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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

#DLDay: democratize composition

i took his picture lots by dearanxiety

i took his picture lots by dearanxiety

I’m not exactly sure how to characterize my role here at the Coöp (Moderator for Life? El moderate?), but in real life I am quite the nerd. I am neither hip nor handy, but I follow my passions resolutely and synthesize what I learn from them into my work as a public school teacher, which I consider to be the decentralization, democratization, and hacking of teaching and learning in community, inside and outside school.

So, on this Digital Learning Day (#DLDay), I want to share some nerdy thoughts with you in our dear digital community.

When I share out student work and our shared classroom practice, I talk about negotiation and composition.

When I negotiate with a student, I ask

  • What do you want to learn?
  • Why do you want to learn it?
  • How do you think you will start?
  • How do you want to get feedback?

I used to ask, “How will you know when you finish?”, but I care less and less about summative assessment and more and more about work that self-evidently accomplishes its goals.

I have found that many resistant writers will write or type answers to those questions; writing a design document for relevant work is a different task than writing something irrelevant to curry a teacher’s favor.

Some students like to write contracts. Students’ contracts typically answer those questions, but allow students to avoid the dreaded “short-answer constructed-response.”

Some students literally draw a plan.

I give feedback; we identify what it is the student most wants to learn; we find a first step; and we’re off to wherever the learning goes. Whenever possible, we bring in mentors and mentor texts to support our learning.

I like the sound of all this, but it’s important to say that

  • The process doesn’t work for everyone on day 1 or day 100.
  • It takes time – sometimes years – for a student to become comfortable separating learning and success from the authority of the teacher, especially if the student is habituated to power struggles with teachers.
  • Reasonable people can disagree about what kids should do with their time as they move from dependence to independence in the classroom. I err on every side in trying (and mostly failing) to figure out how to move each kid forward in his or her own inquiry or openness to inquiry-based learning; I don’t think – in general – that cultivating a student’s dependency is okay.

What’s so digital about any of this? Well, nothing and everything.

Negotiating relevant work with willing students somewhat democratizes a classroom and helps resistant writers overcome their resistance to writing. The work doesn’t have to be digital, but sometimes negotiating particularly digital work helps a student discover a desire to write.

However, the point of all this negotiation isn’t to democratize access to writing; instead, it is to democratize composition by way of design and making. The work I do with student writing isn’t about access to writing; it’s about deconstructing writing as a gate-keeping activity and reconstructing it as one tool amongst many for students’ work in design and production.

In my years of teaching I have heard, and said, “Writing is thinking,” many times. However, that statement – while true – is not an exclusive, absolute law of cognition. “Thinking” here means following a design process – the writing process. Plenty of design processes qualify as “thinking,” and digital tools – call them “apps” – that allow students to build, design, draw, edit, paint, program, remix, and otherwise make gadgets, geegaws, and artistic works (like films) offer us an unprecedented opportunity to provide widespread student access to tools previously housed discreetly in workplaces and workshops.

Writing is not the gateway to any of these activities; it is an equal complement to them; it is one form of communication that supports other forms of communication as it, in turn, is supported by them. There are times when it makes sense to compose in writing; there are times when it makes more sense to compose in something else, no matter how much we think kids should be writing. There are times when certain composition tools are not widely available to students except in digital form.

I am going to make an argument. In the argument, I am going to use “composition” as an umbrella term for design and production (including prototyping and failure).

My argument goes like this:

  • Writing is one form of composition.
  • While it enjoys a longer history than other form of composition, writing is not inherently better or more useful than any other form of composition.
  • Any class, school, or practice that depends solely on writing for composition is obsolete.
  • Digital apps for design and production that provide kids with the means to compose in ways they could not otherwise compose at school thereby democratize education.
  • We should democratize access to composition apps in every composition-based classroom.
  • All classrooms should be composition-based.
  • At all levels of public education, what we purchase and use reflects what we believe about teaching, learning, and children.

On this Digital Learning Day, I’d like to suggest that one way to democratize public education is to broaden our teacherly notions of what it means to think and compose across the curriculum, and I’d like to challenge us to argue, donate, and purchase our way towards better digital equity for all students. I know that digital can be done badly, and I know that times are tight, but I know the cheapest way we can allow the most kids to compose in the most ways is through digital technology.

We have a moral obligation to enrich the lives our students. That obligation includes acknowledging the depth and breadth of human experience somewhere outside textbooks, trade books, and essays. Insomuch as any form of composition helps us do this – digital or not – we should make it available to our kids and further their work for what it is, rather than assess it for what it is not.


About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


11 thoughts on “#DLDay: democratize composition

  1. I love the questions you ask and I find it interesting that in such different contexts you and I have such a similar process and pretty similar questions that we ask students as they begin the process. I left out “How do you want feedback?” I’m stealing that one. And I usually add, “What are some ways that I can provide guidance?” (Students give great answers in terms of time, frequency, grouping, style)

    I love getting the snapshot of your classroom. It’s always encouraging for me and helps me to see I’m not as crazy or lonely as I thought.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | February 1, 2012, 8:50 pm
    • As someone tweeted at EduCon, we’re crazy, John, and that is good.

      But alone? Nah –

      If a student wants me to give feedback, I like to follow-up with a question like yours about guidance. Sometimes an outside mentor, another teacher, a group of peers, or a bottom line is all that will do, so I bow out of delivering feedback and concentrate instead on helping students react constructively to the feedback.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Posted by Chad Sansing | February 1, 2012, 9:24 pm
      • I’ve seriously thought of taking the entire year next school year and chronicling how it’s going and what we are doing. Honest, transparent, vulnerable and triumphant – I want to tell the whole thing authentically.

        Posted by John T. Spencer | February 6, 2012, 9:55 pm
  2. What stands out to me here, in addition to so many things I admire, is the sense of humility in the face of the complexity of being a teacher (inhabiting that role), and your willingness to experiment and go practically anywhere if it will help kids engage with themselves, with their minds and soul. I really cherish that, hope to emulate it in my own teaching.

    Another discussion at Educon, in Paula’s session and in various trips to bars, was the fact that (in my view) school must disable kids (see them from a lens of deficit) to justify adult intervention in their learning lives.

    You have made that paradigm explicitly conscious, and work to counteract it in your teaching. That’s big work, as John above says–it sounds like he’s done the same kind of work.

    This is awesome and the beginning of a book?

    Thank you,


    El moderate!

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | February 2, 2012, 9:24 am
    • Yes – “because we can teach kids some things, kids must not be able to learn without us” is one of the most harmful fallacies driving school.

      Learning together – composing together – is what we should do, and I draw a lot of comfort from the NWP and its work (especially through Digital Is and maker events) to steward great writing instruction (beginning with “write with your students) into the broader work of designing, trying, failing, and making (compose with your students).

      More as the work develops 🙂

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | February 2, 2012, 10:36 am
  3. I love this post, Chad. It would be so great if kids could work with teachers in this way across the high school curriculum. At my daughter’s college, they have what they call the “plan process,” where students write a “plan essay” and go over it with a team of 3 advisor/teachers in their interest areas. There are no core requirements, students can focus in traditional areas or they can come up with some pretty interesting cross-disciplinary plans working across multiple media, and they refine/change their plan as needed every year. The close relationships with teachers motivate the students to pursue excellence in their work. This is challenging for kids who are used to being told what to do, and as you say, it doesn’t work for everybody all of the time, but I think it could really work well at the secondary school level for a lot of students. It would be a great foundation for a small alternative school.

    “Negotiation + composition” provides a skeleton of structure for kids who need that, but with the flexibility to respond to individual temperaments and aspirations. Not too boneless, not too constricting. I love the idea of a school that is not a completely “free school” — i.e., where students are expected to pick something and work hard at it — but where they have a lot of autonomy and choice over the focus, nature, and medium of the work. This would be a dream scenario for a lot of kids I know.

    Again, this is how I see the answer to Kirsten’s question about disabling learners to justify adult intervention. The irony is that teachers often don’t have time for real relationship because they are kept so busy delivering the standard compulsory curriculum. When you allow students to take the reins of that part of it, you free up the teachers to provide one-on-one or small group consultation and relationship. The kids I know can easily keep a teacher busy for an hour at a time going over a piece of writing, editing a video, working on a piece of music, discussing literature or history or politics. I think the teachers are very needed; they just need to be freed from dysfunctional power relationships in order to be able pursue authentic and useful relationships like the one you describe.

    Posted by Carol Black | February 2, 2012, 4:39 pm
    • I do think we need to create conditions of freedom in our schools for students and teachers alike, Carol, and I appreciate the positive energy and hope packed into your comment!

      I do think we need to free ourselves to do this work. I don’t meant to suggest that I do my work without the support of my colleagues and leaders, but if I didn’t choose to do it, I wouldn’t be doing it. We shouldn’t wait to be freed – we should informally and formally negotiate the conditions and spaces we need to help kids discover, set, and meet goals that are, for the most part, their own. I hope more and more teachers find increasingly authentic ways to relate to kids and learning and that they help others do the same.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | February 2, 2012, 7:06 pm
      • Do your kids have to take state standardized tests in humanities? How does your school deal with that?

        Posted by Carol Black | February 2, 2012, 8:06 pm
        • Carol, we certainly do have to take the tests. We work hard to tailor our school – including its testing environment – to kids’ needs and wants. Because we’re so small, we also use a state-approved alternative accreditation plan that awards us points for student growth on reading measures in the cases where students don’t receive passing scores on their reading tests. The points we get for showing growth are modest in relation to the points we get per passing score, but, when needed, they help us maintain accreditation to do the more important work of meetings kids where they learn on all those other days of the year when we aren’t testing.

          All the best,

          Posted by Chad Sansing | February 4, 2012, 9:24 pm
    • I love the way you have put that, Carol. That’s what I’m hoping to get to someday – the sense of structure with autonomy, the balance, the nuance, just enough support while still respecting their voices. It has to be horizontal. It has to be relational.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | February 6, 2012, 9:57 pm


  1. Pingback: Do teachers play? « Cooperative Catalyst - March 16, 2012

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