Thinking Exercises to Bookend the Semester

I’m a big fan of thinking exercises: short activities that model (in familiar forms) the kinds of thinking students need to be doing when it comes to critical reading and writing.  I had astonishing success this semester with two such exercises, one recently which I used on the last day of classes, and one mid-semester which I plan to use in the future as an introductory exercise at the beginning of the course.  For all we talk about pedagogy in The Academy, I feel we don’t share enough of our classroom successes and failures—why reinvent the wheel, for instance, when you can borrow or modify someone else’s vehicle?  Thus, procedures for these thinking exercises after the jump.


This exercise requires a music video, a handout of the lyrics, and a computer with a data projector to screen the video.

This exercise was done in a First-Year Writing course themed around literature; the class length was 75 mins.  I teach college freshmen for the most part, but this semester I had a nice mix of freshmen, sophomores, and a few juniors and seniors.  Of course this meant that my lessons had to be pitched right at the center of the learning curve, so that it was accessible to everyone if at different levels of thinking.  The music video exercise ended up doing this perfectly, which may be something to keep in mind if you have a wide range of deconstruction experience among your students.  It’s important to note that this exercise was created specifically for literary deconstruction, but I don’t see why it can’t be tweaked to work on deconstructing narrative essays as well.

First, I selected a music video that students were likely to be unfamiliar with; since they’re steeped in music, they carry a lot of preconceived notions and associations with the songs they do know.  I also wanted a video that lacked a clear narrative, since my students tended to focus on summarizing plot in their essays rather than taking a formalist approach to the material.  Being a child of the 80s, I was torn between New Order’s “True Faith” or ABC’s “Look of Love” but opted for the latter in the end, as the images related more easily to one another than they do in “True Faith,” brilliant as it is.  (My main fear was that it would be too difficult as an initial exercise, but perhaps it could be brought in mid-semester as added practice.)  Prior to class, I typed up the lyrics to the song in a way that imitated a poem, so that students would be able to relate it visually to poetry we were reading and so their interpretations wouldn’t be colored by their familiarity with refrains, verses, etc.

In class, I looped the video on silent without telling them what it was and asked students to work in small groups (2-3 in each) to note what struck them without ascribing meaning to it.  They were asked to relate it to other things they were reminded of, how the atmosphere made them feel: essentially, a reader’s response.  This took place in roughly 15 mins.  We reconvened as a class for 5 mins, during which I polled the groups for their top 2 observations.  Students related “The Look of Love” video to Mary Poppins and A Clockwork Orange and noted how a sense of danger collided with otherwise whimsical and comical elements.  I then asked groups to ascribe meaning to the video, still looped on silent.  This took 15 mins, after which we reconvened for 10 mins.  Students made claims about a connection between danger and happiness, about the ineffectiveness of religion as depicted by the flying nun, about sexism, about the seven deadly sins, and so on.  Interpretations were wide, varied, and very creative.

Finally, I put the music on and passed out the lyrics.  Students then refined their interpretations using the lyrics, and their location during the video, as a guide.  The results were astoundingly successful.  Students were able to notice tiny details about where the video lined up with the lyrics and thereby reach conclusions about the lack of power in the relationship (signified by the electric plug in the pasta), hopelessness (signified by gluttony), identity crisis, and much more.

To tie this back to literary deconstruction, I spoke briefly about how the type of thinking they had just employed was the same type of thinking expected of them in examining literature.  We then revisited a few poems we’d looked at earlier—Plath’s “Daddy” and Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”—and briefly deconstructed 1-2 stanzas of each.  This cemented student understanding of the exercise and of literary deconstruction as a whole.

Rating: 5/5.  I plan to keep this exercise on standby for the rest of my teaching career.


Ask students in advance to bring their laptops and/or iPods to class, and be prepared to do a lot of close monitoring to make sure they stay on task.

This exercise focused specifically on how to approach the final portfolio, the final assignment of the semester that essentially asks students to revise, label, and arrange their work as though it’s an essay collection.  Portfolios are evaluated holistically.  Most Composition & Rhetoric departments end on something similar, so hopefully this exercise will be of use to you.

Students stare blankly at me when I talk about the reasons why authors arrange short story or essay collections in a particular way, but when it comes to making playlists for parties or other events, the same students are able to easily organize music in a particular order for a particular reason, as well as focus each playlist around a given theme.  For this exercise, you should ask students to bring their laptops or iPods to class.  This exercise also requires some close monitoring, as it’s very easy for students to get distracted by each other’s music or get caught up in having fun and forget to do the work altogether.

I put students in groups of 3 and told them to think of a specific event or activity—not a generic party, for instance—and then plan a playlist or mix-tape (a.k.a. mix-CD for Gen Y and below) for it.  Playlists were to be approximately 10 songs long, and songs were to be united by a common element, such as genre, theme, content, or so on.  Songs had to be organized in the order they were to be played.  I asked students to write down their playlists on a sheet of paper but to exclude the event they had chosen.

Then, on a separate sheet of paper, I had students write a 3-5 sentence “label” explaining why they selected the songs they did.  They then wrote a phrase for each song, explaining why it was placed where it was and what the intended effect of that placement was.  The exercise was extremely successful; students were very engaged and needed minimal reminders from me to stay on task.  Some of them were even nodding, “Oh, I get it,” before the exercise was even over.

Next, I had groups buddy-up and switch playlists.  Each had to then guess the other group’s event and reasoning for placement.  I then had them swap their labels to compare their guesses with their partner group’s intention.  Finally, I polled the class about the experience.  It turned out that almost all of the groups were able to pinpoint their partners’ events right away.  I asked each group, “What tipped you off?” and they were able to identify the themes and uniting elements—whether the word “summer” in all songs on a barbecue playlist, or the pumped-up nature of songs on a workout playlist—and explain how they related these elements together to identify the event.

This exercise took roughly 60 mins total, though I think it could be compressed.  It was the last day of class, so I was a little lax on timing.

Before we adjourned for the semester, I explained again how the portfolio should be labeled and arranged, and we talked about the essays as though they were songs in a playlist: that is, where should they be placed in order to really “hook” the reader?  There was a little initial confusion as we were suddenly talking in the abstract, and I found myself wishing I’d asked them to bring their portfolio materials so they could practice the kind of thinking they’d just done on something more concrete.  You may want to keep that in mind if you choose to use or adapt this lesson.

Rating: 4/5.  I feel like the final connection between the exercise and the portfolio could have been better.  Still working out the kinks.  But I do think it was a strong exercise nevertheless.

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