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:


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.