Composing with Sound, Post 5: Assignment Ideas

Over the past 4 posts in my series on using sound to teach composition, I’ve mainly been discussing the nuts and bolts of sound composition mechanics. I’ve made my case for why I think sound composition matters, discussed some options we have for recording and downloading different sound assets, and, in my last post, outlined some of my favorite tools for playing with those sounds. These posts cover what tends to intimidate educators the most about using sound in the classroom: the technology.

I, however, find the most challenging part about using sound in the classroom to be something other than navigating the tech. Much more challenging is deciding how to use sound composition well and integrate it into my curriculum in meaningful ways, so that students get the most out of the connections between sound composition and larger principles of writing. It can be intimidating to get practical about actually handing students an assignment or an activity that asks them to write using sound. So my hope with this blog post is to share some simple, accessible classroom ideas that might help you take the leap and give sound composition a try in your classroom.

The most important thing about sound-writing assignments is this: keep it simple. If only you knew the deep irony in my saying this, as I unfailingly craft dauntingly complicated and unnecessarily convoluted sound-composition assignments that my kind and gentle colleagues regularly remind me are WAY too much. There’s just so much to play with!! But it is only because of this tendency of mine that I know the importance of the mantra. Keep it simple.

With that in mind, I’ve generated a list of what I think are accessible sound assignments that should present an appropriate level of challenge for novice sound-writers while still giving educators an opportunity to capitalize on some of the huge benefits of writing with sound. Most of these assignments can be completed individually or in groups. All of these assignments can either be preempted with a brief genre analysis, giving students examples of things they can do, or you can let them loose and have them experiment with their ideas and visions.

  • Podcasts. The world of podcasting is diverse, and some podcasts are a simple 5 minutes long featuring a single speaker discussing a central topic of interest. The podcasts don’t have to be complex, but they are a real-world genre that students can find successful examples of in almost any discipline. This assignment can also be a nice opportunity to emphasize the research process.
  • InterviewsFacilitating, recording, and editing interviews with individuals relevant to a particular field of study can be exciting and meaningful for students.  Active listening is a difficult skill for today’s students. Crafting questions that target specific ideas and themes and then listening carefully to someone’s answers in order to package them into a coherent, interesting, and focused conversation exercises a lot of important compositional skills.
  • Spoken Word Poetry. While sound poems can be a bit theoretical and heady for novice sound-writers, spoken word poetry can be extremely accessible. I have 2 suggestions for ways to execute this:
    • Choose a published poem to record themselves reading aloud. Ask students to read the poem aloud a few times, noticing where and how long they pause, which words they emphasize, how quickly or slowly they speak, and the emotion they generate with their voice. Have them record themselves reading the poem in a way that they think brings meaning to it. While this isn’t technically spoken word poetry, it serves as a really good introductory assignment to prepare students to write and record their own spoken word poetry.
    • Ask students to write and record an original spoken word poem. This can be a little trickier, particularly because spoken word poetry usually includes the visuals of the speaker, but asking students to record just the audio of their poem encourages them to focus on their voice, pauses, rhythm, and cadence. I recommend the poems be brief, but asking students to choose both the words they say AND how they say them will give them important insight into how language and communication functions.
  • Audio Dramas. This can be a really fun way to explore characterization, plot development, and creation of emotional responses in your reader. Audio dramas can be simple, often having 2 or 3 speaking parts. I wouldn’t encourage students to make this much longer than 3-5 minutes, so their dramas would be similar to the flash fiction genre. This allows them to focus on one or two aspects of their drama that they’d like to come across audibly.
    • An alternative version of this assignment could be to give students a piece of flash fiction and ask them to adapt it into a brief audio drama. Adapting the assignment in this way relieves them of the task of creating the drama, but adds the complexity of recreating a particular set of events and emotions in a whole new mode.
  • Music. Students can take this as seriously or be as silly as they’d like, but ask students to write and record a song around particular idea or concept. They can use any genre of music. Acapella music or sound effects work for students who don’t have the skills or desire to include instruments. You can choose whether or not to require lyrics. My only suggestion with a song submitted with no lyrics would be that you either have a conversation with the student or you ask them to submit a brief written description of their choices in the song and how the student intended those choices to be interpreted.

The list for accessible sound writing assignments is infinite; this is a brief starter list. I’m sure there are amazing options that I haven’t even considered, but please feel free to use and adapt any of these ideas in your own classroom. I would recommend however that you make these assignments low-stakes. Sound composition is unfamiliar to most students, and grade pressure will only inhibit their experience exploring the mode.

My sincere hope is that, if you didn’t find anything directly useful to you in your classroom here, this blog series at least got you thinking about the potentials of sound composition in helping students understand writing, voice, and communication. My experiences with asking students to engage with sound have been incredible, and I’d love to see more classrooms take advantage of this relevant, influential, and impactful mode.

 

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Composing with Sound, Post 4: Tools for Mixing Sounds

In my series on using sound composition in the English Language Arts classroom, my last post focused on how to go about collecting the sounds students need to create careful and intentional compositions. The next step after this is, of course, to put those sounds together in meaningful ways. For this, we need sound editing software. Luckily there are lots of excellent, FREE options available to us.

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The 3 best (and again, totally free) options I know of and have had success with are:

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Garage Band | A proprietary software put out by Apple for use with Apple products.

Pros:

  • It works smoothly with no bugs. I’ve never heard of a problem with Garage Band crashing.
  • The user interface is intuitive and easy-to-learn. It won’t take new users long to get comfortable.
  • It comes bundled with lots of pre-recorded material such as sound effects and music for students to use as they work. I personally don’t like this because I prefer to have my students go through the process of choosing and finding specific sounds, but the pre-loaded material definitely makes composing with sound a bit easier.

Cons:

  • This is made by and for Apple. It only works on Macs, so this can be limiting depending on what your students are using.
  • Sound editing options such as effects and processing options are more limited in Garage Band than in a more complex program like Audacity.

 

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Beautiful Audio Editor | An experimental web-based audio editor for desktop and mobile.

Pros:

  • Beautiful Audio Editor is SUPER easy to use. The interface is simple and intuitive. You can show a student how to drive it in 10 minutes, and they’ll have what they need to complete basic tasks.
  • The program is web-based, do you don’t have to download anything. You can download the app if you’d like, or you can just visit the site and work from there.

Cons:

  • It’s still in the beta phase, so it is buggy, particularly on projects that exceed 300MB or around 45 minutes in length.
  • It only works with Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox.
  • The simplicity of Beautiful Audio Editor comes at a cost; it is a little limited in what it can do.

 

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Audacity | A free, open-source sound editing software that works on any operating system.

Pros:

  • Audacity has been around since 2000, so it’s not buggy. It’s dependable, and there are LOTS of tutorials out there, as people have been using it successfully for years.
  • It is very powerful and can do basically everything. A student who is nervous and hesitant will be able to create basic compositions, but a student with some background in sound editing can really have some fun.
  • Audacity is cross-platform. You can use it on any operating system. It will work on Windows, Mac, or Linux, so students can use whatever devices they have available to them without limitation.

Cons:

  • Audacity can be complicated to use. It has a lot of functionality for a free software, but that means that it can be overwhelming to users of all ages who are new to composing with sound. This also means that, in a classroom setting, you have to budget some significant time for training students on how to use it well and confidently.
  • Audacity does not come with any pre-recorded material like Garage Band does. So newbies who are looking to play around have to gather all their materials.
  • I have read some accounts of Audacity crashing on users, but I personally have never had this happen.

All of these options allow multiple tracks, which helps students play with layering and sound interaction. All of them are free and very reasonable to teach students to use. There are also always new options emerging, so it’s a good idea to pay attention to the tech blogs and top 10 lists out there.

In my opinion, the choice of which software to use comes down to complexity of the project and confidence of the teacher. Beautiful Audio Editor is the simplest, most basic of these options, but it is also the most limited and unreliable. Audacity is the most complicated, but it is also the most powerful. Garage Band seems to strike a balance between the options and may be a good starting place for classrooms that have adequate access to Mac devices.

Ultimately, the absolute best way to make the choice on which editor option is the best for you is to mess around with them! Create some smaller compositions of your own and see which editor makes the most sense to you and most closely meets your assignment needs.

Composing with Sound, Post 3: How to Acquire Sounds

As I work through this series of posts on composing with sound, I’ve touched on some of the reasons why sound is an important and often undervalued tool in the composition classroom. For this post, I’d like to focus briefly on some of the options our students have for acquiring the sounds they want to compose with.

The process of deciding what sounds students will use is a complicated network of strategic rhetorical choices. As the webtext I collaborated on for publication in Kairos outlines, there are 5 general categories of sound for composers to choose from:

  1. Music
  2. Sound Effects
  3. Voice
  4. Silence
  5. The interaction between these sounds

Our students have to acquire these sounds in order to make something out of them. Of course consideration has to be given to copyright laws and legality; however, the options for gathering sound assets are almost as limitless as the sounds themselves.

There are 2 basic options here.

  1. The most straightforward way to get the sounds your students need is often to have them create and record the sounds themselves. This might mean they write and perform a song or record sounds or voices from their daily lives, but they are the ones creating usable recordings from the sounds they hear. There are many different ways to do this well.
    • Most phones come equipped with simple recording capabilities. As an iPhone user, I love the Voice Memo app. This comes pre-loaded onto any iPhone and is wildly easy to use. You can name, export, and email recordings straight to your email where you can upload them for use in a sound composition. Below is a screenshot from my phone as I record using Voice Memo.
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    • There are lots of affordable microphones available for purchase ranging from $15 to a few hundred dollars.
      • I use an Excelvan Studio Condenser Microphone, which I got on Amazon for around $15. This baby plugs easily into my computer’s audio jack where I can record the sounds in any recording software I like.
      • A step up that is very well-reviewed is the Blue Snowball microphone which goes for around $50. This is nice because it’s a high-quality recording device that just plugs right into your USB outlet.
      • The gold standard for an easy-to-use recording device is also put out by Blue Designs: the Yeti. Also USB-equipped, this buddy costs around $130.
      • If your school has a MakerSpace, it’s worth checking to see if that space includes any recording equipment or if they’d be willing to purchase some for school use.
  2. The other option available to your students is to locate pre-recorded, already existing sounds that they are free to use. There are loads of these for free on the internet; however, this is where you need to caution your students to be careful to only use materials that they have permission and legal right to use and remix. Ethically using someone else’s creations adds a layer of complexity to the process.
    • For music, Soundcloud and ccMixster have a variety of options available for free use.
    • For sound effects, Freesound has a library of free-use choices.
    • For voices, students and peers of mine have in the past solicited help from online actors. Posting a request with an explanation of the project on social media or Reddit can often result in a voluntary actor recording themselves and sending your students the material they need for free! Just make sure your students make their plans for the recordings very clear to any participants.
    • One of the biggest resources for pre-recorded sound assets is to search through the Creative Commons search function; this way you can be sure that the materials your students are finding are free for use in their compositions.

Once the sounds have been chosen and acquired, the process of creating a composition out of them becomes the main focus. This involves layering, arranging, and editing to create the desired effects. Tools to help educators with this next step of the process will be the focus of my next post as I keep plugging along in sharing some of the options out there for using sound in the classroom!

Composing with Sound In the Classroom, Post 2: Why Bother with Sound?

Before I get too deep into some of the logistics in my discussion on using sound composition in the high school classroom, I’d like to generally explain why I think more teachers of writing should be capitalizing on this gold mine of a mode.

As teachers, we only have our students in our rooms for a precious little amount of time, and the expanse of skills and knowledge we want to impart to them is truly bottomless. The process of paring down our lessons and units to no more than what is absolutely necessary and no less than what is irresistibly engaging for our students is the impossible task given to every educator. With this conundrum at hand, what makes sound composition worthy of our valuable and fleeting time together?

In response to this question, I have compiled the following list which is certainly only introductory; however, my hope is that it will serve as an entry point for educators considering incorporating sound into their curriculum.

  • I have blogged before about the importance of composing in a variety of modes. Equipping our students to be fluent, creative, and explorative in whatever modes are available to them is an integral piece of developing them into literate scholars in our current world. Sound is one of those modes!
  • Sound saturates our students’ lives. Music, podcasts, speeches, radio, and our own classroom instructions are all strategically constructed sound compositions designed to accomplish specific rhetorical goals in a targeted audience. It is important that we not miss opportunities to help our students become more aware of some of the genres and rhetoric swirling around them in these compositions by teaching them how sound works as a tool for making meaning.
  • Sound as a mode in the classroom is unusual and unexpected, which means it automatically places students outside their comfort zones. This is where they can most easily escape convention and imitation in order to find creativity and unique voice. This also promotes genre awareness as students work in a mode that invites the use of fixed, established genres as well as genre-invention.
  • Inclusive classrooms are authentically accessible for a wide range of students of different physical, cognitive, and linguistic ability levels. Using sound composition diversifies the accessibility of your classroom, creating more points of access into your material for more students.
  • Students often come to sound composition with a pre-established and somewhat instinctive understanding of how sound works. Based on their experience using and experiencing sound compositions, they will find themselves prepared to use sound strategies in ways that prompt real reflection on audience awareness, rhetorical goals, and genre decisions.

Traditionally, classrooms that explore non-alphabetic modes of composition employ the use of imagery, physical movement, video, or sculpture. While all of these modes are essential, I rarely find sound among them. This is exciting to me as an educator because it means we have this massive, untapped resource at our fingertips! My goal for the next few blog post is to offer some easy, free, and practical tools to help educators bring sound composition work into their classrooms.

Composing with Sound in the Classroom: Post 1

Anyone familiar with me or my work as a teacher or a scholar knows that I have the biggest soft spot in the world for any kind of compositional work involving sound. I’ve blogged for NCTE about it with some of my colleagues; I was part of a collaborative piece exploring sonic rhetoric that was published in the online journal Kairos; I incorporate audio options for my students in major assessments; and I try to bring sonic rhetoric into my classroom whenever humanly possible. I could (and will at a later date) go on, but my point here is that I believe composing with sound is a dynamic, inherently engaging way of teaching students to think creatively and carefully about the ways they make meaning in their work.

Despite the staggering wealth of opportunities for meaningful exploration and play that sound composition offers, I don’t often see it used in composition classrooms. I believe there are a variety of reasons for this, including but not limited to…

  • a general lack of appreciation for the value of multimodal composition
  • intimidation surrounding working in an unfamiliar mode and/or genre
  • uncertainty concerning how to authentically integrate the content into coursework
  • perhaps most significant, anxiety regarding the required technology

With this list in mind, I’d like to take my next few blog posts to address some of these common hindrances to sound composition in the classroom. While using sound to teach composition may sound complicated or confusing, my experience has shown it to be the exact opposite. There are actually VERY accessible, intuitive, and user-friendly solutions to many of these concerns, and I’m excited to share some of my experience with using sound in the classroom in the hopes that this might encourage other educators to take the risk and give sound composition a try with their students! I can absolutely promise that you and your students will LOVE the things you discover when composing with sound.

 

 

In Defense of Student Profanity in the Classroom

I’ll be the first to admit that classroom profanity is an issue that most likely impacts me more poignantly than the average high school teacher, as I work in a private Christian school. The contemporary Christian tradition frowns fairly heavily on profanity in most if not all contexts. And, to be fair, I appreciate the intense thought and care that goes into the way my school approaches some aspects of language as a result of this sensitivity to profanity. However, I’d like to take a moment to assert my very deep and passionate belief in the importance of creating educational spaces that allow and perhaps even invite student experiences and interactions with profanity.

The tough thing about unilaterally barring classroom profanity is that profanity is a delightfully and infinitely complicated and nuanced entity. It can encompass certain words that are considered taboo or inappropriate, or it can more generally refer to concepts or ideas that shouldn’t be discussed per cultural norms. Some profanity, particularly racial epithets, can be taboo without technically counting as swears. All profanity is highly cultural. As this BBC article points out, there are curse words in some languages that quite simply don’t exist in others or invoke none of the shock value. The reality is that none of these words carry intrinsic, profane meaning; they are only loaded with the cultural value that we have charged them with. The whole idea of profanity is fundamentally subjective, which means that it’s going to be a tough thing to take an objective attitude towards.

Because profanity is profoundly subjective, each educator has to decide for themselves how best to integrate it into their classroom. With that in mind, please allow me to propose just a few of my reasons for considering profanity an important and necessary presence in the composition classroom.


1 – Swearing is actually a high-order language device that requires a fair amount of skill and rhetorical awareness to wield well. I often hear protests in some way or another implying that those who swear are limited in their vocabulary or fluency. The belief here is that swearing is the poor man’s resort when no other course of action can be devised. In reality, as Emma Byrne points out, “swearing is often impressively strategic, and a fluency in crass language typically correlates with verbal fluency in general.” Whether to offend, amuse, empathize, or express deep pain, swearing is a very complicated tool relying on highly nuanced linguistic and social skills. An effort to give students flexibility and fluency with communication through language should, at the very least, expose them to the wealth of linguistic and cultural power harnessed through profanity.

2 – Swearing is a powerful tool for expressing pain. Curse words are intensely expressive and cathartic. When teaching our students how words can be used to emote effectively, I’m not sure how one can entirely overlook profanity. Richard Stephens of Keele University conducted a study that suggests that individuals can withstand more physical pain when swearing than when not, pointing to the power that swearing has with regards to human suffering. I teach my students to use their words to express and release emotion. For some students, giving them the option of using profanity to do that can be extremely meaningful. It is equally if not more important for my students to understand this power in profane words used by people around them. This is an important element of empathy and hearing the pain of others through their words.

3 – Profanity is already saturating their existences. It feels a little like denial to me to avoid student profanity in the classroom. Our students are immersed in profanity constantly. I feel negligent when I choose not to equip them with the experience, tools, and awareness they need to meaningfully process the roles and uses of profanity in their environment and to exert the control they need to make kind and ethical choices with their words.

4 – I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the added complications surrounding swearing and gender. I am very conscious of the fact that women who swear often face a double standard. Societal expectations pressure women more than men into politeness, morality, and good behavior. While cultural stereotypes of male swearing usually suggest strength or rogue rebellion, female swearing is often perceived as distasteful, immoral, and unattractive. This is a manifestation of deeply problematic social standards, and, as a feminist who promotes female agency in my classroom, it is important for me to undermine this. My students should choose for themselves the role of profanity in their self expression, but their gender should not be the reason they do so.


Words matter. All words matter. My goal with my students is to teach them that their communication, with words and otherwise, needs to always be intentional, careful, and kind. Their purpose should never be to tear down those around them, but should only be to build goodness in a broken world. Words are one of the many tools we use to do this. It is my belief that profanity is a part of using and understanding the power of words. My students should know the power of profanity to devastate and dishonor, but also to connect, understand, and communicate.

Do I think my students should swear all the time? No. But not because swearing is bad. My students should be very conscious of whether or not they swear, when, where, and/or how they swear because profanity is powerful and prevalent. How they want to wield that power is outside of my control, but I’ll be damned if they’re going to head out into the world without some understanding of and experience with it.

Teachers Returning from Deep Dives

Today in our final faculty meeting of the year, one of my colleagues, Chris Greco, tossed an analogy out for us all as we prepared to leave the harried school year and enter summer vacation. He reflected that, as a teacher, entering summer break is a lot like a scuba diver surfacing from a deep dive. Both involve transitions from extreme, high-pressure environments to sunny, usually notably lower-pressure situations. But, as Chris succinctly pointed out, if a scuba diver ascends too quickly, “their head explodes.” Here is where his analogy hits practicality for me as an educator entering my summer months.

I love summer. I need summer. I need the rest and flexibility that it brings. But I do remember last summer being less than the idyllic dreamscape I imagined. I felt stressed, fidgety, and aimless. So often I hear my peers and myself saying things like, “I don’t do well in the summer. I get anxious. I miss the structure.” Summer is, for many educators, a time of nervous ennui or of daunting confrontation with our own selves.

Listening to Chris today, I began to wonder if at least part of what we were experiencing was our metaphorical heads exploding. Perhaps we had come up from our school year deep dives too quickly, without giving our heads and our hearts time to adjust to the gradual changes in pressure and environment. Perhaps there had been no adjustment period.

And so, as I enter this summer, I am preparing differently than I have in the past. I am coming up for air slowly and carefully, paying attention to myself and my surroundings as I do so. Instead of hurling myself headlong into a series of long afternoon naps (which I absolutely still plan to indulge in), I’m going to plan out my afternoons. I’m making my lists of tasks and goals and hopes for the summer, and I’m carefully arranging them in ways that leave wide sunny summer afternoons open for grass naps with dogs, but that also structure my time to maintain a new kind of productivity that is both gentle and ambitious. I am doing my best to swim slowly to the surface, adjusting and patting the waiting pups along the way.

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