I decided to end my school year with a gamble. I was going to hit students with a contemporary text that, get this, required no reading at all. I wanted to give students something that was unlike anything they had ever studied in school. Something weird, sporadic, complex, and sometimes grotesque.
I have been a fan of Welcome to Night Vale, a podcast created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey
Cranor, about the fictional desert town of Night Vale, since its inception in 2012. My students call it NPR with pterodactyls. Among the many oddities listeners encounter in the twenty-five minute episodes are five-headed dragons, invisible clock towers, angels that change light bulbs, and secret police helicopters that only sometimes steal your children. These details keep listeners engaged and wondering what outlandish details they will hear next.
We listened to two episodes per day, answered plot-based guided-listening questions, ended each day with analytical discussions about connections between our world and the world of Night Vale, and even did some truly odd creative writing (each episode includes a four-minute song that serves as a great natural timer for writing prompts). Students were laughing, writing, and learning. But I couldn’t help but to ask, “So what? What is the greater goal behind all of this?”
I knew that we would eventually write our own episodes, but I wasn’t sure how we were going to get there. This podcast is truly odd, and I didn’t know how it would be embraced by my students. There were just so many variables.
I decided to use an hour-long assessment tool that would ask students to map everything they knew about Night Vale. I was honest with them when I explained that I wasn’t sure what a good map would look like nor did I know how they would perform. I simply explained that they have consistently surprised me all year and I was looking forward to another surprise. Of course, hidden underneath this assignment are some real writing skills. Students would need to:
- Apply prior knowledge
- Use information from the text
- Create connections between ideas
- Visually create a map that would serve as a prewriting tool for their podcasts
I will admit that I planned this much more than I let on to my students. There is some real rigor here. And while they may not be writing analytical essays or short stories, their writing minds are still hard at work. Among the heavy-hitters of Language Arts like reading, writing, and speaking, hides the oft-forgotten visually representing. Boy, did my students visually represent.
Based on your wealth of knowledge about the town of Night Vale and its residents, create a map that illustrates the connections that exist in the town. This map will serve as your prewriting when you create your own episode.
Two artists drew their versions of each character, described them, and created an intricate character web (note the pterodactyl and the two-headed quarterback).
These students chose to examine the implied social order in Night Vale by creating layers of characters within a web. They then created a hierarchy of characters next to their web (note that the Hooded Figures rule the town).
Two future-engineers created a three-dimensional map of the town itself, including such landmarks as the Future (which exists 100 feet above the Arby’s) and the monstrous Glow Cloud (that covers half of Night Vale and rains small animals…it also serves on the Night Vale School Board, but that’s a discussion for another day).
I know that these students will continuously surprise me, and they did it again with this assignment. Our short analytical discussions at the end of each day were interesting, but they lacked the depth students would need to eventually write their own podcasts. I could have asked for an essay or built a Socratic seminar. Instead, I gambled on a formative piece just like I was gambling on the content itself.
The maps and webs I received sometimes involved very little writing. However, my students’ writing muscles were still working. Instead of going into the weight room, we went hiking. Instead of running three miles, we played Marco Polo with the neighborhood kids. We wrote internally and then visually represented our ideas. I have no doubt that our podcasts will be stronger because of it.
How do you create opportunities for visual representation? How would your students respond to mapping their ideas before writing? You can connect with me on Twitter @MGriesinger or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.