How to Introduce Our Students to Authentic Audiences

A Note from Matt: If you have time, check out my Edutopia post this week on teaching grammar in context. There are few changes I’ve made in my class over the years that have been more impactful than ditching grammar worksheets in favor of embedding grammar instruction into the reading and writing already happening in class. 

I was working with some teachers in Ohio recently, and during our session we looked at what I believe are three of the most interesting meta-studies concerning teaching writing in recent history: NCTE/NWP/WPA’s Framework for Success in Post Secondary Writing, Writing Next by Stephen Graham and Dolores Perin, and the NCTE’s most recent position statement on teaching writing. Each of these studies serves as a thoughtful and informative meditation on how to develop young writers, but what strikes me most about them is that they all come to wildly different conclusions; the Framework focuses almost exclusively on habits of mind and process as the keys to developing young writers, Writing Next argues that direct teaching of specific skills is how we move writers forward, and the NCTE Position Statement takes a more holistic approach, making a case for the importance of a wide array of factors, ranging from technology to assessing writing.

In fact, beyond each giving a nod to the importance of process, there is actually only one common suggestion they share: All three identify writing regularly for a wide range of purposes, in a wide range of genres, and to a wide range of audiences as being essential for strong writing development.

A lot of teachers I’ve shared these with have registered surprise at the fact that the only major intersection is the trio of genre/audience/purpose, but it actually makes a lot of sense if one thinks about it. When we do the same thing over and over again, it generally doesn’t take long before it becomes somewhat mindless. But when we have new challenges each time, we have to stay constantly engaged, and engagement is the precursor to learning.

In terms of how to best vary genre/audience/purpose, I’ve talked recently about how to find authentic purposes and the importance of writing in genres beyond the classic argumentative essay, but I haven’t yet discussed how I handle what I find to be the trickiest of the three–audience.

What makes audience so tricky is that while we can invent any number of audiences, real or imagined, for papers in our classes, in the end, the teacher is the one who will be assessing the paper for a grade, and thus for many students the teacher remains the primary audience regardless of the prompt given. For example, when I first teach argument, I give an assignment called “Arguing For Change,” which asks the students to write a letter that uses argumentative skills to sway someone/some entity that can make a change they’d like to see in the world. On the surface, this seems to have an authentic audience, but when I originally assigned it, I quickly noticed that it didn’t matter who the letter was written to–whether it was the president, pope, Jay-Z, or their parents–students tended to write it like it was for an English teacher. Of course, while the students addressed the letters to other people and were encouraged to actually send it, I ultimately assigned and graded the letters, so it is hard to blame them for seeing me as the primary audience.

For years I struggled with ways to get students to think about other audiences, but no matter how much prodding I gave, most continued to have a hard time seeing any other audience but me. Then a couple years ago as I stumbled across a wonderful book called The Teaching Brain by Vanessa Rodriguez that helped me to finally figure out how to teach audience in a way that felt real to my students. In the book, Rodriguez explores the one trait that great teachers seem to universally share: the ability to build an accurate theory of mind, which is the ability to get inside someone else’s head and make thoughtful and accurate guesses concerning his/her/their feelings, thoughts, and motivations, for the majority of their students. But while Rodriguez talked of theory of mind in relation to teaching, I couldn’t help but think about how important it is for students too.

Students spend all day trying to read their teachers in a hunt for what matters and what doesn’t, and the ones who can best predict what matters to their teachers tend to get the highest grades on tests and assignments. In an environment where they are constantly asked to create theories of mind of their teachers is it any wonder that so many of my “authentic” assignments felt flat when students looked up and saw me at the front of the class?

This realization also brought me an answer. To get my students to truly see another audience, they needed to create one that was as tangible as I was. Here is how I do that.

The first step is explaining what theory of mind is…

Screen Shot 2018-05-06 at 2.12.56 PM

And then I have the students research, draw, and make educated guesses about their audience…

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In some ways this solution might seem silly, but it works incredibly well. All it takes are a couple minutes of looking into the audience, a stick figure, and a few guesses about the audience, and students suddenly plant both feet in the shoes of whomever they are writing to.

The only other key that I’ve found to this approach is that the spell has a shelf-life, so it is best to have the theory of mind generation followed directly by writing to the audience. If there is a gap of time, students tend to quickly revert back to standard operating procedure of writing to the teacher.

It should also be mentioned that this theory of mind lesson is a wonderful way to lighten up a tense task (my seniors deeply enjoy creating college admission officer theories of mind while preparing for their college essays) and serves as thoughtful starting point for a wide array of mini-lessons, ranging from discussions of tone to lessons on how word choice should shift with the audience!

Thanks as always for reading!

Yours in teaching,

Matt

 

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One thought on “How to Introduce Our Students to Authentic Audiences

  1. Brilliant thinking, as always, Matt! I am also a firm believer that writing for an audience beyond the teacher is crucial to developing engaged, lifelong writers. However, this is a component that many teachers are missing in their writing instruction repertoire. We need to continue this conversation and our work to change this. Our students deserve it!

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