Civically-Engaged Teaching Writing

On “digiship”


Chad Sansing explores the concept of “Digiship” in this classroom and supports his students in using everyday technologies and materials to rapidly prototype, share, and reiterate solutions to the problems and opportunities they see around them and in their own lives.

Originally published on May 16, 2012

This year we begin our spring testing with civics and economics – the course I teach. Since we test first, we have several weeks of classes left after testing. In hope of sparking each student’s drive, I’ve invited them to undertake capstone projects in government, politics, economics, or career readiness. I’ve offered up some suggestions for planning and iterating projects, and I’ve put forth the idea of working until the project works as our criterion for success. I’ve also told students that learning and making things they love trumps my request that students’ projects focus on civics and economics.

I believe that when a student pursues an ambitious, inquiry-driven project, he or she performs a more civic service than doing a project I assign. I believe that my students will be more civic minded in the future if they feel like they can identify problems and set and meet goals than if they feel like they have to wait to be told what to do.

Democracy is about individual political expression contributing to the greater good; political expression should be personal and idiosyncratic, but also reasoned, generative, and shaped to consensus. Political expression should be much more like inquiry-driven, project-based work – sometimes collaborative – than like test-driven memorization of content.

In looking at how my students have responded to the capstone project prompt so far, I’m struck – as I was on #DLDay – by the variety of the work they’ve chosen and by how intuitively they’ve set about doing that work. I am, frankly, astounded by how much project-specific work is coming from what are, essentially, bare bones plans. In fact, I am reconsidering they way I ask students to approach planning – right now I’m not sure a “good” plan helps a student achieve more than actual work does.

For example, one student spent the entire first day of capstone work messing around on Minecraft, which – in our classroom – is akin to reading a book instead of doing the work at hand. However, today, after we finished testing, I showed the student some HTML5 code I’ve been learning and asked if she had any interest in moving towards making things like on-line games. She said yes. We grabbed a couple of laptops and each built a tiny web page with 3 or 4 CSS definitions a piece and some pixel art we learned to insert and format so that it displayed inline with our text. She came back for our “official” class after lunch, helped me launch an HTML camp for 3 students (through which we built another set of quick proof-of-concept websites with CSS and pixel art), and then took off without the rest of us. I handed the girls notecards with the Codecademy Web fundamentals URL at the end of class and told them I fully expected to be spending my class time learning from them very shortly. Today, serendipitously, I heard those comments we all want to hear – the ones that alternate between how difficult and awesome learning is.

How could I have asked or expected that first coder to plan for all of that? How could I have asked her, the Minecraft player, to tell me how she was going to iterate her second webpage after building her first, before she built either? Maybe her experience with Minecraft helped her more than a plan ever could. Without wondering about the guts of Minecraft, would she have moved from consumption of a game to production of a website?

What is the role of a plan – or a lesson plan – in inquiry? How many questions does it take to get to the center of learning? What more do we need than, “Where am I? Where do I want to go? How can I figure that out?”

Maybe what I’m beginning to doubt isn’t planning, but the idea of neutral or discipline-agnostic planning. I’m sure that seems like a naive statement to most professionals, but I’m not sure it would be recognized as such inside our system of public education.

Regardless, those are kind of scary questions, and my questions about those questions aren’t new or otherwise original. I have students who aren’t ready to answer those questions yet; we all have students whose anxieties are triggered by uncertainty. How do you scaffold independence for students who need some external dependability? Is it always right to do so?

Probably not, but we need to keep finding ways to help kids who struggle against destructive forces in their lives to be agents and advocates for themselves. Perhaps one way we could this is to ask them to plan and prepare less, and to do and make more.

Perhaps there is a “digiship” – a digitally-mediated citizenship – that isn’t as unreachable for all kids as we – the system – believe it is.

Digiship is an immediate citizenship, one that takes advantage of everyday technologies and materials to let kids rapidly prototype, share, and reiterate solutions to the problems and opportunities they see around them and in their own lives. Being a digital citizen who practices digiship means recognizing opportunities for change and working on a solution until the solution works. Code, test, debug, repeat until I am a better person and/or the world is a better place. Digiship is digital, but also of-the-digits – hands-on work with tangible results that can be assessed and improved on the fly in response to feedback and needs.

This digiship relies on two kinds of democratization of composition. First, we have to accept making and iterating as the equals of writing and drafting. We have to acknowledge, value, and make pedagogical use of a wide cultural variety of knowing and doing so that all students have access to our best teaching and learning about critical thought and design thinking. We can’t limit access to that kind of education because of handwriting or non-academic use of English. By all means, we should help kids communicate clearly about the work they value, but should put a sudden and utter stop to withholding such work from kids who don’t communicate clearly through work they don’t value. Philosophically and practically, we (especially we English teachers) have to let kids connect to the world through a variety of composition that none of us – no student or teacher – could ever be expected to master in its entirety. We have to let go of language as a carrot-and-stick of control and look at all kinds of making – coding, cooking, drawing, dancing, embroidering, et al. – as signal rather than noise, even – and especially – in academic settings. Why? For my part, I suspect there is a causal relationship between kids not showing up prepared to do what we want and us not preparing kids to do what they want to do. We ought to escape that cycle by making stuff that matters to all of us together.

Moreover, this digiship relies on equity of access to communications technologies and arts/crafting/making/tinkering materials. What kind of digital production can we expect from students if all we offer them as a medium is writing? Others have said – and enacted – it better: kids deserve access to technologies that allow them to create work that matters to them, all kids deserve this access, organizations apart from school already offer this access, and kids are creating their own participatory culture with or without school. Schools can quickly assume more relevancy in kids’ lives by providing material access to digiship.

Why does it fall to us educators? Because we – in public schools – live with our kids in a digital world; we are all digital natives; we share an ecosystem, as cybernetic as it has become, with our children, and in that ecosystem we have responsibilities to them that are morally independent from those we think they have to us.

What digiship offers students who are traditionally excluded from such work is immediate access to making work that matters and that is repeatedly assessed and revised until it works. (I can’t count the As or Bs I got that didn’t “do” anything.) What digiship offers us is the opportunity to teach and learn with kids as equals in the present, rather than from a privileged and resisted position of authority grounded in the past.

I looked around my room today and saw kids teaching kids circuity and mechanics inside a game; I saw kids writing voluntarily the entire time; I saw kids mashing-up pixel art backgrounds and hand-drawn character sketches for a comic about an alien, cyborg Abe Lincoln looking for enough scattered Lincoln logs to rebuild his crashed spaceship so he can escape Earth; I saw kids mashing up pixel art and multi-layer stencils.

I bet we’re going to read some Egyptian mythology, the non-fiction works of Scott McCloud, and the The Art of Video Games catalog; I bet we’re going to write code and dialogue and maybe even some plans. I hope that by doing so in digiship we contribute to lasting habits, cultures, and communities of learning, understanding, and inclusion in our school and in our lives. If we learn to value doing what we love (as Western as our obsessions generally are), maybe we’ll be better at making sure others can do the same. Maybe we’ll make use of our democracy to listen, as well as to speak. Maybe giving our attention to the immediacy of work will re-kindle our appreciation of the people likewise learning and working around us. I want to bet on that.