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.