Childhood Should Be Multimodal

I’m beginning the prepwork for Fall 2012 now, and book orders were so long ago that I’m rechecking to see what books I ordered! In doing that, I see that my memory is correct: I ordered Cynthia Selfe’s Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers for both my ENG 520 and my ENG 726 classes. The first is for English Ed majors in their last semester before going off to do student teach and focuses on Rhet/Comp for high school or community college teaching. The second is an issues in Rhet/Comp class and I chose the topic, “Multimodal Composition: When Text is More than Text Alone.” I was hoping for some crossover or collaboration between the two classes and still think it just might work. The other text for ENG 726 is Jason Palmeri’s Remixing Composition: A History of Multimodal Writing Pedagogy. It pretty much takes no prisoners in the savvy look back at the history of composition and the edited out threads from the 60s, 70s, and so on that used multiple modalities for composition. As a child of those times, I know it was true, and still remember the awesome multi-media presentation Steve Gable and I did in high school. It wasn’t for a class, but we did perform it in the school’s theater and in my church auditorium. It had video clips, two screens (different things at the same time, layers of things happening on screen (light effects projected as a top layer), live narration, and three dancers (also live and in front of the screen). This was the South Bay area of Los Angeles, so we also got feedback from some record industry people (friend of a friend’s parents) and it was good feedback too. For example, from the feedback we learned to note cues between media so each performance was the same. Promotional music videos were just starting then, and Steve went on to do a couple of music videos and I was in them– yes, still in high school here. How did this happen? Well, we didn’t know we couldn’t do it. We didn’t know it was hard. Creative work, for us, was an extension of play, and that, I believe, is the secret to multimodal composition. Have a vision, play with it, and get it right.

I believe play is inherently multimodal. When I think back to my childhood or to my children at play when they were young, it was all very DIY. Part of that was not having money to spare, but play itself must have that drawing in of threads from different things or it is a dead zone. For example, my daughter had Barbies, but Barbie was not limited to her scripted adventures. She and her sister clones would have bike bungees tied to their waists and bungee jump down the stairs. Play was situational and dependent on what was on hand.  For example, tornadoes and windstorms typical of south-central Kansas meant picking up a lot of sticks before mowing, and that was a typical kid’s chore. Barbie didn’t have a pre-fab dream house, but she often had a house latticed out of sticks; sometimes her friends would come from down the street and a stick condo village would appear out in the yard, one intricate enough to take several hours to build.  I got a real find at a garage sale– a homemade, painted plywood puppet theater. My daughter and her two best friends took a little paint and named it after themselves: Paige, Megan, and Stephanie: PMS Theater. Puppet theater was very popular, and older kids (i.e., Brother and his friends) would find themselves playing along and helping out with scriptwriting. This too, is composition and it always has been.

The Selfe book in particular is very hands-on and in the spirit of DIY and play. I will be wriitng assignments that use the book but also use it as a gateway to student’s own projects, their own projected assignments for their teaching.

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Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

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