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Pop Culture Dictionary Assignment

posted: 10.22.13 by Traci Gardner

This week, the students in my first-year composition class are finishing work on pop culture dictionaries. My goal is to ask students to think about and document the extensive language knowledge that they already have. On their way to demonstrating their language knowledge, students will

  • look at dictionaries and explore how they work.
  • learn about sentence, parenthetical, and extended definitions.
  • focus on how words and phrases work in context.
  • identify how the texts they choose have an impact outside the original context.
  • use concrete examples from a text and cite their sources.
  • write something that is NOT a five-paragraph essay.

The assignment is fairly straightforward. Students choose a pop culture text. Anything goes, from a sitcom to a video game to a movie franchise. As long as the text can be defended as fitting the category of popular culture, it works for the assignment. They then write a dozen dictionary entries for words or phrases that come from the text as well as provide an introduction that provides basic details on the text and provides contextual information on its place in pop culture. Additionally, they provide bibliographical citations for the text, for any outside resources they use, and for any multimodal elements they add. Their audience for the assignment is someone who has no knowledge of the pop culture text, but who is interested in exploring it.

For our in-class example, we used NCIS, the television series starring Mark Harmon that focuses on the team of Naval investigators who work in the Navy Yard outside Washington, D. C. Students are working on topics like The Transformers, The Big Bang Theory, Harry Potter, and Call of Duty. The rough drafts that I have seen so far include features like short snippets of dialogue that show the terms in use and photos that illustrate the terms.

What I love about this assignment is the level of student engagement it encourages. One student told me that he went beyond the required twelve dictionary entries because, as he said, “Every time I wrote a definition, I realized that there were terms in that definition that I also needed to define.” For me, that’s a huge benefit of the focus on pop culture texts. Students tend to choose texts they really enjoy, and as a result, they become deeply involved in the project.

In student conferences this week, one of my students said, “I really like this assignment. I get to focus on something I like, but I still get to learn about writing and grammar.” Okay, maybe he was brown-nosing, but I like to think that the interest-driven aspect of the assignment is making a difference. Surely it’s having more of an effect on that student than the more traditional definition writing assignments would have.

[Photo: Dictionary by crdotx, on Flickr]

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2 Responses to “Pop Culture Dictionary Assignment”

  1. Becky Cox, Monroe Central High School Says:

    Love this idea! I’d like to adapt it for my high school etymology class. Would it be possible to post a few examples of completed entries? I’d like to see it in action. Thanks.

  2. Traci Gardner Says:

    Thanks, Becky. I’m grading the assignment now, and I hope to have some examples I can share soon.