Finding Authentic Readers to Foster Authentic Writers

My seniors just finished up a persuasive unit that included a research paper and a persuasive speech.  Working on this project was quite daunting both for me and my students.  There are so many skills that go into writing a GOOD research paper and then aggregating that information into a GOOD persuasive speech.  Not only do they have to demonstrate competency in these skills, but my students have to do it in two different languages (ASL and English).   Needless to say, they found this project more difficult than reading Beowulf.  I, on the other hand, found it difficult to grade these assignments, especially the persuasive speech.

I  don’t know about other English teachers out there, but I find it so hard to get students to revise their drafts.  Students automatically go from first draft to editing to final draft.  They don’t seem to understand why revision is important, even after a writing conference with me.  To my students, when they write something, it makes sense to them exactly how they wrote it the first time, so why change it.  They have a hard time considering how the sentence or paragraph might read to a different audience.  Likewise, I find it hard for me to separate feedback for revisions from feedback for editing.  I often break out the colored pen and mark student’s grammatical errors simultaneously with margin comments about coherency.  More often than not, the grammatical errors get the most attention and the students ignore my coherency feedback.  I need to revise the way I give feedback.

Then, I think about best practices for teaching reading to students (I’m still not proficient in doing this consistently with students).  We annotate the text, make notes in the margins, jot down questions about portions that confuse us.  We also read together, read aloud, or get together as a group and discuss what we read and compare notes.  I also think about the comments section that I read fervently on some of my favorite blogs.  People have a wide variety of different views/interpretations on what they read.  I’m sure if readers were to give a grade, the grade would range from A-F.  I’m also sure blog writers take this feedback and apply it to future entries (or even to revise current ones).  I’m also sure that writers are a lot more careful at revising each of their blog posts before publishing them.  (I know this particular post has seen several mental and print revisions over the course of a week).  This made me realize that students need more authentic readers/viewers to give feedback on their writing (or signing).  It can’t just be me, and it certainly can’t just be peers within the class.

So what’s wrong with peer revision or teacher feedback?  As a class, we’ve developed a culture surrounding the teacher’s expectations.  Students have come to  learn what I look for in good writing.  They’ve acclimated to my definition of good writing.  Even reading each other’s writing, they all parrot similar responses: “This part is good, it grabs my interest!”  or “I was confused by this, can you clarify?”   or “I think you should consider adding more description.”  These responses all sound like something a teacher would say, not something you’d find within margin annotations or even a blog comment.  Our students are even afraid to fail at giving feedback.

So how can we mimic the type of feedback we get out in the real world?  We can start by not trying so hard to mimic it.  We should make use of publishing (blogging and actually having students invite people to read their blogs, disseminating an online student newspaper or magazine, asking authentic audience members to come in for text review, or to judge student presentations).  I think we’re afraid to give students this authenticity because the backlash can be biting.  We don’t want to damage a student’s self-esteem; however, students eventually need to face reality.  Not everyone is going to like what they wrote, but that doesn’t mean that what they wrote was awful.  We have to let our students know that feedback is feedback, the ultimate control of the final draft is theirs.  I bet our student’s motivation to write would drastically improve if they knew that they actually had an authentic voice (and not just a completed assignment).  Imagine if they knew a local author was going to take a look at their short stories, or that their blogs received a large number of views with relevant comments.   I’m sure there would be initial panic but I’m also sure we’d see better writing from them.  I know I’m more motivated to write on this blog after seeing it re-tweeted and hopefully I’ve become a better blogger through this process.

So, I decided to make the persuasive speeches a bit more authentic.  I wanted to do something like TED without scaring my students to death.  I invited a few “judges” and outsiders to come view my students’ persuasive speeches and it was a wonderful experience for them (and me).  They could see from the comments that the judges each had very different views of their speeches.  The judges all gave very detailed feedback on what they didn’t understand and what they felt the student did well.   It made me realize that something like “persuasion” is a matter of perception and should always be viewed by more than one person.   Their live speeches were also recorded and then posted on Voicethread; the Voicethread was then shared within the school so that students could continue to receive feedback and comments (much like TED).  Students will now be able to take this feedback and make revisions to their speeches.  I’m hoping they will be able to video record their final revisions to make polished speeches that we can broadcast school-wide.  (Let’s hope with all the upcoming testing that we actually have time to do this!)

I’ve done this sort of authentic assessment before.  In fact I do it every year since I started teaching high school. Every spring, I have seniors do a class magazine for their final project.  It is a great way for them to demonstrate their learning.  I consider myself the CEO and have very little role in the content they select for this project.  In fact, my one job is to “hire” editors to run the magazine (they all create resumes and cover letters explaining why they feel most qualified for the role of editor).  The editors are the true bosses that make sure that the magazine runs smoothly.  Every student contributes at least 4 articles to the magazine and they even design the layout as well as all of their own advertisements.  My husband, a professional photographer, is even “hired” to do the photography work for their advertisements (they must first storyboard their ideas and be able to clearly explain them to him on the day of  the shoot; they are also responsible for any props that are needed for the shoot.)  Students absolutely love this project, and I love it as well.  I give VERY little revising or editing feedback; all editors are responsible for making sure that drafts are print ready, and quite frankly, students are more than willing to revise their own work without being told.  Editors do evaluations on their employees and employees do evaluations on their editors.  Final magazines are published through (although this year I plan to switch to Joomag so that students can add ASL videos).  It’s a fun project.  Every year I do this project, and I know that the reason it is successful is because students become authentic writers to an authentic audience.

However, despite knowing this, I still start every year in “teacher” mode, expecting that I have to teach all the skills before they are able to successfully do a project like this on their own.  I often ask myself, why can’t this project be year-around?  Is it possible to do this and still cover the required TEKS?  Likewise, why should I limit this only to my seniors? I teach 9th-12th, but usually reserve this as a “treat” for my seniors.  Shouldn’t this be something in which all students are able to participate?  Also, wouldn’t it be amazing to collaborate with another school on a project like this?  (Especially during years when current events are explosive–presidential elections, worldwide natural disasters, political issues that span the globe, etc.) So what’s stopping me?  I think, just like my students, I need an authentic audience.  I need validation and approval.  I need someone to collaborate with and discuss ideas about what may or may not work.  Are you, dear reader, interested?