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Students Taking On Affordances and Constraints

posted: 3.4.14 by Traci Gardner

In my last post, I described a classroom activity to Teach about Affordances and Constraints in multimodal texts. While completing the activity, students analyzed a section of a handout that addressed undergraduate English majors and minors, identified its affordances and constraints, and then proposed a new text that communicated the same information more effectively using another genre.

As I wandered among the groups, I heard students debating the limitations of the handout, making sophisticated observations about audience and purpose, and then applying those ideas to their new designs. One of the first redesigns I heard was redoing a section as fortune cookie messages. They argued that most students had taken the handout, shoved it in their bags, and later thrown it away without really doing much beyond skimming the first page. They knew this was the response because their teachers passed out the handout in other classes. They had all received a copy before they got to our class, and most of them had tossed it out.

While a handout could be easily dismissed and forgotten, they argued, nearly everyone would open a fortune cookie to see what was inside. Ultimately they dismissed the idea however, explaining that the message inside would have to be a link to more information online. Most people would just throw the fortune away, just as they had tossed out the original handout.

The group finally settled on a complex sidewalk chalk solution. They explained their strategy:

We want to target the areas where English students visit most: Shanks, McBryde, Squires, Pamplin, and Turner. We would want to display the text sidewalk block by sidewalk block so people will want to keep reading. For example, the first block will just say “How Do I Present?” The following blocks will say poster, paper, poem, story, creative fiction, and projects.

Their redesign wasn’t the digital solution I expected. I thought the simple and obvious solution would be to create an online gallery of the kinds of projects people present. I was impressed with their creativity however. They thought carefully about how to put their message out in a way that could not be easily ignored or discarded, placing the text in locations that their audience would be already.

When they presented their idea to the class, another student explained that the university has a policy against sidewalk chalk art. If they were caught executing their plan, students could be written up for a violation of student life policies. We were all a bit disappointed when one we learned about that constraint, but it was a good reminder that there are affordances and constraints that may not be obvious at first.

Fortunately, there were many other ideas shared. Student proposed presenting their messages in email messages that took advantage of color and images and on web pages that embedded video demonstrations of the instructions included on the handout. They didn’t stop there however. There was discussion of QR codes, writing messages on the building doors and windows with wipe-off markers, coupons that printed out with receipts in the dining halls, and even paper airplanes tossed into crowds of students waiting for classes to start.

All in all, the results of the activity were awesome. Students enjoyed the chance to rethink the original text. They demonstrated some fantastic creativity. This activity is definitely one I’m going to use again.

[Photo: Fortune Cookies 1 by Ksayer1, on Flickr]

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