Note: This assignment was adapted from one shared by Diann Baecker at Virginia State University’s Conference on Composition (May 2005). Dr. Baecker has her students write a more formal essay to accompany the collage activity, whereas my adaptation of the activity only asks students to create an informal list or paragraph of the rhetorical choices they made.
Rationale from Diann Baecker’s presentation notes:
This lesson plan, which asks students to construct collages using abstract shapes and colors in order to “write” about voice, taps into the students’ expertise in visual rhetoric. It works, in part, because it frees students from using the very same words that are frustrating them when they write their essays, while still requiring that they use all of the same rhetorical principles behind creating a persuasive essay/work.
Directions for Activity:
- In preparation for class, you should have colored construction paper (whole sheets), various shapes (triangles, circles, squares, etc.) cut out of different colors of construction paper (quilting patterns work well for this), scissors, and glue. I prepare five stations of materials around the room for students to share.
- Students should read “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes for homework. You might start class by reading the poem out loud. In this poem, Hughes describes the process and result of writing an essay for his English professor. Hughes explains that the essay ends up being a little bit of himself as well as a little bit of his teacher (Note: you might emphasize to students that writing is a communicative act that involves a reader who takes an active part in creating the meaning of the text.)
- You can use the questions on the “Visualizing Your Writing Voice” handout (see next page) to fuel a discussion of the poem that emphasizes the rhetorical situation and characteristics of personal writing. (I created these discussion questions, not Dr. Baecker.)
- Then you should introduce the activity (or essay). Ask students to think about what happens within the writing process when their voices meet the expectations of the teacher.
- Conduct a short exercise to get students used to thinking about the properties of color and shape. Ask students to use the shapes already cut out at their stations and to hold up the shape of “happy” (for example). Then, ask them to hold up the color of “happy.” Do this for a number of emotions, anger, sadness, love, etc. Emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers, but that each person has a firm idea of what colors/shapes are appropriate for them. Also, with each category, you might ask for a volunteer to share why they chose that particular color or shape. This starts the whole class thinking about why they make certain choices.
- Then, give them class time to create the collage. Emphasize that they should consciously make a choice about what colors and shapes they use in the collage. If they don’t understand what the collage means, their readers (group members) won’t be able to understand it either.
- My students in later classes found it helpful to see examples. I’m happy to lend you the examples my students have allowed me to keep.
- After they finish, you could ask them to write a brief paragraph or bulleted list explaining the choices they made as they composed the collage. You could also, as Diann Baecker does, ask your students to write a 2-3 page essay describing their collage. Dr. Baecker’s essay assignment is below.
Paper Instructions: Constructing a Visual Essay
Your last paper will be an “essay” using Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” as a prompt. You will create your own theme in which you consider the issues Hughes raises in his poem, such as the way his instructor affects his writing and how his writing, in turn, affects his instructor.
This paper, however, will be a little different. Picking up on the idea of a “colored” page, you will construct your essay in visual terms. I would like your finished product to be 8 ½” by 11”, but you may use anything you want to construct your “theme”: construction paper, photographs, pictures from magazines, words, song lyrics, etc. Remember that a visual essay still contains all of the elements of a written essay: it must present a coherent theme, be persuasive, be original, and be interesting. If you don’t understand what your picture means, your reader wont’ understand it either.
Also, you will write a 2-page explanation of your theme. If you use song lyrics or poetry (or anything like that) which are not your own, you should give credit to the artists/poets in this explanation.
- To explore and think critically about your personal writing voice and how you might represent it visually.
- To help you identify the tenants of a personal writing style and voice, which you will also use for Project 1.
- To use visuals combined with words to practice the rhetorical principles and choices we make as writers composing texts.
“Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes
- What is the writer’s rhetorical situation
(Subject, writer, reader, purpose, context)
(What’s happening in the poem?)
- What message is the writer sending the reader?
- How does the writer describe who he is?
- How does who the writer is impact the “page for English B” that he must write?
- What part of the writer’s rhetorical situation is he exploring in his page? What conclusions does he reach about this?
- What examples of personal writing characteristics do you see in the poem? (p. 73 in A Meeting of Minds)
- Construct a collage using abstract shapes and colors.
- This collage should represent your writing voice.
- You will be able to use your understanding of visuals in order construct your “voice.”
- Once you finish constructing your collage, write on the back (or another sheet of paper) your name and an explanation of the rhetorical choices you made (colors, shapes, how you fit them together as a collage). You should explain how your collage represents your writing voice.
- In small groups, share with your peers the choices you made in your collage.
Theme for English B
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:
It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me NOT like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.