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Pen, Crayon, Smartphone: Exploring How Materials Shape Content and Writing Practice

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Activity title: Pen, Crayon, Smartphone: Exploring How Materials Shape Content and Writing Practice

Author: Russ Carpenter, Jenae Cohn, and Cassie Wright

Course: PWR 1 or PWR 2

Activity length and schedule:  This activity can take as short as 15 minutes, but could be expanded to a full 30 minutes depending on how the activity is contextualized. This activity could happen at any point in the quarter, but may be best to facilitate at the beginning of the quarter to help students think about the material conditions of their writing as early as possible.

Activity goals:

  • To help students see how materials available to them shape the content that they create, and thus, influence meaning.  

  • To make technologies of writing visible in a moment when “technologies” often implicitly refers to the digital.

  • To foster conversation about students’ writing processes and the choices they make about technologies to use for building the writing process.


Activity details:

In this assignment, all students are presented with the same writing prompt, but the materials available to them to compose with will vary.

  1. The instructor will distribute a writing prompt. Depending on the time of the quarter the activity is facilitated, the writing prompt could take several different forms. For example, the writing prompt might ask students to summarize a key argument from a reading they did the night before. The writing prompt may also ask students to describe their writing process. Another prompt might ask the students to offer an argument that synthesizes several key texts read during the quarter. The key is that the writing prompt is the same for every student.

  2. The instructor then assigns each student (or a pair of students) to respond to the prompt using a different set of material constraints. For example, one student (or pair of students) may be asked to use a computer, while another may be asked to compose strictly using pencil and paper. Others might be asked to use markers and a whiteboard, string and pipecleaners, or a visual collage. Another group might be invited to compose only using gifs on their smartphones. By deliberately changing the composition materials available to the students, this exercise aims to provide a platform on which students can see how available materials influence the message being delivered.  

    1. Note that the timing for this step should be limited; students do not need to compose anything too elaborate. That said, they should have enough time to get a feel for the material constraints of what they’re using in order to compose their argument. This could flex between 5 and 15 minutes for most instructors (but could potentially be longer).

  3. The class re-groups together and discusses their composing experiences, either by sharing what they’ve composed or describing the experience of composing in a particular material space. The instructor may facilitate conversation at this step with some guiding questions:

    1. What was it like to compose in the medium assigned to you? How did you feel composing in that medium?

    2. What kinds of things could you do in that medium? Did you write with alphabetic text? Did you draw? Did you diagram? Did you do some combination thereof? What was possible?

    3. When you work on a piece of writing at home, what media do you use? Why do you use that media? How does this activity change your conception of how you might compose in the future?

  4. Ask students to compose a brief reflection using whatever media they want to consider how they might use what they learned from this class activity for composing their future projects.

Additional notes: Depending on the instructors' choice of materials, the needs for this assignment vary. We suggest choosing a wide range of different materials for students to experiment and compose with. This can include pencil and paper, string and pipe cleaners, play doh, markers and whiteboard, a smartphone, visual collage, crayons and a large piece of paper, gifs, laptop, colored pencil drawings etc.  We suggest intentionally choosing a wide range of composition materials, and thinking very broadly about what that can mean (composing in play doh may lead to quite a different approach than composing in gifs, when compared to paper and pencil).