Convenience and Enhancement: What’s Meaningful?

Multimodality is tricky, difficult to implement in meaningful ways. I previously had the opportunity to TA for Ball State’s course for teaching writing in secondary schools, and in the lesson I taught by myself, I had the class discuss the difference between texts that were digitally convenient and texts that were digitally enhanced*; this lesson prepared them to consider how meaningful digital writing was in their final projects, but as we conferenced later, we realized that it is much more difficult to assign something digitally enhanced than it is to assign something digitally convenient.


In composition classes, it’s easy to just assign alphabetic texts. A hundred different reasons can be rattled off for why alphabetic texts should be assigned, but there are just as many reasons to ask students to create multimodal texts, as well.

In my mentor’s classroom, there has yet to be a multimodal assignment; although students have been asked to critique a multimodal text (a documentary that they must rhetorically analyze), they won’t be asked to create one until the last assignment when they’ll have to create their own documentary.

The class is bookended in this way by documentaries, but the other assignment my mentor will be teaching is also an alphabetic text. To go back to the idea that there are a multitude of reasons for teaching alphabetic texts, the rhetorical analysis and personal narrative the students will have to complete will enable them to go on and write other alphabetic texts for other classes, but which assignment will they likely remember down the road?

The documentary they have to create.

Having students remember an assignment is not the most important reason to require multimodal texts in the classroom, although it is one. Students will be more likely to remember such rhetorical ideas as audience, tone, etc., through this process of creation, though, rather than just through the process of critiquing like they are in their rhetorical analysis.

Of course, then comes the big question, tied to the idea of digital convenience vs. digital enhancement—what should we do when multimodal texts become an act of checking off a box rather than an actual extension of the task?

I don’t know if I have an answer to this. Especially as I’m considering what I might do for the third assignment in my mentors classroom, I feel as if I need to have the answer to this. I don’t want to assign something digital just because I want something to be digital if the same thing could be done in an alphabetic way (side-note/reminder—I know multimodality doesn’t have to be digital, but it’s a common way to include multimodality. I’m really interested in art in the classroom, and might try to find a way to implement images in that way, but I have fewer answers about that than I do digital inclusion).

My main idea for my third assignment so far is to turn a research paper into a podcast, requiring students to bring in audio from an interview they’d need to conduct, but I again come to the question of if this is meaningful multimodality or not. I could use Serial as an example of how to structure a podcast with other voices and other audio effects, but the idea of convenience vs. enhancement has caused me to continually second guess myself on how to use multimodality in the classroom.

Most of this has been focused on multimodal end products, too, which is a bit problematic in its own right. We should also be encouraging multimodal processes, too, in whatever ways we can. Could I have students draw as ways to represent their ideas? Could I have students use Google Docs or Twitter as ways to communicate with their classmates—or is that just digital convenience?

I have more questions than I do answers about multimodality, but I know that the multimodal world we live in requires that I help my students both critique and create multimodal texts.

*This concept was taken from Crafting Digital Writing by Troy Hicks, as this isn’t explicitly stated anywhere in the Google Doc.

Lifelong Learners

While student teaching, one of the recurring topics I would discuss with my cooperating teacher was the difference between students with high ability and students with low ability/skills. The spectrum of ability we taught was vast, and it required me to interrogate who I was as a high school student.

Honors Language Arts I. Honors Language Arts II. Honors Language Arts III. Composition and Advanced Literature.

I had to ask myself, how was I supposed to helps students who struggled to write paragraphs when I had never struggled in the same way when it came to writing?

Had I failed before at writing? Did I understand what it was like to struggle with language? I considered myself a learner, but here I was in the role of a teacher.

I came to this conclusion when talking to my CT:

I wish I’d failed more in high school.

What good was it for me now to have the weight of being high school valedictorian on my back forever? No one cared about that, I didn’t care about it, and all it did was make me feel as if I had to continue on this path of success that I had set for myself before I even got to the heart of my educational career.

This idea of failure is a subconcept that I see as crucial to concept 4 — All Writers Have More to Learn (59). If we only succeed, we’re not learning because we don’t have that struggle to overcome, don’t have strong motivations to grow.

In the FYC composition classroom, this means providing opportunities for failure. In providing opportunities for failure, teachers can also provide opportunities for growth, correction, and assessment of learning.

We have to remember that assessment doesn’t just mean final papers or final exams (another subconcept — assessment is an essential component of learning to write (67)), but also understanding where our students are in the learning process and helping them to understand where they are, as well. Formative vs. summative assessment is especially important to consider as teachers here; we have to make sure that we have some formative assessment along the way and before it’s too late for us and our students to do anything with these assessments.

Some ways we can include formative assessment: have students turn in part of an assignment or have students complete a practice activity. Make it clear that these don’t have to be perfect.

In the FYC composition classroom, it’s also important that we incorporate how to read feedback. We as teachers can model (through demonstration, most likely, although the age of transparencies has shifted into the age of screen casting) how we take feedback and how we incorporate that into future drafts or future projects. We can show our students that we’re learning too.

Not only can we show our students this, but we can also teach them to revise. Making revision processes explicit makes revision processes easier and shows students that revision is more than just fixing grammatical errors. Revision is central to developing writing, and students need to understand how to revise (66). 

Essentially, we need to teach our students that they’re learners and show them that we’re learners, too — lifelong learners, at that.

Learning how to write becomes easier when you identify as a learner.

Adler-Kassner, L., & Wardle, E. (2015). Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (1 edition). Logan: Utah State University Press.

Writing is More than Class


As I prepared to give my final student teaching presentation, my friend — there for moral support — came up to my cooperating teacher’s desk where I stood fixing the dongle, tapped the wooden sign there that said “I’m silently correcting your grammar,” and whispered, “I hate this.”

I gave her a tight smile, muttering back that it was the worst. We had had previous conversations about how grammar instruction and the mythos of standard English oppressed native languages and dialects, and this knick knack suddenly represented all that was wrong with traditional instruction.

First-Year Composition put this idea into concrete terms: native languages and dialects need to be valued and validated in the educational system, and, when they are not, this is a contribution to the promotion of cultural assimilation (xviii) This is especially important in composition classes where the focus is primarily on how we write and use language.

(SAE is a language of privilege, but that’s a conversation for another day. My friend mentioned in the anecdote, Rachel Wright-Márquez, presented at a conference on Navigating Linguistic Hegemony in the Writing Center: The Mythos of Standard American English and its Implications, and her best practices information can be found here.)

As my undergraduate education was in English education, I have the advantage of entering graduate school with methods, content, and pedagogy courses under my belt, as well as practicum experiences and an entire semester spent student teaching high school freshmen. That said, I know that helping high school students understand Romeo and Juliet will be much different than helping college students understand how to write a rhetorical analysis. This previous teaching experience was very traditional in that the curriculum that needed to be followed was primarily crafted in order to prepare students for NWEA testing, even if that meant emphasizing standard American English (SAE, sometimes referred to as Edited American English).

I had my phase, as have most English majors, where I declared myself to be a “grammar Nazi” (and given our current political climate, I hope even more fervently that this phrase has died out), but as I began running a classroom, I realized that a lot of my students didn’t understand the importance of reading and writing skills beyond school’s emphasis of SAE; the importance of NWEA for their high school careers was not something that mattered to them, and quite a few of my students thought “English was dumb.” They didn’t care whether they were engaging with the ideas we were talking about, as “First Time Up” says this is the “help” students need most (and this is probably the help we should provide most frequently in our classes), but instead just cared about doing the bare minimum to get by (16).
Source: Pinterest (although here is some basic information about the rhetorical triangle)

My experience with rhetoric and composition as fields of study are limited in comparison to what I feel I know about the field of education; I can whip out phrases like “scaffolding,” “ZPD,” and “pseudo-concepts” like they’re no big deal, but my understanding of tools like the rhetorical triangle is shaky at best (and as such, a lot of my primary questions about composition come down to what define it as a discipline).

The common ground between my educational background and composition, however, comes down to Adler-Kassner and Wardle’s metaconcept that “Writing Is an Activity and a Subject of Study” (4).
This was something a lot of my freshmen didn’t understand — how was writing important outside of helping them to earn a good grade in English 9? They didn’t want to be English majors or authors, and they didn’t revise, just as Teller argued of his students, although I loathe to say something similar to Teller.

As a had a one-on-one moment with a student, praising him for his use of simile in a paragraph response, he seemed stunned that I was proud of him for that, and I tried to use the opportunity as best I could to emphasize that strong writing like that would get him far in life, as writing is something we’re always doing, even if it’s not scholarly writing.

Of course, writing is hard, and many students will always struggle with it, whether that’s because their brains are better wired for math or because English isn’t their first language and they have to write in English as their teachers don’t speak Bulgarian or Spanish or Pushto (three of the languages some of my freshmen spoke). Writing and communication are important outside of the classroom, though, and it is our duty as teachers to help students strengthen these skills.

What’s important and what will always be a concern to me in both teaching and in composition is that students be able to communicate their ideas in ways that are easily understandable but in ways that respect their identities.

This is what I want for my students, whether they’re studying English as a discipline or whether they want to be construction workers or go into the military or be stay-at-home parents. Composition may have started as remediation, but it can be so much more than that.


Adler-Kassner, L., & Wardle, E. (2015). Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (1 edition). Logan: Utah State University Press.

Coxwell-Teague, D., & Lunsford, R. F. (Eds.). (2014). First-Year Composition: From Theory to Practice. Anderson, South Carolina: Parlor Press.

Q&A with Julie Murphy (Side Effects May Vary, Dumplin’)

Julie+Murphy+Author+Photo+copyJulie Murphy lives in North Texas with her husband who loves her, her dog who adores her, and her cats who tolerate her. When she’s not writing or trying to catch stray cats, she can be found reading, traveling, or watching movies so bad they’re good. Her debut contemporary young adult novel, Side Effects May Vary, is out from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins and has been well-received by Kirkus, School Library Journal, VOYA, Booklist, Seventeen Magazine, and Teen Vogue. Dumplin’, Julie’s sophomore novel has received glowing reviews including two stars from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Film rights have been optioned by Disney.

(This interview was conducted at this year’s Midwest Writer’s Workshop and focuses primarily on SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY. A separate interview with Julie about DUMPLIN’ is available to read on Amanda Byk’s blog.)

RL: If Alice and Harvey went to Hogwarts, which house would each of them have been sorted into and why?

JM: Oh, mhm, this is a good question. It’s been a long time since I’ve written this book. Okay, I would have to say that Harvey is totally…hang on, oh my gosh. This is such a good question.

RL: [laughing] I’m putting you on the spot for their Hogwarts houses.

JM: No, no, no, I’m obsessed with Harry Potter, so this is a great question. Okay, so Harvey’s a Gryffindor, right? Harvey is such a Gryffindor. And not even because he necessarily meets the requirements of a Gryffindor, but Harvey is the person who would put the Sorting Hat on and ask the Sorting Hat to put him in Gryffindor. And I think that for those same reasons, Alice is a Slytherin. I think there are lots of thing about Alice that don’t necessarily make her Slytherin, but I think that she is one of those people who would self-select and be like, “Put me in Slytherin.” But she’s also manipulative and a little conniving, I say that like those are bad things — I’m also Slytherin. 

RL: I saw on your Twitter profile! I’m a Ravenclaw.

JM: I used to say that I was a Slytherclaw, but I’m pretty solidly Slytherin. But I think those two would self-select; I think they would have a clear idea of what they want.

RL: And it’s like a good match, since they’re at odds so much, but still kind of fit together.

JM: Yeah, yeah! It’s like Draco/Harry, like slash-fic, but with Alice and Harvey.

RL: Kind of going off Alice’s manipulations and such, then, I’ve read in other interviews where you talk about how Alice acts as her own antagonist, which I really love — but do you think that’s just her as a character or do you think it’s just a side effect of all of the experiences that she’s gone through, with her cancer and everything?

JM: I think Alice — Alice is sort of like, “What if the worst case scenario happened to someone who is already a prickly person?” You know what I mean? Someone who already is very specific about the people they hang out with, is very specific about everything they do, and everything they say. So I think that it’s a little bit of both. I think that her circumstances, like her mother cheating and her being diagnosed with cancer, have sort of created this caricature version of Alice. It’s sorted of created this worst-case-scenario, villainous version of Alice where normally this prickly version of Alice can navigate the world, and for the most part, not kill anyone. But when her world is exploding, that’s just not possible anymore.

RL: In what ways do you think you relate to both Alice and Harvey, since you tell it from both of their points-of-view?

JM: You know, I think that a younger version of myself relates a lot to Harvey because I have been in that position where I let someone else dictate a relationship, and I let them take advantage of me. And what was horrible about that position is that I’ve always felt like such an Alice. You know what I mean?

(At this point in the interview, Natalie C. Parker walked into the green room where we were recording, and Julie joked that she couldn’t be smart around Natalie. The previous question was repeated and picked back up after Natalie left — post-best friend banter between the two.)

JM: So I definitely feel like I have been a Harvey in the past, but what made being a Harvey so bad is that internally I’ve always been such an Alice, and I was aware that I was being manipulated, but love and infatuation and lust let you  no matter how strong of a person you are or no matter how aggressive of a person you are, you can be manipulated by those things. I think that those are some of the strongest passions that we have, you know? So I’ve been a little bit of both, but I think at heart I’m an Alice, like I’m a very cool  hopefully — a very cool, down, like leveled version of Alice, maybe a little bit like her mom, you know.

RL: Alice after she learns and grows!

JM: Yeah, Alice after the storm, I hope.

RL: If you had the power to travel to a different time, when would you travel and why, what would you do when you got there?

JM: You’re asking really difficult questions! Okay, so, I think, so this is a horrible answer and you guys probably don’t even know what I’m talking about ’cause you’re young and pretty — I am obsessed with Steel Magnolias. Okay? So I think if I could time travel back in time, let’s pretend that Steel Magnolias is its own alternate universe, in 80s Louisiana, with Dolly Parton. That’s what I would travel back to  I would just live in that little salon with Dolly Parton and gossip with everyone forever for the rest of my life. So it’s not real history, but — 

RL: It’s like an alternative history; I totally accept it. As writers, alternative universes are our thing.

RL: How did your writing process change from Side Effects May Vary to Dumplin’?

JM: So. Freaking. Much. So Side Effects May Vary, after I published this book, I got a lot of questions about like, “How did you handle the dual points of view? And the two various timelines? Like, how did you possibly do this?” And the answer to that question is that I didn’t — I didn’t know that was I was doing was difficult and I didn’t know any better. Because it was really easy for me as I was writing to write an Alice scene in the present and then for that Alice scene to then present questions that only a Harvey scene in the past could answer. So it sort of  it’s a horrible answer because I’m telling you it was a really lazy way that I came about it? Does that make sense? But it was also, like, a totally amateur — like, I was hungry for that story, and I was trying to fill in the blanks for that story, and I think everyone has this experience at least once when they’re writing a book where it’s just — you feel like you’re a savage, you just have to write this book because you want to know what happens next. And it’s not that I don’t like everything that I write now, but this is the only time I’ve ever felt like “If I don’t keep writing, I’m going to turn into a monster, and I have to keep writing this story right now.” And that’s part of the thing with the two timelines and the two points of view, is that I was coming up with these questions that I had to answer, and that was the only way that I could answer those questions.

RL: I had another question just about how you met Molly, because I’m her assistant [at the workshop], but you kind of answered that in the agent/author panel, so it’s a redundant question, I don’t want to make you talk about it twice. But were you thinking about how your novel might be received in response to the “sick lit” sub-genre of YA as you were writing it? Post-TFiOS?

JM: So Side Effects came out after out after The Fault in Our Stars, what’s funny about  everyone thinks that I’m going to be somehow upset about The Fault in Our Stars, or annoyed by it, but what’s actually wonderful about The Fault in Our Stars is it created a space for my book to sell very quickly. Because I queried — so The Fault in Our Stars came out in like January, right? Of whatever — of like, 2012? Yeah, whatever year it was, it came out in January of that year, and I queried in February of that year, and so I think the term “sick lit” is gross and disgusting, but people were looking for books about teenagers who were dealing with terminal illnesses, and so when I queried, it was like wild fire. And I think that Molly and I still would have found each other, ’cause she loves that book — I could take cancer out of that book, and she would still love that book, ’cause she loves that book for Alice, and she loves that book for Harvey, so the cancer is sort of like a moot point in that book. You could replace cancer with “Alice thought she was going to move out of town, and she ends up not moving at the very last minute.” So I understand why it gets categorized as “sick lit,” but I don’t think it’s necessarily defined by that term.

RL: I don’t like that term either, ’cause it just like — it puts everything into a box, and then the term “sick” itself is just kind of a bad term, and then it makes it sound like books within that society-created genre are bad, and it’s like, “No, books aren’t bad!” 

JM: No, they’re not bad — and I don’t think — it’s such an exploitive term, it makes it sound like I’m in some way exploiting people who’ve had cancer, but I think that — I mean that Molly would have found that book no matter what, and I think that, you know, the cancer thing is just the vehicle for the story, I think it could be replaced by something else. Hopefully all of the cancer and all of that stuff in the book is realistic, but I think it’s replaceable in the book, or at least I hope it is.

RL: Yeah, ’cause I was thinking when I was reading the book for the first time — it’s not even that much of a focal point. It’s something that affects Alice, but it’s like, you get Alice in the first chapter finding out and about her mom, but then by chapter three, in her next point of view chapter, you find out she’s in remission, so it’s not about her finding out or anything, it’s about dealing with the consequences and the side effects.

JM: Yeah, and I think that we — I was talking about this in my YA intensive class, there’s a lot of discussions about at what point should you start a book? Do you start a book when your character’s world changes? Or do you start a book when your character’s arc changes in response to their world changing? Do you know what I mean? So do I start the book when Alice is diagnosed with cancer, do I start the book — no, you start the book when she has to start reacting to the world around her, and that’s when — there are two specific arcs in the book, and that’s when she finds out her mom is cheating and when she finds out she’s in remission. That’s when Alice has her real emotional shifts in this book.

#MWW16: Diversity, Paper Hats, and Wonderful People, Oh My!

In my last blog post, I described how terrifying the cursor over a blank page is, and now I’m facing that same dilemma. That same dilemma even though I have so much to say about MWW and so much love in my heart for the entire conference (from the insightful panels to photo booth fun with the loves of my life, AKA my fellow agent assistants).

Where to start?

At the conference, I worked as the agent assistant for the incomparable Molly Jaffa, and let me just tell you all how much I admire her — I wish I could say I asked super insightful questions during downtime between her pitches, but I felt so tongue-tied (awkward and anxious person that I am) because she’s so good at what she does and that was simultaneously inspiring and intimidating.

Even though I didn’t ask as many questions as I so desperately wanted to but failed to think of, I learned so much just from sitting at her table, and here are just a few of these things that I learned both from Molly and the conference as a whole:

— Middle grade novels focus more on literal monsters, whereas YA tends to be more like “I am the monster because of my feelings” and about the emotional arc of the characters. Sitting in on pitches was so enlightening, especially as someone who’s always been on the verge of starting a YA novel, because everyone wants to write YA. It’s popular now, and that’s great, but don’t write it just because it sells. Middle grade is just as important and might actually be a better fit for the plot and characters you have.

— The majority of YA is in first person because YA is about immediacy, about as few differences as possible between the reader and the character. Don’t be afraid of third person YA, just know that this is why you see so much first person YA. (Also — maybe try your hand at second person in your writing as a disguised form of first person. I learned so much on this subject from Tom Williams‘ panel on second person POV; if you want my notes, I’m more than happy to give them to you!)

— If you weren’t already aware, I’m going to shout this from the rooftops — we need diverse representation in our literature. Molly is a huge proponent of this — one of the first things she said at the agent panel on the Friday I met her was a description of a book she’d signed about a girl who’s out as a lesbian but not out as a witch in Salem. How cool is that? And how important will that be for teenagers who haven’t come out of the closet? Be a proponent of diversity and equality in what you read, write, and share with the world. This is what Natalie C. Parker (whose books I can’t wait to start reading!) said was a reason she was so drawn to Molly as an agent above others, and it bears repeating.

— On that same note — sensitivity readers. Find them. If you’re going to write diversely, don’t do it because it’s a trend, because it’s not (at his buttonhole table, Jim McCarthy explained this is one of the things he’s tired of seeing in his inbox). Try to attain authenticity instead of appropriation.

— Literature, YA especially, works as windows and mirrors. Windows to see others, mirrors to see ourselves. I can’t tell you how much I’d loved hearing Molly ask a writer for a full manuscript about a girl with Down Syndrome, and I can’t tell you how difficult it was not to cry during Julie Murphy’s Keynote when she talked about seeing the movie Spy starring Melissa McCarthy. “Sometimes you don’t realize how hungry you are for your own reflection until you finally see it,” Julie said — and if you’re thinking that all I learned about was diversity at this conference, it wasn’t, but I think using this space to talk so much about diversity is crucial. I could talk about how much fun I had goofing around with the other agent assistants, because I had the best time in the world, but the pictures speak for that; to achieve diversity, we have to actively speak about it and champion it.

— On a final note — paper hats are great at putting people at ease, and Molly makes great ones.UIWww76-2

Get your paper hats ready for next year, everyone — I’m sure it’s going to be equally (if not more) amazing, and I can’t wait to see familiar faces and new faces alike there!

Let’s Go on a Writing Date

The cursor looming over a blank document is terrifying, and finding time to open the document in the first place can be just as impossible as actually writing.

Except I’ve recently asked myself this — is it actually so difficult to find that time to write or am I making excuses? What about the time I spend watching YouTube videos or re-watching episodes of Miraculous Ladybug that I’ve seen hundreds of times? Why am I not using that time to write?

One of the YouTube videos I watched when I could have been writing is this one by Fran Meneses, an illustrator and YouTuber also known as Frannerd:
I recommend just watching the video to understand fully what she’s saying about drawing dates, but when I watched the video, I came away with an idea — writing dates.

The premise is simple — find an acquaintance, a friend, a classmate, whoever, and go to a museum/park/etc. with the intention of writing and actually write. Use a painting as a prompt, describe what the kids playing Frisbee look like and what they might be thinking, or just write your thoughts. The point is to free write, and if you can multitask, talk with your friend at the same time. Bounce story ideas off each other, share what you’re reading — be actively involved in your own small literary community if only for thirty minutes while you sit on that museum bench or park bench.

And if you’re not a writer? Maybe try a reading date. Bring a book you love, and have your friend bring a book they love, and trade. Sit and read for thirty minutes, an hour, think about why they love that book and appreciate its craft for what it is.

Not only will you learn more about the other person, but you’ll have beaten that excuse of “Oh, I just don’t have time for reading and writing.” Make time for what you love and for your craft in the same way you make time for the people in your lives.

(Fran also has some recommendations for going out in this way and what to remember in this blog post.)