Friday, April 25, 2014

Authentic Audiences: Engage Now February, March, and April

By Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

This year, even the denizens of the South can put on the face of the grizzled winter survivor. And, just to add injury to injury, we've had so many of them that plans are becoming more of a suggestion than a reality. I mean, how do you reduce a 4 week unit into 2 days? We are only now catching back up where we need to be for the AP exam. If you'd told me that I would ever grow weary of the interruption of snow days, I would have laughed in your face; however, even the students, hearing that it might be below freezing for a number of nights in APRIL, are groaning about the never-ending winter. But I digress.

This post starts with an idea: What makes us write? There are a lot of suggestions, the least of which is the assignments people like us give out. But, if we are honest, the reasons most people write are far more mundane and far more important.
"Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and help them become what they are capable of being."
In Stephen Heller's Engage Now! for the month of February, students are asked to develop a real world setting for the release of their junior research projects: a symposium. The symposium audience, composed of their peers and community members, observes presentations of the research these junior students have done in a professional setting. The students in Mr. Heller's class research contemporary issues, but the plan and format are so flexible that this symposium format could be adapted to any research project. Most important, the research symposium precedes the submission of the final paper, so the feedback given by audience members is applied to the revision of the final paper. Lastly, anyone who knows the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification process recognizes the importance of including the community in the classroom as a measure of excellence. This symposium requires parents to jump in, get involved, and provide feedback to their own and other people's children. What a way to bring various members of the community together: supporting the children they work so hard to support.

This realistic environment to "publish" one's work is something numerous teachers of writing reference in order to create a successful, student-centered classroom. Even if a symposium is out of reach, involving parents in the learning process can be one of the most important and vital connections for a child to see in action. I've used rubrics for writing to involve parents before, asking them to review their student's work and write feedback based on the rubric. These rough drafts can be included in any process paper project and used to soften the blow of the sometimes "harsh" teacher comments. "I agree with your mother that the sentences here are a bit confusing" is a lot easier to accept than "Your sentences lack clarity throughout this section."

The authentic audience makes another appearance in the March 2014 Engage Now from Courtney Morgan, The Aesthetic of Race. Students, doing a study of race, are asked to read informational texts about race, including Toni Morrison's "Recitatif," and then write an argumentative essay about race based on their reading. Students are asked to respond to the question "Is cross-racial friendship possible?" while considering the works they've read throughout their study of race. Students are encouraged to submit their essays to the Post Register's Essay Contest, providing a real world setting for the success or failure of their work. The plan is so extensive that one needs to merely sub in or out the standards and assessment tools used in his or her district (although, admittedly, my state is one of the few stragglers not adapting to the CCSS yet, so the standards substitution is probably only an issue for the few, not the majority). Head over to the Connected Community and download a copy for your lesson library.

Questions about race never seem to fail when it comes to spark good, thoughtful writing. Students realize the real implications of race around them because of the mosaic they see daily in each and every classroom. Our society is so racially conscious that these conversations are sometimes difficult to have without the suggestion of offense impressed upon every utterance. Lessons that provide strong frameworks in which to have these discussions foster the type of communication that builds bridges and creates cross-racial friendships.

The final Engage Now lesson in this post also deals with engaging with authentic audiences; however, the audiences in this lesson are different enough that students are forced to switch modes of discourse and medium of presentation. In Anna Roseboro's April Engage Now, students engage in the "thematic choral reading" of poetry and in the art of self-assessment in order to demonstrate to different audiences their competency in the study and performance of poetry. The "thematic choral readings" involve groups of students gathering together to choose poems they will perform as a group. The students figure out how the poems are connected and how they will be performed. Once the performance occurs, students write a reflection that serves as one half of a discussion between the teacher and student about what is deserved based on the final performance. For more details, check out the full plan at the link above.
Students crave authentic audiences and experiences for their writing. Nothing motivates like an uncontrived purpose. Knowing that someone will be reading and reacting to their words, that their words have the power to shape their academic and cultural identity, empowers students to become better writers, raising the stakes without attaching penalties. As Goethe said: "Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and help them become what they are capable of being."