Last Wednesday was sloth paragraph day. I love sloth paragraph day. It’s possibly my favorite 20 minutes we spend in class all semester.

This is the only time where I send my students into an assignment blind. It’s usually part of one of their informal, daily writings. I merely say, “Write a paragraph about ‘sloth’. Interpret as you will,” and leave them to it. Some laugh; some shrug and do it without question; some are beyond baffled. They try to ask for more instruction, but I just repeat the instructions and say they can write whatever they want as long it’s about sloth.

After they’ve submitted their homework, I go through each one and pull all the paragraphs (without any names attached) into one document. The following class period, I tell them what I’ve done and turn on the overhead projector so they can see for themselves. I won’t deny that I cackle just a little (on the inside—okay, on the outside, too) when I hear a series of “Oh my God”s echo around the room.

Once they get over the initial shock, we read some of the paragraphs out loud and discuss what we can determine about the writer of each paragraph.

IMG_20130518_010711In first year writing, it’s important to help students see themselves as writers and that they have a voice. So in the first major paper for Composition I, I ask them to write a “writing biography”. It’s essentially a personal narrative, but focused on their writing rather than a singular experience. They are required to collect samples of their writing—class notes, papers, homework assignments, Facebook posts, texts, emails, stories, poems, grocery lists, post-its, etc—and keep track of when they wrote it, who they were writing to (or who they wouldn’t want to see it), what kind of language did they use. From this data and other observations they make, they have to formulate a statement about who they are as writers. It’s no easy task to ask of them, and a lot of students struggle through the majority of the assignment. I’m asking them to consider something that most of them haven’t thought of before. But in order to move forward, they should understand where they’ve been and where they want to go with their writing.

Writing and looking at the sloth paragraphs together as a class preps them for examining and analyzing their own writing for their essays. It also exposes them to the fact their writing may be read by more people than their professors. This time around, I also had my students read Donald Murray’s “All Writing Is Autobiography” beforehand, which for some was a daunting experience, but they were able to get the overarching concepts. It helped to plant the seed that their writing comes from somewhere and who they are is reflected in their writing; however, it may have detracted from getting them to look more closely at punctuation, grammar, and words/phrases.

But nevertheless, I always love how this assignment turns out, and usually the students have fun. They get to see how differently everyone understands and presents a subject through their writing. Some students talk about how cute sloths are; others state they think they’re creepy or ugly. There’s always at least a handful who write about the seven deadly sins, or how people who are slothful fail to contribute to society. The sleep-deprived wish they could be sloths. A few students have written stories or poems about sloths. There’s always at least one that writes about Ice Age. Additionally we talk about how some writers will internalize a subject and relate it to their life, while others externalize it and try to connect with the reader or write more factually. We get a chance to see what repetition of language and content looks like, or how someone in the class will write about something entirely different than the given prompt. But we also get to see they have the capacity to be creative and playful with their writing. Because the paragraphs are anonymous and the subject of sloth has an air of absurdity, students are more willing to be honest (yet friendly) about what they see. This, I hope, gives them a sense of what sort of attitude they should take into workshop.

While it’s true I adore sloths (I blame all the rainforest VHS tapes I had as a kid), I can’t take all the credit. When I first came up with this assignment a few years ago, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to have my students write about. I just knew I wanted it to be a topic that could have multiple interpretations. I had been prepared to ask them to write about stars, but as I was writing the assignment on the board one of my students shouted out, “Sloths!” Given my affinity for the animal, I couldn’t pass it up; it was too hilarious and met my needs. It went over wonderfully. I’ve used it every composition class since.

To wrap things up I’ve compiled a handful of my favorite lines from students:

“Sloths are fun. Sloths are cool. Sloths are always late to school.”

“I don’t know why we’re writing about weird sloths. We should probably write about something cute like ELEPHANTS!”

“When I hear the word sloth I associate it with the world peace.”

“Sloths are the stoners of the rainforest.”

“When I think about a sloth, I am reminded of my ex-husband.”