This past year, my school let me do a cool thing. Every year in March, LCA takes a week to offer courses outside of the traditional academic curriculum; they call it Academics in Action. The week is intended to help students transition back into academic life from our 2-week Spring break, explore the applications of some of the academic disciplines about which they are passionate, and essentially to play with their scholarship a bit.
It’s a great week, and most, if not all, of the courses are pretty cool. We partner with outside medical facilities so students can get experience in industry labs; we have a Krav Maga instructor come and teach students basics; van loads of students visit local museums and international restaurants; students build their own electric guitars in our Maker Space. It’s fun.
This year, the March Academics in Action week fell somewhat in line with NPR’s first ever Student Podcast Challenge. The deadline for the podcast challenge was the end of March, a week after our course would end, which should give students who wanted it time to polish their compositions before submitting. Also, our school’s Maker Space has a pretty sweet podcasting room with a variety of microphones, sound equipment, and mixing options.
As I’ve blogged about extensively in the past, sound composition is my area of passion. The mode is relevant, powerful, and absolutely riddled with effective and engaging attributes for teaching young writers how to create meaning using the tools available to them. This made the fortuitous timing of LCA’s Academics in Action week and NPR’s blogging competition irresistible to me, so I proposed the course. Once it was approved, I spent time excitedly designing ideas, running these ideas by colleagues, changing said ideas.
Being that it is now late June, I am able to report back on what went down when I took these ideas for a test drive. As with most things, particularly a first try at most things, there were major pros and cons.
Things that could have gone better:
- Most of the students who signed up for my class were students who had taken my class(es) before, so many of them had a foundational understanding of the benefits and power of multimodal composition, the many ways you could interpret the words text or writing, and the creative writing process. However, that wasn’t true for all students. Students who had never been in class with me were at a disadvantage, as they did not know my mentality, vocabulary, or practice when composing with sound. In the future, requiring that students who enroll in the podcasting classes also be my current or prior students would cut down on this.
- Everyone told me this. I knew this. Denial is a fickle mistress. A week is objectively not enough to teach students to compose in a new genre in a relatively unfamiliar mode. The timing of the course presented problems in 2 different areas.
- There wasn’t enough of it. The courses are structured so that I saw my group of students for 3 hours a day, all 5 days of the week. The genre analysis alone, which a student would need to undergo thoroughly to understand podcasts, is easily a 3-hour process. Then, in order to really dig into sound composition, you need time to experiment and play with sound strategies: silence, music, voice, sound effects etc. It’s too much content for 15 hours.
- There wasn’t enough space between the 15 hours. While 15 hours sounds like a lot, the hours are too close together. 3 hour stints on consecutive days. Students need time to think, process, and play. In order to power through the necessary content require to construct a podcast, we needed all 15 of those hours, so I wasn’t able to dedicate too many of them to play and experimentation, let alone percolating and processing.
Things that were awesome:
- My grading for the course was extremely low stakes, so students felt free to play with their production. One group, although they did not actually end up creating anything that was admissible according to NPR’s guidelines, had a wildly good time recording a comedic ASMR composition. It was absolutely unusable, but they collaborated and experimented with some of the ways sound can impact an audience and interact with other sounds. It was low pressure and valuable.
- Individual students made HUGE connections in their understandings of the writing process. One student of mine, who has really been struggling with her acceptance of the (albeit occasionally vague) rhetorical purpose of argumentative literary essays, had a major break through when arranging the content in her podcast. She made the connection that an informative podcast with its introduction, informational evidence, analysis, and then conclusion, mirrored the structures and strategies of an academic essay. This impacted both her sound writing and her alphabetic writing. Several students understood more traditional, academic genres in different ways through their experience with the sound composition exercises.
- Multimodality breeds more multimodality. When composing their podcasts, students got creative with their writing processes, color coding scripts and creating visual conversation flowcharts to guide interviews. One student even preferred to knit while considering the layout of her podcast because she said she felt she could visualize the layout the same way she visualized a 2-D piece she knitted.
- The NPR competition site compiled a bunch of amazing resources to help teachers teach podcasting and students learn the process. These resources are partially uniquely created by NPR for this process and partially a collection of incredible resources from already existing organizations. While I put together my own course layout, I heavily supplemented with their materials and will return to their resources again in the future.
Did we win anything? Absolutely not. Did we have an amazing time exploring and playing with composition in a new mode? Absolutely. And some of the final versions of some podcasts were truly excellent. One student’s independent podcast on the complexities of race in the classical ballet world featured sound effects, interviews, music, recorded ambient noise, and narration, all intricately woven together. It was thoughtful and beautiful, and we all spent class time listening to and evaluating each others’ compositions which was another valuable component to our time together.
As always happens whenever I push myself to integrate sound composition into my coursework, I am only further convicted of its power and importance as a relevant and influential mode for our 21st century students. While there are many things I will do differently when running courses like this in the future, this experience has been motivating and eye opening for me as a writer and an educator.