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Declare It, Then Do It

Written by Sheila Cooperman
June 24, 2018

I have a 26 month old granddaughter. She is curious, inquisitive, and wants to do everything herself. Her favorite expression is “I do it.” She is not afraid to try. She is not afraid to experiment. She is not afraid to fail, but when she can’t do something, she says, “Help me.”

“Help me get on this horse, Grammy.”

And of course, I do. After all, I am her Grammy. But I am not writing this to extol the virtues of my grandaughter. I am writing this because her initial claim of “I do it,” later transfers into a call for help. What she thinks she can do, what she declares she can do, materializes into a realization that she does not know how to proceed. Hence, the gap between her own declarative and procedural knowledge.

Students’ ability to digitally compose is no different than  Eliana’s desire to climb up on the horse by herself and her realization that she does not know how to accomplish her goal. She requires guidance and help. Students who digitally compose are producers. They delve into their body of skills in order to create their compositions, but what are their skills? And are they the right ones? If you take an inventory of what your students can do, perhaps you will end up with responses like the ones I received from my sixth-graders.

“How many of you know how to make a movie?

“I do, I do,” repeated unanimously.

“How many of you know how to insert images?”

“I do, I do,” repeated unanimously.

“How many of you know how to add music?”

“I do, I do,” repeated unanimously.

They declared their knowledge, but if teachers are not careful, they can be lulled into the false assumption that their students are equipped with the skills they need to create rhetorically sound compositions. Nothing can be further from the truth. Students still have many years of traditional writing instruction under their belt. They understand the basics of paragraphing and independent clauses. They have the schema for understanding the basic format of stories in book form.

What is lacking is a body of  rhetorical knowledge needed to digitally compose. Students became quickly aware that the knowledge they possessed did not transfer over into a digital format and they were baffled.

“What? Wow, this is a lot harder than it looks,” was a common cry as students realized that creating digital compositions, while enjoyable and engaging, was more difficult than they had expected. They did not realize the decision making complexity. It was difficult for them to weigh medium choices and meaning. How to navigate through and determine the multimodal choices that would best suit their writing’s purpose and argument led to many questions.

“Wait, should I use a picture, or just text? If I use a picture, how big shoul it be? Does color count?”

These were common questions among students as they sought to compose digital compositions. While they experimented and sometimes experienced great success, often, they became frustrated when they could not

create what they wanted because of their lack of skills. And when that happened, they reverted to print text knowledge rendering digital compositions that did not maximize the potential multimodality offers. They simply created print text products in digital forms.

If educators are going to keep up with the digital world,  curriculums need to be developed that will assist students in transferring their print knowledge to digital composition, and

teach them new knowledge that will forward their ability to produce rhetorically sound digital compositions. Left piecemeal, students will not have solid shared experiences in digital writing.  Those students fortunate enough to have teachers willing to experiment may gain some exposure to multimodal composition, but those students whose teachers do not dive into the potential digital composition offers will not. And this is  shame. Current literacy is multimodal. There is no arguing that fact. Educators must be on the forefront of incorporating multiliteracies as a standard practice as opposed to a roulette wheel of chance.