Tag Archives: authentic_audience

Students Writing for Authentic Audiences

21 Sep

audienceUgh. Just ugh. I am human, I suppose. Lately, I have not been making the time to write. I know I should just be kind to myself about this, acknowledge the craziness that is starting a new school, and put my butt in a seat and my fingers on the keyboard. I try to carve out at least ten minutes every day for my own writing, but I have fallen out of this habit. Well…back to it, then. My apologies, dear readers.

In the core of this teacher’s heart, I know this to be true. Students’ writing is better when it matters to them, and the most important step to getting students to care about their writing is helping them…guiding them…forcing them…begging them…bribing them…to write for someone other than their balding English teacher. I begin every school year dedicated to making each essay assignment one that matters, one that is written for an authentic audience. In reality, I am happy when my students produce one such piece every three months or so.

I suppose, like most things I attempt in the classroom, the “hybrid” approach works best. I use more traditional essay prompts (students responding to literature or a question I create . . . writing something that stays within the walls of our classroom) to gain a sense of how I might help individual students improve. These “practice essays,” then, lay the groundwork for the more meaningful moments where I ask the students to create their own writing for an audience they find.

For instance, in the grade 11 Rhetoric classes I taught last year, we began the term with a THIS I BELIEVE essay, followed that with a personal narrative, and ended the trimester with a student-generated descriptive essay. For this third major essay I did not create a prompt. I simply told the students they must demonstrate their skills with descriptive language by writing a piece to someone other than me.

We brainstormed possible topics and audiences over a few days (while completing other lessons) and, as homework, students read previous students’ work. We discussed what worked in the model essays, and students quickly conferred with me about their own ideas.

This set-up is fairly predictable and simple. The results, however, are anything but. Reading these self-guided pieces is never a chore. Instead, I am energized by the students’ work and excited to see them taking ownership of language and audience.

Here’s a list of the authentic audiences my students find. I begin with the audiences I find most successful, but any of these are better than something written just to me. Please share your ideas in the comments section. I am ALWAYS looking for more ideas about how we can help our students find authentic audiences:

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Wikis as Textbooks

7 Apr
Is it just me? Every time I hear WIKIS I think about wookies.

Is it just me? Every time I hear WIKIS I think about wookies.

Let’s be honest. Wikis are ugly. At least the wikis I make are not sleek and arresting in a visual sense. Yet, I use wikis in a variety of ways that I find elegant and interesting. Think of them as a ten-year-old Toyota Corolla. They usually won’t turn heads, but they run beautifully and always do what they should.

Wikis as Textbooks

This past fall, I taught a brand spankin’ new public speaking course based on TED talks. I had never taught public speaking, so in preparation, I searched for the perfect textbook. I have never used a textbook in any class, but my own insecurities where sending me looking for some solid backup. Well, I didn’t find the perfect textbook (because they don’t exist). Instead, I decided to have the students create their own textbook using a class wiki:

Public Speaking Class Textbook

The experience reinforced my belief in constructivism. While far from perfect, our self-constructed textbook served our purposes perfectly. After giving their first speeches, I asked the students, “O.K. Now that you’ve given one speech, what do you think you need to learn?” Their answers became our chapters.

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Paper Airplanes for Freedom: Who Cares?

3 Nov

Most teachers would probably naturally intuit this, but carting 20 students to downtown Boston so they may throw paper airplanes at strangers is probably not a good idea. Too many things could go wrong, and why, exactly, would they want to do this in the first place?

I was cautious, but I really care about putting students’ ideas at the forefront of learning, so we executed this harebrain idea anyway. It did not go so well. And, it was a huge success.

How can it be both? First some background….We used CNN’s Freedom Project throughout the term as one source for our research on modern slavery. One posted assignment, Paper Airplanes for Freedom, intrigued us. It is pretty simple: make a paper plane, write messages of solidarity on it, launch it, and encourage those that pick it up to do the same. It’s a novel way of spreading awareness. More slaves exist in the world today than at any point in human history….27 million by some counts. 

As we brainstormed our own ideas for raising awareness, the students had an overwhelming urge to create a public action. During the idea generating and iteration phases, “Paper Airplane Flash Mob” rose to the top. The students and I thought it represented a chance to grab people’s attention and make a lasting impression.  We also thought we could execute it relatively easily.

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Learning From Failure

18 Feb

Many people envision a one-to-one classroom as a sterile nightmare, a room filled with distracted students glued to sickly blue screens, so constantly plugged in that they are completely checked out. The reality is quite different. The more experience I gain in a wired classroom, the more I realize how much easier it is to humanize education when students have immediate access to personalized technology.

I teach a senior elective entitled Local Living Writers. The premise of the course is simple….We study work by writers living in and around Boston and then invite these writers into our classroom. This past term, for whatever reason, brought a group of students that did not identify as readers or writers. These seniors were funny and earnest and curious…but they were not model English students. They struggled to write with the style and control. Some of my typical approaches fell flat. I typically run the elective like a college literature course, and most of my writing prompts require students to develop literary analysis skills. Such prompts, however, were not working this term.

We had just finished William Landay’s The Strangler, a suspenseful and stylish crime thriller about three brothers wrapped up in the investigation of the infamous Boston Strangler. The students thoroughly enjoyed Landay’s cinematic setting—a gritty city on the cusp of a modern future—and they viscerally related to the authentic characters the author spun to life. Yet, I struggled to get them to notice the finer points of Landay’s craft.

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The True Goal of a Wired Classroom?

16 Jan

I’ve been teaching long enough to be comfortable with the fact that I’m often wrong. A lot. All the time. Daily. Yet, I’ve grown to enjoy such moments because they represent chances for me to reflect and grow. Thankfully, using technology in the classroom seems to make such teachable moments more and more frequent.Because I believe—as I’m sure you believe—that teaching effective communication in today’s classrooms means helping students navigate multiple modes of expression, I often create assignments where students must express themselves using a variety of media. The added benefit of this variety is that I gain a more authentic, developed sense of my students’ communication skills. A recent encounter in one of my American Literature 10 classes illustrates the point well.To take the course at the honors level I require students to submit an application essay where, without much guidance from me, they explicate a poem of my choosing. I use their responses to help me gauge whether or not they can handle the more complex work. After reading one boy’s response, I had real doubts. His essay demonstrated original insight but was poorly organized and riddled with language errors. While meeting with him, however, he assured me that writing has always been “tricky,” yet he was confident he could do well. He would work hard to improve his essays, and he knew he was good “with other stuff.” When I first started teaching, there wasn’t much “other stuff” in my classes. This particular student would have been in trouble. I believed writing well was the most important focus of my classes. I still do, actually. Yet, over the years, I have learned that if students are given multiple modes of expression, I gain a more accurate sense of their skills as communicators.

I began this school year with a Modern Slavery Project. I’ve written extensively about this unit at EdSocialMedia and encourage you to visit that post if you’re interested in the details: Modern Slavery Project.

Essentially, students research an aspect of modern slavery and draw connections between this research and Harriet Jacob’s INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL. The students and I develop other aspects of the project as well, and this year the students decided to create video PSAs and write a call to action letter to someone within their own circle of influence.

Here is the video that was produced by the student who—just two weeks prior—I was a bit worried about. Words fail me.

Do you see my point? By only looking at one literary analysis essay, my view was myopic. Yet, by allowing communication skills to be expressed in multiple forms—in this case a video—this student’s stage was widened. In a relatively brief time, I was able to understand, more acutely, what a deeply critical, artistic mind he has. In truth, I was able to understand that depending on the medium, this student is a more skillful communicator than me.Now, this isn’t to say a video replaces an essay. It doesn’t. (By the way, this video is accompanied with a heartfelt letter that shows a sophisticated, organized analysis of slavery and how to combat it…and we’ll spend considerable time this year in traditional essay mode.)

Check out all the Modern Slavery Projects here.

Yet, because my classroom integrates various technology tools, this student’s voice is much, much louder, and my assessment of his ability to communicate with passion and precision can be much more accurate.I’m really interested, then, in your stories. In what ways has technology “widened the stage” for your students…and you? It’s my belief that in sharing moments like these we illustrate the true power of technology in the classroom.

Symbolics: Making Abstract Thinking Concrete…the How To

10 Jan

Watch the video for further explanation.

If you are reading this post, you have most likely read its companion that explains what a Symbolic is. If you have not, I encourage you to do so before reading on.

In this post I want to give a “meat and potatoes” explanation of how I introduce Symbolics and help students complete each step of the process. I use two fifty-minute class periods to complete these steps, with some of the work completed as homework. I also teach in a one-to-one school, so the transitions from large group discussions to individual work time are instantaneous. You may need to adapt the timing depending on your access to technology.

#1: Begin With a List of Big Questions
At the end of a unit or term, I create “Big Questions” about key concepts and skills we have covered. My examples obviously pertain to an English class, but these questions could easily be adapted to your specific subject. The idea, however, is to ask questions that require open-ended responses, answers that allow for flexibility but also require mastery of course material. Also, I always allow students to create their own questions, with my approval.

#2: Pass out the Symbolic Handout
This is the assignment explanation I give students. Please feel free to adapt it as needed. I emphasize that the process of creating a Symbolic is not a linear one. I’ve laid out the steps in a clear, chronological order, but students need not complete these steps in this exact order. I do, however, walk them through the first three steps as a whole class.

#3: Have Students Answer One Big Question
Either in class or as homework, I ask students to choose one “Big Question” and answer it as completely as possible in fifteen minutes. They might write their answers in complete sentences or bullet points. The key is to get all of their ideas down. I then ask them to identify the three to five parts of their answers. It is important to force the students to use only three to five major “parts” in their answer. You might have to help them combine or divide parts of their answers. Also, students will most likely edit these answers as they create their Symbolic. Of course, this revision process is natural and encouraged.

#4: Show Examples of Symbolics
After the students have determined their answers and categorized the “parts,” I show them what a Symbolic actually is. Regardless of the unit, I typically begin by using the mythology examples I have shared in the companion post to this piece. Of course, you are welcome to use the student examples available at our Flickr group, too. I find that using examples not associated with the unit topic actually helps students think about the process and relationship of the ideas.

#5: Discuss Different Types of Processes and Create Examples
This step might be the most confusing for you, so I have included a video explanation. I begin by drawing the following graphics on a white board. I then lead a discussion with my students, explaining that they need to give me examples of things from their world that operate in these ways. I also ask them to give me other processes not listed on the board.

Explanation of PROCESS I give my students

After a general discussion of the processes, I go back to a few of the example Symbolics and ask the class to identify the type of process at work. I then have them consider their answers to the Big Question and determine which process best demonstrates how the ideas relate.

#6: Let the Students Loose
After determining the way their ideas relate, I typically turn the students loose to work at their own pace. They will complete steps 4-9 on the Assignment Explanation Sheet on their own…in a way. I usually let students work for 10-15 minutes and float around answering individual questions. Based on the questions they have, I will pause individual work time and, using a data projector, deliver three to five minute mini-lectures, explaining how to complete various steps of the process or warning students about something that is confusing to a majority of people. The class runs, then, in blocks of 10-15 minutes of individual work time divided by three to five minute mini-lectures. I also use student examples—at various levels of the creation process—to offer formative feedback to the entire group.

#7: The Feedback Loop
After the Symbolics have been uploaded to the Flickr group, I use a jigsaw discussion format where students present their work to one another. I float from group to group and sometimes share particularly interesting examples with the entire class. After students share their examples in class, I usually make a homework assignment where, over the course of a week, students must view other examples and leave comments for their peers. As this assignment is actually in process, when viewing the examples on Flickr you may not see many student comments, depending on when you visit.

Please let me know if you have more questions by leaving a comment below. I’m happy to respond.

Classroom Example: Students Fighting Slavery With Technology

10 Jan

post originally published at EdSocialMedia.com

I don’t own a cell phone, a microwave, or a TV. By opening my very first professional blog with this horrifying confession, I’ve probably caused you to think two things about me. This guy is a technophobe and a cheapskate. One of these assumptions is correct. Let’s call me frugal. I teach English at a school with a one-to-one laptop program, and in this post, I want to show you why a teacher who still boils water on the stove gets giddy over Wikis, Animoto, Jing, and pretty much all things web 2.0.

One student asked Google to change their logo for a day as a way to raise awareness of modern slavery.

Last spring, I taught Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl for the first time. I developed a fairly traditional unit. Nothing imaginative. Nothing new. Then one student’s question changed everything.

I had compiled a few sites about modern slavery and dedicated one class period to researching these. I hoped the exercise would help students connect their modern lives to the lives of those living during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. After looking at a few sites, one student asked, “Instead of just learning about slavery, can’t we do something about it?” It was a magical, teachable moment. After a quick poll, I realized all my students were eager to do something. I threw out my plans.

Instead, we made public service announcement videos and wrote letters to various governments, businesses, and individuals, all the while making connections to Jacobs’ slave narrative. These three weeks were filled with some of the most authentic, inspired learning I have ever witnessed, learning that could not have occurred without the systematic use of technology.

You can view all of the work at our class Wiki, and below I’ll explain how and why we used various technology:

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