As Palmeri notes, students’ fears about writing right can make it difficult for them to use written language as a way of developing ideas. The former question is one that I get almost exclusively regarding papers. When it comes to other assignments, students generally ask far more thoughtful and reflective questions: “In this sketch I was trying to show conflict; do you think that comes across?” I can, in turn, give more thorough feedback: “I think in the arrangement it does, but you might consider playing with light and dark to emphasize that more.”
Palmeri quotes Harvey S. Wiener, who perhaps puts it best, noting that media compositions “can involve the student in an unthreatening medium which … helps reduce self-consciousness and allows the growth of an element of creative expression that is often lost in the student’s panic for correctness.” Of course, there are plenty of options for assignments that allow students to freely express themselves on paper. Additionally, some students are in fact most comfortable with that medium. Nonetheless, the point is well taken that freeing (or pushing) students from the well-known stress of composing a paper may produce higher-quality, more personal, and more creative results.
Esther Burnett and Sandra Thomason, in research published in 1974 on ways media composition and traditional pedagogy could work together, state that students may actually work harder on multimedia or other-modal texts that feel more exciting, engaging, and relevant. Two years ago, I taught Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to a group of eleventh graders. At the end of the novel, I asked them to compose and present their own project dealing with themes we had discussed in class. Students experimented beyond any assignment I could have come up with (and we avoided the repetition that teachers experience looking at a stack of 50 of the “same” papers on their desk).
One student produced a ten-minute audio podcast comparing the style, themes, and stories of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly with Ellison’s Invisible Man. Another girl, who had aspirations of working in Hollywood, wrote a “deleted scene” from the novel, emulating Ellison’s characters’ tones and speech patterns with astonishing attention to detail and to the conventions of screenplay. A third composed an opera based on the novel and even enlisted one of the school’s talented choir singers to come perform a chunk of one aria he wrote for it (not only was he putting in extra work; students who weren’t even in the class were, too). Two boys teamed up to work together on a documentary, featuring a diverse group of students and teachers on campus reflecting on the use of the n-word in their lives and in society. Another student asked boys in his dorm to visually code switch, putting on two different outfits representing two different “sides” of who they are, then interviewing them about their various identities. He compiled these into a photo collage exhibit with quotes/captions articulating, in their own words, how students often felt “split” in their identities on and off campus. (Two images from this project are pictured here.)
Burnett and Thomason note that many students, when given projects that some may see as less academically rigorous than a traditional essay, report that they have never worked so hard. In asking my students to reflect on their finals, I heard the same thing over and over: It was one of their favorite—and one of the most challenging—projects they had ever been assigned. (And, in many ways, they had assigned it to themselves!) The last student I mentioned in the prior paragraph spent hours learning Photoshop solely for this project, and noted that he appreciated the opportunity to learn a new skill that he otherwise may not have taken the time to invest in.
Perhaps students are more reluctant to work in modes that don’t organically appeal to them. Staring down yet another essay, they look for ways to cut corners, game the system, give the teacher what they want—no more, no less. But when given the option to design their own project, and work in modes and media that are accessible and feel “natural” to them (or even ones that don’t, but which intrigue and excite them), students seem to seek out additional ways to do more, to go deeper in their ideas, to get creative and add personality—to go above and beyond.