Literary Analysis Meets Design Thinking

Students analyze text through the build-out of 3D kinetic structures.
This was not your typical English class assignment. But then, this was a course that was all about approaching topics and ideas from fresh new angles.

“The class is a senior English elective entitled ‘Rewriting History,’” says Aaron Snyder, the teacher of the course, as well as a Latin teacher and the faculty head of the Los Padres dorm. “The concept of the class is based on the notion of perspective—the idea that the same story can look very different from a different viewpoint.”

When Mr. Snyder originally submitted this class description as part of last spring’s course selection process, Chair of the English Department Joy Sawyer-Mulligan was intrigued. It seemed like a natural place to share some of what she’d created and refined while teaching a course called Deconstructing Narrative a few years back. Students in that class had used a sophisticated lexicon for prose narrative to take apart several 20th and 21st-century works, focusing ear and eye on voice, point-of-view, storyworld, and structure, among other elements. Although there was some writing required—creative and analytical, primarily in blog posts—students were concerned with modeling the narrative of each novel in three dimensions, complementing their already well-honed literary analysis skills with newly-learned principles of design thinking. With her retirement from the classroom on the near horizon, she wanted to be sure that someone in the English Department could carry the flame for this kind of literary endeavor. Mr. Snyder was game to rejoin forces and incorporate the ideas that Ms. Sawyer-Mulligan had developed in her previous course into the present one.

In Rewriting History, students read both Beowulf and Grendel by John Gardner (a contemporary novel that retells the Beowulf story from the perspective of the first monster that Beowulf slays), which proved the perfect opportunity to experiment with this kind of three-dimensional exegesis. After practicing the approach with Beowulf, for which students grouped up to paper-plan a build-out, Ms. Sawyer-Mulligan and Mr. Snyder regrouped the seniors by threes and fours and, once class discussions on both books had wrapped up, let them loose in finding ways to express their understanding of Grendel through hands-on experimentation, small successes and failures at each step. In the end, they were tasked with representing their analysis of the text through three-dimensional, kinetic build-outs, in addition to developing a written component—an artists’ statement—in which they outlined their interpretation and analysis of the key building blocks of the story, offered a defense of their choices, and explained their process in creating their 3D structure.

The students’ work was supported by the materials and resources available in the new Library Project Studio, where they spent a week both inside and outside of class time developing and realizing their creations.

“We were excited to host Aaron Snyder’s class in the Library Project Studio,” said Renee Hawkins, the new director of library services and educational technology. “It’s exactly the kind of work we want to encourage and we hope more classes find ways to take advantage of the space. The final projects represented a range of ideas and approaches to the book. Equally impressive was the level of creativity and collaboration that went into their projects.”

On presentation day, students unveiled a wide range of creations that integrated text from the novel into structures built with a host of multimedia materials, including cardboard, fabrics, wire, paper, clay, and even one that was built using Minecraft, a computer game in which users can design and construct their own virtual landscapes.

Mr. Snyder concluded: “Throughout the project, students were sketching out their reading of the novel, asking questions, going back to the text, trying to dig deeper and deeper in terms of analysis and artistic representation.”

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