Gritty in the Composition Classroom

I was introduced to Gritty, the Philadelphia Flyer’s new mascot, while scrolling through Twitter. Despite originally being from Eastern Pennsylvania and coming from (in the words of my dad) a “long line of suffering Philadelphia sports fans,” I first saw Gritty while reading this tweet from poet Eve Ewing in which she describes him as a visualization of a panic attack. My eyes widened in horror as I realized how absolutely terrifying this new mascot was. I immediately assumed that Gritty would go down as yet another notorious moment in Philadelphia sports history, like that time Eagles fans threw snowballs at Santa. Fortunately, Gritty was embraced by the city of Philadelphia as well as the users of Twitter. Why not embrace Gritty in the composition classroom as well? Since we are nearing the end of the semester, I have been trying to think of quick writing activities to help keep my current students interested while we review certain skills or my future students interested while they are learning these skills for the first time. So, in honor of the newest member of the Philadelphia sports community who has captured the hearts of many, including several of the contributors here at PALS, I have outlined two easy in-class writing activities, one that reviews summary writing and one that emphasizes the importance of using description, with Gritty as a focal point.

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Via @GrittyNHL/Twitter

Summarizing Gritty

My first activity that uses Gritty in the classroom was inspired by a piece of advice I received from a former colleague. He told me that when teaching developmental writing students how to read critically and summarize information, give them articles about weird topics, ones that will keep their attention. Colin Dwyer’s “Gritty, Stuff Of Nightmares, Has Been Officially Welcomed To Philadelphia” is an article designed to do just that. Its content is accessible, but it is presented in a way that might be tricky for students who are learning how to write summaries for the first time. This article, specifically, contains a lot of images and tons of details, both of which some students might over-prioritize when drafting a summary. As a result, working with this article about Gritty will help students practice how to determine and then write about an article’s implied main idea as well as its major supporting details.

To begin, I ask my students to annotate the article. After checking their annotations, I have students create an informal outline of the article’s most important points. Depending on whether this lesson is an introduction to or a review of writing summaries, we may stop the writing process at this point for a brief discussion. As a class, we talk through the ideas that students have outlined and write them on the board. Then we determine what the article’s main idea is, which details are too specific for a summary, and which ones should be included. Students then draft their summaries. After everyone has finished writing, I conclude the lesson by creating a class summary. To do this, students volunteer to read parts of their summaries out loud. Together, we then make sure that our summary clearly begins with the article’s title and author, states the article’s main idea, and describes the article’s major supporting details. Students check their summaries with what we wrote as a class and make revisions. By the end of this activity, students should have a clear understanding of how to write a summary, even if it is about the public’s reaction to a tall, goofy orange mascot.

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Via @GrittyNHL/Twitter

Describing Gritty

When writing a descriptive essay, especially in the first-year composition classroom, students must practice being deliberate with their word choice. That way, they are able to write about a person, place, or moment so that a reader, who has most likely not known this person, been to this place, or experienced this moment, feels as though she has. This activity uses images of Gritty to help students practice incorporating figurative language into their writing. First, each student is assigned a picture of Gritty. Luckily, Gritty’s twitter account is an excellent resource for a wide range of images. Students then spend class time writing a paragraph that describes the picture. The goal, I tell my students, is to have someone who hasn’t seen your picture be able to draw the image based on what she reads. What my students don’t know yet is that they are going to test how effective their descriptions are by actually doing this.

After writing, students are put into groups of two or three, where they trade paragraphs with another student. Everyone keeps their original images of Gritty. Students then draw Gritty, based on the paragraphs they were given, with the goal of having their pictures look as close to the original images as possible. This quick exercise shows students how important using detail can be. For example, if one student writes that Gritty is holding a sign that says he is a month old, but doesn’t include which hand he is holding that sign in, the second student might place the sign in the wrong spot. After giving students enough time to laugh and/or grumble their way through the drawing process, I have them compare, in their groups, what they drew with the original images. Then, as a whole class, we discuss any challenges students faced during the writing process as well as how we can apply what we have learned during this activity to writing with detail and clarity.

Analyzing Gritty

While the two activities outlined in this post could focus on something completely different, the use of Gritty highlights why it is important to, at times, use unexpected topics during writing activities. My next step for using Gritty in the classroom is to develop a lesson based on his cultural reception, whether it be close reading this Resolution, which was passed almost unanimously by the Philadelphia City Council, or thinking through the politicization of Gritty, as analyzed in this article from The New Yorker. A recent episode of the podcast Reply All could serve as supplemental material. Additionally, I would love to hear ways that other instructors have used surprising topics to help students practice different elements of the writing process. And remember, even though incorporating something like Gritty in the composition classroom might seem ridiculous, it is important to take risks, just as Gritty does every time he steps out on the ice with his t-shirt cannon.

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Via The NHL’s official page on Giphy
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When Aliens Invade the Classroom: Notes on Teaching Invasion of the Body Snatchers

“But…showers of small frogs, tiny fish, and mysterious rains of pebbles sometimes fall from out of the skies. Here and there, with no possible explanation, men are burned to death inside their clothes. And once in a while, the orderly, immutable sequences of time itself are inexplicably shifted and altered. You read these occasional queer little stories, humorously written, tongue-in-cheek, most of the time; or you have vague distorted rumors of them. And this much I know. Some of them—some of them—are true” (Finney 216).

Articles on Jack Finney’s 1955 science fiction novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers often begin with the novel’s famous opening lines, but here I open with the novel’s conclusion (don’t worry—I’ll get to the opening later!). Perhaps it’s poor form to reveal the novel’s eerie closing lines to those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading it yet, but I do so because of allusions to topics students eagerly discussed when I taught the novel earlier this semester. While the first few lines address the hot topic of fake or sensational news, the final two lines ask readers to think about how we, as humans, attempt to understand true phenomena that appear completely “alien” to us.

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Before diving into these specific issues, however, we should address some relevant background context, including common interpretations of the novel:

Originally published serially in 1954 in Collier’s Magazine as The Body Snatchers, the title was changed the following year to Invasion of the Body Snatchers for paperback editions. Set in Mill Valley, California (a typical small “Anytown, USA”), the novel’s narrator Dr. Miles Bennell recounts his discovery of and struggle against aliens who invade the town by duplicating the residents’ bodies, mannerisms, and memories, making residents who’ve been “snatched” difficult to detect. As the ever-observant doctor, Miles eventually realizes that the aliens can only “perform” emotion, not genuinely feel emotion.

In classic sci fi protocol, the events of the novel take place in the not-too-distant future of 1976. It’s worth briefly noting a good question to ease students into discussion: Why would Finney set the novel only a few decades into the future as opposed to hundreds of years?

While the novel was initially criticized for its plot holes, it quickly managed to achieve, according to Maureen Corrigan, a mythic status: “Sometimes the stories that stay with us aren’t the classics or even all that polished. They’re what some critics call ‘good-bad’ stories: The writing may be workmanlike and the characters barely developed, but something about them is so potent that they’re unforgettable—so unforgettable that they can attain the status of myth” (“The Sad Lesson”).

We credit Finney with the “myth” of the alien “pod person.” Corrigan writes, “The term ‘pod,’ used to connote a blank person, has become so much a part of everyday speech that even people who’ve never…read Finney’s novel know the gist of the nightmare he gave to America” (“The Sad Lesson”). Indeed, when I ask, I find that most students are generally familiar with the concept prior to reading.

 

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Corrigan adds, “Ever since Finney’s novel…critics have been generating theories about why this story has taken root, so to speak, in our collective imagination. The pods seem to mean all things to all critics; lately, a post-colonialist interpretation of the pods as imperialists is popular. But given the 1950s context, the pods are most commonly seen as either symbols of the ‘Communist Menace’ or, conversely, of McCarthy-ite group think” (“The Sad Lesson”).

Students generally jump on historical readings without my prompting, but this semester students also offered interesting feminist readings (the way the character Becky Driscoll tricks the aliens by acting against the gender stereotypes she seems to embody for most of the novel) and ecocritical readings (upon arriving to Earth, the pods initially and unsuccessfully attempt to replicate items of garbage).

Now we’re ready to tackle the issues that evoked the most energetic student discussion this semester. What follows is a breakdown of key points students identified in relation to relevant passages:

Fake and sensational news: One character who joins Miles Bennell in his fight against the aliens is fiction writer Jack Belicec, who saves newspaper clippings of weird and unbelievable occurrences. Several clippings (alluded to in novel’s closing lines) include “Frogs Fell on Alabama” and “Man Burned to Death: Clothes Unharmed” (Finney 81). Jack tells Miles, “These are lies, most of them for all I know. Some are most certainly hoaxes. And maybe the rest of them are distortions, exaggerations, or simple errors of judgement, or vision” (Finney 84-5).

The reliability of sources: One of the most seemingly sensational of Jack’s clippings cites L. Bernard Budlong, a biology and botany professor at a local college who claimed that “mysterious” pod-like “objects” found on a pasture outside of Mill Valley had “come from outer space” only to later retract his comment (Finney 84). Students noted that they recognize college professors as reliable sources of information and initially felt relief when Budlong himself (or at least the man who claims to be Budlong) explains how the reporter took his words out of context in order to “create” a more exciting story.

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Students discussed how they were inclined to perceive information presented by characters as “reliable” based on profession. Miles and his colleague Mannie Kaufman, a psychiatrist, are presumably good sources of information because they’re doctors.

Generally speaking, I certainly agree that college professors and doctors are reliable sources, but Finney’s novel complicates matters since some of the professional sources we are inclined to trust have been “body snatched,” such as the professor and the psychiatrist. This led students to critically consider the dangers of blind trust.

Inexplicable truth: While Jack acknowledges that most of his clippings are likely fake, he resists writing them all off as fake. Students described the difficulty of distinguishing fake news from real. Jack says, “Strange things happen, really do happen…. Things that simply don’t fit in with the great body of knowledge that the human race has gradually acquired over thousands of years. Things in direct contradiction to what we know to be true” (Finney 82). Students acknowledged how people often dismiss or resist, sometimes with hostility, information that seems too unbelievable, sometimes despite evidence. As Jack says, it took “hundreds of years to accept the fact that the world is round” (Finney 83).

Explaining the unexplainable: Multiple residents in Mill Valley arrive at Miles Bennell’s office, claiming that a friend or loved one has been replaced by an imposter. In each scenario, Miles recommends psychiatric counseling for what he assumes must be delusions. Mannie Kaufman (or at least the man who claims to be Kaufman) explains the occurrences away as a case of “collective psychosis.” Miles is also inclined to seek a more rational explanation than “alien invasion” even after he sees an alien “pod” duplicating a body first-hand in Jack’s basement. Jack asks, “Should they [unbelievable occurrences] always be explained away? Or laughed away? Or simply ignored?” (Finney 83). Jack goes on to question the “objectivity” of science, claiming there is “no such thing” as “impartiality without prejudice” (Finney 83). Jack concludes, “We hate facing new facts or evidence, because we might have to revise our conceptions of what’s possible, and that’s always uncomfortable” (Finney 83).

Understanding the unfamiliar through the familiar: Once Miles is finally convinced that his town is under invasion, he next must figure out how to fight beings so completely “alien” to humankind. Based on textual evidence, students concluded that characters attempt to understand the unfamiliar through the familiar. Budlong explains it as follows: “What do imaginary men from Mars, in our comic strips and fiction, resemble? Think about it. They resemble grotesque versions of ourselves—we can’t imagine anything different! Oh, they may have six legs, three arms, and antennae sprouting from their heads…like insects we’re familiar with. But they are nothing fundamentally different from what we know” (Finney 173-4).

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Students also noticed the frequent use of analogy throughout the novel. For example, Jack compares the process of the alien body duplication by comparing it to “medallion” making: “First, they take a die and make impression number one, giving the blank metal its first rough shape. Then they stamp it with die number two, and it’s the second die that gives it the details” (Finney 36). Miles attempts to understand the duplication process by comparing it to photo developing: “Then, underneath that colorless fluid, the image [on the photo] began to reveal itself—dimly and vaguely—yet unmistakably recognizable just the same. This thing [the transforming alien pod]…was an unfinished, underdeveloped, vague and indefinite Becky Driscoll” (Finney 59).

To wrap up, students recognized that knowledge is often limited and uncertain. As promised, here’s where the novel’s famous opening words come into play: “I warn you that what you’re starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions. It will not be neatly tied up at the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained. Not by me it won’t anyway. Because I can’t say I really know exactly what happened, or why, or just how it began, how it ended, or if it has ended” (Finney 7).

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Ultimately, I think Miles’s warning, to which students respond with a fair mix of curiosity and frustration, is an important closing note because it suggests both uncertainty and continuation—even after Miles’s first-hand experiences with the aliens, he admits his understanding of the invasion is still a work-in-progress.

 

Works Cited

Corrigan, Maureen. “The Sad Lesson of ‘Body Snatcher’: People Change.” NPR, 17 Oct. 2011, npr.org/2011/10/17/141416427/the-sad-lesson-of-body-snatchers-people-change.

Finney, Jack. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Simon & Schuster, 1955.