Designing Writing Assignments for *Non-Majors*

Author: 
Shannon Skelton

I am under no illusions about why students enroll in my Comm-B section of Introduction to Theatre and Dramatic Literature. Although they may have an interest in the subject, students’ primary motivation is securing that elusive Comm-B credit. As a result, most of my students are not majoring in theatre and drama, or even in literature or the arts.

Acknowledging that my role as an instructor has nothing to do with converting students to theatre majors or even convincing them of the magnificence of the subject, I welcome and celebrate students’ varied backgrounds. My class does, of course, include a traditional dramaturgy assignment that increases students’ awareness of what researchers in the theatre and drama discipline do. But I also design projects that play to non-majors’ individual academic strengths and personal interests. Using Thomas Armstrong’s research and theories regarding multiple intelligences, I craft assignments that aim to challenge students by allowing them to develop the skills they are honing within their own major.

For example, let’s say a student from the computer sciences enrolls in Theatre and Drama 120. She might be uncomfortable with the subject, because theatre and drama is a new discipline for her. Why can’t she use her expertise to create a project that engages with theatre in a unique way? So I wondered: Could students utilize “non-traditional” techniques to analyze the workings of a play?

From these questions and ideas, I developed an assignment for the play The Faculty Room. The play, a dark satire on contemporary high school teachers, served as the focus of the “a la carte” assignment. To prepare the assignment, I had students tell me about their interests in music, reading material, films, major, etc. This information allowed me to craft the options for the assignment (found on the following page), options designed to interest the widest range of students.

Students found a number of creative and successful ways to respond. For example, a curriculum-and-instruction major created a lesson plan that she then used to teach the play to our class. An art student published a graphic novel about the play, requiring her to consider alternate conceptions of set, casting, and costuming. And a business student put together an advertising plan for the show that helped him ask critical questions about the “selling” of artistic “products” for public consumption.

To gauge my students’ learning with these varied projects, I always require a written narrative. Let’s say, for example, a student puts together a collection of music for a soundtrack reflecting the play. Without a detailed explanation, I simply have a CD with random musical selections. But, if the student justifies and explains the selections, I know how deeply the student has understood the course material. This approach to assessment allows for self-reflection, while also requiring students to articulate what they learned.

I conclude the project with an oral presentation activity that I call a “conversation.” I divide the class into groups of four to five, instructing students within these groups to explain their projects to each other. After 15 minutes, we return to the larger group format, and I call on students to explain other students’ work. This approach thus stresses reception, analysis, and public speaking. Plus, its safer small-group format almost always eliminates the anxiety that consumes students when they must explain a project to a crowded class. Finally, it allows students to celebrate their own and their classmates’ creativity.

And what’s not to celebrate? Assignments such as the ones I’ve described here make active use of students’ strengths to deepen their understanding of theatre. And students still walk away with that Comm-B credit fulfilled.

Excerpted Assignment Options

 

  • Design an audio collage or “soundtrack” that reflects characters, emotions, or other elements of the play.

  • Create a video game, card game, or board game that “teaches” elements from the play.

  • Design a Socratic seminar concerning the big philosophical questions of the play.

  • Compile scenes from films or television to create a video collage that literally or metaphorically reflects the play.

  • Compose a screenplay so that students can explore the aesthetic differences between mass media and theatre.

  • Build a website that could be used as a teaching tool for the play.

  • Establish a business plan for producing the play, including itemizing budgets, with details of costs for renting facilities, salaries, costumes, royalties, etc.