What we’ve been making: a digital composition workshop

by Chad Sansing

Run, Sandwich, Run! cabinet, rear view

It’s been a while since I posted with any frequency here, but I’d like to get back into the swing of things in the New Year. Travel in November put a big dent in my blogging schedule, but I am super happy in the classroom this year and I want to share what we’re doing these days in project-based learning class (PBL).

Okay, so a while back we started web portfolios to house our new media work. There are many ways to begin coding in HTML, the language of the web, but I chose to sit with kids and work through raw coding our first pages and projects as a way to build community, leverage students’ abilities to help one another, and make sure that we understood each element we included in our pages.

To wit, our first task was a counterintuitive one – make a blank webpage. I told kids that they would know if it was working if nothing showed up in the browser. We sat together and used Text Edit to write index.htm files. We learned how to size and tab between two windows at once – between Text Edit and Chrome, in our case. We learned lots of shortcuts that kids did not know before hand – command + S to save; command + R to reload a webpage in a browser; command + tab to move between open applications.

Here’s an example of our first coding exercise:

Blank webpage.

Writing this page together was an apprehensive process for some students, but with others learning quickly and ready to help, every student finished the page. I actually treasure a lot of the anxiety we voiced – “this is too hard,” “I can’t do this,” – because know it’s so clear to me and to the kids who began this way that they can do this and that they are successful novice coders. As we move into new projects – like programming with Scratch – it’s very useful to refer back to how we’ve grown as web-authors and to remind ourselves that we are doing now even more than we thought we could not do then.

Next, we worked on the ds106 album cover project. We worked on this one together in tandem with the development of visual.htm pages we could use to house visual design work, reflections on that work, and a link back to our index page. We also started unordered lists on our index pages to link to our project pages.

I worked on this assignment alongside my students. As the National Writing Project (NWP) holds that we should write with our students in writing workshop classrooms, I think that we should build digital composition and maker workshop classrooms in which we design, iterate, compose, and publish with our students.

It’s time, in my mind, to shift the teaching profession in a new direction. We should no longer act as composer-conductors demanding a performance from our captive symphony of students (with all their delightful discordance). We should instead consider ourselves musicians improvising learning alongside other musicians – our students. What we might consider mistakes in our symphonies become opportunities in jam sessions wherein all of us feel free to switch roles and instruments and levels of participation to keep the music of learning moving ahead into new, creative territory, and out of the limited registers of the canon. (I’m sure this is a well worn metaphor – I thank past masters for letting me riff on it here.)

Back to class. (D’oh!)

We worked the album cover project together as we worked our first web page. I wanted to see how the work unfolded. I asked kids to make 3-5 covers. Some made more. We wound up learning how to cut and paste, how to download files and organize them in folders for websites, how to take and use screenshots, and how to edit images in, of all things, PowerPoint. We also learned how to embed images in webpages, as well as how to tag paragraphs and link to sites referenced in our reflections.

The unit plan was, essentially, the ds106 page. I posted widely requested code on the board, projected my own code as I worked, helped students, watched students help other students, and passed out a ton of sticky notes with snippets of code that different kids needed at different times.

At the end of the unit, I handed out our first set of reflection questions, which has served as a model for closure on subsequent units.

Album cover reflection.

At this point maybe I should say that we spent some time on design vocabulary (and making machines that threw things at our neighboring class) at the start of the year. The purpose of the course is to help kids see how they can bring design thinking and new media into their other classes as negotiating tactics for co-panning learning with all teachers. We’re not quite there yet, but while this semester is all about acquiring knowledge and skills, next semester is all about self-directed work in support of content area classes.

Onward. (Better.)

We stuck with visual design for another assignment – one also borrowed from ds106 -, the minimalist poster project. I asked kids to make 3-5 minimalist pop culture posters using only the essential shapes and colors of a thing to communicate about it. Several students make more posters. Some struggled – there was an interesting split between detail-oriented kids who felt like minimalism was an exciting new way to think and detail-oriented kids who hated killing their darling details. I don’t think we teachers get to discover, unpack, or incorporate those discoveries into our teaching when we rush through a traditional pacing guide or stick with a monoculture of printed text. For example, kids who struggle to elaborate in one medium (like writing) sometimes love to elaborate in another medium (like visual design or multi-layered sound editing). The judgments we make of kids’ preferences based only on printed text work is actually pretty hobbling to our profession and to kids’ ideas of themselves as learners.

We worked this project together, again, with code and mentor texts posted, handed out, and projected as needed. We reflected using questions similar to those we used for the album-cover project.

Many students did learn to download and install image editing software like the Acorn trial or PaintBrush for Mac OSX. Not only did students figure out how to download applications, but they found them, installed them, dragged short cuts to their docks, and then learned the tools themselves. For us, resourcing is another form of improvisation. Some kids also messed around with our Wacom Bamboo tablet.

Here are our minimalist poster reflection questions:

Minimalist Poster Reflection.

Here is an example of a student’s completed visual page and code (we’re developing our portfolios offline until they’ve shaped up more fully with content by spring time):

An example of a student’s visual page.

An example of a student’s visual page code.

Excelsior! (Word.)

After our minimalist posters, we moved from visual design to sound design. Using the ds106 “Sound Effects Story” assignment. (A developing themes: middle schoolers can pull of critical and creative work through and inspired by new media that involves all the basics of reading and writing.)

Going into this project, I felt that we had worked together enough to develop the kind of common vocabulary and design process (journal our designs, build our drafts, revise based on teacher and peer feedback) that would allow me to provide written instructions and models for kids to follow individually as they desired. In introducing the written guidelines for this project, I reminded kids that they could work at our central table with me or at their work stations as they desired and felt ready to do so. Nothing in how we worked together had to change; the written instructions were just a kind of pre-packaged work flow for kids confident with code and new media who wanted to try working off the guidelines at a different pace than the one at the table, which was governed in part by me and in part by the needs of students who liked working there.

Through this sound design unit we learned to find and download free and open sound effects, as well as how to edit them together in GarageBand. We built our audio.htm pages, linked back and forth to our index pages, and figured out how to export .mp3 files from GarageBand and embed them in webpages displayed in Chrome.

(An aside: our workstations are make of recycled cardboard storage and furniture built off of the surfaces of other furniture in the room. My favorite looks like a graffiti robot tower thing.)

Here is the packet we used to package the unit:

Sound story guidelines.

Half way through the project – near Halloween showcased our scary stories through an in-school open house for other classes. Each content class meeting during our class time stopped by and listened to each PBL student’s scary story; it was a cool, organic, community-building morning.

Here is an example of a student’s page and code:

An example of a student’s audio page.

An example of a student’s audio page code.

Part the nexteth! (Huzzah!)

Now we’re working on an arcade project that I threw together while inspired by Cain’s Arcade and the cardboard arcade at #MozFest.

The plan is to write gonzo Written By a Kid*-inspired narratives in our journals and then to design games from those narratives. We’re going to build the games in Scratch, use key commands that are compatible with MaKey MaKey boards, and then engineer cardboard arcade cabinets – complete with controls – wired with copper tape and tinfoil that will house our computers and our MaKey Makeys. Somewhere along the way to an arcade open-house for the whole school, we’ll develop art for our cabinets, as well. The alternative assignment is to make an arcade cabinet including a MaKey MaKey to run Minecraft.

Here are the project guidelines (games.htm coding and reflection questions forthcoming):

Arcade project guidelines

Here’s a picture of what I have in mind:

Run, Sandwich, Run! arcade cabinet

Here’s a student Minecraft cabinet in the works (with an old Wacom tablet integrated as a track pad):

Minecraft cabinet in-progress

Eventually, we’ll also upload our games to the Scratch site.

Kids get it. They can do this. They become accustomed to success in web-authoring and new media artistry.

This work feels authentic. It works for a high percentage of kids – stuff is getting done. It works. It combines creative and critical habits of mind, learning, and practice. It’s the closest I think we – all of my students ever and I – have ever gotten as an entire class to “an ethic of excellence.” It’s not perfect, but it’s a compelling prototype of how class and school can be. And it mostly seems playful, whimsical, wondrous, and delightful.

It can be done in a public school – maybe not just like this, but over time, it can be done in any number of ways. We are capable of the digital composition workshop – even one including cardboard.

If we can help you try out some of the ideas and activities described in this post – or develop a digital composition workshop or class -, let me know.

Likewise, if you’d like to support this work or study it in a public school setting, let me know. The more attention, collaboration, and material support we get for this work, the more of it we can do here at school and the more time we can dedicate to sharing it with you.

*Just for you, our favorite episode of Written By a Kid.