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.