Teachers are constantly seeking to improve student writing skills. We worry students are being taught to write one way: the way that's tested on the state exam. But we want more for them; we want to foster student writing skills that enable them to succeed in college and future careers.
Writing and The Walking Dead?
Last year, one of my sophomores approached me with the idea of creating a curriculum based on the popular TV series The Walking Dead. "It has everything you're looking for," Jordan told me. "Strong character development, imagery, symbolism, interesting themes." I'd never watched the show before (I'm not a fan of blood and guts), but Jordan issued a challenge: if I watched the show, he'd do his reading and homework. Since he was a struggling student, I thought this would be a great way to connect with him. We both lived up to the bargain, and I realized Jordan was right: The Walking Dead might be an excellent platform to improve student writing.
I approached my director, who's a fan of the show, and she agreed. Digesting The Walking Dead was born. Seventy-one students signed up for the class, which is the only one of its kind in the country. Since the show is violent and gory, the course is only offered to juniors and seniors, who need their parents to sign a permission slip. Digesting The Walking Dead proved to be an amazing springboard to writing, and I accomplished writing goals in my classroom that I never dreamed possible.
Taking Inspiration from The Walking Dead
To connect to their learning in this class, students wrote narratives or responded to journal prompts. I gave this writing prompt during the first week of class: You wake up and emerge to a post-apocalyptic world. You don't know what dangers exist, but you realize you must leave your current home immediately. You have one hour to pack the items you'll need for whatever you encounter in the new world. Remember—you'll only be able to bring what you can carry. Write an essay in which you discuss what items you'll put in your backpack and why. I never saw students put pen to paper quicker—except for maybe when I gave them the second journal entry prompt, which continues the theme: In an essay, explain what three people you'd want with you and why?
I enjoyed reading students' responses so much that I read every single essay in one sitting. I was impressed by students' rationale for their choices and touched by their selections. They picked friends and family members who were physically fit and had great endurance, naturally, but they also chose people who were compassionate, wise, and caring because they recognized that those characteristics would be needed in the new world.
Thinking (and Writing) Critically
I'm always looking for ways to teach my students to write critically; since many of them have outspoken opinions about The Walking Dead, this was easy. For six episodes, we read critical reviews of each episode written by everyone from the Wall Street Journal to independent bloggers. I wanted my students to read strong critical writing they could use as inspiration. The resulting papers were so good that I encouraged some of my students to post their work online.
Understanding Character Development
For their midterm, students chose a character and charted their development through the seasons. I was amazed at the level of detail in the students' essays and marveled at what they uncovered. They described Daryl's transformation from a racist loner to a contributing, valued, and trusted member of the group. They wrote about how even though Carl was forced to grow up quickly, he lacked the maturity to make good decisions.
I strove to create cross-discipline assignments that introduced students to subjects like business, ethics, international relations, psychology, and sociology. Several assignments required students to learn to apply criteria; for example, we studied models of good leadership, and I asked my students to prove whether Rick was a good leader. Students also read about post-traumatic stress disorder and had to decide whether Rick suffered from it.
I introduced students to international relations theories and concepts like liberalism, realism, groupthink, realpolitik, isolationism, and pacifism. I then asked them to choose three concepts and explain how they're illustrated in the show, making sure to give plenty of supporting evidence. I was nothing short of blown away by my students' level of analysis.
Exit surveys proved that my students felt the same way I did. Audra wrote: "I honestly believe the writing we did improved my writing skills. The analytical essays strengthened my ability to analyze a situation based on facts and evidence. I loved the critical review paper because I enjoyed using specific language to convey a message—just like a real review. I loved the international theories assignment because that subject was completely foreign to me, and it opened my eyes to how much a TV show can connect to and teach you about the real world."
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It's always difficult to engage students in meaningful and powerful writing experiences, but looking to popular culture can be powerful and effective. In this case, The Walking Dead did indeed bring student writing skills back to life. In your class, it might be a movie or even a song. You'll never know until you give it a try; I just hope there's less blood in it for you!