender, age, visual rhetoric, etc. What do students notice about the types of ads that air during certain programs? And finally, how might this offer an option for their paper?

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Repainting the Starry Night: Visual/Textual Analysis

Purpose of Exercise: Allows the students to look critically and interpretively at visual images as well as practicing close reading of texts. Combining visual and textual rhetoric as separately and collaboratively important helps student prepare for a visual/textual analysis paper.

Description: For this activity, you will use Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” Robert Fagles’s “The Starry Night.” Anne Sexton’s “The Starry Night,” and Don McLean’s “Vincent” in order to have the students move past summarizing visual images and begin to closely analyze images as they would texts. Students will not only analyze images and texts separately but also see the intersections between visual and textual elements and develop an appreciation for how this relationship can alter our understanding of works that incorporate both aspects (such as films).

Suggested Time: 30 minutes or an entire class period, depending on the length of the discussion.

Procedure: Divide the students into groups of three or four; each group should be assigned one poem/song dealing with Vincent’s painting. You can have the students complete these readings prior to the day you do this activity or you can have them read over their specific poem/song in the groups.

Have the groups closely analyze the words and the meaning behind the poem/song. It helps to have the artwork displayed in the background (or print off a picture for each group). Ask the students for similarities between the words of the poem and the visuals in the painting. Have any images in the painting inspired certain parts of the poem? What image/color in the painting struck the author of the poem/song? What first strikes each student? Has the author altered anything in the painting? What details are lost or added in these “translations”? Do these textual “translations” convey a different meaning or evoke another emotion?

Next begin with a general discussion about the painting, focusing on the students’ own interpretation of it. Next, I go around to each group and closely analyze the words of the poems and song in connection with the image. Before you discuss McLean’s song, I like to play the song, which allows us to also analyze the tone of the music; I ask them how the music element may explain or alter the feeling evoked by the painting or the song. I also ask the students questions about the different titles each artist chooses to use, the different occupations of Van Gogh, Fagles, Sexton, and McLean (what do they have in common?), and if religion becomes a important aspect in any of the interpretations to Van Gogh’s painting, or even in the painting itself.


At the end of the discussion, you could have each group make their own song or poem based on their interpretation. What part do they want to focus on? What would their title be? Even if the students do not create their own poem or song, you could have a discussion about the possible titles or images they would focus on in their own version. You can also point out that there is not one correct interpretation of a visual text, which these poems and song demonstrate. 

Additional Information: Developed from Robert Atwan’s “Guidelines for Writing about Visual Art” (found in Convergences) provides an understanding of how to analyze an image and how to treat the image as a type of “text.” Atwan’s questions, paired with my love of Don McLean’s “Vincent,” lead to this exercise.

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Writing a Zine Agreement

Purpose: This exercise leads students through the process of planning their zine. It encourages them to figure out what will be included in their zine, what each member will contribute to the project, and what timeline they will follow. 

Description: This activity can be used as an early step in having students develop an anthology or zine of their workshop group's writing. It has several aims: clarify what texts the students will contribute to publication, give each member a role to play in the collaboration, create a schedule for the group to follow on the project, and give the students experience with writing a contract.

Suggested Time: 10-15 minutes in one class to let students brainstorm and write notes for the agreement; 10-15 minutes in the following class for students to read and further revise a typed draft of the agreement that one or more of the group members prepares plus 5-10 minutes for the instructor to read and approve, or not, the typed and revised draft (15-25 minutes total for this class period); and 5 minutes in another class to allow for members to sign the revised draft. Additional changes to the agreement can be discussed and written in group meetings either in or outside class.

Procedure: After explaining the group anthology or zine project, ask the students to work in small groups of 3-6 to plan their publication and write an agreement that outlines their plan. It's important to give guidelines such as the ones that follow in the box below. It's reasonable as well to provide samples of agreements that students in preceding classes have written, but students may simply adapt samples without thinking as much as they should about the contents.

After the second class devoted to the exercise, in which the students revise a typed draft, review the agreement to ensure that it meets your expectations. If it does, mark it "S," and return it for the students to sign. If it doesn't, mark it "U," add comments to explain what's missing, and return it for additional revisions until it earns an "S."

Guidelines for the ZINE AGREEMENT:

Develop a written statement outlining your workshop group's collective plan for developing your zine. There is no required length for the agreement, but it should cover at least six areas: 

  • who the audience of group's zine will be and what the theme of the issue will be;
  • what pieces of writing and what graphics each group member will contribute;
  • how the work for the zine will be divided;
  • what schedule of work the group will follow;
  • where and when critical meetings will be held; and
  • what step(s) of the production each member will be responsible for -- for example,
    • who will convene group meetings
    • who will serve as group scribe;
    • who will write a general introduction for the collection of papers;
    • who will prepare a graphic layout or web page design for the collection;
    • who will copy edit the drafts;
    • who will compile the manuscripts on paper or upload them to the english3 server, or both;
    • who will who will track the progress of the drafts if any are late?

You should develop an initial draft of your zine agreement during workshops on [insert date] and refine it in discussions outside class. Circulate a typed draft among the workshop members on [insert date], and change any parts that need expansion or correction. Prepare an operating version for every member to sign on [insert date]. Once it's completed and marked satisfactory, have each member sign it, and give each group member a copy to keep for her or his own reference.

Be sure to save the fully signed copy, and include it in the final portfolio.

Additional Information: Students usually have fun dividing the work. The roles suggested in the guidelines can be combined or split up as the group members like. Caution them, however, about giving anyone more responsibility than anyone can, or should have to, reasonably manage. In fact, I usually ask workshop members to divide the work equally among themselves. To reinforce this point, I give the group a grade for the project, and give each member a percentage of the grade multiplied by the percentage of the work she or he contributes to the result. For example, if a group that consisted of four students created an A+ zine and they agreed they'd all done the same amount of work on it (25% each), the formula for each member's grade would be 100 (the A+ for the zine) x 4 x 25% = 100. If the same group of four created an A- zine and they agreed that three of them had each done 20% of the work and one had done 40%, the formula for the first three students' grades would be 90 x 4 x 20% = 72; and the other student's grade would be 90 x 4 x 40% = 144. (The amount earned for the project is added to grades for other work done during the semester to total a maximum of 100%.)

Remind students that the agreement is a working document. The process of drafting it in its initial form involves collaboration and negotiation. Unlike some documents, however, it can be amended if unanticipated events make changes necessary -- as long as all the members agree to the changes. To encourage everyone to stay informed about changes in the plans for the project, I insist that everyone keep her or his own up-to-date copy of the agreement, and I usually ask each student show me hers or his fully signed copy at some stage before the end of the zine assignment. As noted above in the guidelines for the agreement, I also require students to include their copy of the agreement in their final portfolio.

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