Blog Post

06. Zombie Survival Plan: Using Max Brooks's "World War Z" for the Teaching of International Writers

This assignment grew, somewhat selfishly, out of a desire to have a familiar reading to serve as an anchor during my first semester teaching English 105: Composition for Multilingual Writers. Although I had cut my teeth teaching at a community college in Miami, where many students were non-native English speakers and writers, I had only recently been assigned a class explicitly geared for international students. To ease the panic of this transition, I wanted to use a book that I was familiar with and that the students would find both accessible and enjoyable. With the (pardon the pun) Zombie Fever running rampant in popular culture, and my own love of all things undead, World War Z by Max Brooks seemed like the perfect fit. It helped that the book is written as an international survey of survivors of "the Zombie War" from various nations worldwide, and that the author had to conduct extensive research into the very regions that many of my students hailed from for the sake of accuracy. I hoped that the students would find something familiar in the book as the author discussed their home country or region, or, even better, that they would find something that Brooks wrote got wrong. If they found the author's depiction of their home countries accurate, that would hopefully give them something to identify with in the unfamiliar setting of an American English classroom. If they found something to critique, I hoped that it would give them a chance to correct a published writer in their own papers and help them feel more empowered and knowledgeable than they might have suspected.

While the assignment sequence itself is still undergoing revision, the first assignment has proven the most successful and entertaining. It's designed to serve as an introduction to the basics of writing such as narrative, description, audience-awareness, citation, and basic research. The basic guidelines of the Survival Plan Essay are as follows: After reading through the first three chapters of the novel, where Brooks describes "The Great Panic" that outbreak of zombies around the world, students are assigned a 2-3 page essay where they write their own survival plan should the events of the book take place in their home town. For their introduction, students may cite the book's description of Zombies, the "rules" of the setting as laid out by the narrators, and the basic state of their home region should it be mentioned in these early chapters. From there, they write their own plan for survival based on their own knowledge of their home town, taking care to describe important landmarks, historical or cultural details, or environmental issues that might be important to the survival of a reader who is unfamiliar with the region. In addition to their own personal knowledge and experiences, I also ask them to draw on one outside source (relatively informally, as this is their first assignment) to provide additional background or credibility. This may include a survival guide, local newspaper, travel brochure, a personal interview with another person from that region, or other similar sources. The essays are graded based on the viability of the plan, their use of outside sources (including clear, properly cited passages from the readings), and their ability to clearly describe their hometown to a foreign reader in a specific rhetorical situation (survival). 

While this assignment was designed for International Writers at the introductory level, it could easily be adapted to a 101 classroom of "traditional" students (although it might be worth assigning later in the semester after reading the "Homefront USA" chapter which focuses on America's response to the Zombie War). Alternatively, it could be used in Creative Writing classes, Pop Culture seminars, or even some History classes, as many of the author's ideas are drawn from research into different nation's history, politics, and responses to real disasters. I've found that, despite the unusual nature of the topic, students enjoy describing their homes as experts, and that they find the creative, informal nature of the writing a low-stakes introduction to the basic conventions of American composition. It also helps that it's fun to grade, since I always learn something about their home towns with each essay.


1 comment

Thank you for posting Jacob.  This is a brilliant context for students to study english.  I can see this working brilliantly with junior english classes in New Zealand as they love all things undead!  I really enjoyed the way you developed the pedagogy to have students write their own survial stories using their own experiences and knowledge.  A very engaging topic and great pedagogical development.  :)