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A Real Audience

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Lately I have been thinking about audience and purpose, and how critical an issue this is to education.

As a high-school English teacher, I liked to post Essential Questions on my wall that were used as anchors for content and skills throughout the course. One of them is, “When I write or speak, who is my audience and what am I trying to make them think or feel?” While I would often ask students to consider this question as they wrote IB commentaries, personal and business letters, or first-person narratives, I didn’t pause to consider the irony: the real audience was usually just me.

Let’s face it: most high-school kids prefer electives over core courses. One reason for these kinds of results is obvious: everyone loves an opportunity to choose what they are most interested in. If I could choose a high-school schedule today, I’d be heavy on courses in English, film studies, modern language, and art because those are my areas of interest and I’d be more likely to be motivated in them. This is one reason people find college more engaging than high school — there is a lot more choice, and you can specialize in your interests. When I attended my liberal arts college in the 90s, I did have to take math, science and history courses, but thanks to the great variety of choice one has in college, I was able to take a philosophy/logic course, a microbiology course on cancer and AIDS, and the history of African architecture to fulfill those requirements — all of which were fascinating. So one reason students often seem more motivated in Photography class over English class is that they choose to take Photography, whereas they have no choice whether or not to take my grade 10 English class.

But another reason that students may choose P.E. and arts far and away as their most favorite and least boring courses in my dad’s survey of thousands of high school students all over the world is having an authentic product and audience.

Take Jamie, a typical high school student of mine from several years ago. Jamie had her usual core courses in math, science, English and language, but she also chose to take Dance, Film Studies, and Yearbook. In dance, she had to choreograph her own dance and perform it in front of her peers and teacher on several occasions, getting and incorporating feedback to improve the performance. The final performance was on stage in front of the whole school at an assembly, an audience of hundreds. Jamie also took my Film Studies course. For her first-semester exam, she and the other students had to film, edit, and screen a five-minute short film in front of the entire class. As a requirement for the course, she also had to submit the film to the school’s first-ever student film festival that year, where it was judged by a panel of faculty and screened for over a hundred people in the audience. In Yearbook, Jamie had to work in teams to produce a tangible product that was for sale; her team competed against other teams to come up with the best design pitches for the Yearbook theme. The actual yearbook was sold to hundreds of buyers at the end of the year. These examples evince real audiences, which drive more student interest and engagement because the stakes are higher. No matter how good or dedicated my grade-ten English writing student may be, if he knows I am the only member of his audience, he isn’t as likely to care as much about the assignment as he would if it were being considered for publication in a magazine read by hundreds.

Having worked for over a decade as a middle- and high-school English teacher and more recently as a learning coach, observing students in a great variety of courses and contexts, I don’t believe students are any less motivated than they used to be. I do think that students, like all of us, know that the stakes are much higher when their work is viewed by an audience of tens or hundreds. We educators should think of ways — both large and small – to provide more of those opportunities for that, especially in core courses.

A few suggestions:

– For any courses in which writing is required, ask students to submit their work to professional magazines. There are many science, history, and literary magazines that accept unsolicited submissions; teaching students how to draft an eloquent and effective cover letter for this endeavor is also an excellent life skill.

– Try student-friendly publications, especially for ELA and arts students. I have had several students publish their work in Teen Ink magazine, one of several of its kind.

– While blogs are good in theory, they are rarely more public than handing in a draft to the teacher since only a few people tend to read class blogs. Raise the audience stakes by asking students to share their written, dramatic, oral, or visual work in morning meetings, official school magazines and publications, or posted on bulletin boards outside the classroom and in the hallways.

– Provide competition now and again for those that enjoy that sort of thing and work harder as a result. When I taught Film Studies, I partnered with the school’s official parent and alumni publication, which came out four times a year. I told students that the best film review they wrote each quarter would be chosen for publication in the magazine, which had an audience of over a thousand. Students worked hard to submit their best draft of each review, and we all celebrated when the results came out and the chosen review was announced.

– Where products (like a yearbook) can be designed and perhaps sold, let students create real products. Art shows and sales, business and finance projects, STEM projects, web sites or graphic design projects all offer wonderful opportunities for wider audiences for student work.

– For debates, skits, speeches, or oral presentations, invite a panel of outside judges (teachers, parents, or guests) to evaluate students’ work and give them feedback. I have seen this done successfully for foreign language students; they take the feedback to heart and seem to care a lot more about the feedback from a group of unknown teachers or guests (American Idol style).

– One of the best parts of the IB’s Middle Years Program (MYP), a course of study for students in grade 6 – 10, is the required culminating Personal Project. Students spend a year researching and pulling together a personal project of their own design, which they present at a round-robin event for faculty, parents, and students on a single day at the end of grade 10. At an MYP school I worked at, I witnessed a student present on and explain the process of how she wrote and published her own novel; another on how she designed and made original handbags that were department-store worthy; and another who interviewed his deceased mother’s friends and family so he could piece together her life, since he had lost her when he was only two years old and didn’t remember her. You don’t need to be an MYP school to ask students to engage in projects for which they have many audience members or a panel of judges; any school can offer this kind of invaluable opportunity for a more authentic audience to help motivate students to engage in in-depth research.

While many educators, especially elementary- and middle-school teachers, already do these things, I think it’s time for everyone in education to engage in a conversation about how to provide more authentic audience experiences to our students, no matter what age or experience level they are.

After all, knowing that this blog post will be read by hundreds of people makes me think carefully about the words I use, the examples I have cited, whether or not I have made my point cogently, and if I have missed any typos. The truth is, if I knew that only my husband was going to read this post, I might not have even proofread it.

It doesn’t need to be a lot more work for us or our students; it could be as simple as requiring one submission a term to the school’s literary magazine, or opening the classroom door to all faculty and parents on the day history students are debating the best form of government. The more we can open up authentic audience experiences for our students, the more we are likely to see engagement and high-quality work.

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