5 Ways to Flip Composition

Originally published on August 21, 2012 at Democratizing Composition.

To really flip a classroom, we have to go past the idea that letting kids shuffle the cards we give them somehow disadvantages the house. Instead, we have to trust kids with significant amounts of power and control over their learning across media, and we have to invite them to take up that power as often as they can.

Towards that end – and, more specifically, towards enabling kids to take power in the writing classroom – here are five ways to flip composition.

Make (or play); then write. 
Whereas it’s often difficult – at some practical or existential level – for many of us to write for a teacher in response to a teacher-assigned prompt on a teacher-selected text, it’s often difficult and rewarding to share with others the how and why of things we’ve enjoyed making or playing. We should ask kids to respond creatively – not just analytically – to their learning. We should provide the time, materials, and space necessary for our students to make art or code (or whatever) in response to what they learn from the texts they choose to read for school. We teachers don’t need to master making before we invite students to undertake it by choice. We just need to be open to what our kids bring to our classes. It’s more meaningful to connect what we make and do to the big ideas in a text than it is to reaffirm for a teacher what he or she thinks about a text through teacher-slanted “analysis” and the endless rehashing of “textual evidence.” When a kid explains how he or she captured the conflict in a text or a game through a bit of code or in a piece of music he or she wrote, that mash-up of analysis, creation, and reflection is new learning in a way that another paper deflating the symbolism in Fahrenheit 451 is not.

Make; don’t write.
Sometimes kids make awesome things. We should be working to understand how such products reflect learning inside our classrooms and schools; we shouldn’t be working on making kids translate every composition into academic print. We have all been complicit in the gutting of electives programs and in the systematic denial of arts- and materials-based educations for all students. We’ve cornered kids inside intervention space; we’ve pressured them into extra-credit-bearing core courses; we’ve thereby ensured that our electives classes are under-enrolled and therefore not worth staffing in this economy – which kicks back into a core-class class-size feedback loop of overpopulation that helps justify the purchase of commercial education materials, the standardization of education, and a nation-wide over-emphasis on – and misapprehension of – compliance as schooling. There is no other place all kids will go outside the core classroom right now, and that makes it incumbent on us core teachers not only to support arts and electives programs, but also to fight tracking and – most importantly – to steward and champion the dignity and power of learning by making even when writing isn’t necessary to do so.

Negotiate goals, not grades.
We should help every child articulate a purpose for each composition that she writes, and we should help each child self-assesses her work against that goal until the composition works. When a kid can do this on her own, we should let her. Writing for a grade (but really for a teacher) is an inauthentic and inefficient way of learning how to communicate. We hold students to standards of mimicry in traditional writing instruction long after they have the tools to express themselves because we ask kids to write for grades and credit we give, rather than for purposes they choose. We should flip composition so that kids choose what to compose in response to their learning and so that kids have to think about what they want to do with their compositions besides please us. We should concern ourselves with helping kids gather useful feedback about their work from genuine, intended audiences. We become a more genuine audience when we think more about how successfully a child communicates her ideas than about where her paper fits in the stack. I think the way we assign papers actually skews student performance downward over time and thereby ensures that we have no realistic idea, at all, of what our children are – or once were – capable of as creators. That practice of grading student writing while disallowing and devaluing other forms of composition, I think, is a form of standardization we have long embraced in an uncritical way through common practice, assessments, and assumptions about kids, writing, and our own false sense of objectivity as school- and print-successful teachers.

Add peer badging to peer editing.
Think of it as visual-blurbing in a gift economy. Ask kids to generate a collective idea of what good composition looks like and does. Ask kids to compose a system and set of badges a that celebrate the accomplishments that we together want them to recognize and achieve in composing. Allow for some idiosyncrasy; one kid might like to take-on responsibility for developing and warding a genre specific set of badges. The idea here isn’t to replace grades with badges or any other external reward. Instead, the idea is to help kids create a community that supports quality composition and provides a mechanism – digital or material – for kids to set goals and receive feedback in a fun and social way.

Publish everything through student-made, online portfolios.
As I scroll through my feeds each day, I can’t imagine a future in which communication isn’t mediated, enriched, and made more real and human by technology (there will be good along with the bad). We should allow kids to situate their work in the world they inhabit, which is as digital as it is physical. We should find ways and get the help we teachers need to implement student-managed digital portfolios in our own rooms. Doing so gives kids the opportunity to participate online as producers, it gives them the opportunity to understand the digital products they use, and it gives them a chance to find and fill new communications niches that we simply don’t see or know about as adult lame-o’s. Building a basic Web-container from scratch in a basic text-editor isn’t difficult, but it allows kids the chance to categorize, sort, and reflect on their work in ways that slipping a paper into a binder or folder does not. It’s also easier to preserve work and present non-print work to a larger audience online than it is to present such work from inside a portfolio or through a few classroom-, school-, or community-based performances per year. Reflective, metacognitive digital portfolio-keeping is a lot like reflective, metacognitive classroom-portfolio keeping, but it’s open to a broader, more authentic audience and it more explicitly places ownership of the portfolio in kids’ hands. Figuring out how to host such portfolios is also a good way for us to learn and to get to know our tech people and their priorities.

What else should we be doing to help kids take power over writing, making, and playing in our classrooms?