Multimodality: What is it Good for?

In my previous post on the importance of multimodality in 21st century literacies, I defined my understanding of what multimodality is and explored the idea that our culture’s commonly dismissive and condescending view of multimodality in the English classroom is, at the very least, up for debate.  In this blog post, I’m going to raise some of what I consider to be fairly compelling arguments for the use of multimodal assignments in the modern high school classroom.  These arguments are somewhat varied in scope and are listed in no particular order of importance or otherwise!

1) Modes of communication are inextricably linked to one another; a composition is never composed entirely in a single mode without some reliance on additional modes. Reading musical compositions, while largely an audio endeavor, has a necessary visual component in that music is recorded and printed with a complex set of symbols.  Music is also a gestural, physical meaning-making process; any music lover will tell you that you never get the full meaning of a song until you watch the artist physically perform that piece, factoring in body language, facial expressions, and musical technique.  These modes all interact with one another to create the integrated meaning of a musical composition.  Even our beloved default of the alphabetical mode is actually a very visual mode in that it is a complex series of symbols that students learn to recognize.  Print alphabetical texts are rarely devoid of visual, nonalphabetical cues; authors can communicate necessary information to readers through font, spacing, layout, and a wide array of other visual tools. Understanding how different modes interact with one another and with the audience creates students who can critically and meaningfully analyze pieces composed in any combination of modes, enabling them to interpret complex cues and messages.

2) Teaching students to apply the rigorous approaches of literary analysis to multimodal compositions enables them to meaningfully and insightfully approach a wide variety of interdisciplinary compositions.  Art, music, drama, mathematics, and a host of other disciplines rely heavily on modes other than the alphabetical in their compositions.  When we teach students to read, analyze, respond intelligently to, and produce multimodal compositions, we equip them with valuable tools to apply their literary skills across the disciplines.

3) Multimodal projects often work well as digital assignments.  Multimodal assignments do not necessarily require digital tools; however, they do present the occasion for students to test and develop their technological skills while strengthening complex rhetorical and analytical skills.  See my prior blog post for more reflection on how necessary it is for our modern students to be fluent and creative in digital spheres.

4) Offering students an opportunity to compose multimodally is a fun and alternative way to engage ELL students who might otherwise have difficulty connecting with and completing a composition assignment in the traditional, alphabetic mode.  Students who struggle with English as a nonnative language may thrive when given an assignment in which they can compose freely without the added concern for grammar, academic language, or spelling.  This gives ELL students a chance to build confidence and fluency while also developing and utilizing complex composition and critical analysis skills.

5) Integrating academically rigorous work that appeals to a student body demonstrating a variety of Howard Gardner‘s multiple intelligences can be challenging.  Multimodal work, digital or non-digital, can respect, engage, and develop students of all learning styles.  Assignments that ask students to make intelligent and strategic choices in modes that come naturally to them in order to intelligently create meaning are tasks that both challenge and encourage academic identities.  The ability to use sound, motion, color, or image in order to convey what may be a very insightful or intelligent idea can often be a huge relief for a student who struggles to convey those ideas in the traditional alphabetic mode and whose primary intelligence is not verbal/linguistic.

6) The real world is multimodal.  The social, career, and recreational spheres of modern life are all multimodal, featuring complex combinations of sounds, images, and text.  If we don’t teach our students to be smart consumers of the information and entertainment that they are bombarded with, they will struggle to navigate the fast-paced culture in which they live.  Assigning challenging and rigorous analyses of composer choices in multimodal pieces as well as asking students to make those choices in their own compositions helps our students grow into smart, savvy individuals capable of functioning expertly in their society and culture.

These are just a few points in a litany of what I consider to be very valid arguments as to why multimodal composition is important, if not essential, in the modern English classroom. In all of these points, I make repeated mention of rigorous and challenging academic analyses of multimodal compositions.  Given that multimodality is somewhat unfamiliar in an academic context, it can sometimes be difficult to envision how a multimodal assignment can be intellectually and analytically demanding for a student in the same way an essay or paper can.  How can a video assignment help students develop tangible skills that may translate into their paper writing?  How can a student’s compositional skills in the alphabetic mode really be tested and stretched in a non-alphabetic mode? To help shed some light on this, in my next blog post, I will be posting a video composition of my own that I completed as part of a graduate class.  Along with that video composition, I’ll include some discussion of the fairly complicated compositional choices I had to make in compiling it as well as some of the academic research I relied on in making those decisions.  My hope is that this will offer a little bit of insight into the complexity and potential for pedagogical use that well-designed multimodal assignments can have for a 21st century classroom.

I also recognize the great irony of relying so heavily on the traditional, alphabetic mode to write about the need for multimodality and the unprecedented communicative power of multimodal compositions. But, in my defense, would you take my points seriously if I communicated them in an alternative mode?

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The Importance of Multimodality in 21st Literacies

Carrying on in my series on what it takes to create literate students in the 21st century (as introduced in this blog post), I’d like to take this post to discuss the way we as teachers and as a society think about multimodal texts.  A mode, in the words of Gunther Kress, “is a socially shaped and culturally given resource for making meaning.  Image, writing, layout, music, gesture, speech, moving image, sountrack are examples of modes used in presentation and communication” (54).  So, essentially, modes are systems we use to make and communicate meaning.  We can make and share meaning through pictures, graphics, gesticulation, and any of the modes Kress lists above.  A multimodal text is any composition that conveys meaning using multiple modes or nontraditional modes like the ones listed above.

When we engage in discussions about academic literacy and composition pedagogy, however, we are referring almost exclusively to the alphabetic, written mode. Generally, we view alphabetic texts as the most academic and rigorous forms of scholarship.  Multimodal texts, texts that exceed the alphabetic, incorporating still or moving images, sound, color etc., are commonly viewed as less intellectual, less academic, and less scholarly.

Here is where I’m going to bring us right back to the NCTE 2013 definition of 21st century literacies, which states…

“Active, successful participants in this 21st century global society must be able to…

    • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
    • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
    • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts

I’ve added the bolded words to make my point, which is essentially that our commonplace dismissal of all texts that are not alphabetic is, at the very least, up for questioning.  The NCTE statement above lists flexibility and fluency in multimodal texts and textual design as necessary skills when defining literacy in the modern age.  The NCTE actually has gone so far as to publish a statement specific to multimodal literacy; this statement gets into the complexities of meaning production in our current cultural climate, encouraging teachers to push students to read and write critically and skillfully in a wide variety of media.

As an aside, in order to head off any confusion, for the purposes of this blog post as well as any others that may follow in this series, I am using the terms “multimodal” and “multimedia” interchangeably.  Claire Lauer‘s article, “Contending with Terms: ‘Multimodal’ and ‘Multimedia’ in the Academic and Public Spheres,” analyzes the difference between these two terms, coming to the conclusion that “rather than the use of these terms being driven by any difference in their definitions, their use is more contingent upon the context and the audience to whom a particular discussion is being directed” (225).  So, while I will stick mainly to the term “multimodal,” I am considering the term “multimedia” to be synonymous.

The NCTE is not the only voice challenging our culture’s dismissive view of the complexities and scholarship behind multimodal composition.  Kress feels that the reliance that mainstream culture and society has on alphabetic language and scholarship “is a consequence of histories of power and misrecognition due to power” (67).  Kress bases his point on sign-language; sign-language is a fully functioning, complex system for making meaning that does not use the alphabet in the least, but relies entirely on a system of symbolic gestures.  Kress argues that, since sign language developed out of the necessity of the disabled community, it is not held in the same esteem as alphabetic language.  Collin Gifford Brooke holds that “the composition classroom… with its slow and steady approach to writing, may not prepare students to seize upon” the impactful and trending potential that multimodal and digital writing has to offer (181).  In her recent research, Cynthia Shanahan makes a point of saying that, when she refers to texts, she is “referring to a rather broad conception of that word, in that I refer to graphical or pictorial representations of ideas and spoken discourses as texts.”  She clarifies that she does so because “often these representations may seem more accessible than written discourse but are deceptively abstruse” (143).

My general point here is merely that the casual disregard we have for texts that are composed in modes other than the alphabetic may be based more on cultural biases than on real reflections of scholarship, intellect, or complexity.  If my point has any validity, it would follow that, in a modern high school classroom, our exclusive focus on alphabetic texts is not only limiting, but insufficient in the goal of creating literate students in the 21st century.

References:

Brooke, Collin Gifford. “New Media Pedagogy.” A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. 2nd ed. NY: Oxford University Press, 2014. 177-193. Print.

Kress, Gunther. “What is mode?” The Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis. Ed. by Carey Jewitt. USA: Routledge, 2010. 54-67. Print.

Lauer, Claire. “Contending with Terms: ‘Multimodal’ and ‘Multimedia’ in the Academic and Public Spheres.” Computers and Composition 26 (2006): 225-239. Web. 24 Feb 2015.

Shanahan, Cynthia. “Research in Multiple Texts and Text Support.” Adolescent Literacy in the Era of the Common Core. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013. 143-162. Print.

The End-Of-The-Semester Blues

It’s time to face the facts: I am running way behind on my blog posts and more than a little short on the golden commodity of time.  Alas, grad school final projects have gotten the better of my past week.  On the upside, my faithful study buddies are in it to win it with me.

IMG_2591 IMG_2784

I’ll be back on my blogging game ASAP, so please accept these snapshots of their sleepy faces in the interim.

Tao Time Detour

I’m making the executive decision to take a second detour in my series of posts on 21st century literacies.  If you’re unwilling to take surprise detours, you might miss some major highlights, right? And, trust me, these girls are major highlights.

We meet every Thursday after lunch.  We voted on what to call ourselves and ended up with “Tao: Together As One,” which beat out “Dangerous Divas” by an alarmingly small margin.  There are approximately 15 of us and the most heatedly debated topic in each and every one of our sessions together tends to center around what snack I will be bringing next week.  The girls all come from different grades, places in life, and backgrounds; the only thing that they have in common is a need for community.

So Lawrence High’s guidance counselor, in her infinite wisdom, thought it might be a good idea to gather these ladies together to form a community of their own.  And oh what a community has been formed!

We have 3 rules:

1) Always be supportive, positive, and respectful.

2) What happens in Tao time stays in Tao time.

3) Don’t hog the snacks.

We take these rules super seriously; although, I’m not sure we even needed to set them.  These beauties innately understand the roles of positivity, respect, and selflessness in our time together.  They are funny, smart, and one-of-a-kind young women who have, with very little help or input from me, come together and built a safe place for themselves out of relationships with one another.  For 4 weeks now, we have been meeting in empty classrooms to share food, laughs, successes, sorrows, fears, and support. These amazing young women have consistently impressed and humbled me in their ability to go deep in our discussions on relationships, careers, family, sexuality, goals, anxiety, and a host of other big-league topics.  They bring profound insight and experience to the table and it has been a genuine honor and blessing to see them gather together and support one another.

I came home from Lawrence High today with my heart full after 90 minutes of unfiltered awesome with the Tao girls.  I sat down to write up my next blog post in my 21st century literacies series and I just had to take a detour to share some of the special brand of wonderful that the strong and beautiful Tao girls bring into the world.

Playing games, sharing stories, and keeping it real.

Using the Digital Writer/Reader Relationship to Teach Writing as a Social Act

Resuming my stint of blog posts relating to 21st century literacies, I wanted to include some research that I recently presented at UMass Boston English Department’s Conference on Teaching Composition, Engaging Practices, while on a panel with my brilliant and talented colleagues from Salem State.

My conference paper discussed how the writer/reader relationship in digital writing is a powerful tool for teaching high school students about writing as a social, dialogical meaning-making act.  In the academic world of contrived assignments and prompts that are intended to be read by the audience of the teacher doing the assigning, sometimes it can be difficult to help students tangibly understand how their goal as writers needs to be communication and participation in a larger conversation.  Students with an understanding of writing as a removed, individualistic endeavor have to learn to value collaboration and interaction in their writing.  In this regard, digital writing can be used as a tool in the modern classroom to give students immediate, hands-on experience with the social and dialogic nature of writing.  The idea that writing can and should be responsive within a larger and ongoing conversation is rarely more evident than in digital writing genres, where immediate and prolific distribution, quick response times, and interactive composition designs all contribute to a uniquely blurred distinction between writer and reader.  Digital writing creates an environment in which the boundaries between the author and the reader of any text are deeply confounded and subverted in ways that offer students the unprecedented opportunity to explore the interactive and responsive nature of writing.

Writing as a Social Act

Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Courtesy of Creative Commons.

The understanding of writing as a social act traces its roots back to Mikhail Bahktin’s understanding of expression through means of discourse with the world around us.  In Bakhtin’s view of verbal expression, meaning is formed by the speaker relative to the expressions of other individuals in the speaker’s environment.  “I live in a world of others’ words” (Bakhtin, Problems 143).  In Bakhtin’s theory, it is impossible to remove words from the ongoing legacy of conversation and cultural expression.  With this understanding, all of speech, and, by extension, writing becomes “inherently responsive” and functions, as Bahktin phrases it, as “a link in the chain of communication” (Bakhtin, Genres 68, 84).

One of the implications of understanding writing as participation in an ongoing, responsive dialogue is that the rigid distinctions separating author and reader are blurred.  When writing is viewed as a dialogical act, the writer and the author are somewhat conflated, each informing the work of the other through the mutual act of conversation.  Kenneth Bruffee phrases it by saying that “reader and writer become part of each others’ sustaining environment” (153).

The Confounded Author/Reader Relationship

The Confounded Author/Reader Relationship

Helping students develop an awareness of those more complicated reader and writer roles as well as the conversational view of writing that informs those roles is an important part of developing their personal composition processes.  Ann Berthoff‘s theories stress that effective composition pedagogy makes students aware of how language and construction of meaning occur in their own thought processes.  Berthoff holds that students do not necessarily need to learn how to form meaning because that is a natural occurrence.  The important component of skilled composition instruction is to teach students to be aware of how they form meanings and what impacts that formation.  The goal that arises from Berthoff and Bakhtin’s theories is to help students understand how words and expression are formed socially and conversationally in order to help them understand and inhabit their own roles as writers and readers in meaningful ways.

Why does it matter?

Teaching students to understand both the writer and reader roles, as well as how those roles can be blurred and conflated, is a necessary component in teaching students to effectively make meaning through their writing.  It allows students to recognize and enter into a community of conversing individuals, engage with diverse perspectives and ideas, and then allow those diverse perspectives and ideas to inform their own as they work to write in ways that then contribute their developing ideas to the wider conversation.  Students become aware of themselves and their thought processes in relation to the other writers in a dialogue.  Their understanding of their roles as writers is informed by their understanding of their somewhat simultaneous roles as readers of the active and ongoing dialogue in which they are participating, facilitating effective and insightful communication through writing.

The Role of Digital Writing

Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Courtesy of Creative Commons.

The effort to teach students to understand and engage in the complex reader/writer role is where digital writing becomes extremely useful. Digital writing genres, like the ones discussed in my prior blog post, in which the interactive and collaborative nature of writing is very evident, provide instances for students to write and to interact with one another’s compositions in ways that resist that idea of a removed, individual author.  This kind of reader/author interaction is not possible to the same degree in traditional print texts.  Elizabeth Losh discusses how, when interacting with a more traditional print text, there is no real opportunity for immediate response to or interaction with the author or fellow readers of that text; however, the same is not true of digital text.

The reader’s interactions with existing digital texts cover a fairly wide scope.  An example of a naturally dialogic and collaborative digital text is a blog post like this one!  Blog posts are often valued at least in part for the number and complexity of discussion comments on the post.  Reader conversation and interaction with one another and with the author of the blog post itself creates the blog page composition as a whole. Generally, comments at the bottom of the blog post are viewed as part of the blog post itself.  Other examples of naturally responsive, social digital writing documents are Facebook posts in which readers are invited to comment on the author’s posting, online forums in which a question is posted and the resulting conversation in response to that question makes up the substance of that forum post page as a whole, or email threads, where the thread is made up of compositions by the readers of the initial email.  These genres of digital writing are inherently comprised of authorship originating from readers of some version of the document itself, creating a very immediate and tangible sense of the ways in which composition is social, active, and responsive.

Another unique way in which digital writing blurs the distinction between author and reader centers around the chronology with which a reader experiences a text.  In traditional print texts, the author creates a fairly linear, one-directional experience that the reader is expected to undergo exactly as the author has laid out.  Chapters and pages are numbered and the expectation is that the reader will read them in that order, starting at the top, left-hand corner of the page and working their way across and down. Gunther Kress observes that this form of composition limits the “reader’s freedom to act” (3).  In digital compositions, this is often not the case.  Websites feature large bodies of text and information arranged in nonlinear formats.  There is not a predetermined or even a suggested reading path for these sites.  Readers of this kind of digital text are authors of their own experiences.  They choose the point at which they enter a page and the approach they take to reading the site as a whole. The same is true of blog posts that include hyperlinks in the text.  These hyperlinks are scattered throughout the text, giving the reader the choice of whether or not to click those links or what order to click them in. Gunther Kress summarizes the impact this kind of composition has on the role of the reader by saying “In this new … world, it is the readers who fashion their own knowledge, from information supplied by makers of the site” (6).

Getting Students Involved

Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Going beyond using the nature of digital writing to merely expose students to the conversations that composition creates and engages in, digital writing can also be incorporated into the classroom in order to offer students the opportunity to actually experience and participate in those conversations.  Part of the appeal of using digital writing in the classroom is the access students gain to the ongoing conversations we are trying to teach them about; they can see the activity of the conversation and then join in with their own compositions and thoughts.  The Internet’s capacity for speed and reach creates an incredible potential for student interaction with a nearly infinite range of possibilities.  Utilizing classroom blogs, posting to academic forums, or commenting on news articles are all examples of ways in which students can gain valuable experience in reading a text, composing a response, and then joining in the wider conversation.  This sort of experience can tangibly and practically teach students that, as readers, they also bring authorial influence to their reading; in authoring a composition, they must be aware of the conversation their composition contributes to and how other members of that dialogue can and potentially will respond.  Participation in these types of digital writing conversations can help cultivate a working understanding of composition as dialogical and social, which creates more thoughtful, skilled, and engaged writers who are capable of utilizing the 21st century digital literacies discussed in my blog post introducing this series.

How This Empowers Diverse Student Writers

Incorporating this social, dialogical understanding of composition pedagogy into the classroom using digital writing also has the potential to empower students of diverse ability levels and backgrounds.  It is a pedagogy that is, as Elizabeth Losh phrases it, “critical of dominant ideologies about language that reinforce existing and often unjust power structures, which exclude certain social actors from participating in communicative exchanges” (58).  Digital writing uniquely complicates the separation between author and reader in a way that challenges social and cultural standards that dictate who has the influence to author texts and who does not.   When the authority of the author role becomes accessible to everyone equally, that authority is profoundly challenged.  As our very rigid, binaried understandings of the role of author in relation to the reader erode and disappear, the influences of social power that privileged the authorial role also disappear.  By demonstrating that writing itself is social and conversational, students can access a means to change the social environment in which they are conversing by claiming an authorship role for themselves.

Conclusion

Ultimately, writing is most meaningful when it is used as a means of communication with and participation in the world at large.  It is difficult to bring students to a place where they can understand this social nature of writing in a practical way.  The complicated author/reader role in digital writing provides the perfect platform from which to launch a student’s exploration of writing as a social act.  Incorporating digital writing into the classroom offers students an opportunity to understand and also participate in social writing genres in ways that challenge their current understandings of the roles of readers and authors.  If that challenge is successful, it will empower students to claim the role of author as their own and use their writing to contribute meaningfully to the world in which they live.

References:

Bakhtin, M.M., Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Ed. Caryl Emerson. MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Print.

Bakhtin, M.M., Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Ed Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist.Trans. Vern W. McGee. TX:University of Texas Press, 1986. Print.

Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Reading and Writing as Social Acts.” Introductory Talk. Indiana Teachers of Writing Spring Seminar. May 1983. Address.

Kress, Gunther. “Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge, and learning.” Computers and Composition 22. (2005): 5-22. Print.

Losh, Elizabeth. Virtualpolitik. MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009. Print.

Ludwig, Teresa Marie. A study of Ann Berthoff’s composition theory. MA Thesis. Iowa State University, 1987. Web. 11 March 2015.

Someone’s Getting Cookies

I’m going to pause my mini series on 21st century literacies to dedicate a brief post to the most wonderful senior who found my wallet last Friday after school hours, rescued it, locked it in his locker all weekend, and then came to bring it back to me on Monday. What a guy!

The wallet in question.

 

Digital Writing Assignment Ideas!

This is my third post in a mini-series of posts I am writing on 21st century literacies in the modern high school classroom.  My first post explored the idea behind what it means for a student to be literate in today’s post-high school environment, focusing on the roles of technology and globalization in current academic and career workplaces.  My second post focused on digital writing in particular, discussing the worth and complexity involved in rhetorically sophisticated digital composition as well as how those digital compositions can be used to teach writing in the classroom.

For this post, I’d like to lighten up the heavy mental lifting for a bit and discuss some practical and accessible assignment ideas for bringing digital writing into the classroom.  I found several of these ideas in Joan Lange, Patrick Connolly, and Devin Lintzenich’s article in the English Journal; their article stresses the idea that digital assignments “build essential skills for success in college: developing curious minds and an ability to analyze and synthesize ideas to communicate insights with an audience.”  Their article focuses exclusively on the use of digital writing in teaching Shakespeare; however, their assignments are relevant for use with most readings!

  • Text Message Paraphrases – This assignment asks students to select a portion of a play or dialogue in a novel and paraphrase the conversation into a text message conversation.  Emojis and gifs are fair game.  The goal is to have students connect with the literary dialogue and make it their own by putting the words into a conversational diction in which they are fluent and comfortable communicating.  This activity encourages close, careful reading of a text as well as exploration of tone and emotion behind the words being said.  It also makes sometimes removed or complicated texts feel real, personal, and relatable.
  • Facebook Profile Page for a Literary Character – In this assignment, the teacher will have created or found a Facebook profile page template.  Students have to choose a character and create a profile as if they were that character, selecting which bands they like, their favorite quotes, a profile picture, and their bio.  Lange explains that “this exercise challenges students to emulate tone and diction associated with a character.”  It also pushes students to insightfully analyze an author’s characterization in order to make decisions and assumptions as to what that character would like or dislike, who their friends would be, or what they would sound like.  Jane Mathison Fife has actually written about how Facebook pages are fairly sophisticated meaning-making devices, making strategic appeals and communicating messages about an individual to a wide audience.  She holds that using Facebook as a classroom tool in order to get students thinking critically about the strategic, communicative functions of social media has the potential to connect the study of literature and rhetoric with their daily lives. This assignment asks students to perform a literary analysis of a character within the situational context of a popular and familiar social media site. (The esteemed Megan of Breaking Grad(School) has shared this perfectly suited Facebook profile page template for classroom use with this assignment!)
  • Tweet a Summary – Any tweet on Twitter cannot exceed 140 characters.  This is a fairly limiting constraint; and yet, Twitter is frequently used to express complex political, philosophical, or social sentiments.  In this assignment, students are asked to summarize a recent reading in one paragraph.  Once this has been completed, students are asked to review their summary and condense it into a tweet.  This tweet would capture the main idea and heart of the reading in 140 characters. This asks students to identify the main message or purpose in a composition and put it into their own words in a conversational genre with which they are very comfortable and familiar.

Lange’s article discusses many of these digital writing assignments as helpful pre-writing activities.  They encourage students to slow down, search for textual clues and connotations, elaborate on their ideas about a text, and develop complex, textually-supported trains of thought that they can then proceed to use in more traditional writing assignments.  When working with students who are not particularly comfortable with the text at hand, assignments like these, which rely heavily on literacies that students are fairly fluent in, can give students the confidence they need to wrestle authentically and connect with a new text.  These assignments also build digital and computer literacy, which, for high school students, is an increasingly invaluable skillset.  Not to mention, they just look like a ton of fun!