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Rethinking Composition in a Multimodal World

Rethinking Composition in a Multimodal World

Written by Leslie Moitoza
May 05, 2010

It started with a quandary. As a veteran writing teacher, I was struggling, feeling caught in the middle between my responsibility to prepare my high school students for the traditional academic demands of college and the prevalence of compelling technology in their lives. Although, I recognized the need for computer literacy, I was not willing to trade rigorous academic work time for frivolous computer projects. So, my quandary led to my inquiry: Is it possible to teach academic writing as digital composition? What happens to writing instruction and student learning when we go digital?

Still from "Richmond" video by Louis and Rudolfo

The NWP Tech Initiative gave me the opportunity to pursue my inquiry. During the intense weeklong Summer Institute I learned how to make my own digital story, a big technological leap for me. Later in the school year I would do a residency with the Pearson Foundation who would bring computers equipped with Adobe Premier to our school for my students to use in the classroom and would teach them how to make their digital stories. My task would be to prepare the students for the residency, making sure that everything was finished—voiceover narrative written, assets collected, storyboard complete—ready for an intensive week of making digital stories.

I decided it would be beneficial for my inquiry to do the same assignment for my digital story that I would later give to my ninth grade students for their digital stories. I chose a tested analytical essay assignment designed with specific academic goals. (Characterizing a Neighborhood Essay Assignment.pdf) Could this essay work effectively as the voiceover for the digital story, a digital composition? Could we achieve the same academic goals when the tech component was added as we had when it was a traditional essay assignment?

Still from "Sesame Street" by Adrian, Bhavesh and LaMar

I planned to follow my usual instructional practice—teaching writing as a process, but along the way I would try to tweak my instructional components to fit the new digital elements. I was interested in seeing how instruction would have to change as well as seeing how student writing would change as other elements were incorporated into the text. When I introduced the digital story project, I told the students about my Summer Institute experience and my inquiry and encouraged them to be part of the inquiry, too. Like me, reflecting on my practice, they would be reflecting on their experience. Their reflections could help me with my inquiry and help them to become metacognitive writers and critical thinkers. We would all be researchers together—recording and analyzing our data. At first they weren’t sure what all this would mean, but they were delighted with the computers and making digital stories. So game on.
Open Characterizing a Neighborhood Essay Assignment.pdf

Part I: Characterizing a Neighborhood

We begin with materials from Pearson Foundation’s Digital Arts Alliance Project, the essay assignment, and a class schedule for preparing for the Pearson residency. Students form groups, choosing partners or trios to work with, workable numbers for sharing computers. Then collaboration begins as each group brainstorms, talks, compromises to decide on their topic. As usual, I break down the process into workable segments to help students at each step and to keep them on schedule. I use the same process I always do for this composition assignment, but work on modifying for the digital component.

The first step due from the students is a Topic Statement. They state their thesis and outline supporting details for key words in the thesis. Here I had to modify the original assignment—some “digital tweaking” to include a digital story component: I added the list “assets I have” and “assets I still need” columns for each supporting detail section. (Neighborhood Essay Assignment Outline.pdf)  We focus on the essay as voiceover narrative for the digital story, following the writing-as-a-process procedure with three drafts—1st Working draft, 2nd Sophisticated draft, 3rd Final draft. At each drafting step, students are thinking about and collecting assets for their digital story. An interesting recursive process is happening as new images change the nature of the written text. Lots of productive talk and sharing happens along the way.

When we finish the sophisticated draft, two groups combine to become a response group. They are responding to their written essay text as usual, but also planned image assets for the digital story come in to the discussion. (Digital Film Narrative Response.pdf) Once they have their Final draft, students may start practicing reading the narrative aloud for recording. The next step is the Storyboard. Students copy their narrative on to their storyboard and use this worksheet as both a planning tool and as a resource when they’re working on the computers actually making their digital stories. ( DAA storyboard worksheet.pdf) Pressure builds as our deadline approaches—all components are due to me on the Friday before the Pearson residency week, so all groups will be prepared to make their digital stories.

We spend an intense week with Pearson in our classroom making the digital stories on the computers they provide.  (Later Pearson will make individual copies for each student of his/her story as well as class sets for me.)

The week following the residency we focus on our inquiry. I ask students to write an essay reflecting on their experience with the digital story project overall. I also ask them to reflect on what they have learned about writing. (See Rodolfo’s reflection) Finally, we plan our Film Festival where we will share and celebrate our work.
Open Neighborhood Essay Assignment Outline.pdf
Open Digital Film Narrative Response.pdf
Open DAA storyboard worksheet.pdf

Part II: My Generation

I continued my inquiry the next school year. No more quandary. I now was convinced that the digital story project was not a frivolous waste of time. On the contrary, it was rigorous academic work with so many added benefits.

I decided to use another topic, also a tested analytical essay assignment designed with similar academic goals as the “Characterizing a Neighborhood” assignment. However, this essay required a more complex thesis statement, asking students to nominate an artifact for their generation—something that represents their generation’s hopes, dreams, fears, or preoccupations and explain why they have chosen this artifact. (My Generation Assignment.pdf)

As in the previous year, I planned to follow my usual instructional practice—teaching writing as a process, but along the way I would continue to tweak my instructional components to fit the new digital elements and focus on how instruction would have to change as well as how student writing would change as other elements were incorporated into the text.

Again the focus would be on inquiry and reflection.

We begin with materials from Pearson Foundation’s Digital Arts Alliance Project, the essay assignment, and a class schedule for preparing for the Pearson residency. Students form groups, choosing partners or trios to work with, workable numbers for sharing computers. Then collaboration begins as each group brainstorms, talks, compromises to decide on their topic.  As usual, I break down the process into workable segments to help students at each step and to keep them on schedule. I use the same process I always do for this composition assignment, but work on modifying for the digital component.

The first step due from the students is a Topic Statement stating their thesis and outlining specific details and examples they plan to use to support and illustrate that thesis. Because this thesis is complex, requiring not only a concrete choice of artifact—for example a cell phone, but also the more abstract analytical statement of what this artifact represents or symbolizes about their generation—for example the need to always be connected, I create a template for possible thesis statement formats to help students with their analysis. Since their thesis will be the controlling idea of their digital narrative (as it is in any well- written essay), it’s key that the students are able to understand the analytical level of this thesis and to clearly state their assertion. (Artifact Topic Statement.pdf)

Focus is on the essay as voiceover narrative for the digital story, following the writing as a process procedure with three drafts—1st Working draft, 2nd Sophisticated draft, 3rd Final draft. At each step students are thinking about and collecting assets for their digital story. An interesting recursive process is happening as new images change the nature of the text. Lots of talk and sharing happens along the way. When we finish the sophisticated draft, two groups combine to become a response group. They are responding to their written essay text as usual, but also planned image assets for the digital story come in to the discussion. (Digital Film Narrative Response.pdf) Once they have their Final draft, students may start practicing reading the narrative aloud for recording. The next step is the Storyboard. Students copy their narrative on to their storyboard and use this worksheet as both a planning tool and as a resource when they’re working on the computers actually making their digital stories. Pressure builds as our deadline approaches—all components are due to me on the Friday before the Pearson residency week, so all groups will be prepared to make their digital stories. (Storyboard Worksheet Example (Digital Arts Alliance).pdf)

We spend an intense week with Pearson making the digital stories.  (Later Pearson will make individual copies for each student of his/her story as well as class sets for me.)

The week following the residency we focus on our inquiry. I ask students to write an essay reflecting on their experience with the digital story project overall. I also ask them to reflect on what they have learned about writing. (See collected Student reflections.) We plan our Film Festival where we will share and celebrate our work.
Open Digital Film Narrative Response.pdf
Open Artifact Topic Statement.pdf
Open Storyboard Worksheet Example (Digital Arts Alliance).pdf

Part III: My Inquiry

Inquiry is the component that underlies everything in this project: my initial question, supporting curriculum design, and reflection as well as my students’ inquiry process culminating in their reflective essays. As I discussed earlier, when I introduced the digital story project to my students, I told them about my Summer Institute experience and my inquiry and encouraged them to be part of the inquiry, too. Like me, reflecting on my practice, they would be reflecting on their experience. Their reflections while helping me with my inquiry could help them to become metacognitive writers and more proficient critical thinkers. We would all be researchers together—recording and analyzing our data. At first they weren’t sure what all this would mean, but delighted with the computers and making digital stories, they were willing to participate.

Overall what did I discover? I can now answer my question, “Is it possible to teach academic writing as digital composition?” with a resounding YES! –with the caveat that the focus needs to be on the “teach” in the question. Organized instruction is key in both traditional and digital composition classes. I found it works to start with a focus on the composition elements as usual and add instructional components to support the thinking for the digital elements. The operative word overall is INSTRUCTION—teaching that supports academic content and critical thinking in both composition and technology. The result can be effective 21st century practice.

The evidence that led to my conclusion: Student digital story and reflective essay final products as well as my observations of student process and behavior during the project.

The narratives for the digital stories can stand alone as well-crafted written pieces that meet both of the original composition assignments’ academic goals and standards. There is evidence of an understanding of thesis and organized support, analytical thinking, a sense of purpose, audience and voice. (See “Richmond” and “Sesame Street“)

Even though I am so proud of the students’ digital stories and never tire of watching them, their reflective essays written at the end of the project is the most exhilarating evidence for me. First I asked students to reflect on their experience with our digital story project overall. This very open-ended prompt allowed them to discuss any part of their experience. I wanted to make sure they had the freedom to discuss honestly whatever mattered to them. Then I asked them to think about the question “Does the digital story project help you with academic writing?” and to discuss what—if anything—they learned about writing. This question directly addressed what I wanted to learn in my inquiry. I also wanted to give students the opportunity to reflect on their own learning and hopefully realize and be pleased with their academic accomplishments. I am encouraged by the result that so many of the essays authentically document the effectiveness of the project from the students’ point of view and in their own voice. (See Rodolfo’s reflections and collected student reflections from My Generation Assignment.)

As students were working I observed genuine enthusiasm for the project.  Of course they were totally excited and engaged while working on the computers during the Pearson Residency, but they also were more engaged than usual in the drafting stages of the process. They seemed to care more about the quality of their writing as soon as they realized that the essay would be the actual narrative for their digital story. They cared about learning the concept of thesis in a way I rarely saw in the traditional assignment process. Once students realized that their digital story wouldn’t work if it had nothing to say, they cared about their thesis statement. They seriously discussed their purpose and intended effect on the audience. They got the idea of “audience” which was never as evident in the traditional essay process. They really cared that their story had its intended effect when they knew it would be shown to a large audience of their peers. Students better understood the concept of “voice” in writing because their essay text was the voiceover for their digital story. They began realizing that their “voice” in academic writing could be powerful and actually sound real like their own speaking voice.

Future Implications: I recommend teachers try integrating digital composition into the traditional curriculum. It’s definitely worth considering despite real-world drawbacks such as technology issues and time constraints.  I was fortunate to be able to work with Pearson who provided the computers and software and hands-on instruction for my students and training for me. There are varied resources available for teachers who are willing to search for them if their schools, like mine, do not have adequate computer labs and tech support. Also many students are tech savvy and willing to assist teachers and other students.

Time is a real issue in our demanding environment of standards and assessment.  A digital composition project can be lengthy—mine took about 4 weeks of class time plus a week actually making the digital stories during the Pearson Residency. But I would argue it was time well spent that didn’t take time away from academic instruction. Project based instruction doesn’t prohibit other things from going on at the same time. We still worked on other components of my class curriculum while the digital story project was ongoing. And the project didn’t take the place of required standard-based instruction because the whole project incorporated traditional composition instruction and rigorous academic standards. Furthermore the technology is an asset, a motivating factor that provides students with 21st century academic, vocational, and social skills.

The digital story project was definitely a positive, worthwhile experience for me and for my students.

“Richmond” by Louis and Rodolfo

A digital story created by Louis and Rodolfo in response to the Characterizing the Neighborhood assignment.

“Sesame Street” by Adrian, Bhavesh and LaMar

A digital story by Adrian, Bhavesh and LaMar in response to the My Generation assignment.

Student Reflections, My Generation Assignment

“So the digital story project was actually a fun helpful project. It helped me in two major ways! It not only helped me with my academic writing, but it also me have fun! I would love to do this again some days and I’m not so happy it’s over. …”

Adrian’s reflection.doc

“This digital story project helped my writing by really bringing my writing potential out. Before I did this project my writing wasn’t all that great but while I was writing my part of the essay I noticed that it was pretty good. …”

LaMar’s reflection.doc

“Often we came up with what seemed to be a good thesis, but we found that we often broadened our thesis to the point where we couldn’t actually get our point across. This taught me really how to think up of a topic and to find the significance of the chosen topic. …”

Bhavesh’s reflection.doc

“The digital story and its process was a first for me. I don’t usually deal with computers and much less create a story using one. …”

Anonymous reflection.doc

“Completing the digital story project was a unique way of showing me a unique lesson about academic writing. …”

Anonymous 2 reflection.doc

“My experience with our digital story project was amazing and unforgettable. I made many memories in just 4 days. I learned how to be prepared. Second, I have a little flavor on how hard it is to be a movie maker. Lastly, I recalled how fun it was. …”

Anonymous 3 reflection.doc

“Writing is another way to be heard. Just like talking, you can say/write anything you want. In the digital story experience, I saw so many ideas people had that I couldn’t have come up with. Writing can also be expressed in many different ways. …”

Anonymous 4 reflection.doc
Open Adrian’s reflection.doc
Open LaMar’s reflection.doc
Open Bhavesh’s reflection.doc
Open Anon reflection.doc
Open Anon 2 reflection.doc
Open Anon 3 reflection.doc
Open Anon 4 reflection.doc

Rodolfo’s Reflection, Characterizing a Neighborhood

“I had a great experience with the digital story project. The feeling and enjoyment it gave me was awesome. I felt like it helped me gain responsibility. I feel more responsible because in order to take all of the pictures, get songs, and finish the movie, it takes responsibility. Plus the fact that I enjoyed working on the digital story project. It helped me gain knowledge of how my neighborhood truely is. I had a great time working on this project. …”

Read more of Rodolfo’s Reflection.
Open Rodolfo’s Reflection_0.doc



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