When I am writing for this blog, I am very aware that there is an audience who will be reading what I write. Sometimes it is simply a handful of people who read an individual post and sometimes it is hundreds, but however many will eventually read it, I know when I am writing that they are there. I am presenting my ideas to the education community, made up of administrators, teachers and students of education. I am sharing my voice in the ongoing dialogue about how to improve education in the 21st century. I never hit the Publish button without carefully reviewing what I have written, because I know that that audience is there. The Save Draft button is my friend, giving me time to read and reread to make sure that when it is posted, I will feel like I have spoken as clearly and articulately as I can.
The same is true when I am preparing my lesson plans. I know that what I create impacts my students. They are the “audience” for what I am doing. If I am creative and clear in what I plan, then my students will have an easier time learning the material and become more engaged in the learning process. They are the reason why I rethink each lesson every year, honing it to match the group of students that I have this year. I don’t think about my lessons in a vacuum, but with the faces of my students in my head.
The challenge of Project Based Learning is to create that sort of experience for the students and their work. In a standard classroom, students work to produce a product that is judged by a teacher and given a grade. Sometimes it is shared with other students in the class, but the work has no life beyond that moment of evaluation. When planning for PBL work, there is a critical need to identify an authentic audience, one for whom the work of the students will have value and by whom the work can also be evaluated.
The work could be to create a picture book for an elementary class that communicates about a topic that has been researched, the planets or a Roman centurion, symmetry or verbs. After working together to gather their information, the students then create their book. with the elementary students being their target audience. They might look at pictures books around similar and different topics to their own. They could interview an elementary class to find out what they enjoy in picture books. The students are creating their book, knowing that it has a real audience, one that will either enjoy what they create or not be interested in it. That audience impels the students to a deeper and richer engagement in the work.
They know that after they have shared their book, they will learn whether or not they were successful. As they talk to the elementary students, they will hear how their work is evaluated by a real audience. Was the book fun to read? Was it too hard or too easy? Did the illustrations help? Did they learn about the topic being discuss? The older students want their book to be a success. A group of 2nd graders is a much more powerful force moving them towards excellence and their best work than simply a teacher with a grade book.
The audience can also be a panel of parents or community leaders, artists or other teachers in the building. It simply must be people who can given an informed response due to their personal expertise or experience. When studying the growth of cities, the students can design a city and then have city planners come in to listen to their ideas. Bring in members of the town council to listen to ideas about violence and safety. Ask someone from the local museum or waste treatment plant to visit. There are any number of people who could support the work of the students; in many cases, they just need to be asked. Knowing that “real” experts are going to be looking at their work is very powerful for students. It validates their efforts and gives significance to each step of the process.
The audience can also be contacted through email and letters, writing a proposal or an opinion to a lawmaker or town official also provides authenticity to the work. Having done this with students in the past, they are excited about the writing process, but they often do not get personal responses, so if the final product involves a letter, I would also have some sort of forum where each group of students presents their position to an audience to receive more immediate feedback.
Finding the audience is a significant part of the planning for an effective PBL, one that can cause the level of engagement and excitement about the project to greatly increase. As I have been thinking about having an audience for my students’ work, it has made me rethink a lot of my planning. I find myself asking, “Why would they care about doing this work?” more than I ever have. Before, they did the work because that was the work that I gave them. Now it is time to develop effective Driving Questions and genuine audiences!
This is an area where I really struggle with my instructional design–getting beyond the four walls to an authentic audience. Even with student blogging, I worry that the audience often isn’t very authentic. Perhaps, my thinking has been too grand, not recognizing that the audience can be small as long as it’s authentic. I think I need to taper my own expectations and let our a audiences develop a little more organically. Hope we can video chat about these ideas soon.
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The trouble with this mentality is that purely “google search-friendly” submissions are typically rife with boring filler content and unreadable, keyword-stuffed sentences. Plus many bookstores connected to colleges have anthologies on the market.