Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Life Lessons: The Lego Edition

I've been thinking about Legos, both as an industry and as a toy.  Longtime readers of my blog might say, "Of course.  You always think of Legos when you've been spending time with your nephew."

That is true.  He loves Legos, and we often spend time building things with them.  And I certainly never would have made the trip to Legoland, if he hadn't been part of my life.

While we were at Legoland, my brother-in-law and I had an interesting conversation.  He mentioned that the patent on Legos had expired roughly 40 years ago.  But the company has created interesting approaches to marketing and packaging.  Now, in addition to a big bucket of Legos, you can buy all sorts of kits that come with directions which allow the purchaser to create very complex objects.

I thought about this, as I watched my nephew decide what kit to buy at Legoland.  He and his father decided that they shouldn't buy something at Legoland that they could get outside the park at a discount store like Target (ah, the joys of teaching budgeting to an elementary school child).  They bought a kit that would allow them to make both a helicopter and a vehicle--and then my nephew, my brother-in-law, and my spouse spent hours constructing the helicopter.

Luckily, the kit came with very good instructions.  Watching them follow the directions with no problems--none!--at all put me in mind of a project that I used to do in my writing classes, which has also put me in mind of how much life has changed since the last time I did this project.

I divided the students into small groups, although I was always conflicted about this, since I hated working in small groups in school.  At first I had to do it; I could only afford so many Legos, even though I used cheaper imitations.  Later, as I had more Legos, I gave students the option of working alone.

I gave each group a bag of Legos.  They had to create an object, take photos, and write instructions so that a different group could take the bag of Legos and following the directions only (no pictures consulted until the end) make the object. 

Why didn't I let them consult the picture?  I was teaching writing classes, so I thought the focus should be on the written words.  Now, I might have a different approach.

This project works well in Composition classes; it's a process essay.  I adapted it from a friend's project that she did when she taught Technical Writing.  I've even done it in Business Writing classes, because some of business writing involves giving directions.

I thought about this project as I watched the construction of the helicopter.  Each step had not only written words, but a drawing of the step.  I'm guessing that neither one would work as well by itself.  If I did this project again, I might encourage the use of more visuals.

Of course, we could do that these days.  Back when I was first doing this project, students had to bring a camera from home to take the pictures, and then they had to get the film developed.  Now most people have a camera with their phones or some other kind of cheap, digital camera.

I don't remember any Lego kits when I first started doing this project in the mid-90's, but they may have been there.  It would be interesting to study the directions from today's Lego kits as a piece of writing itself.  I'd use the basic question that I always use when I hand out a piece of writing:  what makes this piece of writing work?  How can we do similar things in our own writing?

I think of other pieces of process writing that we encounter often in modern life, like the modular furniture that needs assembly or recipes.  I've been exploring the Smitten Kitchen site and pondering buying the book.  I know one of the reasons that Deb Perelman, the author of each, has been so successful is that she writes directions which are clear and easy to follow and leave us with food that we're expecting.  I hate those cookbooks where the food will only look the way that it looks in the book if we have a team of people who do all the arranging and photographing.

As people who teach writing, I've often thought that we should spend more time focusing on process writing.  But maybe I think that because I'm surrounded by so many people who can't give simple directions.

As a human being, I've often wished that people had more practice communicating in clear, precise ways, the way that we must when we're doing when we write a set of instructions.  Can writing the process essay help us get in touch with our true emotions?  Perhaps I really want us to have more psychological training, not just training in the writing and giving of instructions.

Or maybe I just wish that I had more time to play with Legos in any given day.

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