Synthesis Unit Plan: The Zombie Project


This is a fairly large-scale project that builds upon itself and is meant to take up the entire unit, culminating in one final research paper. The project includes many smaller elements besides the final paper, including free-writing, blogging, interviews, reviews, and collaborative work with peers. It’s a bit complicated to explain, so here’s the basic idea…

What’s the Premise?

Students write, research, edit, and write more, all as Zombie characters in the context of a Zombie Apocalypse. Yep, that’s it!

Now, before you laugh and move on to another page, let me explain the purpose behind the project…

What’s the Point?

The idea of the Zombie Project is actually to encourage students to exercise many different skills related to writing and research, while also (hopefully) having fun with it. Some of the questions the project is concerned with are relevant to issues of:

  1. IDENTITY– How do you create identity/maintain a persona, through language? How far can you step outside of your own head?
    1. VOICE – How do you portray yourself (or your character) through the voice in your writing?
  2. METAPHOR – How can you use an imagined context to discuss real-world issues?
  3. CONTEXT – What effect does an unusual context have on writing? Does this writing add anything to the context in which it is written?
  4. AUDIENCE – Who are you writing to? How will they use it? (in this project, there are many different audiences involved: the instructor, their peers, and possibly students in another class or future students who will use their work as a source)
  5. MEDIUM – How can you utilize a variety of media to “flesh out” (pun intended) a context, a character, an idea?

It’s up to the instructor how much to emphasize or de-emphasize any of these elements, depending on the focus or theme of the class thus far. In my class, we’d had a strong emphasis on identity long before we got to the Zombie Project, so that’s what I emphasized. Amy’s class was largely focused on media, so her approach was different than mine. But the project is very open to change or re-interpretation. To address all these issues, here’s the way the project is actually done…

How Do You Do It?

The Zombie Project is a bit complicated, but like I said, it’s open to change. You can either add or subtract elements of it, depending on what the focus is. The rest of this page is just how I happened to do it, and it may likely not be the best way out there, but it worked pretty well.

First, I divided the class into two teams: half of them were the Zombies, and half were the Humans who had survived the Apocalypse (no matter how you change up the project, I’d still recommend dividing the class into teams – it’s just a lot easier to handle, for you and for the students).

Before giving the first assignments, it’s necessary for me to explain what the final assignment in the project is… (it’s also necessary to explain it to the students from the beginning):

BOTH TEAMS ARE TO PRODUCE A COMPLETE, UNIFIED TEXT by the end of the Project. This text can take on many forms, depending on the context the students come up with. It can be a How-To Manual, a collection of essays about Zombie society (or Human society, from a Zombie point of view), a manifesto, whatever. The only stipulation I placed on it was that it could not include any narrative stories. It needed to be a research-based, “academic” type of text. Each person on the team would be responsible for writing one 6-8 page chapter of this text – essentially a research paper, but with Zombies. I’ll explain a bit more about this later.

ASSIGNMENT #1 – Create a character & choose a topic of research

After having divided the students into teams, we brainstormed in class to come up with topics. I made it clear that this is extremely open. The theory is that they could take any ordinary research topic they were interested in, and “zombify” it. So, for example, one student in my class was interested in child development; her character was a Zombie, so she began to wonder if Zombies could have children and how they might develop. In her final product, she not only had to research real child development, but also exercise her creativity in applying that research to the scenario. Other topics in my class were similar, though some were better than others. A few of the other topics my class came up with were:

  • Zombie biology/ human biology (from a zombie perspective)
  • The psychology of the transformation from human to Zombie
  • Creating a self-sustaining refuge for human survivors
  • Organization of Zombie society/ Zombie politics
  • Prejudiced portrayals of Zombies in film and/or literature
  • Farm-raised vs. wild humans
  • Moral issues involved with experimenting on “live” Zombies
  • Genetic engineering – manipulating the virus to create more perfect Zombies

There were many others we came up with, but these were just a few of the good ones. One of the things to remind the students of is the possibility of using this context as a metaphor for some real-world issues. For example, someone in my class suggested writing about finding a cure for the Zombie plague; and one of my other students (a Zombie) protested, “Maybe we don’t want to be cured!” which was funny, but also thought-provoking. Another of my students critiqued a few Zombie films, analyzing how the movies revealed Hollywood’s prejudice against Zombies. One of the delightful things about the Zombie Apocalypse is that it can be used as a metaphor for ALMOST ANYTHING.

I had them work with their teams when they chose their topics, so that everyone would be on the same page with each other, since all these research papers had to eventually come together in a single text. Their first out-of-class assignment was to create their persona: the character that they would speak through throughout the project. There are a few ways to go about this:
CHARACTER SHEET – a handout of questions to get them started (basic things like age, gender, beliefs regarding the “enemy,” family and friends, skills and interests, etc)
FREE-WRITE – in class, for several minutes, working out ideas of who their character is
BLOG – I had my students write a blog post, in which they talked about themselves in character and a little bit about why they were interested in their research topic.

It’s important that they start to think about how they can change their writing voice to create the character. The more different the character is from their “real” self, the better. I encouraged gender-flipping, race-flipping, politics-flipping, the works. Some of my students were more adventurous than others, of course. I wanted to get them thinking outside of their own heads. The idea behind this is not only to allow them to look at something from another person’s point of view, but also to get them thinking more consciously about the voice they ordinarily use in their writing, and how their language decisions influence/reveal their identity on the page. (A subtle but interesting example is whether or not they capitalize the word “Zombie” – what does that say about their character’s attitude towards Zombies? Do they refer to Zombies as “he” and “she,” or as “it”? It’s a perfect context to raise these sorts of questions and dig into what they might mean).

ASSIGNMENT #2 – Interview

The next assignment is to interview one of their peers – it can be someone from the opposite team, someone from the same team, or (in the case of mine and Amy’s classes) someone from another class that’s also doing the Zombie Project.

Collaborating with another class is tricky, of course. Amy and I conducted the interviews through email, as it was easier for everyone. You can do it however you want. The point, though, is to get them thinking more deeply about their research questions, and what sort of information do they need to answer their questions? Who should they interview, and what kinds of questions do they need to ask?

To help out with this process, Amy and I created a Wiki through Google Sites for our classes, where we uploaded all their character information. That way, there was a place for them to go to see which characters would be most relevant to interview. I worked on formulating interview questions with my students in class, which also enabled them to narrow down their topics a bit more.

This assignment can also be done in a variety of ways. I’d recommend thinking it through very carefully before diving in – when do you want the answers finished? how do you want them to conduct the interviews? how much will you be involved? how soon are they required to answer, if someone wants to interview them over email? how will you make sure that no one person gets too many interview requests? These are all very important to think about.

Doing the interviews over email was also beneficial in that I was able to easily upload the interviews to the Wiki as well. This turned out to be extremely helpful, as some of my students never received answers to their questions and thus were able to use other people’s interviews as sources.

ASSIGNMENT #3 – Connecting to the broader Zombie context

This assignment is to watch a Zombie movie or read a Zombie article or a chapter of a Zombie book, and write a review of it, connecting the ideas in this movie/book/article to the research topic.

This is a hard assignment for some students to do, depending on how obscure their research topic is (i.e. Zombie child development!). However, it’s meant to be a synthesis challenge. To take their individual ideas, and connect it to the bigger picture of the already existing Zombie “lore” that’s out there. Also, it’s useful in helping them locate possible sources for their final paper.

ASSIGNMENT #4 – Write an article that others may use as a source

Here’s where the class Wiki is really essential.

The students’ assignment is to write an article – in a format similar to an article you might see on a news website – in the voice of their character, of course (as with every other aspect of this project). The article can be about any topic they want, but preferably should be different from the topic they are writing about for their research paper. These articles, all together, will be put on the Wiki as a communal pool of resources that anyone can draw on for their final research paper.

This is one of the more important assignments of the project, because it forces students to think about what would be most useful or informative to their classmates, how can they present it so that others will actually read it, and also how they can flesh out their persona even more through this article? One of the rather exciting aspects of this assignment, also, is that the students will be citing each other in their papers – which hopefully will add a new element of significance to their writing, and will be rewarding for them as well!

The students were not required to use outside sources in these articles, unless they wanted to. Mostly, this is meant to be something they think up themselves, and it doesn’t have to be supported by anything. Part of the Zombie Project is not only drawing from the previous Zombie “lore” out there, but also creating their own version of the “Zombie Universe,” challenging their creativity and originality. Several of these articles were some of the best writing my students did all semester, though they were short. Many were funny, but also intelligent, and the freedom of the assignment allowed them to be very creative. This is also the assignment where they can really play around with different media – working with images and text together, arranging text in a specific way, even creating videos or advertisements if they want.

I allowed my students to cite their own articles in their research papers, since I reasoned that scholars often cite themselves in real life. However, I was a little conflicted about this, as I also wanted them to branch out into other people’s work. It’s up to you how you want to do it.

ASSIGNMENT #5 – Peer-Review and Preface

Drawing near the end of the project, I had my two teams bring in the rough drafts of their research papers and peer review them in groups, discussing the ideas, what they were struggling with, etc. Also, I had them think about how their individual papers connected to the bigger context of their team’s text – how did their ideas relate to the ideas of their teammates?

We took a couple of days to polish the papers in class. And, continuing the themes of synthesis and connecting different ideas together, the two teams wrote a short 1-2 preface to their team manuscript. They worked on this preface together in class, and it was meant to be a collaborative work, which everyone on the team contributed to. The two requirements of the preface are:

  • They decide which order the different “chapters” ought to go, and why
  • They explain the context of their team text, and how the different “chapters” relate to one another (how did these essays all end up together in this one volume, and why were they put together? – and not just because it’s part of the assignment)

They can get very creative with this as well. My team of humans came up with an elaborate and hilarious back-story explaining how the different essays all came together. It made sense, it tied the ideas together, and it was creative and entertaining. And, as an added bonus, they all actually had fun writing it.

ASSIGNMENT #6 – The Final Text

The final product of this entire project is of course, the team text, composed of everyone’s 6-8 page research papers plus the preface they wrote together. For the research paper, I required that they use at least 6 sources. These sources had to include one of the following:

  1. At least one interview (preferably theirs, but someone else’s if they did not get answers back)
  2. At least one source from previously-existing Zombie material (i.e. movies, books, etc.)
  3. At least one source from their classmates (not counting the interview) – usually this was one of the articles
  4. At least one film source (could overlap with #2, but didn’t have to)
  5. At least one written source (could overlap with either #2 or #3)
  6. At least one source that had nothing to do with Zombies, and the author would be astonished to find him- or herself being cited in a Zombie research paper.

These requirements ensured that the students drew material and support from a wide variety of places. One of the main ideas I hoped they would get out of this project – other than using language as a persona, and using metaphor to explore real issues – is the skill of using sources effectively to support their ideas, and using their sources in such a way that their own voice was not drowned out by the voice of their sources. Since part of the assignment was to keep up their character’s persona while writing, this encouraged their voice to be strong in the paper and not be buried under quotes.

It also encouraged some creativity in the use of sources, particularly in using #6 effectively. To encourage them to think about how to use sources properly, I often asked them, “If you’re in the middle of the Zombie Apocalypse, about to have your brains eaten, is this information going to be useful?” Of course, this was a slight exaggeration, but it was kind of a fun way to get them thinking about not throwing quotes in there just for the sake of having quotes.

I allowed the format for the research paper to be pretty open, so that they could continue to exercise their creativity, as long as they did the research, raised interesting questions, arrived at a solid conclusion, and stayed true to their character. One of my students, for instance, wrote her paper in the format of an extended lab report, explaining her research questions, hypothesis, research techniques, observations, and conclusions very scientifically (she was a Zombie doctor, so it suited her character). You can be more specific about the format if you want, of course, but I found that the more open I was, the more they were able to get into their characters and explore!


So, that’s the Zombie Project. Yes, it’s a monster (haha?), but it’s tons of fun. You’ll undoubtedly have some skeptical students if you do it, but many of the students will also get very into it and really just run with it. As far as grading – you’ll have to figure that out for yourself. I graded it as a whole project, with a rubric dividing points up for each assignment. You can grade every assignment separately, if you want. You can have the students rate and review each other’s work. There are plenty of options. It’s up to you.

SOME ADVICE: First of all, if you happen not to like Zombies, you can try other alternate realities as well. Zombies work well as a metaphor for a large variety of things, but they are obviously not the only option. The point is just to get the students role-playing, and allow them to create their own context, as well as connecting to a previously-existing context. The whole project is very open to experimentation.

I’d definitely recommend having everything mostly figured out before you dive into this, and DEFINITELY be sure you want to go through with the whole thing. Once you get started, it’s hard to turn back. Also, it’s really, really helpful if your class already has a similar theme going. For instance, in my class, we had worked a lot with questions regarding identity, so the Zombie Project sort of followed (almost) naturally. However, it wasn’t completely natural, as we hadn’t yet done anything this “out there” in the class, which caused a few of my students to be pretty skeptical at first. So, if you want to do this, I’d suggest definitely leading up to it somehow, rather than suddenly dumping it on the students. You’ll get a better reaction that way.