7/1/18 Last week I attended the Advanced Placement Summer Institute about English Language and Composition (a.k.a. Lang) in Norman, Oklahoma. Miss Phyllis was the consultant for my class, and she was amazing! It felt like she knew everything I have done and taught in my Lang classes and was able to add just one little thing or one tweak to each assignment or lesson that makes it feel like it will be ten times more effective. I am really excited and ready to go back – and yet there are six or seven more weeks of summer during which I’ll misplace bits and pieces of that zest for the altered assignments.
But there is one profound thing that was brought up repeatedly and that I realized a year ago when a friend, Michelle Waters, started Invisible Young Voices, yet I haven’t managed to integrate into my classes – the power (necessity even) of an authentic audience. On, I have found groups to score my English 3 students’ research papers and presented prompts that list a supposed audience, but those do not inspire students to do a great job of changing their tone or diction because they know their final grades are based on whether they fulfill my instructions.
Phyllis argues that is not enough, and I agree. Writing contests abound, just waiting for teachers to find them and submit their students’ work. Each contest has an authentic audience and a real competition. Published prizes range from free food from a local restaurant to publication to cash to trips, but imagine the authentic learning that can occur when a class isn’t given an assignment to “tell me about your summer vacation” or “who is your hero?” but is instead told to “write a personal letter to an author, living or dead, from any genre—fiction or nonfiction, contemporary or classic, explaining how that author’s work changed the student’s way of thinking about the world or themselves” for a specific audience that they can research?
Let’s look at how I hope to change in my class next year. I usually have my students write a narrative about a time they got in trouble and learned a lesson. We talk about what narratives look like and how to use dialogue, but I usually get mostly lame stories about kids’ phones being taken away for a day or two with no real lesson learned – and not very engaging stories. But I think this fall we will study narratives and then students will have an opportunity to submit a narrative to a contest. I’ll provide several that are available, but I’ll allow students to find a different one if none of them I find fit their interests.
Here is an example: Oklahoma Station Chapter Safari Club International has an annual writing contest for high school students. Their prompt provides two possible themes:
- Hunting: Sharing the Heritage
- Archery: What I like about Archery in the Schools and Bowhunting
The invitation asks students to “develop an expository essay or short story” about one of the topics, then it provides the instructions and details (double-spaced on white, 8 1/2 x 11 paper, with 1 1/2 inch margins on top, bottom and sides, should not exceed 1,000 words (four typewritten pages) for short stories, or 500 words (two typewritten pages) for essays, be carefully proofed for spelling, punctuation, capitalization and grammar, completed entry form must be used as a cover sheet and stapled to the essay or short story).
Although my guidelines would probably be a little more stringent, the benefits of teaching students to follow the guidelines will outweigh writing another blah page of text. Indeed, the hunters in my classes (of which there are always several) might be inspired enough by the potential prize – a hunting trip at a private lodge or an antelope tag and trip – to consider making in-depth changes between drafts! But there is a more important lesson here – one that I can’t stress enough, yet students do not truly comprehend until they have a real audience: authors must always consider their audience to be rhetorically effective.
For this contest, there are two possible themes, and the best written essay will lose by a landslide if the essay or short story is not on topic or does not speak the language of the audience: a specific group of people with shared beliefs, educational backgrounds, political ideals, and core values. A student who researches the club can figure out what type of words to use, topics of interest to the selection committee, and faux pas to avoid.
My favorite benefit of using contests in class is that it will help with a lesson I’ve been struggling for years to teach effectively: following instructions is crucial and exceptions must be exceptional. Students often feel they should be the exception to the guidelines for any given assignment: but I was sick the day it was due, but my writing is so concise that two pages should be good enough for a five page paper, etc. With contests, I don’t have to be the bad guy! Instead, the assignment can be to submit to a verified contest following their guidelines. Students either do it or not.
I have not figured out at what point grading will come in, but it seems a large part of each grade should be following instructions and researching the audience. At this point, I’m open to suggestions…