by LeeAnne Lavender, HS English Teacher
When Service Learning guru Cathy Berger Kaye visited Concordia in early November, she not only inspired teachers in all divisions to re-think curriculum with service in mind; she also piqued the interest of three writing teachers with a creative writing exercise called Toss-Ins.
I was lucky enough to be one of those writing teachers, along with Dagne Furth (HS English and Storytelling Agency) and Holly Raatz (MS 8th grade Language Arts and Humanities).
At 4:30 pm on a Friday afternoon, after three full days of instructing teachers at Concordia about the magic and power of Service Learning, Cathy invited us to gather together and try the exercise. What a wonderful way to end the week! We sat, pens poised, while we made decisions to frame our creative scenario.
Character: Fred (we spontaneously came up with names and details)
Accompanied by: an anteater
Anteater’s name: Annie
Where are Fred and Annie? the moon
Once we decided on these details, we simply started writing. After some moments had passed, Cathy “tossed in” a detail. “Add a colour,” she said. After some more minutes had passed, she tossed in another detail: “Add a sound.” Additional details included weather, a line of dialogue, the word “strange”, an emotion, a question and a short sentence. To wrap up our piece, we needed to start our last sentence with the words “If only”.
We wrote for about 15 minutes, with Cathy tossing in details at natural intervals (she suggests watching people write and after it seems like there has been enough time to explore one detail, introducing another).
The idea with this exercise is to write in a spontaneous and open way, allowing yourself to embrace the details as they surface and incorporate them in whatever way you’d like. You can be silly or produce something random; anything goes.
When we finished writing, we shared our pieces out loud and laughed and celebrated what we had created. Of course, the best part was the experience of writing in such an unconstrained and stream-of-consciousness way.
I enjoyed the experience so much that I wanted to try it as soon as possible with students. My AP Language and Composition students are currently exploring Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and I designed a lesson where we would begin by naming an android and then establish its companion, the companion’s name and setting (just like we did with Cathy but substituting an android for the human protagonist). This lesson occurred in our unit just after we had engaged in an investigation of various perspectives about artificial intelligence and whether or not AI would, in the long run, be advantageous or disastrous for humanity.
Because we had already spent time learning about AI and debating the merits or perils of AI, and because we had connected this to the novel and discussed the role of empathy as a possible defining trait of humanity, the creative writing exercise allowed students to express a variety of opinions in a fun and exploratory way.
Were students surprised by how much they could write in a timed session like this? Yes. Most students wrote much more than they anticipated. Were there surprises that emerged for them in the exercise? Yes. Most students said their stories went in unexpected directions as a result of responding to the “toss-ins”. Did they enjoy the experience? Yes! Students were enthusiastic and said they really enjoyed this method of writing.
Below are three pieces of writing to illustrate the exercise. The first piece is the one I wrote in our teacher session with Cathy. The following two were written by AP Lang students in our class exercise. Enjoy!
Toss-In Exercise #1: To Earth We Go!
Annie looks up, pointing her snout to the Earth, an iridescent marble in the blanket of space. She nods at Fred. They smile and let go, floating off the surface of the lemon yellow moon, purple potholes yawning like hollowed-out grapes.
They float into the darkness, holding hands, smiling, heading slowly, inevitably towards the surface of Earth. It’s still and quiet, the eye of a storm in a void where storms are a dream from a violent past. When tornadoes and hurricanes swept the Earth like locusts.
Suddenly, a howl emerges from the silence. A howl, like a lonely wolf would throw at a cold night. Annie, amazed, realizes the sound is coming from her.
“Annie, what’s wrong?” Fred asks, worry lacing his voice.
The howl continues and Annie smiles as she howls, her snout taut and pointed excitedly towards the floating marble.
“Ants, ants are down there!” Annie sings and howls. Exhilaration and anticipation emanate in waves from her strange countenance (for who has seen an ant-eater in space so excited, so jubilant?).
Fred smiles, too. He starts to sway and dance as he accompanies his friend.
“Will I like ants, too?” he wonders. Maybe, maybe. Maybe Earth will hold the wonders and mysteries he’s dreamt of. Forever. Since his birth on the moon.
If only he could taste one juicy, delicious ant.
Toss-In Writing AP Lang: Adam the Android and his Pet Human Andy in Shanghai
By Alvin C.:
“Ugh” Adam moaned as he got out of bed. “Why do I have to be at school at 7 AM again? Right. Because I failed my physics test again and I have to go make corrections.”
Adam got out of bed and went to check on Andy. Andy had been Adam’s pet since he was eight. There was blood on the neck where the electric leash kept Andy from escaping every single day.
“Aaarrrggghh” cried Andy. He was sick and tired.
Adam then decided to take Andy for a walk outside. It was a bright and sunny day. “Isn’t it just absolutely beautiful today?” Adam said out loud. Andy was on all fours, and he knew that if he ever tried to escape or run away, the electric collar on his neck would shock him.
Strangely, today Andy wasn’t resisting. It seemed he had finally given up and accepted his fate. As Adam walked down to the park, he could see the high-flying monitors that would hover throughout the city each day. He could see the Shanghai news reporter.
Adam could begin to hear the booming of the reporter reciting the laws and rules for today. “Curfew will be at 7PM today; anyone seen past 7PM will be shot and killed.” He knew about the war that was going on between the humans and androids. “Why can’t we just all live together in peace? If only we could all live together in peace.
By Joshua S.:
The drops of water slowly evaporated on the countertop. The specks of dirt slowly
accumulated in the closet. An abandoned room filled with unaccomplished dreams was all that
Adam had left. His desires and precision faded away as time passed. His code was full of bugs,
and his battery was depleting, but most importantly, his self-worth and motivation was dying
Just two days ago, he had trapped a human into a tight red cage, to feel a sense of life and
purpose. As the little human, Andy, screamed for help, Adam felt that the human’s desperation was invigorating to him. He was fascinated to witness such an intense desire
for freedom and survival.
“That’s what separates me from humans,” he thought. “I have no real desire, things don’t
Even with animals, he couldn’t detect any real motivation and passion for anything
other than simply finding shelter in a rainstorm or eating food when hungry. Like himself,
animals seem to be ‘programmed’ and ‘fixed’ in their behaviors.
“Your weird emotions and curiosity will be the end of humanity,” he whispered to Andy,
who knew better than to argue with the seemingly-emotionless robot. To him, it was strange that anyone or thing could be so oblivious and unaware of consequences. His isolation slowly made him melancholy and depressed.
“Why is the ability to feel and connect such a vulnerability?”” he thought. “I want to be dull.”
If only Andy knew that his motivation to live was what made him human.