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The Power of an Authentic Audience

by Cris Tovani
April 16, 2013
Later this week, educators from all over the world will flock to the IRA conference in San Antonio to learn and reflect on current teaching practices. Thinking about the knowledgeable audience is a powerful motivator. It helps me to decide what to share and how to present it. The desire to not disappoint them pushes me to shoot for quality. An authentic audience forces me to work harder.

Back in my classroom, my students are my audience. The better I get to know them, the better I can meet their needs. Last August, when I kicked off the novel study of THE THINGS THEY CARRIED by Tim O’Brien, I discovered that eight of my 28 eleventh graders already knew what they were doing after graduation. They proudly announced that they had pre-enlisted in the military. As soon as they turned eighteen, all they had to do to make it official was sign on the dotted line.

When I asked them why they had made this commitment so early, their responses varied. Two students said it was the only way they could afford college. One said it was so he could fly jets. Three kids said they did it so they could learn a trade, and two said it was their only chance to gain citizenship status. When I asked the class what they knew about the US’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan, the room got depressingly quiet.

This tidbit of new information about my audience changed my focus. Not only did I need to teach these students how to comprehend O’Brien’s complex novel, I also needed to help them understand the consequences of war on a society and its individuals. A Scantron test wasn’t going to motivate them to dig into this difficult concept. They needed a real live audience to work for.

I needed some experts to help raise both the agency and urgency for my students. I landed on the idea of students participating in “roundtable conversations” with a variety of actual military stakeholders who understood first hand the effects of war. For this performance-based assessment, students would have to keep table conversations going for a full 90 minutes. They would have to be able to discuss the power of story and be well versed on current US conflicts and wars.

A crucial step in keeping me honest was to actually schedule a date for the roundtable talks. I sent out emails inviting guests with a military connection to join us. Surprisingly, people came out of the woodwork—many of whom needed to have audience to share their stories of war as much as my students needed to share their new learning.

The event was set for November 7th and thinking about it made my stomach churn. These military roundtable talks held high stakes. I realized students would either shine or flop based on the way I prepared them. If I didn’t adjust my instruction to meet their needs, we would all be embarrassed. Way back in July when Sam Bennett (my instructional coach) and I began brainstorming this unit, I had no idea how this final demonstration of understanding would unify my day-to-day planning. I was even more surprised how it created urgency in students to stick with complex reading and writing.

As kids reworked their final arguments stating their position on the US’s involvement in Afghanistan, I planned minilessons that would help them support their thinking and write more clearly. Students were highly invested in their learning, knowing that the background knowledge and skills they were building would better prepare them for an audience bigger than a unit test.

D-Day

On November 7th, 20 military “experts” came to school with the intent to eat lunch and talk about war. Our guests represented stakeholders ranging from disabled vets to military wives. There were sons of soldiers and active duty colonels. Some of the guests were damaged by war and others were empowered by their military experience. One guest was the father of a young marine who vehemently opposed the US’s involvement in Afghanistan. Another was a father who desperately wanted his daughter to enlist because that’s what his family did.

p: USF Iraq (Inactive) via photopin cc
During lunch, students held their own keeping conversations going. Using what they learned about the novel and current US conflicts, students put visitors at ease and the conversations flowed. Kids listened carefully to the guests’ thoughts about war and were not shy about sharing opinions and questions about its effects on society and individuals.

I was surprised by the power this experience held. I encouraged students to keep an open mind and compare their thinking with that of people who held differing perspectives. The following day, students wrote reflections. Ugo was struck that so many vets said that not only were they affected by war but so were their entire families. After hearing from people who saw combat, Jose didn’t think that his classmates who claimed to be ready to die were really ready to “sacrifice their life.” Fahrraan was concerned about PTSD and wondered how we were going to help the men and women returning home “keep their feelings in check.”

What Mattered Most

The military roundtables helped me determine what was important when it came to selecting text, assignments, and minilessons. If what I was planning didn’t prepare kids for November 7th, it came off the table. Both the students and I relied on that final demonstration of understanding to keep us on track. Without that military roundtable serving as students’ final demonstration of understanding, my day-to-day planning would have been disconnected.

I’m sorry to report that my next two units of study didn’t have the urgency of the first one. Why? I didn’t have a final demonstration of understanding paired with an authentic audience. I didn’t fully appreciate the power of this. My next two units were missing an important piece and since I was the only one giving feedback, students reverted back to playing the “game of school.” They didn’t have the motivation of a real-world audience to work for.

How Will You Get Smarter for Your Audience?

As I sit in sessions this year, I will get the chance to explore my own practice. There are specific things I want to get smarter about. For example: What authentic audiences are others using to create urgency in their students? How are teachers giving students opportunities to show growth over time? What final demonstrations of understanding have others tried?

When the catalogue of “snackable-size” sessions comes in the mail next week, I’ll decide from whom I’ll learn. I’ll relish in the knowledge that presenters have worked hard to prepare for their audiences and because of this, I know that I’ll get a little smarter about this incredibly complex job I do as a teacher.

When I return home, I will be re-energized and ready to end the year with a bang.

Come see Cris Tovani at IRA 2013. She will be presenting "Harnessing Literacy Instruction to Meet the Demands of the CCSS" on Saturday, April 20, 2013.

Cris Tovani has taught Grades 1–12 for the past twenty-nine years. In addition to teaching and being an instructional coach, she is a nationally known consultant focusing on content comprehension and assessment in secondary classrooms. She is the author of the books I READ IT, BUT I DON’T GET IT (2000), DO I REALLY HAVE TO TEACH READING? (2004), and SO, WHAT DO THEY REALLY KNOW? (2011), which investigates how teachers can progress monitor, assess, and grade students’ thinking and performance with fairness and fidelity. Her newest DVD, TALK TO ME (2012), is a collection of reading and writing conferences that demonstrates how secondary teachers can maximize purposeful talk to get the best out of kids.

© 2013 Cris Tovani. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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