Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

The Common Core and the Fate of Digital Composition

By Joel Malley — March 13, 2013 7 min read

A captain stands on the deck of his ship, gripping the wheel. The seas are growing unsettled. The wind is starting to pick up and occasionally a gust rips through that gets beneath the collar and rattles the bones. From time to time, the captain must grab the rail to steady himself in the face of increasingly steep swells. Ahead, in the distance, darkness gathers, though the true breadth and power of the storm are still a mystery.

No, this isn’t the beginning of a seafaring novel. I’m just trying to describe what it feels like to be a teacher of digital-media composition in the common-standards era.

I currently teach three different English courses at a high school outside of Buffalo, N.Y. Depending on the course, my students create a wide range of digital compositions. My English 9 students compose foundational writing using Web-based programs like Google Docs and begin to delve into digital design with tools such as Glogster and Google Drawings. My Advanced Placement literature classes also use Web-based word-processing tools and rely heavily on Schoology, an online social network, to share literary responses and to engage in preliminary discussion of works we are studying. In AP Lit, we also take time periodically to make films exploring questions that the literature raises. For example, we recently did a short film project exploring gender roles in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Jane Austen’s Emma.

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In addition to those more traditional English courses, I have the pleasure of teaching an elective titled “Digital Writing Workshop.” This class is basically all digital, all the time. The students do foundational work in Google Drive and Schoology. Then they transform their writing for speaker and screen using Prezi and podcasting and video tools. Throughout the year, the students create research-based documentaries, commercials, and multimedia narratives exploring issues of interest or personal stories. They begin to take on new identities as filmmakers and digital storytellers. Many of them describe the course as transformative.

I firmly believe that by integrating digital-media creation into my English classes, I am addressing some of the key learning priorities of our time. In his 2006 book A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink argued that “the future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers.” Similarly, the U.S. Department of Education’s 2010 National Educational Technology Plan states that “21st-century competencies and expertise such as critical thinking, complex problem-solving, collaboration, and multimedia communication should be woven into all content areas.” A 2012 report on learning and digital media by the Frameworks Institute, a public-interest research group, asserts that multimedia composition helps students develop networking and problem-solving skills and “contextualizes learning.”

Uncommonly Vague

And yet the general public is not completely sold on the importance of using digital media in schools. That same Frameworks Institute report finds that many Americans see digital-media use as purely recreational, a distraction from the basics, a passive use of time, and even potentially dangerous. When the American public thinks about digital media, it seems, they envision potato-chip-munching miscreants laughing at viral videos of bullying on buses or bobbing their heads to the rhythmic thumping of a Korean rapper.

Sadly, I’m not sure the Common Core State Standards are going to help in this regard. The standards, in their attempt to be common across an extremely diverse educational landscape, are purposefully vague on many things, including digital-media creation. For example, a writing standard asserts that students should “use technology to produce and publish writing and interact with others,” and a speaking and listening standard requires the “strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.” These directives are so formless that they can be met readily through the use of basic PowerPoint and face-to-face presentations. Why should teachers bother exposing students to more powerful video or social networking learning experiences?

Secondly, the common standards are inextricably linked to upcoming common-core-aligned tests, and in many states test results are or will be correlated with teacher evaluations. So jobs are going to be on the line. As Thomas Newkirk recently argued in an article titled “Speaking Back to the Common Core,” topics not detailed in the standards are unlikely to be tested due to inefficiencies and cost, and are thus unlikely to be explored in most classrooms in any meaningful way. If you subscribe to Campbell’s Law, you understand that when statistics such as testing data are used as the basis for evaluations, teachers might be pressured to focus their attention on activities that could raise test scores in the short term but have detrimental effects on meaningful student growth. In other words, the more test prep, the fewer projects designed to give our kids the collaborative skills they will need to succeed in the 21st century.

A Difficult Balance

The irony is that there are a number of things in the common standards that I really like on a conceptual level. For example, one positive about the standards, in my view, is the emphasis on the role that nonfiction and informational writing should have in the classroom.

After reading Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide a few years ago, I began to reconsider the role of informational reading and writing in my instruction. Gallagher makes a compelling argument for increasing the world-awareness of students, and the common standards make an equally compelling case for teaching kids to analyze structure and argument in order to compose. As a result, informational reading has acquired far more prominence in my classes. I use sources such as New York Times Upfront, Poetry Pairing, and KQED’s Do Now to give my students greater exposure to issues and increase their global knowledge, while the students’ annotations are helping them comprehend how information is thoughtfully presented and organized in informational writing. This has begun to manifest itself in their writing and to strengthen their video compositions, which in the past could tend toward superficial.

I also believe that, on some level, the video-composition work I do with my students shares many of the big-picture learning objectives emphasized in the standards. Documentary and persuasive filmmaking are compelling because they so nicely marry design, storytelling, and the meaningful presentation of information. Students explore issues of importance, research information, and then thoughtfully design films that incorporate this information in an implicitly or explicitly persuasive way. In making films in my classes, students must conceive shots, use cinematography techniques to capture sequences, organize sequences into arguments, and enhance major points using titles, transitions, effects, and music. That is to say, they have to involve themselves in the learning and argumentation processes in a way that deepens their conceptual understanding of the material.

The problem, of course, is finding the time to do all this—especially when digital media is given such short shrift in the new standards. Digital composition takes time. It takes workshop time in class to make a documentary film. Students need time to plan, time to write, time to gather, conference, edit, and revise. They need time to screen and more time to discuss. It’s tough for me to justify devoting so much attention to something that is only vaguely referenced in the standards that are supposed to be guiding instruction.

In fact, with all the uncertainty about the common-core-aligned tests, I’m not sure I can risk it, at least in my non-elective courses. The 2014 New York state testing calendar includes a common-core exam. What will this exam look like? At what grade level will kids be required to take these tests? Will my job be tied to the results? In light of such questions, I find myself wondering if I may have to relent and devote less time to digital-media creation and more time to activities that I think will have a direct impact on test scores. That means laborious close readings and re-readings of increasingly difficult texts; sight readings of pre-selected, common-core-aligned materials with little thematic resonance; and one-dimensional, non-collaborative argumentative writing work.

For me, this is troubling. I’ve been teaching my students how to compose and create stories with digital-media tools since 2002. I consider myself tech-savvy. In the past, I would consider how a tool would enhance student learning and dive right in and learn along with my students. Now, even I am hesitant. What happens in the classrooms of teachers who feel less comfortable teaching with technology?

As Newkirk asks, what conversations will we cease to have as a result of the new standards-and-testing regime? But then, maybe that is up to us. We as teachers must avoid complacency and instead continue to advocate that the upcoming core-aligned tests meaningfully assess higher-order-thinking skills involving presentation and digital design. We must demand space and time for our students to create multimodal compositions. We must continue to assert ourselves and reaffirm our grip on the wheel in these rough waters.

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