Commercial Break!!: Creative Play With Media Influence

Purpose: 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?

Back to Top

Fortune Cookies: Focusing a Description

Purpose: Works well with a personal essay composition. This is a "stretching exercise" that calls for students to expand and develop a particular thought, then revise and narrow the scope of that thought. Good for inspiring new ideas mid-project, or starting a new one.

Description: Students take a fortune-cookie fortune and manipulate it. If you’d like to bring actual cookies, do so! Otherwise, you can search online for fortune cookie phrases on sites like You might compile these onto paper strips and hand them out individually. Requires some printing and pre-cutting.

Suggested Time: 15-30 minutes

Procedure: Each student chooses their own fortune cookie (or grabs a fortune out of your box, bag, etc) and writes down their fortune at the top of a clean page. Have a few extra fortunes on hand in case some students receive a fortune that is too cryptic or for ones that the student just doesn’t like.

Now give the students a few moments to consider their fortunes, then ask them to rewrite their fortune in a few sentences. They can adapt and expand their fortunes but they must stick to the original spirit and intent of the fortune. For example, a prediction about the student’s personality should remain about their personality and not stray to other possibilities like future success, relationships and so on.

Now tell the students to underline any strong words or descriptions they wrote in their revised fortunes. These should be whatever words make a strong impression on the student. Using the underlined words as a guide, have the students write a short fortune for themselves that would be appropriate to put inside a fortune cookie. Don’t feel constrained by Chinese Restaurant language, do it in your own words.

Discuss the new fortunes with in groups or share with the entire class. Consider the nature of the types of changes that were made and question why the student made those changes. The teacher could then ask the students to use the underlined words as key words in an idea cluster or tree to develop other personal ideas for a longer piece of writing.

This gives students a light stretching exercise before a good writing workout. It encourages them to think about themselves and try to capture some narrow aspect of their individual charter, or hopes or fears, and narrow them down to just a few words. Then they are given an opportunity to expand on these few words and say more about themselves.

Back to Top

In Quest of Culture: Top-Generating for the Research Essay

Purpose: A Topic-generating Exercise best suited to a culture-oriented researched essay assignment. This exercise helps students learn how to ask the right questions when beginning a research-oriented assignment. By asking them to generate questions about a seemingly uninteresting object, this activity demonstrates the infinite possibilities and important aspects of researchable topics.

Description: This exercise works with the students’ own cultural “artifacts”, or ones that you provide, to help them generate potential research topics and questions in small groups. You might discuss the “Myth of the Boring Topic” from The Curious Researcher with the class beforehand or as a work-up to the exercise (What’s there to write about? How do I approach something that I can research? How can I be sure my topic’s not too broad, too narrow, too boring? What is there to write about “culture”?).

Suggested Time: 30 minutes – full class period

Procedure: You might ask students what cultural artifacts they carry with them this very moment. It could be cell phone, a pair of designer glasses, a magazine, Desani bottled water, a dollar bill. Collect a few of these items, or supply some of your own.

Divide the class into groups of four or five. Give each group one iconic, cultural artifact. For about 10-20 minutes, ask each group to generate a list of “potentially interesting questions” about their object. Ask them to consider the objects in terms of:

  •  Cultural uses
  •  Possible impact on people
  •  Processes of creation or development

After 10-20 min., ask your groups to trade objects AND the lists already generated for them. Give them about 5 minutes to consider the new object, and come up with questions the previous group didn’t think of.

Return original objects and questions to their groups. Overhead, or on the blackboard, discuss the characteristics of good researchable topics. I’ve modified Ballenger’s list of “What Makes a Question ‘Researchable’?” (The Curious Researcher 35):

  •  Not too broad or too narrow
  •  Focuses on some aspect of the topic about which something has been said (it CAN be researched)
  •  It’s interesting to YOU
  •  Answers the question “SO WHAT?” (Relates to how we live, might live, care about, believe, or what we should know)
  •  Implies a potential audience (part 2, of the question above)
  •  Implies an approach – how you might go about answering it
  •  Raises more questions that can’t be answered with “Yes” or “No”

Each group should review their list of questions, and choose ONE they find both interesting and the most researchable. Ballenger asks students to imagine that they are a team of editors working on a new magazine project, and this is precisely the kind of focus we want for this researched article. Ask each group to propose/pitch their topic, with an initial starting question, to the “board room” with the following considerations:

  •  What’s my publication? (specific, or a general idea: magazine, Cable program, newspaper, journal, etc.)
  •  Who’s my main interest group/audience?
  •  What’s my narrative position?

Ballenger continues with approaches through “People,” “Trends,” “Controversies,” “Impact,” and “Relationships” (35-36) – all of which apply to our cultural perspective for a research article/exposé. You can wrap-up discussion by asking students to pose other questions, modify ones from their lists, or examine the possibilities Ballenger offers.

Back to Top

My Ten Commandments: Examining Social Construction

Purpose: To examine the social constructedness of our personal moral codes, and its relationship to how what we chose to include or leave out of our writing is directly and intimately connected to our socially constructed values. This works especially well within the context of the community strand.

Description: My Ten Commandments asks students to generate a list of their own personal commandments (prior to the class period) and then rank these commandments in various categories to examine how much of our values have been influenced by the different communities.

Suggested Time: When previously assigned, at least 30 minutes. When not, usually closer to 1 hour

Procedure: As a homework assignment, ask each student to generate a list of their own personal 10 commandments. They don’t all have to be as grandiose as "I’ll never murder" or "I’ll never steal." I tell my students to imagine that they are at a bus stop and are approached by a stranger who has a great deal of money-- What are 10 things that a stranger would never be able to convince you to do? (students are generally more comfortable with this if you tell them no one but you will see this list--even better, tell them no one else will see it.)

In class, ask the students to look over their list to see if these commandments are indeed inviolable or if extreme circumstances would allow the ‘commandments’ to be broken. (A student might list ‘Do not kill’ but be willing to kill someone if attacked, for example.) Next, have your students create a four column graph. In the first column, they should list their Ten Personal Commandments. In the next column, they should rate these on how terrible a violation they viewed them to be—number 1 would be a very minor transgression, while a 10 would be unthinkable. In the third column, they should list the names of the people or institutions most likely to be hurt by these transgressions. Lastly, in the forth column the students should give a rating number to how serious this other party would view this transgression.

If students are willing, briefly lead a discussion allowing students to comment on their lists and reflect on the lists of their classmates. With or without discussion, the chart often leads my students to see that different people (with different values) view each transgression differently and that absolutes are difficult to come by. Ask the students to write about why there are such discrepancies in how each party rates the seriousness of these transgressions.

Back to Top

Simonedes Induced Memory: An Invention Exercise

Purpose: To stimulate memories in students as prompts for writing, invention for projects, or expansion on a personal narrative.

Description: Simonedes is famous for having memorized the scene of an accident and thus being able to recreate the events later. This invention exercise uses that idea of linking memory to invention in order to help students generate new material that may be crafted into possible ideas for journals, essays, etc. Students “map” a location from the past in order to link it with memories, producing new narratives.

Suggested Time: From 20 minutes to an entire class period

Procedure: Ask the students to consider the map of a place of residence or area that they would like to draw, while you show them an example on the board. The map may recreate a house, apartment, etc. from childhood or recent times, preferably an older one but that is not necessary. If desired, the teacher could ask to include a yard, a park, etc.

Draw the map of your own place on the board. As you draw each room discuss some of your memories of that room or place. The draw little phrases in or around the room, i.e. DINING ROOM - Broke all of my parent’s best China: BEDROOM - Place where I spent the next week after breaking the China - thus missing my favorite band in concert.

Ask the students to take about 5-10 minutes in order to draw their own map and think back to their own memories. After some time has elapsed ask students to choose one memory, preferably one that they had not thought of in some time, from one room. Depending on the assignment, have the students reflect or write about the memory—possibly to explore the assignment topic through an associative freewrite or develop a short story or personal narrative from the memory.

If freewriting, ask students to read through their writing again and find, as Elbow would say, the "center of gravity" and then freewrite again using that center. Ask them to repeat that step as time permits or until they have found an acceptable, interesting topic for the essay.

Back to Top

The Exquisite Corpse: Fun With Syntax

Purpose: This Mad-Libs-style exercise gets students thinking about how language works via an underhanded grammar refresher, and jarring them out of the world of conscious language use.

Description: You will need index cards; color-coded work best. The idea is that by stringing together random parts of speech, sentences can be constructed which, while they do not make "sense," have, nonetheless, an internal grammatical logic.

Suggested Time: 20 minutes to a full class period

Procedure: Color-coded index cards work well for this: designate a color for each part of speech, making sure that there are twice as many cards for nouns and adjectives (you might ask students to prep for the lesson by bringing in their own cards). Some students who have trouble visualizing what kinds of words fit into each category (Noun, Verb, Adjective, Adverb) may feel too embarrassed to ask, so give a few quick examples to get them going. Ask each student to write down two nouns, two adjectives, one verb and one adverb – each on its own card.

After they have written down their words collect them into four stacks by color and shuffle them. Distribute the cards so that each student once again has a verb, an adverb, and two each of nouns and adjectives. At this point they should begin to arrange their cards to form sentences. Articles and possessive pronouns may be inserted wherever needed and verb tenses may be changed or nouns changed from singular to plural or vice versa. When all are finished go around the room and ask each student to share his or her sentence.

Discuss each sentence in terms of language play and grammar. You might emphasize grammar and focus on subject-verb agreement, subject-action-object, or the effect of punctuation. Or, you might focus on the power of word play, active, illustrative verbs, odd pairings, connotations, metaphor, etc. Help students apply what they’ve learned to their own drafts.

If time allows, students could be asked to write a paragraph or a poem around their sentence to share and discuss with the rest of the class, or as a journal.

Back to Top

The View From Above: Invention using Imagery

Purpose: This is an exercise on effectively using images in poetry and prose, and it accompanies Philip Cory Cloud's “Home” (2004–05 OOW).

Description: This exercise will instruct students in the composition of insightful imagery to include in either prose or poetry. Additionally, it will evolve into a discussion on the nature of imagery and how it can lead to inventive, effective writing. Having the students begin to use vivid images will expand the way they can use words to engage the reader, showing them that imagery can function as a widow through which the reader can understand their work. This exercise demonstrates that including such imagery allows the reader to share the author’s viewpoint. In “Trolley Square,” the images function as a porthole into not only the view of the square and its inhabitants but also into the emotional realm of its narrator. Also, it may help to discuss how the use of imagery can make a plain or stale noun fresh, vivid, and new.

Suggested Time: 35-50 minutes


  1. Before class, prepare a list of non-place-specific nouns in the poem (i.e. “shingles,” “steel pipes,” “ceiling,” and “pizza shop,” but not “Trolley Square” as students may not be familiar with such) for group distribution. Print this list and cut it into strips—two or more nouns per strip should work nicely. Also, you could have the students bring in the current draft of their essay/poem.
  2. Ask the students to think of a place that is close to them and describe it in great detail; have a few students share their free write, discussing images used to convey this place to the audience. 
  3. After forming groups of 3–5, distribute the poem “Home” and one strip of nouns to each group. Ask the groups to find their pre-selected nouns in the poem and have them discuss, briefly, how the author approached this. How does the image work? Is metaphor present? Simile? Are the images used in conjunction with the noun concrete or abstract? 
  4. Have each student make a series of lists, using the chosen nouns as a title for each. Then, ask them to brainstorm imagery in connection with each noun: these should include metaphors and similes, concrete images and abstract ones. They should come up with five to seven of these for each list. It may help to direct the students to create an image for each sense. 
  5. Prompt each group to compare the imagery and description that each member has devised. Then, have them choose which they believe are the most effective images and discuss why they work so well. Ask the groups to present the product of this exercise (the images they found most interesting) to the class. 
  6. After disbanding the groups, invite each student to extract from their previous free write, or from their current essay/poem draft, three nouns that could benefit from a more expressive image-base. Prompt them to compose, on an individual basis, a similar list for each noun—they should select the most effective and consider applying these to their existing draft.

Back to Top

TV Personalities: Trying on Voices

Purpose: This icebreaker makes a great first day introduction, getting students interested in and excited about writing by exploring well-known TV voices and personally interesting topics.

Description: All you need is a whiteboard, and your class will need paper and pen. This discussion and exercise gets students thinking about who they see in the media, and analyzing what makes those people/characters what they are by mimicking those elements unique to their TV “voice”.

Suggested Time: 15 – 20 minutes

Procedure - Start out by asking the class if they like writing. You’ll probably get a roomful of “Noooos!” Ask them if they ever write on their own. Again, most will insist “Never!” Then, of course, exclaim “Excellent!” Throw them for a loop. Ask them if they ever email anybody, or use IM – isn’t this writing? This should cause a bit of a shift in classroom thought, so take the opportunity to have the students come-up with a topic – any topic – that they’ve been dealing with in their first days at FSU ad that they might IM, email, or text about. You might write some on the board, and choose from among these, or get a group consensus on one topic. For example, if someone yells out, “Parking!” go with that.

Then ask the class to come-up with some different TV/Movie Personas to add to the board in another column: The Terminator, Paris Hilton, etc – you can throw in something off-the-wall, like Wylie Cayote. When you’ve got about 3 or so characters down, set the students to writing about their chosen situation at FSU from the perspective of EACH character, one at a time, in 2-4 minute shifts. Encourage them to write in the ‘voice’ of that character - how would that person/think talk, think and behave?

By the end of the exercise, the students should have 3 brief descriptions of a single situation in 3 different voices. Take some time to share a few, depending on the time that you have. Discuss how writing offers us the opportunity to explore our own, and various other voices, as well as those topics that are most important to us in ways that may be further-reaching than text, IM, or email.

Back to Top

When I Grow Up: Reflecting on Personal Growth

Purpose: An invention exercise, especially for a position shift, or personal narrative essay that also asks students to explore their different “voices”.

Description: Asks students to remember what their goals and dreams were when they were younger and challenges them to write in that voice and from that position.

Suggested Time: 15 minutes to a full class period

Procedure: Ask the students to remember what they wanted to be "when they grew up" when they were younger (from 5 years old to 12 or 13 perhaps). Encourage students to use the voice they would use when they were that age; to write as if they were five years old, for example. Let them freewrite for about 5 minutes on this topic, then have a few of the students share their writing with he class or in small groups ( I usually get lots of volunteers for this one).

Next, ask the students to write about what their present plans are for their career, and why they’ve picked their particular career. If they don’t know, ask them to speculate and to write about potential careers that might interest them. Again, have students share their writing.

Then ask students to look into the future 5, 10, 15 years; however long they think they need in order to be able to picture themselves now in the world of work. Encourage them to use the voice they think they will have at this time. What are they now doing? Do they like their job? What is " a day in their life" like at this time? Have they attained their goals (a certain salary, promotion, job satisfaction, etc.,)? What goals do they have now? Once again ask the students to share their writing.

Encourage students to consider the interesting narrative progression they have now created, and how reflecting on this can serve as an essay topic. They may include parts of this freewrite in their drafts, or use them as jumping-off points for a research paper.

Back to Top

Boring Topic Makeover 

Purpose of Exercise: This exercise will show students how to choose a strong thesis for the research paper assignment by teaching them to avoid tired, shallow ideas and instead find more original, critical topics to research.

Description: Using “What Makes a Question ‘Researchable’?” in The Curious Researcher, the instructor will explain the value of finding a research topic that is researchable and original. Students will be divided into 5 groups; each group will be provided a note card with a “boring topic” written on it. The students will work on analyzing why the topic is boring and revising the topic to make it more compelling.

Suggested Time: 25 min


1. Review “What Makes a Question ‘Researchable’?” on pg. 37 of The Curious Researcher on the doc cam. Explain that a good research topic is not only researchable, but original.

2. Tell students that every semester composition instructors receive a handful of research papers on the same, tired topics. These topics are boring!—for the students who write them and the teachers who read them. Today the class will work on analyzing why these topics are boring and then work on making them more original and researchable—by making the topic more complex, by narrowing its scope, by tweaking its focus, by making it more relevant, etc.

3. Divide the class into 5 groups of 5. Hand each group a note card with a boring topic written on it. (The topics can be fashioned as research questions or argumentative theses, depending on what your research assignment requires.)

  1. Boring Topic #1: Sororities and fraternities are about so much more than drinking alcohol and partying. 
  2. Boring Topic #2: Women are objectified in the media, and this is why so many girls have eating disorders. 
  3. Boring Topic #3: Marijuana should be legalized. 
  4. Boring Topic #4: People say video games are too violent, but playing video games is actually beneficial. 
  5. Boring Topic #5: Steroid use is a common problem in many sports and it has a negative effect on the athletes. 

4. Give students 10 min to analyze their topics and find ways to make them more original. Walk around to check on each group and answer any questions students have.

5. Call the class to order. Ask each group to share 1) what its boring topic was, 2) why the topic was boring, and 3) how the topic improved.

6. After each group has presented, reiterate the importance of choosing a topic that is original and interesting to the student. Tell students to avoid these topics in their research papers (though if a student feels really inspired to say something new about the topic and gets it approved by the instructor, this rule can be bent).

7. Tell students that you’re looking forward to being dazzled by their creativity! 

Back to Top