146: Authentic Audiences aren’t Hard to Find

Let’s talk about motivation for a second.

In a few weeks, I’m interviewing Penny Kittle on this show. I’m pretty excited. I’ve been listening to her interviews on other shows, polling over in CHSE for questions folks want to ask, and wandering the streets of Bratislava with the audio companion to 180 Days in my ears. I’m jotting notes madly about her takes on choice, workshop, authenticity, curriculum design, assessment vs. grading and more.

I’m determined to be as prepared as I can possibly be, and I’m excited to do my very best with the interview, because I want to honor her work and bring it to you in the most helpful, actionable way I can.

I wrote and rewrote and read and reread my request email for her to be on the show. I wrote and rewrote and read and reread my email about what times would be good for her.

Do you see where I’m going with this? The context for our work matters. The person or people on the other side matter. As I prepare for this show, I’m thinking about how I can honor Penny and how I can best showcase her work for everyone who listens to the show. It’s a huge motivator for me.

Would it be the same if I was writing a paper about Penny Kittle’s work for a course? Would I be as into it?

Today on the show, we’re talking about audience, and why it matters so very much, even when kids are still learning the skills they’re sharing with their audience. We’re also talking about how to get them an audience, because it can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, I’d argue that the way it boosts motivation, joy and progress actually leads to making teaching easier and more fun, not harder.

You can listen in below, or click here to tune in on any podcast player you prefer. Or, read on for the full post.

The Big Picture

Let’s start with the bird’s eye view. What does it mean to have an authentic audience? Well, it means the work isn’t being created just to demonstrate a skill and receive a grade from the teacher. Someone else has a role to play – either in responding to the work, enjoying the work, or learning from the work.

An authentic audience doesn’t have to be huge. You don’t have to run a TedX event at your school every time you want to work on public speaking (but you could). Maybe students could record a short speech telling someone in their life why they’re grateful for them, and send it. An authentic audience of one can be a powerful thing.

An authentic audience doesn’t have to be public. The attentive eyes of one six-year-old staring up at you can be a powerful motivator.

An authentic audience doesn’t have to be external to the school. Creating something for a school wall, for a younger class, for an event at which the principal will be a guest, can really change the dynamics of a project.

An authentic audience doesn’t have to be every day. If students are working through a theater unit for six weeks, knowing that at the end they will perform a play for twenty guests, that authentic audience that’s coming on day thirty will play a role from day one.

An authentic audience doesn’t have to be in person. The online world is positively stuffed with opportunities for students to share work, both with specific audiences on the other end and with a potentially huge general audience.

But enough of these generalities, let me walk you through ten specific ways I’ve put my students in touch with authentic audiences, and you’ll soon see how easy it is to brainstorm the possibilities.

#1 Local Publication

I once taught a creative writing elective with a huge range of student abilities. Some kids were doubling up their English courses, taking Creative Writing as seniors alongside A.P. Lang. Others had struggled throughout their time in the English department, and needed opportunities to build confidence with reading, writing, and speaking.

Working with the technology department at my school, with a little bit of funding from a special innovation program at the school, we started a project to storyboard, write, digitize, and then self-publish children’s books. We would have them printed, then the students would do a reading at the school library and donate their books to the collection. Each book was a unique take on teaching concepts of environmentalism to young children.

There are so many ways to spin a project like this, creating something that could play a role in your local community.

Maybe your students could create blackout poems to publish along one wall of the local library, alongside a short video lesson they create to teach library patrons how to make poems of their own to add.

Maybe your students could create a series of short online writing workshops for elementary school students, and release them through the local community center to help inspire younger kids to write.

Maybe your students could create a teen’s guide to the “Top 5” of various categories in their city (Top 5 Hikes, Parks, Beaches, Restaurants, Coffees, etc.), releasing it to all the high school libraries in town.

#2 Online Publication

I love the “This I Believe” series from NPR. When I taught my first “This I Believe” unit, I discovered that NPR was still collecting submissions from students. So as we worked through our unit, creating our “This I Believe” written pieces, I wove in two audiences. Each class would choose ten speakers to perform their pieces in a live radio-style show on the last day of the unit, and everyone who wanted to could submit their pieces for possible publication on the NPR website. In the end, both classes had memorable live events on stage at our school, complete with programs, sound equipment, and refreshments, and two students saw their essays published to an international media organization website.

The potential for online publication at this point is only limited by our imaginations! Your students can create and publish blogs or podcasts to the general audience of the world at large, create submissions for an online writing contest, collaborate to create something online, like a mini-course or gallery collection of work,

#3 Class Performance

When I was in college, there was a legendary Shakespeare teacher, Martha Andresen, who based each of her Shakespeare courses on a final class performance. While we studied the comedies throughout the term, we were also meeting in small groups to prepare a performance of our assigned act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On the last day of the course, we moved from site to site around campus, watching the groups perform each act in order.

It was the most memorable class of my college career, and I ended up taking Professor Andresen’s Milton class afterwards and working with her as the adviser for my senior paper.

No wonder I built several similar projects for my students, choosing selections from Long Day’s Journey into Night and Death of a Salesman for them to perform, in small groups, on location on our California campus.

It felt just as powerful.

A class performance can be a full play, selections, speeches, or whatever else fits your course and students.

#4 Class Competition

I’ve been saying it for a while now, but after twenty or so class poetry slams, I’ve never seen one bomb. Working toward this special event lights up a poetry unit, adding a powerful motivation to every aspect, from discussion of canonical poems, debate over mock scoring performance pieces, and writing workshops that lead to the students’ own performance pieces.

I love having students form committees for special events like a poetry slam, and giving them tasks like inviting guest judges, publicizing the event, choosing the venue, running the sound systems, and documenting the project for school or local media.

If you’ve never tried a poetry slam, it’s an amazing way to get authentic audience. You can even go further and let the top three prize winners of all your class slams perform at some larger event. We did a poetry jam in our school auditorium at lunch one year, with everyone from all my classes and a number of invited guests in attendance to watch the top performers from each class.

#5 International Collaboration

When I taught in Sofia, Bulgaria, I realized how easy it would be to connect my students with students in the U.S., and how interesting the conversations could be.

So I launched two mini projects, one with my tenth graders, and one with my twelfth graders. The tenth graders wrote letters back and forth with a class in Washington D.C., sharing their concepts of home and asking each other questions about life in their respective countries. The twelfth graders shared digital portfolios, commenting on each other’s work throughout the year.

There are a million ways to set up a project like this. My advice is to keep it simple at first. Perhaps your students could share “I am From” poems with students in another country, and then write a single letter in response. Perhaps your students could create a virtual travel experience to somewhere special in your city to swap with students in another country, then record video responses to share with a partner.

If you’re looking for a partner for an international collaboration, make a post in Creative High School English and I believe you’ll find one in no time.

#6 Launch a Class Platform

With all the platforms out there now, there’s probably one that fits your class. I’ve enjoyed having reading blogs with my students at two different schools, publishing their reviews in a public venue where they can read each other’s reviews but also know they are influencing readers around the world.

Perhaps your students could have a podcast, each contributing an episode. Or an Instagram feed to which everyone contributes. Or a Youtube channel about writing. If you’re going to dive into a class platform, you need to make sure you comply with the rules of your district, and be careful not to use students’ names or include personal information. But if you can get all your legal ducks in a row, this can be a really powerful way to give students a very real audience.

#7 Inviting Guests

One simple way to add an authentic audience is simply to invite a guest or two. My administrators got frequent emails from me, inviting them to special moments in my classroom. It can be for a gallery walk, a day of speeches, a poetry slam, an art show, a maker project reveal, a children’s book reading, etc. You can invite administrators, parents, other teachers, coaches, whoever your students connect with. Don’t be shy about showing the amazing work happening in your classroom!

I found that inviting guests to special events like my students’ “Transcendental Illuminations Party,” their poetry slams, their play performances, and their radio shows, not only provided them with a special audience, it also allowed me to have more conversations about creative teaching with people in the community.

#8 Working with Younger Kids

When I launched my first choice reading unit with my tenth graders in Bulgaria, we were able to generate a lot of joyful reading and momentum in a short time. I wanted to help them share their new excitement for books with the ninth graders who would soon be graduating into the tenth grade class. So we created a reading festival, with students sharing the books they had read through special projects and the usual accompaniments of fun food and music. The ninth graders came to wander through, ask questions, have fun, and be inspired.

There are so many ways to incorporate an audience of younger kids into your class. You could invite younger kids to come and see a special event, like a literary food truck festival or a reading festival. You could help your students to prepare a special workshop for younger kids – maybe on podcasting or creating videos or understanding the difference between fake news and real news – and deliver it in person or via video. You could have your students create and illustrate children’s books on topics related to your units, and visit a local elementary school to share them.

#9 Creating for the School

I have only dabbled in this category, but I think it is chock full of potential. I’ve had my students share book recommendations in the daily school announcements, and create book recommendation bookmarks for the library. But lately I’ve been thinking about this audience. What if students created a podcast with their own school as the intended audience? Or created a six word memoir mural in a main hallway, sitting at a table at lunch for a few days to invite others to add their memoirs to the wall? Maybe students could create an escape room in an unused classroom and turn it into a fundraising event for the school. Or create some kind of QR code experience woven throughout the campus.

#10 For One Person

One year I had my honors eleventh graders create identity portfolios. We did a ton of reading and writing around identity, and eventually they pulled together their best pieces into a bound portfolio. They knew, from the start, that they’d be sharing it with me and with one other adult in their life that they respected. That adult could be a parent, a coach, a friend, etc. I asked these honored adults to write a letter back to the student in response to their portfolio, and I did the same.

Including even just one other person in a student’s project or writing can make a powerful impact.

Ready to put this Strategy into Action?

OK, I bet your wheels are turning and you’re thinking of a half dozen new ways to build authentic audience into your curriculum. It’s like the old Pringles commercials – “Once you pop, you can’t stop.” I hope thinking in new ways about authentic audience will be a joyful thing for you, and bring meaningful motivation to your students.

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I'm Betsy

I’ll help you find the creative ELA strategies that will light up your classroom. Get ready for joyful teaching!

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