Color Outside the Lines

by Sheila Cooperman

Writing, for me, used to be like the old-fashioned rules of coloring: “Stay inside the lines.” It was next to impossible. I tried, failed, and swore to do better next time. But next time rarely came, because I knew that to express myself effectively, to make the most of what I needed to say, to make my message clear, I had to go outside the lines. And it would be messy.

A picture of two owls drawn in pencil and colored outside the lines

And that’s also how I envision my development as a teacher of writers.  Nineteen years ago, writing instruction for me meant assigning teacher-created writing topics that were mass produced in five-paragraph essay form. They were evaluated with a checklist and designed for an audience of one: the teacher. Nothing could be more boring and less authentic. Neat, contained, and easy–good qualities for making a bed with tight hospital corners, but not for writing.  

Words are power. They can change a person’s view of the world. Think about that: a whole new way to view one’s existence all through words. But this wasn’t happening through five- paragraph essays.  Writers must be messy. They must experiment, craft their messages, and share with authentic audiences. As a teacher of writers, I found myself grappling with how to help my students discover the power of words.

I noticed that in the cafeteria before school, students were energetic, producing and consuming digital media. They were creating video montages on iPads, sharing pictures through social media, creating music videos, and making movies on their phones–at 7:00 a.m. These students were entrenched in learning practices that made sense to them and were part of their contemporary world. But when the bell rang, and these same students crossed the threshold of the classroom, a pallor descended. Some students, on autopilot, got the work done and even participated occasionally, but none of these students acted like the interested, engaged people I had seen earlier in the cafeteria.

A female student is pictured sleeping on top of her notebook at a table with other school supplies scattered across the top

Student sleeping while studying. Used with permission. Image from

]The chasm between the two types of student writing was so startling that I knew the time had come to venture outside the lines. I could no longer dish out canned prompts with formulaic recipes and score their writing with an ingredient list for essay writing. I knew my writing classroom was about to undergo a major upheaval.

My struggle ended when digital writing and I met. Here was a compositional form I inherently understood. It was designed for expression. It was not neat and contained. It was anything but routine and boring– it was the juxtaposition of sound, text, image, and color all mixed up and messy, waiting to be stirred into a meaningful composition. Here was my chance to engage students in writing.


What do you want to CREATE today

What do you want to CREATE today? Used with permission. From by Wesley Fryer, Ph.D.


I knew that the teaching/learning for all of us would have to be hands-on. I was a little worried, but not too nervous, because they were digital natives. I thought that they would know what to do, but I was wrong. They didn’t know as much as I thought they did.

I assumed they would know what multimodal meant. They did not. I assumed they would understand that shifting writing from print to digital modes was not a simple copy and paste. They did not. I assumed that they would intuitively understand that choosing modalities requires critical thinking and not just picking the first image they Googled. They did not. I realized that I knew a great deal that I could teach them.

We started from the beginning. We talked about message. We talked about meaning. We talked about audience. We talked about modalities. We talked about how writing changes when you color outside the lines to find new ways to make meaning. We started to notice design elements in advertisements. We looked at purposeful placement of text and images on websites. We analyzed media collages. We looked at the balance between blank space and filled space, the substitution of image for text. We wordsmithed. We became designers because multimodal writing is a multi-faceted endeavor including words, images, colors, font, mixed media, sound, music, voice, and a host of almost anything else that writers can mix, match, devise, and invent all for the purpose of creating and making meaning.

My students learned about the messiness of writing, and so did I. We learned that writing is an art. A true creative exploration. We learned that writing can no longer be defined simply by text. We learned that the richness of one’s meaning can be enhanced by embracing the multimodalities that are available. We learned that writing is a tacit agreement between author and reader requiring respect.

Most importantly, we learned something about the beauty of the messiness of writing. Messiness is not always bad. Messy kitchens create delicious, savory taste treats. Messy studios often indicate brilliance in the making, and messy writing moves one’s composition from a diamond in the rough to a polished gem of meaning. We learned that writing composed outside the lines allows students to fully participate in rich, rewarding, literacy activities.


Sheila Cooperman is a sixth-grade teacher who embraces and promotes digital writing in the ELA classroom. She is a doctoral candidate at Fordham University in New York City and researches compositional processes in traditional and digital writing. Follow on Twitter, on Digitalis, and on
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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.


3 thoughts on “Color Outside the Lines

  1. Pingback: DLC Member Published! | Digital Literacies Collaborative

  2. Pingback: Studying comics and setting students up to be thoughtful and creative composers | Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

  3. Pingback: Advice to Teachers: What Do Young People Have to Say About Writing? | Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

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