Thankful for an authentic audience

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I sit here on a Saturday with five school days left in the semester, reflecting over yesterday’s class.

Here’s what happened:

Students, in groups, presented their social issue speeches. Each group had a special guest, someone from central office, an administrator, or an educator, to give the students feedback. Students were excited and nervous about presenting in front of special guests, but as the process began I watched amazed as students greeted the guests, presented speeches, gave each other feedback, and intently listened to feedback from the guests.

This idea was inspired during the Teacher’s College Argument Institute I IMG_8298attended last year. They talked about having guests come in for a debate panel to give students an authentic audience. I’ve talked about my quest for authentic class experiences since then in another blog post. When it came time for students to give speeches on their social issues, I wanted to try to do two things: (1) Give students an authentic audience and (2) Have the speeches delivered in groups in one day (instead of hearing 30 speeches in one class over the course of a week).

I cannot express the gratitude I have for all the Central Office folks, administrators, and educators who listened to students’ speeches and gave them feedback yesterday. I cannot say how proud I am of the students—their work, their willingness to take a risk, their feedback to each other, their professionalism.

IMG_8284But what I might be most proud of was listening to students and the guests talk after the speeches were all delivered. The students asked questions, the guests shared personal stories and bits of wisdom. There was laughter, and as Lester Laminack says, if there isn’t laughter, there isn’t learning.

For the students, they felt special.  “Important people” (as they called them) were taking time out of their busy schedules to come listen to them, really listen to them, and to talk with them-not to them, but really have discussion with them.  The students had worked hard on these assignments, and they wanted honest feedback.  They wanted to know what they could do to become better.  We talk in class all the time about how their voices matter.  Now they had to chance to talk to people who had some experience with public speaking to get insight in to how to make those voices that mattered heard.

One guest asked how much I had prepped the students for the after speech IMG_8271discussion, and I confessed I didn’t. The first time doing this, I hadn’t thought that it might go faster than my carefully planned out schedule. After I realized we had some time at the end, I asked the students to learn as much as they could from the guests while we had them here. And that’s what they did.  In a way that came naturally from a curiosity and a quest for knowledge.  What students learned yesterday was more than just about public speaking. They learned a little life. And I’m so thankful for all those who had a part in that.

If you are interested in doing something like this, here’s a little more on what we did:

  1. Students had already been working on their social issue assignments. They had completed research, conducted an interview, and wrote a proposal. For more on that, read this.
  2. Students wrote and practiced speeches after studying speeches through mentor texts, specifically focusing on audience, purpose, and delivery.
  3. Our literacy coach helped me conference with students about their speeches, an invaluable piece.
  4. I sent out invitations for our presentations and made a schedule, trying to have groups with a variety of topics.
  5. Students volunteered to be a part of a hospitality team. They set up a IMG_8252hospitality room for the guests, greeted the guests, and directed as needed. They also made thank you cards.
  6. Our principal’s administrative assistant helped me gather things we needed and went over what we might need that I was forgetting.
  7. Our media specialist and media clerk let us take over the media center and sat in on speeches as well.
  8. Students made name tags and worked through logistics the day before.
  9. The day of the speeches, students had the schedules and assigned spots. They gave their speeches and then received feedback from students and guests. I had them write feedback too, which I will compile and give them to keep.
  10. Clean up and then go to sleep. Wake up the next day and reflect on what happened. Or maybe that is just me. It was a lot of work but incredibly worth it!

Bonus Read:  We all do reflecting at the end of the semester.  I found this Three Teachers Talk post Writing my wrongs: How I’m learning from my mistakes to be beautifully honest and encouraging for us all, as we get ready to end one semester and begin another one.

All I can promise my students is that I will continue to reflect, move forward, and become the teacher they deserve.  But alas, growth takes time, trial, and error.  It requires me to unravel years of traditional education, analyze what works, what doesn’t, what I should carry with me, and what I can discard.  It will take time for me to unwind my own brain just as I ask my students to unwind theirs.  I am still learning to be a writer, a reader, a student, a teacher, and that takes time, time that sometimes feels all too precious when I only have one year with my kids.  Fortunately, teaching is like writing.  Every day, I begin the process of drafting a new story, and every year, I get the chance to revise my work.

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This class is real life

As a student was leaving my class the other day, she remarked, “This class is real life.”

“Reading and writing is life,” I quipped back.

She smiled. “You know what I mean. Classes aren’t always like real life.”

And I know she is right. So many times what we do in class is in a bubble—it’s things that we deem important but have little or no direct connection to students’ present lives, nor their future lives outside our four walls. (By the way, Justin Tarte has an excellent post on why we should stop using the term “real life.”)

I’ve made a very concerted effort this year to make class more reflective of life. I want my class to be an extension of life, a space to examine life, and a safe place to try out our ideas about life.

Below are 5 examples of what we’ve been up to in Room 2414. Some ways I’ve tried to doFacebook Page 3 this are new this year; others have been tweaked or changed from previous years.

Social Action: Three years ago, I was challenged to have my students use reading, writing, and speaking to do something to selfless to impact their world. Mary Ehrenworth says, “We have to teach toward social justice & personal empowerment or there would be no reason to teach at all.”

So I developed a multi step social action performance task that my sopho2014-12-09 12.27.43mores complete throughout the course of the year. You can see an overview of the assignment here.

If you are wanting to implement something of this nature, I suggest using the following books as references: Randy Bomer and Katherine Bomer’s For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action; Linda Christensen’s Teaching for Joy and Justice; and Barbara Lewis’s The Teen Guide to Global Action. I’ve also posted other resources on my Pinterest Social Issue & Justice board.

Each year I am so moved by the comments students make in their final reflection. A few of their comments are below. I also included three of the culminating videos from former students (Domestic Abuse and Feeding the Hungry video links are here). I agree with Mary; this is why we teach.

  • In my opinion, most projects are just for a grade to be put in, but this was more about opening yourself up to the truth in life. I think it was about finding out who you really are and how to use your positive traits to make a difference.
  • I realize that the point of this project was not only to help benefit those in need, or to change how people view an issue. It was so much more than that. The project was to show those in our class that we are all people, we all have feelings, and all of us go through struggles, both big and small. It helped me realize that I’m not the only one who has struggled with their self-image and that even when I thought I was alone, there will always be people, somewhere, willing to listen.
  • Probably about a week ago, we were setting a date and time to go drop our donations off at Loaves and Fishes and I had a sort of epiphany. I realized that what we’re doing really does matter and even though it may not seem like we’re doing a lot, we are. We can’t just sit back and wait for the next guy to do it just because we aren’t the president or Senate. We aren’t even eighteen yet and we can still take action!
  • When we asked people at our school to leave an encouraging message for someone with suicidal thoughts, I honestly was expecting crazy messages. In high school, you always have those people who are going to have immature and rude things to say regardless of the purpose, but shockingly most of our messages were so sweet and inspirational. These messages included bible verses, inspirational sayings, and even personal experiences sharing their own suicidal thoughts and how they were overcome. It really opened my eyes to know that some of my fellow [students], people I might see in the hallway five days a week, actually shared some of the same concerns we discovered in our research.

Relevant application text: We’ve been working on argument this unit. I’m a HUGE fan of George Hillocks’s Teaching Argument Writing. The book (you can get a sample chapter here) gives several ways to teach argument through progression of relevant texts and situations. My students have been engaged in learning, have a deeper understanding of arguments (and the importance of each part of argument), and are more effective in developing and analyzing arguments.

In his foundation chapters, Hillocks discusses how crime shows and court cases exhibit the work we are teaching students. I took two of the texts he mentioned, CSI (season 1, episode 3) and the Supreme Court Case Scott v. Harris, and created extension lessons. You can access the transcript online, or you can use a condensed version (with instructions) I created for my classes.

Students loved using what they we had learned about argument in analyzing these text. There was much rich discussion about claims, evidence, warrants, counterclaims, rebuttals. Both of these text provided complex, rigorous examples that required the students too look closely, go back to the text, and think about the way claims were made and evidence presented. They learned so much more than if they had looked at an artificial text that neatly displayed each element of argument. And, dare I say, they had fun doing it.

Other texts we have used in the argument unit can be found on my Pinterest Argument Text Set board.  More to be added here as we continue through this unit.

Audience: I find providing an authentic audience for my students is hard sometimes, but I also feel it is incredibly important. It is something that I am working hard to do in my class this year. After we completed our memoirs, I had students share their memoirs with an adult and asked the adult to share some written comments with them. I wasn’t sure how this would turn out, but I have been pleasantly surprised. Students asked a variety of adults, including parents, grandparents, former teachers, and even administrators. The adult feedback has been meaningful, instructive, and even humorous at times.

File Sep 23, 1 28 46 PMOne of my favorites was when a student shared her story about an ambulance ride. The student had leukemia when she was very young, but she doesn’t tell people. She doesn’t want to be seen as a victim or have people treat her differently. She asked for a former teacher to read and comment on her story. When she got his comments back, she immediately came to my room, crying. She was so moved by the support she received and realized she could be a support for others.

With this type of response, I don’t know how I could ever go back to being the only audience for their work. I will be exploring ideas and ways to connect students with authentic audiences throughout the year.

Article of the Week: I totally took this idea from one of my heroes, Kelly Gallagher. He very clearly articulates the power behind using an article of the week on his website. He also posts links to the articles he uses. I use this website, Newsela (which allows you to change the Lexile level of the same article), and other articles that I come across. I post articles I use to my Pinterest Articles board.

At the beginning of the year, students often struggle with sharing their thoughts on the subjects. We learn how to talk, to support or disagree respectfully, to listen, and how to dig deeper on topics. I am often surprised at how little my students know about the world around them, and I feel this is an excellent way to connect world events with what we are studying and to help them become more educated citizens of the world.

Choice in reading: I’ve written about this in a previous post, so I won’t say a lot here. It is just so important for students to have authentic reading experience—not forced, shallow responses, made up logs, or artificial conversation. If I want my students to be lifelong readers, then I have to help them establish habits of a reader.

Bonus Read: If you read my last post, you know I am a huge Kylene Beers fan. Her blog post about Rigor and Talk Checklist for Nonfiction text is very timely. In this post she responds to a teacher’s question:

“How do you know if they are talking at a surface level or really digging deeper?”

She even includes a checklist that will be in her and Probst’s new Reading Nonfiction Notice and Note book that is coming soon.