Teaching the general education literature survey courses to lower-level undergraduate students can often be a daunting, and dare I say boring task, for college professors. Most of the students enrolled in these courses are not English or literature majors and many never will be. The students are just taking the class because it is a part of their general education requirement, and often the students treat the class as such a requirement, rarely getting enjoyment out of the class or truly engaging in the texts. They just come to class, do the minimum readings and work to pass, and move on to the classes in their major. Additionally professors who teach the general education literature classes sometimes fall into this same trap, viewing it as a requirement of their job and reserving their fun assignments for the upper level classes which are full of the students majoring in English. However, the general education literature courses need not be boring; professors can and should include engaging assignments that succeed at getting the students excited about the literature.
I am always looking for new ways to engage my students, and I am always on the quest for innovative assignments. Some such assignments are successes, and some turn out to be not nearly as successful as I had envisioned. However, it is through the search for innovative assignments that I stumbled into the development of the smashbook journal assignment. I developed the smashbook journal assignment as a way to engage my students with the literature they were reading in a manner in which they had not previously done so, and the assignment was a smashing success.
I began using the smashbook journal assignment in my Composition II class, as an extension of the traditional writing journal assignment which I had used for years. The students really seemed to enjoy the assignment, enjoyed writing in their journals, and were actually engaging with the novel we were reading. Therefore, I decided to extend the same sort of assignment to the general education literature classroom.
The assignment stemmed from the traditional writing journal assignment. I have always explained to my students when I assign the writing journal that the writing journal serves two purposes. First, it encourages the students to write, write, and write. I place great importance on writing, both the graded formal, polished essays and also the prewriting exercises that are not judged for grammar and spelling. Second, the writing journal serves as a springboard for ideas for the essays the students write over the course of the semester. Therefore, I typically require a writing journal in both Composition I and II.
Although the Composition II class focuses on research, our university requires that the students also read a book length work in the class. A few years ago, we began a common read initiative called Read This! All students in the Composition II classroom read the same novel; we encourage other disciplines to incorporate the same novel in their classes in some way. Additionally, we engage the community book groups to join the conversation.
When The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was chosen as the common read for the 2012-2013 academic year, I decided to add art or drawing to the writing journal so that students could try to use visuals in the same method the narrator did in the novel. I had been reading about the smashbook, a new movement in art and scrapbooking communities, which combined aspects of the art journal with aspects of a scrapbook and even the traditional writing journal. On the simplest level, a smashbook is a book in which the author somehow adheres (using tape, staples, glue, or some other adhesive) various items and then makes annotations or even small journal entries regarding the affixed item. For instance, as a sort of memory book, one might use the traditional purpose of a scrapbook to glue a picture of a family reunion and add a label “Family Reunion”. However, the smashbook also allows for the addition of movie stub from that reunion or a bottle cap or a four leaf clover found at the picnic. These items can just be smashed into the book without worrying about any formal format. Part of the art of the smashbook is that it does not have to adhere to the same neat symmetrical rules of the traditional scrapbook, yet it allows for more journaling. The author might then write a few memories from the family reunion on the corresponding pages of the journal.
Thus for the classroom, I used the same general spirit of the smashbook and applied it to the writing journal assignment that I usually assigned. I incorporated the “smash” aspect to my traditional writing journal by telling the students to glue, staple, or otherwise affix clippings, clipart, photos, and other items that somehow relate to the book. They are allowed to include sketches, doodles, and drawings of their own, too, as long as the artwork relates to the literature. One advantage of the smashbook journal is that it alleviates the need to be extremely neat and rewrite messy passages. It seems that I often caught students re-writing their traditional writing journal entries so that they would appear neat or be easier to read. This smashbook aspect not only allowed but encouraged the students to be messy. Basically, I just want them to get ideas down on paper, without worrying about neatness or grammar or spelling.
When I first began the assignment with the 2012 spring section of Composition II, I suggested to the students that each time they read a section of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time they write some responses in their journals. I told them to summarize what they’ve read. Write what they liked or didn’t like about the novel. Write what they thought should happen next. Just write. Because the students wrote essays about the novel, the smashbook journal served as a good resource so that they could come back to these pages with their summaries and reactions to help to help them think of an idea for their paper or to help them support main points of the paper. This aspect of the smashbook journal assignment was the same as my traditional writing journal assignment.
However, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time incorporates many images in with the actual text, so I used that technique as a springboard for the debut of the smashbook assignment. For example, on page 2 of the novel, the reader is introduced to the narrator: “My name is Christopher John Francis Boone. I know all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7,057. Eight years ago when I first met Siobhan, she showed me this picture
To begin the smashbook journal prompt writing, I had the students draw a similar picture in their smashbook and explain the feelings the frown face represented to them. I asked them write about times they felt sad in their life, much like the narrator felt sad when he saw the dead dog. Once the students had completed that assignment we moved to the next page.
On the next page of the novel, the narrator says, “Then [Siobhan] drew some other pictures
I instructed the students to extrapolate why they thought Christopher could not understand what these faces meant. First, they wrote their individual responses in the smashbook. Then we began a class discussion, and I encouraged the students to take more notes in their smashbook journals.
Additionally, to help the students try to understand what the narrator felt in the novel, I handed out sticky notes to the students and asked them to draw a smiley face (just not the standard smile or frown). Then I asked the students to pass that drawing to another student. Students then affixed the sticky note with the smiley face to their smashbook journal and tried to write what emotion they thought the smiley face represented. From this simple assignment, students began to discuss the challenges that someone with autism (like the narrator) faced.
On another day I asked the students to bring to class brochures, handouts, articles, or printouts of websites about autism. The students smashed the documents into their smashbook journals and on a corresponding page, summarized the information on the document. Not only was it an exercise in writing, but it also helped build their summarization skills.
The smashbook assignment works well for one long read, like the literary work required in our composition class, but it also works well if the journaling and smashing assignments are spread out for an entire semester of smaller readings, such as what one finds in a general education literature survey class. For instance, an easy opening question for any work of literature would be “What is your initial reaction to this work of literature? (Fill at least ½ page of writing) On the other half of the page affix a picture, clipart, or some work of art or photo that represents some aspect of this work of literature. Explain how the photo relates or represents the literature.”
Because of the success of the smashbook journal assignment in the composition classroom, I decided to try the assignment in the general education literature classroom. One of the problems I encounter when teaching a survey of literature class is that students will sometimes skip reading a few of the required texts because they either do not have the time to read the work before class or they know that in class they can sometimes get by without having to discuss the work. Since we cover so many different pieces of literature in the classroom, it can be impossible for an instructor to quiz all students on all works daily.
However, the smashbook journal encourages the students to do the readings. I give the students certain basic discussion prompts about the literature which they are to answer in their smashbook journal as they read the assignment and prior to the next class period. Then the students come to class having read the piece of literature and having answered the prefatory questions. In class, we discuss those questions and the students may add to their own answers. Sometimes I even have the students exchange smashbook journals and add to the discussion in another student’s journal. The students might exchange the journals a few times before returning them to the owner. Then the owner can engage in the discussion in their writing journal by annotating what other students wrote and agreeing or disagreeing with the other students’ opinions. This is an excellent way to engage all students, even the quiet ones who may not normally speak aloud in class.
Both in that first Composition II class and in the subsequent composition and literature classes, I use a variety of writing prompts to help facilitate journaling in the smashbook. I often give students questions to answer as they are reading the text, to prepare them for class discussion. In this model, I ask students do the reading and discussion of prompts outside of class, and then come to class to do further discussion. Some prompts also ask the students to write their reactions to various passages as they read.
Although much of the writing is done outside of class as the students are doing the readings, some of the writing and “smashing” occurs in class. Often, like the above example, I give them activities to do in the classroom. I may provide them with a small handout (5×7 in size usually works well) that can be affixed to the smashbook. Usually the handout asks specific questions about the work of literature they read; the answers can be written on the handout which is placed in the journal. Additionally, I often instruct the students to either draw an image that corresponds to the questions or even find a clipping from a magazine or newspaper that somehow relates and affix it to the next page.
To help with the “smashing” resources, I ask students to bring old newspapers, magazines, and the like to class on “work” days. I usually allow 3 class days for “work” days for each paper the students write. I typically conference with students individually about their paper while the rest of the students work on the journal in class.
My students are engaging with the texts they are reading; they come to class more prepared, as they have already completed the reading assignments and the corresponding preview questions. For students who traditionally dread writing, the assignment allows them to write without worrying about grammar or organization, perhaps aspects of writing that they usually struggle with. For students who struggle to come up with writing topics or have trouble beginning assignments, the journal gives them specific questions and allows them to begin their writing at whatever point they want. It is a great tool to encourage students to write. Students who may have strong art skills can showcase those skills via the smashbook journal, too.
I feel like this assignment will help others in structuring their own smashbook writing journal assignment to help teach literature to lower-level undergraduates. I hope this article and corresponding assignment can begin a larger conversation about merging traditional journal assignments with more creative forms of the journal. The writing journal does not have to be relegated to the composition classroom; nor does it need be simply journal prompts. It can be used in conjunction with art and collage techniques in the literature classroom to engage the students with the texts.
Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. New York: Vintage, 2003. Print.