Semiotic Play

Semiotic Play simply means to put something into a different context in order to make it more accessible, better integrated with other themes or ideas, and more fun. Every time that we approach a piece of writing, we view it through a series of predetermined, often unconsciously applied, contexts. These contexts are put into place by the form of the piece (is it a trusty news article or a questionable blog post), the author (scientist or middle school student), the time period (yesterday’s Facebook status or an ancient script from 500 years ago), and any number of elements that create prejudice and opinion in the reader. By breaking a piece of writing out of these predetermined contexts, we can better access the exact purpose of the author, or, in the very least have fun while playing around with what the author is trying to say. For example, let’s start with the dry old Krebs Cycle. It’s a vital part of cellular metabolism and a cornerstone of every AP Biology course. And it is boring. So boring, in fact, that RadioLab’s Robert Krulwich did an entire rant about it, ending in one of the finest examples of Semiotic Play I have ever seen:

Because why not make cellular respiration a rap song? Why not make everything into a rap song? That is the logic and genius behind Semiotic Play. Any topic can be reinvented into a modern and accessible context with just a little patience and creativity.

But Semiotic Play can go far beyond the creative unpacking of a dry piece of writing. It can work backwards. Given the right set of contexts, complete works of fiction (or even real works of mystery) can become beautiful and enchanting pieces of reality. Given the right tone, author, and backstory, a piece of writing—or a piece of anything for that matter—can take on its own history and reality, making it fun to imagine, and permanent in the mind. My favorite example of this is the video found below. Please enjoy Internet Story:

Silent Conversing

Silent Conversing is a useful method for creating debate and discussion in the classroom without also creating argument and chaos. Unlike many of the other techniques discussed in the Resource Index, Silent Conversing works best after the reading assignment or research project has been completed. This is because Silent Conversing relies on students to make an informed opinion about a given prompt that is either from or closely related to the reading the students have just completed. The given prompts in this method take the form of solitary quotes on the top of a piece of paper. These quotes should express a clear and concise opinion on a subject or topic, and not merely state a basic, unarguable fact. For an example, I have used a quote from Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond:

“It seems logical to suppose that history’s pattern reflects innate differences among people themselves. Of course, we’re taught that it’s not polite to say so in public. We read of technical studies claiming to demonstrate inborn differences, and we also read rebuttals claiming that those studies suffer from technical flaws. We see in our daily lives that some of the conquered peoples continue to form an underclass, centuries after the conquests or slave imports took place. We’re told that this too is to be attributed not to any biological shortcomings but to social disadvantages and limited opportunities” (Diamond 25).

This quote works well as a prompt for Silent Conversing because it discusses some controversial issues and touches at some deeper themes from the reading. An instructor can give each student a different prompt or an identical one, but each student starts the exercise holding a piece of paper with only one quote printed on it. Each student then writes a brief response to the prompt they are given, right below the prompt on that same sheet of paper. Students can agree, disagree, or simply summarize the points that they think the author of the prompt is trying to make. Then they pass that paper to the left. The student to the left then has the choice to either also respond to the prompt or to reply to the response of the original student, indicating their decision with a directive arrow. After the second student is done, they pass that paper to the left, and the cycle repeats until the given time limit is reached (anywhere from five to 20 minutes). At no time is the student required to sign his or her response, as anonymity of reflection is a large part of what makes this exercise work. After the time limit is reached, the prompts are returned to the students that they start with, and now the seeds of an informed, energized, and grounded discussion have been planted. As an instructor, be sure to monitor emotional safety in this exercise, for while anonymity is freeing when it comes to thought and reflection, it can also be seen as authorization to write harshly and critically. For an example of this, please see The Internet.

Anticipation Guide

Anticipation Guides are useful for getting students to think openly and critically about a topic or reading at the very beginning of a lesson, before any material has been handed out. The form of an Anticipation Guide is merely a list of statements relating to the topic or the material to be covered. These statements can be true or false. Students are given this list of statements and write down whether they agree or disagree with each of them, and why. For an example, I have compiled a list of statements on the Nature of Science, using information from the National Science Teachers Association’s Official Position Statement on the Nature of Science, found here.

On the Nature of Science: 

  1. A primary goal of science is the formation of theories and laws.
  2. A theory can become a law, once it has enough evidence supporting it.
  3. Contributions to science can be made by people all over the world.
  4. With new evidence and interpretation, old ideas are replaced or supplemented by newer ones.
  5. Basic scientific research is not directly concerned with practical outcomes.
  6. Creativity is a vital, yet personal, ingredient in the production of scientific knowledge.
  7. Science depends on testable elements.
  8. Scientific knowledge is simultaneously reliable and tentative.
  9. Science is prohibited from using supernatural elements in the production of scientific knowledge.

Many of the statements above are true, and identical to the statements made by the NSTA. Some of the statements are false. The point of the Anticipation Guide is not to get students thinking about what is right and what is wrong about a topic or piece of writing, the point is to get students thinking about what they know and what they want to know. By using Anticipation Guides, teachers can access students’ prior knowledge on a subject before diving into it, and students can identify their feelings, personal interests, and misconceptions on a specific topic before a single word has been read or assignment has been given. Best of all, the Anticipation Guide can also be referred back to as the unit progresses, so teachers and students can reflect back on what they thought at the beginning of the unit, and what the know and understand now.

Think Write Prompts

A major challenge for teachers is getting students to write freely, without getting bogged down and preoccupied with rote feedback and diffuse commentary on memorized material. Think Write prompts allow students to go deeper with their thinking by focusing on self-reflection and prior knowledge instead of on the material. A Think Write prompt is deceptively simple. It is exploratory and open-ended. It can take as long as you like, from one minute to a half hour. It can be performed during discussion or as a warmup at the beginning of class. It should never be graded, but only exist in order for the student to get an understanding of his or her own learning. It can be silent exercise, stimulus for an essay assignment, or an enhancement for group discussion. Here are a few examples of Think Write prompts:

“For the next three minutes, write the things you know, the things you think you know, that the things you’d like to learn more about cellular reproduction.”

‘When the author says, “The best-laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry,” what do you think he’s talking about?’

“I’ve had a picture of a cookbook on the wall from the very beginning of this unit on transcription and translation. Why do you think that is?”

In addition to Think Write prompts, there are also Write Right prompts, which encourage students to make a concrete judgement on what they think is correct or what they see is most important about a subject or idea. Write Right prompts are often less open-ended than Think Write prompts, but they are similar in their spontaneity and universal application to warmups, essays, and group discussions. Instead of only allowing students to reflect on their own understanding, Write Right prompts are more appropriate for teachers to use in order to gauge class understanding of materials, and they should therefore be given out as assignments to be turned in and graded. Here are some examples of Write Right prompts:

“What do you think are the three most important arguments made in this article?”

“How are transcription and translation alike? How are they different? Give four specific examples.”

“If you were giving an exam on the entire process of cellular evolution, what three questions would you put on the test?”

While Write Right prompts are bit more closed-off and focused than Think Write prompts, both techniques look to accomplish the same goal—to get students’ brains off of the material and into their own heads, in order to see what they have learned, how they have learned it, and what personal connections they have made with it.

The Seven Elements

Sometimes the most difficult part of approaching a writing assignment is figuring out who you are writing for. Without a specific audience in mind, hangups can appear in the form of levels of language (what status is my audience?), depth and breadth of focus (what does my audience want to know?), and prior knowledge (what does my audience already know?). Using the Seven Elements in a writing assignment or research project can help eliminate these hangups by allowing students to take on a specific role (with an evident status, motivation, and level of language) and write to a specific audience (with a predetermined interest and prior knowledge). These Seven Elements are:

  1. Summary. Give a brief description of the purpose, background information, and importance of this writing assignment.
  2. Role. A specific character, job, position or motivation that the student will undertake when writing this assignment.
  3. Audience. An imaginary person or group of people, complete with their own specific roles and motivations, that will be reading this assignment.
  4. Form. The format of the writing assignment, whether it be an essay, business letter, diary entry, or otherwise.
  5. Purpose. What the assignment is intended to accomplish.
  6. Focus Points. What you want them to focus on as a teacher (grammar, readings, specific research sources).
  7. Procedure. A play-by-play (or, if applicable, day-to-day) description of what exactly the students will be doing in order to research and ably tackle this writing assignment.

This type of Seven Element assignment can be used for any classroom—from AP Physics to sixth grade Creative Writing—the important thing is that the task is relevant, thoughtful, and presented as necessary (perhaps even vital) to the intended audience. I have provided an example below which could be used in conjunction with a high school biology course after a unit on bacterial and viral diseases.

  1. Summary: Bacterial and viral diseases are a significant part of life on this planet. For every living thing on Earth, there is at least one bacteria or virus looking to infect it and use its biological systems in order to propagate. Thousands of these pathogens are known to infect human beings. You are an expert on one of these pathogens. The thing is, although you are an expert, the community you live in is full of susceptible children who are not. Your job, then, is to tell the story of a specific pathogen of your choice in a way that a child (age 5-7) would understand it.
  2. Role. You are an expert pathologist recently employed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to teach a group of school children in a high-risk environment about one human pathogen of your choice (whether it be viral or bacterial). You have worked in the laboratory for decades, have spent years in the field, and have delivered countless lectures and seminars around the world. Without any question, you are the person for this job.
  3. Audience. Valner Able Elementary School is directly at the center of a community that has a high risk for catching and spreading the pathogenic disease you will be talking about. For example, if the pathogen you are an expert on needs to live in a goat’s stomach for one part of its life cycle, this particular community keeps a great deal of goats. If the pathogen you study infects the salivary glands, this particular community has the weakest salivary glands in the world. And so on. Point is, these people need your help and direction in order to not spread this disease, and, in the CDC’s opinion, the best way to do this is through the children. You will therefore be giving a short presentation to a group of 1st and 2nd grade students (age 5-7) on what exactly the pathogen is, what its life cycle is like, how it is propagated, and, most importantly, what the students can do to prevent getting it. This children have a very limited understanding of bacteria and viruses. They know what bacteria and viruses are and what they look like, but that’s about the extent of it. They also have a very basic understanding of plant and animal anatomy. You will really need to simplify things in order for them to stay safe and keep their community healthy.
  4. Form. Your presentation can take whatever form you like, as long as it is appropriate for a 1st and 2nd grade level of understanding. You can present your information in the form of picture book, a poem, a puppet show, a catchy song, or a short video. The choice is yours. But remember, these are little humans with very little attention spans. So make it simple, make it thorough, make it exciting, and most of all, make it stick.
  5. Purpose. The purpose of this presentation is to keep a community safe. Without your help, this school of germy children will naively spread a disease that could slow or even fully diminish the growth of their community. Lives are at stake here, and if you can help these children fully understand the disease and realize how to avoid spreading it, you can save them.
  6. Focus Points. Although you are presenting to 1st and 2nd graders, your presentation should still cover all aspects of the pathogen’s replication cycle: animal vectors, if it is lytic or lysogenic, how it moves and attaches, where it multiplies in the body, and how long it stays active in the human system. Explain how it is spread and how transmission can be prevented. Remember, make it simple, make it thorough, make it exciting, and make it stick.
  7. Procedure. We will spend the next two days in class researching our pathogen. Wikipedia is fine place to find the pathogen you wish to present, but it is not a definitive source. You will be responsible for using three other sources of research in addition to WikipediaUse the CDC’s website ( in order to conduct further research on symptoms and prevention. I will also provide a number of medical journals that can also be used for further researching your pathogen.
    I will be available for any questions during this research period. Your presentation is due on Monday, when we start presenting.

The Seven Elements have now allowed students to focus on a specific voice, motivation, and audience for an otherwise daunting subject and science project. In addition, this type of assignment lets students get creative with their scientific inquiry, opening the field to those students who don’t enjoy the rigid constructs of experimentation and report.  

Semantic Mapping

One of my very favorite things to do is draw. I doodle just about every moment of the day, whether to illustrate a word problem, visualize an abstract concept or relationship, or simply for no reason in particular. See “Figure 1”.

Figure 1

But doodling accomplishes more than just conceptualization and procrastination. According to recent research, doodling may help memory recall by offsetting mental blockades to useful, but boring, information.

Beyond that, Semantic Mapping is a useful method for developing deeper understanding of a topic by using imagery and graphics to represent multifaceted literary or temporal events. This type of Semantic Mapping is also referred to as Graphic Organizers or  Diagrammatic Reasoning.

In Semantic Mapping, a portion of text is broken down into a list of facts, a layout of temporal sequences, or a dichotomy of causes and effects in order to be graphically represented in diagram form. This can aid student in approaching expository writing by revealing patterns, trends, and narratives in bland, inaccessible blocks of information. For example, take the following paragraph from  Scientific American‘s article on a new type of drug-resistant bacteria, ST398:

Complicated stuff. But if we break the paragraph down into a series of temporal events, and represent it in diagram form in a style similar to this

we get this:

Not exactly pretty, sure, but it is a fair representation of the text through images and symbols. What was originally an unapproachable block of text is now a tangible, simple, and—I think—more fun semantic map of information. This exercise is easy and enjoyable, because it allows students to get a better idea about how they make connections, and then further allows them to get a bit messy (or, in this case, very messy) with the ways in which the represent those connections.

Creative Rankings

Creative Ranking allows students to meet and interact with the major themes of a story or lesson before they have even seen a piece of writing or have heard a single lecture. Students are given a list of items (individual plot points, data, concepts, historic events, occupations of characters, ect.) and a set of criteria by which to rank them (personal connection, preference, by timeline, ect.). Each student should complete their ranking individually, without fear of being graded, and should share their decisions with a classmate, peer group, or with the class. The teacher can record the top rankings of the class and keep track of them as the lesson progresses.

I have used Creative Rankings in a high school Environmental Science class in order to introduce students to the evolution of insects. I gave each student a list of 8 groups of insects and asked them to rank each group, 1 to 8, from the earliest to emerge to the most recent:









I admit that this was not exactly the most creative application of Creative Rankings, but it was an effective means of getting students to recognize major groups of insects while freely using their own logic and reasoning to place them on an evolutionary timeline. If this exercise succeeded only in getting the students to understand that insects did evolve on a timeline as all other animals on the planet–and did not simply appear all at once in a writhing mass of chitin–then both the students and I are better off for having used it.

My favorite part of Creative Rankings is that it allows students to put information into a personal context before they are formally introduced to it. This personal context serves two purposes. It allows students to identify with the material and become intrinsically engaged with it (a necessity for effective eduction), and it lets the teacher understand the students’ prior knowledge of the topic before the lesson even begins.