Wednesday, January 14, 2015

More on Authentic Audiences for 21st Century Students: Why We Read, Write, and Think for Each Other

Joel points out in his post the fact that independent school teachers often have a lot of pedagogical & curricular autonomy, which is mostly a good thing… mostly. 21st century technologies, however, have brought changes to almost all areas of our cultural landscape – changes which make clear that teachers with autonomy need to revisit questions about the benefits of collaboration and connectedness (if not for their sake then for the sake of today’s students). One reason: we’re not the only experts to whom students have access whether at school or outside of the traditional classroom. Technology has made this evident and undeniable. More importantly, in my opinion, connectedness and collaboration make it possible now for teachers to provide authentic audiences for their students’ voices in ways unthinkable in the recent past, and one thing that can bestow purpose and meaning on a student’s learning experience is the presence of a real audience.

More than ever, it’s possible to have students read, write, and think for each other (as opposed to doing such things for their singular teacher) – making the activity more real, more connected, and perhaps more fun. In recent years, I’ve been employing various digital, web 2.0 technologies to get my students to connect and collaborate with students in classrooms from other campuses. (Go here to see how my students at The OakridgeSchool connected with classes at two other campuses, Greenhill School & TheHockaday School, to read together James Joyce’s collection Dubliners. Of course, we did it again last year, this time studying William Shakespeare’s history play, Richard III.)

One of my favorite methods we experimented with was getting students from one class to frame questions for their peers in other classes from different campuses. We did this through various means:
-my students at Oakridge collaboratively posted blog articles (here) that always concluded in a series of questions for Greenhill and Hockaday students.  Greenhill and Hockaday would respond employing various modalities of expression such as text, video, or mp3. (More examples: Greenhill which leads to Oakridge's response;  Hockaday which leads to Oakridge's response; Greenhill which leads to Oakridge's response and then to Hockaday's final word)
-we also had the advantage of augmenting our digital collaboration with visits in person to each other’s campuses – something that’s only possible with the benefit of geographical proximity. Using the responses of the Greenhill students (which were born out of the blog), Mr. Garza (teacher from Greenhill) visited The Hockaday School, bringing his students' questions to their Hockaday peers.
-Hockaday blogged about their perspective of the visit, providing insight and more questions for both Greenhill and Oakridge classes as we struggled with what were very difficult literary works.
-Greenhill students made use of Audacity to record an mp3/podcast both for Oakridge and Hockaday students. Their recording was guided, of course, by the evolution of questions being posed by classes from the other campuses.
-Using GarageBand, Oakridge then responded in kind by putting together their podcast response; here's some highlights:

Oakridge student citing Hockaday student's blog post
At this point, students were citing each other by name, complimenting each other’s readings with expressions of appreciation. They were reading and thinking for each other, serving as meaningful audiences in a community of collaborators. I can’t emphasize it enough: namely, the joy they felt once this exchange became real – once the students received a validating response from an unknown peer who heard them and who cared. As a teacher who is a community of one, I can’t recreate that kind of meaningful learning experience on my own, but by collaborating and connecting with other campuses, such an experience can be designed and realized with ease and joy.

Greenhill student addresses Hockaday teacher's point
What happened next, however, was even more amazing: simply put, we started writing for each other. For me, this first occurred when my students sat for their 9 week midterm. Instead of a comprehensive exam, Oakridge students wrote essays for their Hockaday and Greenhill audience and posted highlights on the blog. (See Hockaday’s response here) Never had I seen developing writers operating so keenly in terms of connecting word, audience, and purpose in their writing. These students weren’t grudgingly writing for me, the teacher; they were eagerly sounding out their voices to peer groups across the digital channels of the internet. Eventually this evolved into composing more formal papers to conclude the project, but in many ways, their compositions were not traditional at all. Students wrote to each other (to each other’s teachers). Many of my writers chose to cite blog, mp3, and video pieces posted by students from other campuses. It was a real learning community full of curious writers and readers, open-minded speakers and listeners, and there was so much joy! By formally engaging nontraditional, digital resources, students were learning the connections between digital literacy, research, and composition as well (while validating each other’s voice in the process!).
So why should we integrate technology to craft authentic audiences for our students? When a student writes for their teacher and that instructor is the only one who will see that composition, why should she make it great? But if she’s writing for a communal audience of peers and teachers alike, not only will she feel the push to make it better, she will act on the desire to make it great because there’s an authentic audience! Bottom line, it makes their learning meaningful, relevant, and worthwhile, and one might just catch them enjoying the process as well.

-Jared Colley

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