This year I tried an experiment: Instead of asking for traditional essays at the end of our final two units, I asked my students to create multimedia compositions. They still had to draft scripts to outline what they wanted to say or show. They still had to meet specific standards-based requirements. BUT their final products could vary widely. At the very least, I thought, these would be a lot more fun to grade.
I’ve been reading a lot about how student choice is important and how we should help digital writers choose the tools that best fit their purpose. In the past, I’ve been kind of a control freak about making students use the tools I chose for them. And, I usually picked one digital tool per assignment. Everyone used the same one. Next, I spent a ton of class time showing my students every little thing about the tool before turning them loose with it. This year’s assignment is a real departure for me because providing choice meant there was no way I could possibly teach students how to use each tool. They had to experiment and figure it out for themselves. To ease the transition, we did two rounds of multimedia compositions: For the first round, students worked in pairs or small groups. For the second round, students worked independently. My thinking here was that students could help each other learn something new before they were left to work on their own.
I teach grade 7 and the students in my class have a wide variety of experience with digital writing—from absolute beginner to should really be teaching the class. Most need some direction, so I gave them a few options with the caveat that if a student thinks of a better idea, he or she simply needs to get my approval before starting on it.
Multimedia Composition Ideas
Google Voice Podcast
All students need is a phone! The teacher simply sets up a free Google Voice account. Then, students call and read their compositions over the phone. Google Voice transcribes what the caller says—imperfectly but you can get the gist—and allows you to download it as an mp3 file. Then, you can post that file to a class blog or website for others to listen to.
Google Voice Student Instructions: Practice reading your script out loud a few times. Read clearly and expressively. Pause for emphasis. When you are ready, call Ms. McMillan’s Google Voice Number (805) 272-0879 and record your podcast there. Google Voice automatically makes a file, so Ms. McMillan can post your recording to our blog. Make sure you start with your name(s)—so you can get credit!
Adobe Spark Video
This amazing tool allows students to create professional-looking videos using Adobe’s large library of icons, photos and templates. It is super fun and easy to use. I especially love how you can re-record your voice slide-by-slide instead of having to record the whole thing over when you make a mistake. Also, Adobe Spark automatically cites the images from its system and gives the user the opportunity to cite other images at the end. I love Adobe Spark!
Until recently, this tool was called Adobe Voice, and it was only available as an app. Now, as Adobe Spark, users can create videos on computers or Chromebooks, as well as iPads or iPhones. It also links with Adobe Spark Post (for making quick, annotated visuals, such as memes) and Adobe Spark Page (for magazine-style web stories). The only drawback is that students must be 13 to set up an Adobe Spark account. However, I created a teacher account and several students signed on with it. That option worked just fine for my class.
I made the following example for our Call of the Wild Theme Projects. Trust me, the student versions are much much better.
Adobe Spark Student Instructions: Practice reading your script out loud a few times before recording. Mark where you plan for each slide to begin and end. Speak clearly and audibly. If you are over 13, sign up for an Adobe Spark account using your school Google account. If you are under 13, use Ms. McMillan’s education account (ask for username and password) or ask your parent to sign up for an account for you.
Texts or Tweets
Have students write a few “text messages” or “Tweets” (140 characters or less). Their challenge is to find creative ways to incorporate all elements of the assignment. NOTE: They don’t really have to text or Tweet to try this option; Instead, students can manufacture creative ways to display what the texts or Tweets look like.
Text or Tweet Student Directions: After you write your script, translate it to Tweeting or texting language. Type your Tweets or texts on the platform of your choice. One idea is to create a Google Doc and insert a table with five to seven rows. Type a message or Tweet in each cell. You can color cells to show a text conversation between two or more people. If you are “Tweeting,” be sure to incorporate hashtags (ex. #HerosJourney #CalltoAction) and @Name for people you want to mention. If you are texting, be creative about who your are writing to. You may choose to include several different recipients. Also, who is the sender? Is it you or a fictional character? Do you want to incorporate images or emojis? You may notice that this is more informal than how you usually write for English class. In this case, you have my permission to use texting language, as long as your final message makes sense to a wide audience.
I ended up showing a couple of students how they can curate Tweets and images using Storify, a social media curation tool. This step is advanced for my group, and I was happy to offer it to students who wanted to try something new. For an example, see Shrek’s Heroic Journey by Ms. McMillan.
Symbolic Photo Album or Slideshow
Students use their own cameras or classroom iPads to take original photographs symbolizing the ideas from their scripts or outlines. Captions can be used to explain the photos and give textual evidence. One easy way to digitize the photo album is Google Slides. The speaker notes can be used to explain what each photo represents.
Student Instructions: After writing your script or outline, take five to seven photos that symbolically show what you want to say. Upload the photos to your Google Drive. Next, make a Google Slide presentation. Put one photo on each slide. In the speaker notes, write what each photo represents. Another idea is to upload the photos to your blog. Type captions underneath each picture. NOTE: Use your own, original photos. You are working with symbolism here so don’t worry if it doesn’t exactly match what you say in the script or outline.
Students combine illustrations with words to graphically show what they want to say (for inspiration, check out Ms. McMillan’s post on using sketchnotes).
Here is my example (using Paper 53):
Student Instructions: After you write your script, highlight words to represent visually. Star textual evidence to include as text. Either draw with a digital tool like Google Drawings (computer/Chromebook only) or Paper 53 (iPad or iPhone), or use paper and take a photo of your work for online publication. Here are two tips for creating successful sketchnotes: 1) Fill up the entire space with words, images, and color. 2) Start with a half sheet of paper because having less space to fill can be less intimidating.
Overall, I like how this assignment turned out. Students amazed me with their creativity and originality. For example, one student created an animated video about Call of the Wild using Minecraft. Another student made a PowToon video to show the elements of the hero’s journey. And, as I said earlier, the quality of the student Adobe Spark videos was generally much better than the one I made as a model—their seventh grade voices are much more entertaining to listen to. Also, I love how Adobe Spark forces students to think figuratively. They have to choose icons or photos that represent what they are trying to express. This requires some deep thinking.
There were a few downsides: First, I was disappointed when a few students created basic slide decks using images from the movie version of books they read. I had to remind them they were supposed to use original images, or at least Creative-Commons-licensed ones. I offered these students the opportunity to redo and resubmit their work. However, they weren’t terribly happy with the compromise. Another issue is some projects require more time than others. This is a classroom management issue because the students who finish early need something else to do. Also, how should the amount of time involved be reflected in the grade? Finally, several of the final projects need to be edited for spelling, grammar, and punctuation. It’s as if the digital format liberated students from worrying about conventions, even when they should have paid even more attention to such details.
Next time, I want to build in more time for final polishing. I want my students to understand that this final step is necessary for all kinds of writing, including digital compositions.