Academic journal article English Journal

Telling Unexpected Stories: Students as Multimodal Artists

Academic journal article English Journal

Telling Unexpected Stories: Students as Multimodal Artists

Article excerpt

The role of imagination is not to resolve, not to point the way, not to improve. It is to awaken, to disclose the ordinarily unseen, unheard, and unexpected.

-Maxine Greene, Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change

Students are sprawled across the classroom, all seemingly absorbed in the work of creating a multi-modal text: importing videos, remixing sound clips, manipulating photographs, composing text, creating new graphics, and adding transitions. Except for Terrell. He sits in front of a sight familiar to every student, writer, artist, and English teacher: the blank screen.

"How are you doing, Terrell?" I ask. "Is there anything I can help you with?"

He shakes his head. "I thought this story stuff would be, like, easier than writing. But there's all this stuff I gotta put in-l ike music and my pictures and then I gotta make sure that it's not too short or too long or boring, so that people want to watch it. It's a lot, Ms. J. A lot. But I got this. Don't worry."

Terrell eventually did "get it," and his observation about the difficulties of creating multimodal texts was spot-on. As students compose with a variety of different modes, such as images, sound, music, and writing, they have to think deeply about the ways in which meaning is constructed, conveyed, and eventually interpreted by an audience. This article documents my attempts to explore the possibilities (and complexities) of multimodal meaning-making in the digital dimension, using examples from the Neighborhood Stories Project, in which a group of fifth-grade students and I investigated what it means to tell a multimodal story. As part of an extended summer workshop on literacy and multimodal composition, we "read" a series of visual, musical, digital, and multimedia texts, just as we read poems and stories, about the creators' experiences of living in a particular time and place. Then, students took cameras into their homes and communities to record photographs and video footage that told their own stories of living, playing, and growing up within their neighborhoods.

At the heart of our work was the idea that composing in a digital, multimodal landscape can present "not just a new way to make meaning, but a different kind of meaning" (Hull and Nelson 225). As students created their neighborhood stories- occasionally with words, but more often with photographs, video, sound, music, color, special effects, visual effects, writing, and live acting-t hey developed critical understandings of how symbols and modes come together to make meaning. But even more importantly, as they worked within and across modalities, they became "more proficient at representing their ideological beliefs" (Albers 7). In other words, as students, like Terrell, became multimodal artists, as they pushed back against more traditional forms of representation, they also developed the ability-and confidence-to tell stories often unseen and unheard.

An Initial Multimodal Experiment

Researchers have suggested that digital tools, such as cameras and iPads, can be used to motivate young readers and writers who, for one reason or another, have become disengaged from classroom literacy practices. As Donna Alvermann argues, "adolescents who appear most 'at risk' of failure in the academic literacy arena are sometimes the most adept at (and interested in) understanding how media texts work, and in particular, how meaning gets produced and consumed" (200). So, for students, teachers, and schools, new and digital media have presented new possibilities to collaborate, create, and share information. For example, social forums for reading and writing, such as Twitter, blogs, YouTube channels, fanfiction sites, and other online forums, have enabled the often instantaneous dissemination of information across school and nonschool spaces.

Almost ten years ago, as a classroom teacher working with "at-risk" adolescent readers, I decided to test Alvermann's hypothesis: Would the introduction of multimodal texts and composing activities engage my disengaged students? …

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