Monday, February 5, 2018

Using the Weird World of Archie McPhee as Writing Prompts

Most of a student's school day is predictable to the point of despair. Their day is regulated by bells, they're sitting in the same classes, taught by the same people, using the same reading and math program, using the same worksheets. Sometimes as teachers we end up in PD sessions in those same classrooms, and it's torture sitting in those desks and focusing for 45 minutes, let alone seven hours. There are things about the school day we can't change for them; but where we can, let's mix it up.

A big part of Play Like a PIRATE: Engage Students with Toys, Games, and Comics is embracing the unusual. The bizarre. The downright weird. And I don't know if there's anything weirder than the world of Archie McPhee.

Archie McPhee is headquartered in Seattle, and in the pre-internet days was best known for their catalog of bizarre products. Now that catalog is all online of course, and it's one of the most fun and funny and weird places to go for classroom ideas. One of my favorite activities to do with students (and I share in Play Like a Pirate and in workshops) is to have students design their own action figures in lieu of traditional biography reports; Archie McPhee has some very cool action figures:

Pretty cool, pretty mainstream, pretty tame. You've likely seen some of their other products too. Freakish (and terrifying) horse head masks. A "Punching Nun" puppet. Finger hands. Their catalog goes much deeper than literary action figures. And possibly, much deeper than what you'd want to see. 

There's an entire bacon oeuvre on the site. Bacon soap. Bacon band-aids. Bacon scarves. Bacon-scented mustaches. Bacon dental floss. And, what's possibly my favorite, Yodelling Bacon

For the cat lover in your life, there's a Crazy Cat Lady board Game, Inflatable Unicorn Horns that go atop your pet's head, a car air freshener that's a renaissance painting of a cat, cat paws that go on your fingers, and a dashboard cat Buddha. My favorite cat-related item (besides the set of six glow in the dark cats that I bought and are glowing Right Now) is probably the Cat Bonnet

I have a cat. Her name is Slinky Marie Mousechaser. And she hates my dog. My good, good boy. She's had this bonnet coming for a while. 

Instant underpants for those...emergencies.

Handerpants, for people whose hands get cold when they're typing but need their fingers free. Very Dickensian. And very...not. 

Their now-iconic horse head masks have also been shrunk down and repurposed to be squirrel feeders, so those bushy-tailed rodents are even more terrifying:

Okay, okay. So they've got a lot of weird stuff. How would I use this in class? Essentially, as writing prompts. Students are expected to do a lot of informational writing these days. A lot of persuasive writing. And while some of that is engaging, a lot of it is...not. Here are three ways I'd use Archie McPhee as a writing prompt:

1. Have students write copy for an existing product. Give them just the photo of an Archie McPhee product, say...Emergency Inflatable Toast

And have them write the "Ad Copy" for the product. The ad copy is the text on the website or in the catalog that's convincing potential buyers that they need this product. In the case of Emergency Inflatable Toast, the existing ad copy is this:                                                                                                                                              The person who invented bread was probably heralded as a genius, but just think about the person who invented toast. I mean, the Bible calls bread the staff of life, but surely toast is the staff of awesome. It has an amazing crunch, nooks and crannies for butter and it costs almost nothing! When you want all the comfort of toast and none of the crumbs, you want Inflatable Toast. You don't even need an inflatable toaster! When you need your Inflatable Toast, pull it out of its tin, blow it up and just revel in its realistic toasty goodness. Perfect for toast emergencies of all kinds.

Ideally, you'd have a few of their actual products on hand, not just photos of them, so the kids get the full impact of how weird they are. I mean, you want the Ruth Bader Ginsburg "Dissent Mints" anyway, right? You'd want to show kids a few examples of what advertising is, watch a few commercials on YouTube, but their task would be to write a paragraph or two selling the customer on the Emergency Inflatable Toast. They should emphasize the practical nature of the (ridiculous) product, and make sure we know why we need it in our lives. I mean, look at it. Of course we do. 

2. Write a commercial for an existing product. Similar to the the first one of course, you're still advertising that weird, weird...thing. Their commercial would include ad copy, but could go even further, including dialogue between multiple characters. They could include a jingle. They could design a mascot for the product, like Admiral Toast.  Full disclosure: Admiral Toast is my friend Scott. I knew he was a hand model for Archie McPhee, but I had no idea about Admiral Toast, and I'll never stop loving this picture, ever. They could just write the commercial, but ideally they'd record it as well, or perform it for the class. 

3. Design a new product pitch. A product pitch is where you have an idea for a new product that Archie McPhee should carry, so you do a quick mock-up (in our case, probably a drawing), an argument for why this product would be a good seller, some ad copy, and a price point that you'd be able to sell the product at. You could have students connect this new product to your content. What would an Ancient Egyptian Archie McPhee catalog have in it? What kind of product would fit into a stage of the water cycle? What would Katniss Everdeen want to have on hand? The new items would be ostensibly practical (band-aids) but with a bizarre twist (they look like bacon). The product pitch needs to emphasize both of those aspects.

My rule of thumb about inserting the bizarre into traditional classroom assignments and assessments is that it's not appropriate for every assignment, but it's always memorable. These pieces of persusasive writing would be ones that students remember, but also that they're excited to share. With friends, with parents, with other teachers. Let them be weird. As my son memorably told his third grade teacher, "In my family, weird is a compliment. Weird is good."