Meaning By Design: My Focus for Year 6

If reading is breathing in and writing is breathing out, I’d have blacked out somewhere around the middle of June. Every time I sat down to write, I got distracted by some new book, article, or project that made me hold my breath for just a little longer. I fell well short of my initial goal of one blog per two weeks, then my back up goal of one blog for month. As I write this, I’m staring September in the face, my summer melted and forgotten like a half-eaten ice cream cone. Luckily, I have more to show for my efforts than a brain freeze and sticky hands.

In an effort to get myself back on track (and spare you from more summer metaphors) I decided to dive back in my stating my hopes, dreams, and designs for year six.

Synthesizing My Summer Learning

Meaning By Design
Here’s a visual representation of my instructional goals for the year. It’s my hope to create a classroom rich in conceptual understanding and transfer potential.

Over the summer I had the pleasure of reading “Literacies” by Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis. In addition to devouring their book, I also completed a MOOC on Coursea, read several articles, and surfed their website for so long I lost track of time. Point being, it’s good stuff and I wanted to immerse myself in it this summer, so I was ready to implement instead of laying my curricular track while simultaneously conducting my instructional train. I’m looking forward to having a clear and coherent game plan this year. I’ll probably go in to more detail later, but the image above is my best attempt to consider how I can combine everything I learned (and continue to learn) about learning transfer and what I learned this summer about multiliteracies theory.

To massively over simplify, my goal is to answer have my students answer these three questions over the course of each unit.

WHY are universal and designs concepts relevant?
universal concepts do texts attempt to explore?
HOW do creators design texts to convey their message?

I’ll get in to the specifics in another more in depth post, but here’s a brief (eh, kind of) overview.

(FYI, I’ll be using the term text broadly here—pretty much anything can be considered a text as long as it conveys meaning in some way, shape or form)

WHY are universal and design concepts relevant?

More than anything, I want to make my class meaningful. While reading “Literacies” one word kept coming up again and again.

Meaning Making
the process of how people construe, understand, or make sense of life events, relationships, and the self.

In an age where our students are more depressed, disconnected, and listless than ever, I can think of no process more important than their ability to make meaning. Is it any wonder that, in a time of uncertainty and fear kids numb themselves with technology? That they hide behind apathy? That they cheat on quizzes and tests that define their self-worth in the eyes of their peers and parents? I often wonder how much of their day feels utterly meaningless and how large of a role school plays in that feeling.

And it’s not just them. It’s all of us. I mean, Zombie films are the “Monster Movie Du Jour” for the 21st century after all…

I want my students to understand themselves and their world, and I want it to be the telos of my teaching, not a byproduct of my curriculum.  I want my students to interpret texts, communicate their understanding, then design new texts that will change the world. I want them to see the power of their own voice. I want a year without zombies.

Ultimately, through answering the questions I listed at the beginning of my post, it’s my goal that students are able to do the following:

  1. Organize their world through conceptual understanding.
  2. Understand their world through learning transfer.
  3. Change their world by interpreting and designing new texts.

In addition to focusing on multi-modal meaning, I also plan on doing a lot more mid-process revision and writing besides my students. I read and developed some district PD around Gallagher and Kittle’s “180 Days,” which provides a great model for scaffolding and teaching (what I’m calling) typographical design. Something tells me this is just one step in a much longer journey, as I’m grappling with ideas and methods way above my paygrade, but hey, I’ve always been a moonshot guy.

WHAT universal concepts do texts attempt to explore?

Human Cogs (3)
My sophomores yearly “Mythic Question” in visual form: What’s the relationship between individuals, groups, and systems and what role does power play?

For anyone who followed me last year, you’ll know fleshing this was a big focus of mine. I’ve always loved providing students opportunities to talk about the big ideas that govern the human experience: truth, beauty, freedom, culture, etc. However, Julie Stern’s work on conceptual understanding helped me realize how I could more intentionally scaffold that inquiry to ensure students could transfer their understanding. Her three step system for learning transfer will continue to be the engine that powers my curriculum and instruction.

I’ve always provided non-fiction texts to help broaden my students knowledge base, but I either left their connections to chance or asked them to parrot my connections back to me. By organizing our discussion of specific texts around broader, generalizing principles, they are empowered to make connections themselves (with some preliminary guidance of course). This provides them with a form and grammar to have conversations about the powerful ideas that exist across texts. For example, Unit Two will ask the question: “What is the relationship between chaos, order, power, and control?”

Students will explore that relationship through reading and discussing “Lord of the Flies,” selections from Phillip’s Zimbardo’s Psychology of Evil, and excerpts from philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The more knowledge they obtain and assimilate in to their existing schema, the more insight they’ll have in to these conceptual relationships. As they work their way through each text, their understanding of that conceptual relationship will become increasingly nuanced until they’re ready to craft a conceptual relationship statement during our end of unit Socratic Seminar.

It’s open ended, but will hopefully look something like…

“People often attempt to disrupt order by creating chaos in a bid to obtain power.” 

An example of this from The Lord of the Flies is…
An example of this from my Young Adult book club text is…
An example of this from psychology, philosophy, etc. is….

To help my students navigate conversations across texts, I’ll be modeling these analytical thinking moves until they’re comfortable using them on their own.

Analysis Poster jpg.jpg
This will be a poster and a handout. I’m hoping that simultaneously supplying students with knowledge and protocols they can use to analyze it will pay dividends as the year goes on.

HOW do creators design texts to convey their message?

I’m tweaking and refining the way I talk about universal concepts this year, but my biggest change will be focusing on how we discuss what I’ll be referring to as design concepts. When it comes to typographical concepts, this is nothing new. Teachers are very comfortable talking about how author’s make certain design choices with their diction, syntax, structure, etc. What many teachers aren’t comfortable with, however, is the design concepts that exist once we leave the privileged world of print.

Looking at our state standards, district guidelines, and the general ethos of modern education, it’s clear that multi-modal learning will play an increasingly important role in shaping the future of Language Arts as a discipline. Despite the number of times I’ve seen the term, the discourse around it is usually paper thin. Much like its cousin buzzwords “21st Century Learning” and “digital literacy” it’s a term that’s vaguely and glibly thrown around when we put kids in front of a computer. While I do believe these are deeply important ideas, I understand the eye rolls they receive from many people. Only more recently have I started discovering work that unpacks the implications of our increasingly multi-modal society.

I mean, are most school’s equipped to teach students digital literacy in the age of deep fakes, Russian bot farms, and weapons grade disinformation campaigns? Something tells me letting kids play around on Google Docs and making a FlipGrid just isn’t going to cut it. I don’t say that to diminish the potential of those tools, but to call attention to the chasm between how technology is leveraged in the classroom and how it’s being used in the wider world. We need actual pedagogical innovation, not just hashtags about it.

If the Cambridge Analytica scandal taught us anything, it’s that our citizenry’s inability to interpret multimodal texts has the potential to influence the integrity of our democracy. That’s serious stuff.

Luckily, Cope & Kalantzis’s work exposed me to the fact that its entirely possible, necessary even, to have deeper conversations about how meaning is made across different modalities. So, I asked myself, how can I adapt their work around multiliteracies in a way that works for my learning context? Here’s my best attempt.

Here’s my best stab at showcasing the primary modes through which humans make meaning. By categorizing and conceptualizing them, I’m hoping to deepen my students ability to interpret and create multimodal texts.

It’s my hope these categories will stay true to their work, but also easily be adapted for Common Core and my SOL standards. This, however, lead to a new question: how can I teach my students how to analyze multi-modal texts without it feeling tacked on? How could I teach each of mode’s unique features, but also create a catch-all term that implies they are all connected?

That’s why I chose the word design:

de·sign /dəˈzīn/ noun
purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object.

For me, regardless of whether we’re talking about an author’s choice to shorten a sentence to give it more punch or a graphic designer’s use of color in an image, we’re talking about design. Design is about intent. It’s about creativity. It’s about meaning. It’s why I’m so drawn to the work of people like Dan Ryder, Amy Burvall, and Angela Stockman. They’re people that understand that text isn’t the only modality through which we can make meaning.

So I’ll be using the word “design” to talk about terms and concepts that deal with the choices creators make in order to convey their message, regardless of the mode. Essentially, I’ll be running a crash course in semiotics alongside my traditional curriculum. An important note: Instead of “competing for time” for my student’s analysis of visual texts, I’m confident that, with proper curation, the background knowledge I’m building and schema I’m expanding will actually make them better readers too.

To further ensure my students are able to transfer their understanding, and not just complete one and done projects, I’ve devised some posters/handouts they’ll be using when we interpret and create non-typographic texts. This will help form a kind of creative, transferable metalanguage my students can leverage when they encounter multimodal texts inside or outside of school.

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Ultimately, units will end up looking something like this.

Here’s a new unit for my 12th Graders built around graphic novels.

Gearing up for my first day

Tomorrow, I plan on establishing a culture of inclusion, vulnerability, and meaning making right from the get go. Check out Jeffery Frieden’s blog for some awesome ideas I’ll be using to kick off my year. If I hope to create a zombie free class, I know it starts with me. I have to set the tone and let my students know my class is a place where they can be vulnerable, but will also be empowered.

Speaking of my first day, I’m basically just writing to put off lying in bed until my alarm goes off tomorrow at 5:45. Here’s to another year!

IMG_3074 (1)

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