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Re-making middle school: lessons from DS106, the MOOC, & democratizing composition

Re-making middle school: lessons from DS106, the MOOC, & democratizing composition

Written by Chad Sansing
June 28, 2012

I’m not quite sure what I’ll be teaching this Fall, but I am sure that I want to make my classroom look and feel more like ds106 and Camp Magic MacGuffin.

What is DS106?

DS106 is a now-legendary digital media production and story-telling course and nascent MOOC offered by its organizers and the University of Mary Washington that enrolls both university undergraduates and an online cohort of opt-in learners, many of whom are educators. Jim Groom (the bava) launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to sustain DS106 online. Camp Magic MacGuffin is the online expression of the DS106 summer course. It integrates the class syllabus with weekly announcements from camp directors Martha Burtis and Alan Levine and class-related blog posts fed in from around the Interwebz. Other DS106 alum and instructors serve as counsellors and organize campers into bunks (think project-based learning teams) that take pseudo-physical form on a DS106 Minecraft server now rife with settlements, constructs, and user-generated Easter eggs. Three other online pieces serve as the engines of production and expression for DS106: The Daily Create, ds106 Radio, and Mission: DS106.

The directors ask participants to complete a certain number of daily creates each week. The audio portion of the course generates shows for ds106 Radio, which otherwise plays user-submitted and -generated content 24-7. Mission: DS106 provides assignment pools in different areas of media production, and DS106 participants are asked to complete a medley of instructor-chosen and self-selected projects each week – you can see some exemplars of this work here There are eight areas or tags to explore: visual, design, audio, video, web, writing, fan fiction, and remix. Users are also encouraged – and sometimes expected – to submit tutorials in support of assignments and/or to submit new assignments to the pools. Learners enrolled in the course post their work to their blogs, as well as to online photo and sound accounts on services like Flickr and SoundCloud.

To build community, participants tweet one another, comment on one another’s blogs, and meet together on Minecraft to build and take part in camp fire conversations on a DS106 Teamspeak server. I hope that DS106 founders and community members will add to and/or amend this description with their own takes on the course and its history.

Towards a middle school open online course, or MSOOC

DS106 has given me back a sense of delight in making things. I default to text and I default to analysis and I default to judgment. Those defaults are useful in my work as an iconoclast, but they don’t complement the face-to-face work I try to do with kids to build a classroom community around democratic, self-directed, project-based learning. Next year, I want to be more about the delight of making things and less about the agonof fighting things. To wit, I’ve been – sorry – thinking and jotting down a lot of notes about a DS106-inspired middle-school classroom. Here is my thinking so far: The practical, humanist purpose of that classroom is to help kids

  • Create a positive digital footprint.
  • Participate in the democratic processes of debate, decision-making, research, and self-discovery enabled by social media and, perhaps, the quantified self.
  • Gain broad experience in a number of digital and physical media production techniques.
  • Gain deep experience in areas of student-selected, self-directed learning.

The pedagogical purpose of that classroom is to democratize composition. The basic tenants of democratizing composition are these:

  • Writing is one form of composition or making, tantamount to the rest.
  • All modes of composition are valid and valuable methods of expression.
  • All modes of composition benefit from design thinking, rapid prototyping (a.k.a. repeated failure), iteration, and user feedback.
  • The monopoly of text in schools impoverishes student learning, self-expression, and educators’ understandings of their students.
  • Students and teachers should compose and make in response to learning.
  • Composing and making should be fun or otherwise deeply fulfilling in a personally meaningful way to students and teachers.
  • To borrow from the National Writing Project (NWP), teachers should compose and make with their students.
  • User feedback determines whether or not a composition or product works and fulfills a need; grades are unnecessary, superfluous, and harmful to the work of composition and making.

Moreover, democratizing composition is more than purchasing enough devices or apps to ensure equitable access to technology. Democratizing composition is about opening access to expression and holding teachers accountable for finding and championing student voices, regardless of whether or not those voices are primarily textual or verbal.

Given the traditional emphasis on composition in English classes, I consider English teachers most responsible for stewarding student voice and democratizing composition. While this might seem paradoxical, it is not – the essence of English and language arts is story-telling – or, to put it more blandly, communication. English teachers have long been the gate-keepers of expression in schools given the nature of their curricula and the way they are positioned to oversee publications and performances such as school newspapers, yearbooks, and plays. I consider it our special privilege and duty to empower students’ citizenship in our nation’s civic and intellectual lives through production in our classrooms, especially through coding and other forms of digital production that suffuse our students lives’ outside our traditional curricula. Gate; no gate; make stuff with kids wherever you are should be our new mantra.

I am not at all happy with or comforted by this conviction, but until we read and write across the curriculum, as many NWP – and otherwise expert – non-English classroom teachers do, I don’t know that we will compose and make across the curriculum. Sadly, the teachers perhaps best positioned to compose and make with their students (and to show other teachers how to do the same) – the arts and electives teachers – are the most marginalized in school politics and the most imperiled by our national insistence that fiscal responsibility means investing less in education, which is the true and damming paradox of our unnecessary decline.

I am somewhat heartened by the emergence of community programs and the visionary work of school media centers in reinventing themselves to be places of production, rather than reception. Perhaps more kids will have access to opportunities outside class to find themselves in their learning until traditional school and classrooms catch up with them. Will schools ever catch up with learning? I hope so. They can, but the Common Core represents a huge step backwards that benefits no one but the vendors, politicians, and educational “leaders” who curry favor with the vendors and politicians by placing themselves in opposition to the institutions they claim to serve. There is no incentive to teach in an interdisciplinary way when the disciplines and, thus, school schedules remains atomized by standards that support the status quo of tracking and impermeability between academic departments and classes in schools. There is no incentive to teach coding when writing is testing, or to recognize an example of student engineering as a persuasive argument when the hallmarks of persuasive writing are listed so clearly, discretely, and helpfully for the assessors. It falls to teachers to do the difficult work of teaching under these conditions or to leave schools to teach out from under them. And so teaching a middle-school open online course (MSOOC) as if it was DS106 is difficult, but not impossible.

To do so asks us to stop scaling the mountains and to teach and find delight in learning and making where we are. Teaching in a public school is like scrambling up the side of a funnel. Every so often a new set of instructions or expectations streams towards us teachers and washes us back into a tank of oily assumptions about authority, teaching, learning, privilege, gender, race, and youth. The engine of schooling, the combustion chamber of a school, the piston of a classroom – these things go on despite our efforts to change the system because, really, the only way to change it is to break it. But that is costly; it’s more likely that we or the parts we break will be replaced before we ever escape our system of public education, this metaphor, or any other. I don’t know what to say except be who you are. Make stuff with your kids. Follow them into learning. Find delight where you are. Be responsible for what you can change and understand initial fear as a natural and normal complement to that change. Democratize composition. Sit down on the side of the funnel and let the consequences wash over you as you work with your kids. This summer I want to work on five pools:

  • A pool of awesome texts that provide multiple avenues to inspiration for middle-school learners.
  • A pool of design methods for kids to explore in finding their voices as composers and makers; this would include best practices in 6-8 online safety, permissions, and participation.
  • A pool of materials that cheaply provide access to composing and making digital and material learning artifacts.
  • A pool of projects like Mission: DS106 to provide students with choice in undertaking the development of a broad set of media production skills.
  • A pool of users who will function like the DS106 community in encouraging and teaching peers across an MSOOC.

I want to work on these pools and I warmly invite and sincerely hope for your help and our students’ help. I’ve started a document to share suggestions for each pool. Please visit and participate as much as you’d like. At the edge of my vision I can see us building an semi-autonomous network of classrooms and other learning spaces full of learners who regularly make things together. It’s the Rebel Education Alliance (#REA) all over again, maybe, I hope. Let’s get an MSOOC rolling and also find a better acronym.

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