Joy and Accomplishment: Creative Assignments Teach Better Than Essays

I’ve been including a creative assignment in most of my classes for a while now. Most of the time, this creative assignment was a quick, fun project, meant to be an easy 10 points towards students’ final grades.

The basic assignment asked students to choose a text we had read, gather thoughts and notes around a single aspect or lens – using class notes – and then use a creative medium to represent an interpretation or understanding of the text: a poem, a short story, a painting, a Lego diorama, digital art – anything at all. I would emphasize that I’m not grading their artistic ability (“stick figures are fine!” is a constant refrain) and that I’m more concerned with their accompanying 250-word written reflection explaining their choices and process.

I gave full credit to every student in each class, with only three exceptions (one who clearly based their artwork on a SparkNotes summary and had not read the text, one who thought the assignment didn’t have to be related to any texts we had read, and one who submitted an image they had downloaded from a Google search).

This semester, I expanded the creative assignment in my composition classes. Rather than a freebie easy assignment, I designed the assignment to be a culmination of the research and critical thinking skills students would have learned all semester.

I had designed my syllabus this semester around children’s literature, with the goal of teaching students how information can be presented in many different ways depending on genre, format, audience, and purpose. We looked at non-fiction picture books, biography picture books and chapter books, and historical fiction, all the while thinking about how authors and illustrators used various techniques to evoke specific emotions and attitudes in the readers.

Pluto's Secret: An Icy World's Tale of Discovery: Weitekamp,  Margaret, DeVorkin, David, Kidd, Diane: 9781419715266: Books
Pluto’s Secret by Margaret A. Weitenkamp and David DeVorkin, illustrated by Diane Kidd

We read Drs. Myra Zarnowski and Susan Turkel’s 2013 essay “How Nonfiction Reveals the Nature of Science” (Children’s Literature in Education 44.4) and Joe Sutliff Sanders’s 2015 essay “Almost Astronauts and the Pursuit of Reliability in Children’s Nonfiction” (Children’s Literature in Education 46).

For their first paper, students wrote a short essay analyzing a nonfiction picture book through the lens we developed reading Zarnowksi and Turkel: Does the book emphasize the nature of science as they describe it, or does it simply provide facts? Does it emphasize inquiry or authority? Etc.

For their second paper, students wrote a slightly longer essay analyzing a children’s biography through the lens of reliability and inquiry again. After a class visit from the college’s librarian specializing in children’s literature and education (the amazing Dr. Alison Lehner-Quam), students found a children’s biography and researched the person discussed in the children’s text. They then compared the two accounts – one written for children and one written for adults – and wrote an essay about the details included in or left out of each version, about the emotional undertones and the conclusions in each text, etc.

The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

In the third and final unit of the semester, we read a historical fiction novel, Karen Cushman’s The Midwife’s Apprentice (1991). We spent two weeks reading the book and discussing the various rhetorical moves the author makes. (I had given a conference presentation on the book a few years back, so it was a really nice return for me as I encountered all my marginal notes from back then…)

As a medieval and children’s literature specialist, I was in my element: I could provide lectures on medieval features and historical accuracy in the book, as well as lectures on current research on children’s literature as it affected our reading of the book.

When we finished reading the book, we read the author’s historical note, looked at the sources she provided in the book and on her website, and read some interviews in which she discussed the historical basis and her intentions for the book.

With all this in hand, I assigned the final project. This would be a creative project, but it would involve a lot more work than the previous traditional essays had.

To start with, students chose a topic from the book. Many chose medieval pregnancy and childbirth, since those were the main focus of the book. Others wanted to focus on medieval medicine more generally, medieval superstitions, medieval attitudes toward animals, medieval trade and market/fairs, and medieval inns.

For a full week involving two class sessions (via Zoom) and a written homework assignment, students researched their topic. At this stage, we reviewed the foundations of research (choosing and revising keywords, adjusting filters in database searches, using the bibliography of one source to find others) and the skills of identifying reliable sources. The written assignment asked students to submit two potential sources cited in proper MLA format, along with a few bullet points of details they found interesting in each source.

The next week, we focused on turning students’ research into creative projects. I provided an example of turning my own research into short story ideas:

I invited students who already had some ideas to share them with the class so that I could respond and model how they might think about deepening their projects and taking active control of how they were shaping their narratives. Students planned digital art, short stories, and poems – one even planned a video. I then put them into breakout groups where they had a chance to bounce ideas off each other and get started on making their projects.

We had one more session of presenting works in progress for feedback, and then the semester ended. Students had one more week, during finals week, to finish up their projects and submit.

The results of this assignment were amazing. More than any traditional essay I’ve done, even when I’ve invited students to write about a topic they care about, students were invested from the start. They were willing to do more work and to redo any step multiple times until they got it right.

I’m used to students resisting or even just ignoring me when I point out that their sources are not reliable. But this time, students displayed an intense desire to get things right.

Having spent an entire semester critiquing others’ work for accuracy and interpretation of facts, students seemed to be eager to create their own art or stories with as much historical and emotional accuracy as they could. Students read more complex articles than most of my first-year composition students are usually willing to read – and they spent time re-reading to make sure they understood them! Practically an unheard-of thing in my experience.

The stories and artwork students submitted, along with a 2-page reflection explaining their artistic choices, surpassed all my expectations.

There was a story about a prince’s wet nurse who struggled with leaving her own son in order to care for the royal son; a story about a commoner who falls in love with a noble who spurns her when she gets pregnant, and her struggles to hide her pregnancy and ultimate support from women during labor and birth; a collection of images drawn from medieval manuscripts to depict the journey from marriage to childbirth and associated rituals for a noblewoman; original pencil drawings to depict ideas about superstition and religion; a play about a Moroccan merchant coming to England to trade; and a meme-ified video with a text-to-speech narrator titled “why medieval childbirth sucked.”

Reflections included nuanced considerations of how the point of view affects the emotional impact of historical facts, how dialogue adds to the interpretation, how visual elements portray facts and attitudes, etc.

The creative projects and reflections also demonstrate joy and enthusiasm – and I enjoyed them too! I’m not used to enjoying the process of grading final papers. It’s usually a chore that I get done so that I can submit final grades. But this time, I got excited each time my email notifications pinged and I saw another submission from this class.

A good number of students addressed me personally in their reflections, telling me how much they enjoyed this project and how much they had learned. Their reflections, though not traditional essays, displayed more organization and development than I’ve come to expect from first-year writing students, more than the two essays they’d written for me in the moths prior.

I can safely say that I will be incorporating this kind of assignment into as many classes as I can in future.


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