A few years ago I started to do a project with my grade 9’s where they make an animated movie on Powerpoint. The next year I repeated the project, but this time, I promised them that we will have a “movie day” showcasing everybody’s projects. I was amazed at how much more effort and thought the second group put into their projects than the first group.
Not only does having a authentic audience encourage them to put more effort into the assignment, but it also take the focus away from the results. Kids don’t sit at home thinking, I need to impress my teacher, they just want to get good results. If the teacher is the only person who sees the assignment, then the focus will be on marks. They do, however, want to make a good impression on their peers. An authentic audience moves the focus away from marks, and put it right where it should go, on the quality of the work.
Primary school teachers have always valued the effect of an audience more than high school teachers, which is why their walls are covered in colorful projects. But somewhere along the way tasks become “for the teacher’s eyes only”. Logistics play a big part in this. Twenty page research projects does not look that nice on the walls. It won’t be practical to make a copy of everybody’s essay for a class discussion or to post all the letters to the editor that kids have to write in their school career. But technology allows us to give learners that authentic audience. Suddenly that letter to the editor can be about a current topic and email to the editor of a newspaper or magazine. I promise you students will put a lot more effort into writing it if they know somebody outside the school will also get to see it. Instead of handing in twenty typed pages on the WWII, why not create a website, which can be shared with the rest of the class and your parents.
If you want to witness the effect of an authentic audience on writing, try storywars.net. You get to write a chapter of a story and people all over the world can vote for the version of the chapter that they prefer. You look at your writing differently since it will be published on the web. The competition for votes has the added advantage of giving positive reinforcement (Principal 3). I promise you if your chapter gets chosen, you are extra motivated to start the next chapter. (Storywars have just released a classroom-based version, but unlike the general Storywars, it is not free. )
There is also another side to an authentic audience. In the school set-up, learners get used to the idea that only the teacher will see their work. When they step into the workplace, their ideas might get thrown on the table at weekly meetings and pulled apart (quite often not in a nice way). This is very traumatic if you think about your projects, work, and ideas as something very personal. Sharing your work with a wider public make you think differently about your work, but it also give your work an added purpose.
When you design a new activity for you class, consider how you can open it up to a wider audience. The audience can be the whole class or school or their parents or when appropriate the entire world. Of course, there are safety and other considerations to keep in mind. Our history teacher commented that asking a learner to write a letter from the perspective of Hitler is a good class exercise, but if you ask them to create a Facebook page from Hitler’s point of view, you might create an entirely different impression, that can stay with them their whole life. But instead of using this as an excuse not to share their work, we should see it as an opportunity to educate learners.
If I have not convinced you of the value of an authentic audience yet, maybe Catlin Tucker will, after all she convinced me.