Reflections on multimodal assignments: part 1

Note to readers: Apologies for the way wordpress may warp the text to accommodate pictures. I’m working on it. (In full screen it’s okay, still not great.) Please comment or message me if you have suggestions!

We’ve been thinking together about multimodal composition in a “Computers and Writing” class that I’m taking this semester, especially about how digital composing might be similar to and separate from other kinds of multimodal projects. It seems especially important to think about in terms of what we mean when we say that we integrate technology (use) in the classroom. I think true integration includes some aspect of creation/production on the part of the student.

Over the years, I’ve tried multiple strategies for drawing students into participation with literature, multimodal composing, and technology with mixed success. I’ve had class blogs and wikis, used learning management systems (like moodle and ctools), made comments and held conferences (both synchronously and asynchronously) through google docs, assigned multi-genre projects, designed displays of student work at varying levels of publicity, and encouraged the production of comix and video. It’s been messy and fun and frustrating. It’s a lot of work, and I kind of love it.

I thought I’d share a bit of my students’ work here and think through what these multimodal assignments offered.

Mythology unit

P1050517For this assignment, students worked in groups to “translate” a myth (the myths were chosen from various cultures) into comix format. They identified the major plot points, divided dialogue and description, modernized the language, and balanced image and text to convey the story. Willie Houston (10th grade) was the lead artist for this group and worked several hours after school and during lunch to complete this project. I especially like the”thinking” backgrounds behind Promethius and Epimethius.

After this project, students wrote their own originary myths – explaining how the world or something in it came to be. Playing on Promethius’s sacrifice, Willie wrote “The Origin of the Fro,” in which the protagonist suffers his hair being snipped away every night so that mankind might enjoy glorious hair.

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You can see his rough draft, peer comments, plans for revision (in the starburst), final copy, and illustration.

Offrenda

Around Dia de los Muertos, students wrote a short memorial and copied it onto yellow, orange, or red paper for a class offrenda. iphone%2520350The memorials were about cousins killed in Iraq, grandparents left behind in Mexico, beloved pets, or if someone was lucky enough not to have lost anyone yet, celebrities. Some of my students worked harder and more thoughtfully on these pieces than anything else they did, and it prepared them to read or reflect on (depending on whether we read it before or after) Antigone and her struggle to honor her brother. We lit candles, read Aztec myths about monarchs carrying the souls of the dead, and had cocoa and pan de muertes on the final day of the unit.

Antigone unit

I’m so sad that I don’t have anything to share from Antigone. My husband and I acted out a scene between Creon and Antigone in the courtyard at school for an audience of our combined classes. I can’t believe no one took pictures! We did the scene twice for each set of classes – once with Antigone seeming reasonable and Creon inflexible, and once with Antigone seeming proud and Creon struggling to understand. Administration and students from other classes came to the edges of the courtyard to watch William chase me through the crowd with a baseball bat. It was intense and provoked some thoughtful discussion and writing. I also cut the play into scenes and groups filmed adaptations that we then watched in sequence. I particularly remember one group that spun the play as a gunslinger western. (I’m in communication with my co-teacher at the time to see if she has video.)

Night unit

In this project, I asked students to choose one memorable moment from Night by Elie Wiesel, choose one color, and illustrate it. When they were finished, I put the illustrations in order as a kind of review for the events of the novel. A few moments have only one illustration, but some of the more traumatic/emotional got multiple illustrations, reflecting their importance in the memoir.

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I read Night aloud every Spring for six years to multiple classes. These lessons were part of my TAKS preparation unit.

I also did a one-day workshop in test-taking strategies. Sara Simmons (10th grade) created this “paragraph” response for the notes page:

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used with permission from Sara Simmons

Shakespeare unit

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used with permission from Stephanie Perez

After testing, we typically did a Shakespeare unit, and students had the option of making a poster/comic or adapting and filming a scene. By this time they had done both and had a better feel for where their talents could be best put to use.
I love this final page in Stephanie Perez’s Othello. The silhouette of Desdemona waiting, the image of the candle put out (that’s a reference to the source material), the broken and bleeding heart, and the joined hands at the end capture very well the mix of sorrow, finality, and forgiveness at the end of the play.

In Traci Partida’s work, the damning evidence comes from Desdemona’s cell phone record, though the handkerchief, and Desdemona’s inability to account for it, is still the final straw.

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used with permission from Traci Partida

So I have plenty of “composing” going on, great thinking, interesting conversations, but a legitimate question remains: where’s the writing? I believe this kind of work promotes deep engagement and familiarity with texts, community in the classroom, and appreciation of the varied experiences and talents of the students, but can it count as writing? These activities were not the only things we did in class, but I gave them a great deal of time, and I insisted that we read these works aloud together to model my own comprehension strategies and to be sure we all had the opportunity to contribute. By the end of the year, students were fluent in the two page personal reflection essay required for the state exam and well-prepared to tackle the open-ended response questions that required using evidence from the text to make a point. Though I felt pressure to prepare them for those tasks, I also believed that these multimodal projects had the power to get them there. Students had an opportunity to see their thinking embodied in the classroom. They looked at each others’ work with a critical eye and commented on what worked and why. Did these skills transfer to their later reading and writing tasks?

It occurs to me that a great deal of what I was aiming for with these assignments was building “common” knowledge. The potential for display and quick uptake of these projects meant that students often walked around the classroom before and after (and sometimes during) class, taking in what their peers had made of the works we were reading together. So as I revise and research to adapt this piece for my scholarly webtext, maybe I should be looking for the ways in which multimodal projects contribute to community and classroom knowledge.

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4 thoughts on “Reflections on multimodal assignments: part 1

  1. I think that realization of how “multimodal projects contribute to community and classroom knowledge” is important to answering your question of “where is the writing”? As much as we value writing for public, social, communicative purposes, the reality of writing in a classroom setting is that it often stops short of fulfilling those purposes. So, in order to facilitate that building of common knowledge, maybe the “writing” becomes secondary and subsumed to the “composing” ((as in your second example from Willie)).

    PS: Can I be your student? Like, formally, I mean. I know I already learn from you everyday, but I want to officially take a class.

  2. I absolutely love the mental image of “Administration and students from other classes came to the edges of the courtyard to watch William chase me through the crowd with a baseball bat. ”
    I ❤ you guys.

  3. Thanks for all the student work. I might (hedge) start saying without hedges that almost all articles about writing would do well to include some examples of the kind of writing that is being spoken of. For example, we read the Sorapure text about how to assess and she made the crazy move to actually show the stuff and say how she assessed it. And I love how you puzzle out issues about writing and composing and how multimodal composition might help prepare for standardized tests with examples of those things. Really cool.

    Just to talk K-12 shop for a second, my biggest problem with the really cool multimodal, art, performance, etc. projects was that I tended to get 1/4 heartwarmingly amazing, 1/2 stolid efforts that shows about as much engagement as an essay, and 1/4 lazy / boring shit. I suspected then, and still do, that my lack of being able to demonstrate much artistic creativity led to at least 1/2 of the latter 1/4.

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