Democratizing Composition

Broadening our definition of what's possible in school

Category: Reflection

The methods behind our #educon madness

by Chad Sansing

Hack jam buffet

Hack jam buffet

In planning and facilitating the EduCon 2.5 hack jam and flying schools sessions, I got to work with amazing teachers and learners from the National Writing Project (NWP) and Mozilla networks. Science Leadership Academy (SLA) English teacher Meenoo Rami and I hosted our third NWP- and SLA-sponsored hack jam together. Then I teamed up with Christina Cantrill, Paul Oh, Laura Hilliger, and Chris Lawrence for a digitally combined Webmaker/future of schools session. While the participants in each conversation deserve the most credit for jumping into play as a pathway for transforming professional practice, the aforementioned facilitators helped scaffold dynamic settings for learning during our time together which felt both entirely awesome and all too short.

In response to both on-site and online feedback, I wanted to share some notes on practice before too much time goes by.

Hack jam materials

We mixed and matched materials generously provided by the NWP and materials from my own “hacktivity kit” (a term borrowed from Laura and the Webmaker learning community). These materials included:

  • Colored tape.
  • Correction tape.
  • Craft sticks.
  • Dice.
  • Figures/playing pieces (such as Lego people, game people, table-top miniatures).
  • Foam craft stickers.
  • Food (important to bring for events that do not provide snacks/meals).
  • Game boards (1 for every 6 anticipated participants).
  • Game pieces (buildings, cards, counters, money, tokens).
  • Markers (forgot these for EduCon 2.5).
  • Pipe-cleaners.
  • Play dough.
  • Pom-poms.
  • Sticky notes.
Beware the ice shark

Beware the ice shark

Hack jam principles

These are some general principles for running a hack jam.

  • Be flexible with the plan.
  • Break bread together.
  • Bring fun stuff.
  • Strive to represent diversity in the figures you bring.
  • Start with the material, not the philosophical or digital.
  • Build metaphors from the material work (re-programming a board-game –> website –> school –> society).
  • Hack something rules-based, but not sacred, that your particular participants share in their common cultural memory.
  • Hack something low stakes – like a board game – so participants can name and own the high stakes environments (like school) that they want to go forth and hack.
  • Ask if you can help, but don’t jump in or offer unsolicited ideas.
  • Watch for, record, and learn from participants’ emergent and unexpected behaviors.
  • Put the conversation in participants’ hands.
  • Intervene in the conversation only to ensure that folks waiting a long time to speak can be heard.
  • Keep questions general – like, “What did that feel like?”, or, “How did that challenge, change, or reinforce your idea of X?”
  • Give your audience the time and trust to answer all the questions you want to ask, but don’t ask them – participants will get there.
  • Learn from each instance you run – streamline your participation until you almost disappear from the experience.
  • Mix intuition and analysis into your planning. Do what you bet will work, but reflect afterwards about what could be changed, added, or struck for next time.
  • End with making something that participants can name and understand as an extension of the material task (hacking or remixing a website as a metaphor for hacking a board-game as a metaphor for hacking their own practices of teaching composition).
  • Invite folks to take something with them that they made from the hack jam as a reminder of their agency, time together, and the possibility of making a gift culture from a commercial product like the board-game.
  • Remind participants that they have full agency in running their own hack jams, as well.




Notes from the future

Many of the hack jam principles applied to planning the flying schools session, as well. That session was primarily a design sprint towards imagining and enacting needs-fulfilling schools of the near- or far-future.

I expected people in this workshop to create fictions, but instead all four projects (two individual and two group) took our future-focused prewriting and used it to begin projects to revitalize schools right now.

That was probably the whole point of the session, even though I didn’t see it during planning.

You can find an example of one group’s work with the Popcorn video remix tool here.

The design sprint we did in our room (borrowed from Lime Design) went like this:

  1. 5 minutes – Using sticky notes, write down the serious or playful hopes you have for the future of schools.
  2. 5 minutes – Using sticky notes, write down the serious or playful fears you have for the future of schools.
  3. 5 minutes – Pick any five of your own notes and turn them inside out so that any hopes become fears and any fears become hopes. For example, if you feared diseased rats in a dark cafeteria, maybe the rats could be infected with genetic markers that gave them iridescent fur under UV lights and they could be trained to run around in beautiful patters for folks to watch during lunch.
  4. 5 minutes – Swap meet! Walk around the room and pick any five (or more) sticky notes that speak to you.
  5. 5 minutes – Remix those notes into a pitch for your project.
  6. 5-10 minutes – Share your pitch with the group and listen to others. Take on your own project or join an affinity group around another project that speaks to you. Then go to work!
Generating ideas

Generating ideas

Picking favorites

Picking favorites

Looking ahead

I think of workshops like these as opportunities to learn about teaching from the participants. I hope you will try to run a few events like these yourself. Certainly, the Mozilla Webmaker community is ready to help – it hosts an event planner and support match-maker for work like this, and I look forward to this summer’s code parties.

I always try to remember that beginning with the familiar and material helps democratize hacking and remix. I want to let participants help one another toward broader philosophical (we can hack school!) and technical (I can make a webpage!) understandings.

I wholeheartedly encourage you to make your practice and workshops part of a gift culture of teaching and learning. Positive externalities – changes for good in your work and participants’ work – will arise naturally out of time spent together without incentive or coercion.

Mostly, I want to be of service to you in planning your own events like these – if they speak to you – and in helping you sustain the projects that come out of them.

We can share resources, conference, compose, or otherwise play around with these ideas together.

Just let me know how to help!


Building readiness

by Chad Sansing

Dissident students

Kids have to own learning. To hold on to it, to connect it, to love it and launch from it – they do. Learning without love isn’t learning; it’s production. It’s not freedom; it’s indenture. It’s not an awakening; it’s a sedation.

I have this kid. He’s wicked smart. Kind to his friends. Can be a little sharp otherwise. Inventive. Gifted in all sorts of ways. When I start proposing project ideas, he interrupts to improve them. He knows more about making and applied materials science than I ever will. He categorically denies being a reader. He isn’t confident in his writing, but he is attempting more and more of it and accepting more and more help with it this year than in years past.

I am confident he will make it with our without college. As often as we find common ground – and as much as we value our work together in different ways – I have the distinct feeling that he has prioritized things in his life and school, in general, doesn’t top the list. Maybe in assessing his own reading and writing habits against whatever he’s internalized about school – including college – he’s determined that there isn’t a place for him or that all the reading and writing involved – while (painfully, perhaps) doable – isn’t worth his time in the same way his other stuff is worth his time.

I experience ambivalence here. He does work outside of school that I can’t do. His ideas and inquiries don’t fit into what we teach or how we teach it as a county, commonwealth, and country. I’m not sure what to think, especially given how problematic higher education seems to me at present – how culpable it is in producing the K-12 status quo it derides in its “these-kids-can’t” codespeak.

However, I know this: he is more ready to succeed in a life of his choosing than I ever was with all my academic fiddle-faddle (and how I did love it!). I’m just not sure that we, college, or old-economy careers can see it, and that’s a shame. If we could see it – or if we could act nimbly on seeing it – then as a system we could develop more public schools that matter to kids like my student – and, in fact, to all kids.

Anyway, here is the latest piece of evidence that has me convinced we are misappropriating our time and our kids’ time whenever we focus on solely print-based assessment (and related curricula and instruction) in our atomized content classrooms.

MC Cabinet Desktop 1

MC Cabinet Desktop 2

MC Cabinet Guts 2

MC Cabinet Guts 1

This kid is building a fully-functional Minecraft arcade cabinet/controller using a school laptop, cardboard, an orphaned Wacom tablet, a MaKey MaKey board, tape, and tin foil. He’s practicing industrial design for a peripheral for one of the world’s most popular games. He has agreed to write out his process and publish it when he’s finished. It would not be difficult to move from this to wiring an Arduino or other processing board between his computer and controller with batteries, wires, resistors, and all the math and spatial reasoning necessary to let the project stand alone and apart from the MaKey MaKey board.

This kid is building life readiness in a new economy by remixing a wildly popular commercial game with handcrafted recycled cardboard and material computing. He’s demonstrating a set of skills – as a precursor and compliment to authentic writing – that we don’t recognize as part of our curricula.

How are we building our career’s readiness to recognize what he’s doing and to make a space for it in our schools and practice? How can we build our own capacities to see and help students articulate the opportunities for learning that suffuse games, inquiry play, and projects? Setting the system aside, can we protect time for work like this in our classrooms for 20 minutes a week? A day? What can we do this year to help our kids understand that there is a place for all of them in the work that we do together?

What we compose: a National Day of Writing #whatiwrite post

by Chad Sansing

Composing at CPCS

Composing at CPCS

For #whatiwrite, I asked students in my language arts classes to tell me about what they like to write, make, build, design, or otherwise compose.

Here’s what we had to say:

  • “I like to write about pig-men from Minecraft riding skateboards. You should ice up my book. It’s pretty nice. It’s about twenty bucks.”
  • “I like to write about action.”
  • “I like to build things with moving parts from Legos.”
  • “I like to make art, like sculpture and other stuff.”
  • “I like to write fictional stories.”
  • “I like to write any kind of story. I’m writing a book. It’s about a girl who gets stranded on an island. She’s going to England. Her boat crashes. Everyone else makes it away but her. She has to survive with the stuff in her backpack. It’s about her learning everything, really – to appreciate what she has.”
  • “I like to write poems, like haiku.”
  • “I’m currently working the second edition of my ‘zine based on my reading of Communist Horizons.”
  • “I’m writing a book. It’s a mystery story. It’s about these kids. Strange things are happening. They see them in the newspaper. Their dad is a police officer. They try to help without the dad knowing. They help with their dog who is a K9 dog.”
  • “I like to tell stories in class.”
  • “I like to write cartoons about a fictional bug character who goes on a journey to feed a potato to avenge his parents’ death.”
  • “I like making stuff in Minecraft – like a clock.”
  • “I like to write poems like haikus and limericks. They’re fun.”
  • “I like to make stencil art.”
  • “I like to draw monsters and human anatomy.”
  • “I like composing music. I play a lot of instruments like the flute, ukelele, guitar, piano, drums, saxophone, piccolo, trumpet, recorder, clarinet, oboe, bells, and violin cello.”
  • “I like to build workspaces. I like to include my favorite books and pictures of art, family, and friends.”
  • “I like to draw random stuff, like characters. I am designing a clone named 7 for a web comic.”

I’m really happy to be surrounded by these writers and makers and I appreciate how their answers speak to both the comfort and challenge of creating.

5 ways to flip composition

by Chad Sansing

Chevro Sk8ts at work

To really flip a classroom, we have to go past the idea that letting kids shuffle the cards we give them somehow disadvantages the house. Instead, we have to trust kids with significant amounts of power and control over their learning across media, and we have to invite them to take up that power as often as they can.

Towards that end – and, more specifically, towards enabling kids to take power in the writing classroom – here are five ways to flip composition.

  • Make (or play); then write. Whereas it’s often difficult – at some practical or existential level – for many of us to write for a teacher in response to a teacher-assigned prompt on a teacher-selected text, it’s often difficult and rewarding to share with others the how and why of things we’ve enjoyed making or playing. We should ask kids to respond creatively – not just analytically – to their learning. We should provide the time, materials, and space necessary for our students to make art or code (or whatever) in response to what they learn from the texts they choose to read for school. We teachers don’t need to master making before we invite students to undertake it by choice. We just need to be open to what our kids bring to our classes. It’s more meaningful to connect what we make and do to the big ideas in a text than it is to reaffirm for a teacher what he or she thinks about a text through teacher-slanted “analysis” and the endless rehashing of “textual evidence.” When a kid explains how he or she captured the conflict in a text or a game through a bit of code or in a piece of music he or she wrote, that mash-up of analysis, creation, and reflection is new learning in a way that another paper deflating the symbolism in Fahrenheit 451 is not.

  • Make; don’t write. Sometimes kids make awesome things. We should be working to understand how such products reflect learning inside our classrooms and schools; we shouldn’t be working on making kids translate every composition into academic print. We have all been complicit in the gutting of electives programs and in the systematic denial of arts- and materials-based educations for all students. We’ve cornered kids inside intervention space; we’ve pressured them into extra-credit-bearing core courses; we’ve thereby ensured that our electives classes are under-enrolled and therefore not worth staffing in this economy – which kicks back into a core-class class-size feedback loop of overpopulation that helps justify the purchase of commercial education materials, the standardization of education, and a nation-wide over-emphasis on – and misapprehension of – compliance as schooling. There is no other place all kids will go outside the core classroom right now, and that makes it incumbent on us core teachers not only to support arts and electives programs, but also to fight tracking and – most importantly – to steward and champion the dignity and power of learning by making even when writing isn’t necessary to do so.

  • Negotiate goals, not grades. We should help every child articulate a purpose for each composition that she writes, and we should help each child self-assesses her work against that goal until the composition works. When a kid can do this on her own, we should let her. Writing for a grade (but really for a teacher) is an inauthentic and inefficient way of learning how to communicate. We hold students to standards of mimicry in traditional writing instruction long after they have the tools to express themselves because we ask kids to write for grades and credit we give, rather than for purposes they choose. We should flip composition so that kids choose what to compose in response to their learning and so that kids have to think about what they want to do with their compositions besides please us. We should concern ourselves with helping kids gather useful feedback about their work from genuine, intended audiences. We become a more genuine audience when we think more about how successfully a child communicates her ideas than about where her paper fits in the stack. I think the way we assign papers actually skews student performance downward over time and thereby ensures that we have no realistic idea, at all, of what our children are – or once were – capable of as creators. That practice of grading student writing while disallowing and devaluing other forms of composition, I think, is a form of standardization we have long embraced in an uncritical way through common practice, assessments, and assumptions about kids, writing, and our own false sense of objectivity as school- and print-successful teachers.

  • Add peer badging to peer editing. Think of it as visual-blurbing in a gift economy. Ask kids to generate a collective idea of what good composition looks like and does. Ask kids to compose a system and set of badges a that celebrate the accomplishments that we together want them to recognize and achieve in composing. Allow for some idiosyncrasy; one kid might like to take-on responsibility for developing and warding a genre specific set of badges. The idea here isn’t to replace grades with badges or any other external reward. Instead, the idea is to help kids create a community that supports quality composition and provides a mechanism – digital or material – for kids to set goals and receive feedback in a fun and social way.

  • Publish everything through student-made, online portfolios. As I scroll through my feeds each day, I can’t imagine a future in which communication isn’t mediated, enriched, and made more real and human by technology (there will be good along with the bad). We should allow kids to situate their work in the world they inhabit, which is as digital as it is physical. We should find ways and get the help we teachers need to implement student-managed digital portfolios in our own rooms. Doing so gives kids the opportunity to participate online as producers, it gives them the opportunity to understand the digital products they use, and it gives them a chance to find and fill new communications niches that we simply don’t see or know about as adult lame-o’s. Building a basic Web-container from scratch in a basic text-editor isn’t difficult, but it allows kids the chance to categorize, sort, and reflect on their work in ways that slipping a paper into a binder or folder does not. It’s also easier to preserve work and present non-print work to a larger audience online than it is to present such work from inside a portfolio or through a few classroom-, school-, or community-based performances per year. Reflective, metacognitive digital portfolio-keeping is a lot like reflective, metacognitive classroom-portfolio keeping, but it’s open to a broader, more authentic audience and it more explicitly places ownership of the portfolio in kids’ hands. Figuring out how to host such portfolios is also a good way for us to learn and to get to know our tech people and their priorities.

What else should we be doing to help kids take power over writing, making, and playing in our classrooms?