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Supporting Multimodal Composition in the Writing Workshop: Simple Ways to Begin

That spring, I’d earned a D in mathematics. I was in second grade, attending a brand new Catholic School, and none of the kids seemed to like me. I was standoffish and awkward, and even then, I didn’t wear the right shoes. While the other girls skipped rope in polished saddle shoes, I sat on a swing and dragged the toe of my scuffed-up Buster Brown’s across the dirt.

I didn’t know how to skip rope, either.

I had few friends, and knew my parents would be furious about my grade, so I did what any standoffish, awkward second grader would do: I changed the grade so that at the very least, my parents would still like me.

Sadly, I didn’t know enough about how print worked back then to make thoughtful design choices. I used a ball-point pen to change the grade my teacher had pressed into a carbon copy.

So, that was how I came to spend the summer at my Babci’s house in North Tonawanda. Even though I hadn’t failed, my parents required me to attend summer school to atone for my sins. My class was a few blocks away from her house. My great grandmother was happy to have me.

Babcia loved to garden, and I loved to watch her garden. She taught me how to crumble eggshells into coffee grounds and then, till them into the soil surrounding her roses.

Eggshells. Coffee beans. Rose petals. These were some of the loose parts of my great grandmother’s life. She’s gone now, but these things remain. And I love to garden now, too.

Writing with the Loose Parts of Our Lives

I also love paper, and it wasn’t until my first study tour in Reggio Emilia, Italy that I was finally able to understand why: Paper speaks a language of its own. It’s different from flowers or yarn or clay.

Have you ever made a story by tearing, folding, layering, and rearranging paper rather than spilling written words across it?

I hadn’t, until a child taught me how.

It was children who taught me that writing is multimodal. Nearly fifteen years ago, I found myself struggling so hard against my own failures as a teacher that I took a step back–out of the center of my writing workshop–and fell silent for just a little while. Instead of directing, I invited. Instead of teaching, I listened. I learned. I documented that learning and what I discovered changed the course of my professional history. Nurturing multimodal composition isn’t just my heart’s work. It’s the legacy I intend to leave behind me, for those who know that writing has always been so much more than the production of written words alone.

Writing Is and Always Has Been Multimodal

Writing is visual, aural, spatial, gestural, and haptic, too. Visual expression refers to the use of images. Photographs are visually expressive, and so are emojis. Road signs are enhanced by symbols and by color, too. We rely on these forms of visual expression to way-find and keep us safe.

Aural expression is all about sound–consider the way a river expresses itself aurally. It speaks a different language than the birds do.

When we’re thoughtful about the way we position elements inside of any space, we’re attending to spatial elements. I was once a yearbook advisor, and I know the painstaking effort that went into layout design. That’s a good example of spatial expression. Infographics count, too. Visuals and written words also matter inside these forms.

That’s because multimodality is about the mix.

It’s also about affordances.

For example, I prefer to watch and listen to poets rather than reading the words they put on paper. Their gestures contribute so much to their work. Performers often rely on haptics –physical sensation, touch, and vibration–because these things communicate what images and written words alone cannot. I appreciate the way that drums sound. I appreciate the way they feel–the way they reverberate throughout my chest–even more. My husband once reflected that Weezer’s music feels fat. Thick. Substantial. More than lyrics and mere sound, their signature vibration  communicates much.

This sounds complicated, doesn’t it? I know it does and yet, I’m reminded of the importance of multimodal composition every single day. Written words carry weight in the world of academia, but once we leave its fragile womb, everyone else demands something different and so much more. Are we preparing young writers for that in our workshops and classrooms?

Every single day, I can’t help but notice that the most influential people inside of any field seem to be those who are best able to translate written words into other modes and use just-right media to share them. The pandemic humbled me all over again, too. All of those scrappy, entrepreneurial multimodal composers? They’re the ones who were able to reinvent themselves and their work elegantly and efficiently, in uncommon and incredibly rewarding ways.

So, how might you begin supporting multimodal composition in your own workshop?

  • You may already rely on mentor texts to illustrate a writer’s purpose, craft, or process moves. You could begin by ensuring that many of those texts are multimodal.
  • You may already coach rhetorical analysis. How might you teach design analysis as well? I designed the Claim Makers’ Kit not too long ago, for teachers who need a mentor text of their own here.
  • You may already use your own drafts to model important skills. Make writing beside your students, too. Build characters out of blocks. Set a mood with watercolor. Refute a counterclaim through gesture alone. Multimodality elevates critical thinking. It also demands diverse perspective-taking.
  • You may already invite the creation of multimodal products such as infographics, blog posts, podcasts, or explainer videos. Think about how you might make the writing process multimodal as well. Writers can and should make in service to themselves, their ideas, and their own processes. Multimodality isn’t all about the creation of beautiful products. This starter set is for teachers who are just beginning this work.
  • Make transcription a regular part of your workshop day. Transitioning from making to the use of written words isn’t as tricky as some think. Making protects complexity. It offers writers the opportunity to express their ideas fully–even those they may not yet know how to compose with written words. Making helps them find those words, and transcription helps them form them.
Angela Stockman

If you’re eager to discuss this more, I hope you’ll come find me on Twitter or in the Building Better Writers Facebook Group. I try to share how I’m making writing with teachers and young writers on Instagram each day as well. I’d love to stay connected to you.

A former public school teacher, Angela Stockman is an instructional designer and instructor at Daemen College in Amherst, New York. She’s written three books about multimodal composition. Her fourth and fifth publications–guide books for workshop teachers and writers eager to go multimodal themselves–will be published by Routledge in 2022.

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