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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What Worked, What Didn’t: Course Reflection for the End of the Semester

Reflective writing enhances student metacognition and learning, which is why many of us integrate reflective assignments into our American literature and composition classes. Similarly, reflective teaching provides an opportunity for instructors to articulate their course’s strengths, identify areas for improvement, and strategize for the next semester. We spend so much time designing courses, organizing content, and crafting student learning outcomes that the daily yet significant details of what worked and what did not in terms of assignments, readings, discussion prompts, pacing, etc., may be lost in the shuffle from semester to semester. Course reflection is important because it ensures that our “big picture” pedagogical goals and values align with our everyday teaching practices.

Yet while many of us may assign a reflective essay at the end of this semester in order to reinforce students’ deep learning, very few of us will take the time to reflect on our own teaching practices–what we and our students accomplished and what we would do differently next time. The end of the semester is such an exhausting time and reflective practice requires the higher-order thinking that many of us may lack after grading stacks of essays! But setting aside just a few minutes at the end of the semester for course reflection might help you–and your students–as you return to your syllabus after the holiday break.

Books-and-red-wineIf you have just 10-15 minutes, make a cup of tea or pour a glass of wine. Think about and write responses to these questions:

  • What was the best moment in the course? How can my students and I have more moments like it?
  • What was the most challenging moment and why? How will I respond next time?
  • In what ways did my students surprise me this semester?

These questions might help you consider which assignments and readings to keep, cut, or change. Of course, not all aspects of a course are in your control. But what elements are? What changes can you make to enhance student learning?

If you have more time, pour another glass of wine, look over your syllabus and assignment sheets, and reflect on the various course components:

  • Syllabus
    • Policies to add or change
    • Student learning outcomes to change or add
    • Reading and assignment schedule: Is it coherent? Did the pacing work?
  • Writing assignments
    • Clarity
    • Assignment scaffolding
    • Did each writing assignment promote student learning?
    • Is there a writing assignment that could be cut?
  • Reading assignments
    • Pacing
    • Sequencing
    • Which readings to keep? To cut?
    • Which texts/authors worked?
  • Class sessions
    • Best lecture/worst lecture
    • Class discussion: What made them talk?
  • Did you try something new?
    • What made it effective?
    • What would you change?
    • What did you and your students learn from it?

Your future self will thank you for taking these notes while the semester is still fresh on your mind. And your future students will thank you as well: instructor reflection promotes student learning and improves the classroom experience.

Now, pour another glass of wine and celebrate the end of the semester! You’ve earned it!

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