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Strengthen English Composition Skills with a Lesson in Tattoos

This professor helps English composition students form and support strong opinions by considering how body art reflects the human experience.


Jonathan Chin, MA

Adjunct Lecturer in the English Department, City University of New York (CUNY)

MA in English Education and Machine Learning, MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry), BA in English, minor in Computer Science

Why not just admit it? When it comes time to write, we often blanch at that blinking cursor and shrink from the blank, white page that fills our computer screen.

There is a natural human fear of turning our innermost thoughts into lasting words and prose, and Jonathan Chin, MA, sees it crop up regularly among the students he teaches in his City University of New York (CUNY) English composition classes.

Chin decided that approaching the writing process in a risky, unconventional way might inspire his students to tap into the kind of free-form, out-of-the-box thinking that could help them put pen to paper.

“I think when you take risks, you have to be genuine and authentic about it,” Chin says. “And I think the students pick up on that and recognize and respect that.”

Challenge: A lack of writing skills and confidence

Teaching composition to even the most enthusiastic budding writers can be a classroom challenge for well-meaning teachers. But Chin, who has taught English composition both to college freshmen and continuing education students throughout the sprawling CUNY system over the last 8 years (and has taught various subject areas in institutions such as Brooklyn College, The Cooper Union, NYU, Rikers Island, and many more), has found that innovative approaches are especially important at City Tech, CUNY’s designated College of Technology. There, the curriculum places less emphasis on art, creative thinking, and writing, and many students are pursuing degrees in non-humanities disciplines, such as nursing and accounting.

Furthermore, these students may be less competent in writing or simply less enthusiastic about the idea of an English comp course—which can combine to make for an even bigger case of writer’s block than one might see in students with a focus in writing-intensive or English-focused disciplines.

“I think one of the biggest barriers for me and other teachers is that students come in with a sort of preconception of what the class should be like and what the student-teacher relationship should be,” Chin says. “And I want to turn that on its head. Because once that happens, students start paying attention, and they start looking forward to coming to class.”

Innovation: Pondering tattoos to inspire high-level thinking

A good portion of Chin’s students had artistic talent, he noticed: Many would sketch and draw before, during, and after class. “I thought, ‘If I can connect with them on a visual level, then maybe that will be that bridge between what they care about and what I’m trying to get them to care about,’” he says.

Then Chin recalled an exercise that he had done as a grad student, which involved the analysis of a unique and very personal art form: tattoos. While working toward his master’s degree in education at New York University, Chin examined tattoos as a “broad and brazen art form.” As an instructor at CUNY, he wondered how a similar approach might help push his writing students to think and write with fresh, incisive voices.

Chin believes that the art of tattoo and the act of writing spring from the same fundamental human desire: to create and express in an artful, meaningful, and lasting way. By musing on the possible origins and meanings behind tattoos, Chin reasoned, his writing students might learn to tap into their own hidden inspiration. And that meant taking the traditional, passive approach to teaching composition—“read an article and discuss it,” as Chin calls it—and tossing it out the window.

Because good writing starts with good thinking, Chin based his step-by-step tattoo-art lesson on the idea that students need to take ownership of their thoughts, opinions, and unique perspectives. From that starting point, solid and compelling prose might spring forth.

“I wanted to let them know that they have agency in their education,” Chin says. “They have control over what happens and doesn’t happen. That was a big idea I wanted to get across.”


Course: ENG 1101 English Composition I
Frequency: 2 days per week, 2.5 hours total per week
In his words: “ENG 1101 is an introductory course in academic writing and critical analysis. Building on the principles of the liberal arts education, we focus on skills fundamental to every career path and to being a contributing citizen of the world. This includes articulate communication, open-mindedness, research-based decision-making, and rigorous integrity.”

ENG 1101 English Composition I

See materials

Lesson: A step-by-step analysis of tattoo art

Chin wanted to bring body art into his classroom in an interactive way to help students improve their skills in the two things he views as the most important elements of good writing: analysis and argument formation. To that end, Chin designed a step-by-step approach that centers on students examining tattoos and how their significance is more than skin-deep.

Here is how he conceived several activities to help warm up his students’ writing muscles, free their minds, and help them put words to their thoughts.

Encourage analysis with a matching game

Chin begins with an activity that does not involve any actual writing. First, he prints out photos of tattoos and head shots of random individuals, both culled from online searches. “[The head shots] are close-ups of faces,” says Chin. “[I crop them so] you can’t see the clothes or anything [else] about their bodies.”

After dividing the class into two teams, Chin scatters the two sets of photo cards on a table. “The task is to look at the head shot in front of you and, based on what you can read from the person’s face, determine which of the tattoos would likely belong on that person,” says Chin.

The activity is wholly subjective, Chin admits, but that is exactly the point. Each team discusses their choices, digging deep into their individual histories, biases, and assumptions about human personality and experience, which feeds the sort of strong points of view that make for good writing.

The teams then present their tattoo opinions orally to Chin. “Some people might say, ‘Oh, this person probably has this kind of tattoo because he just looks like the kind of person who would have it,’” Chin says. “But that shows poor argument formation and poor argument analysis.”

Chin then pushes the students to be more specific and concrete about why they made the matches they did.

“You have to be able to dig deep into the head shot that you see to pick out the tattoos you believe belong to that person,” he says. “Then you have to explain that in a clear way that convinces me that that makes sense.”

Offer support for their written observations

The matching game activity takes up a full class period. In another class period, Chin then asks his students to write a 2-page paper about tattoos. It can discuss tattoos that they already have, ones they would like to have, or ones they have admired on others. For this exercise, he adds, the emphasis is not on the traditional components of English composition.

“In this class, I don’t focus on the check boxes of how to write a paragraph or how to write a topic sentence,” says Chin. “I focus more on the broader strokes: forming an opinion and supporting that opinion with facts and research.”

As with the matching game, students are required to support the opinions in their paper, beginning with a thorough analysis and backing it up with critical thinking and a sound argument.

Chin notes that his students almost always become anxious when asked to put their thoughts down in writing, so he uses a simple 1–5 grading method (5 being the top score) and heaps plenty of supportive and enlightening comments on the written drafts to help reassure tentative writers that their opinions have value and substance.

professor_chin_tattooInvite students to ink up the teacher

To complete his tattoo unit, Chin dedicates a class to offering his students the chance to live out a secret dream of pupils the world over: He divides the students into two teams and asks each team to design a tattoo especially for him. “When I told them they were going to draw on my arm, they were so shocked,” Chin says. “They were, like, ‘Is this real life? Are you kidding me?’”

Professor Chin Tattoo 2First, the teams share ideas among themselves and create tattoo designs on paper. Then each team takes one of Chin’s arms and draws one or more tattoos with dry-erase markers. Once the students are satisfied with their creations, they finish the job by going back over Chin’s new tattoos with permanent marker.

“I tell them up front that their job is to design a tattoo that makes sense for me—my values, my personality, what I care about,” says Chin, who is (among other things) a 2nd dan black belt; poet; software engineer; social entrepreneur; and founder of Share Meals, an organization dedicated to ending hunger and social isolation among students. “This comes toward the middle or end of the semester, so they’ve been watching me, listening to me, reading my emails, reading my comments. So they have a really good sense of who I am.”

Again, this requires not only analysis and argument to arrive at a decision but also teamwork—all of which will serve the students well in both written and verbal communications in their intended career fields.


Though Chin has no actual tattoos of his own, he has seen how focusing on body art inspires a sense of responsibility and accountability in his students, who range in age from 19 to 25 and are in the process of forming strong opinions and committing to certain paths in life.

And that accountability finds its way into their writing, he says, especially when they realize that they must choose a subject carefully, structure their content, decide on certain flourishes, and carefully revise their prose, just as they have had to do when designing tattoos and applying that body art to their teacher’s arms.

“[When you get] a tattoo, that’s permanent,” he says. “And you transfer that mindset over to writing. When you’re doing a paper, you want to do revisions so that what you’re handing in is the best thing ever.”

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