This week has been interesting. After finishing my final paper for my composition class, I focused in on getting through the huge stack of grading waiting for me. As I spent my weekend grading papers, I became acutely aware of my students' lack of understanding of real audience. I had given my honors students a very open writing assignment, in which they were able to choose the audience. One student actually wrote a letter "Dear Anonymous." Other students checked off multiple items on the "Where are you sending this" section of my turn-in slip. One student checked off "Letter to the Editor" and "Petition." Somehow... he thought it could be either. They were just so stuck in the genre of "essay" that they forgot or had a mental block preventing them from thinking about the fact that there are other genres out there, with real, non-teacher, audiences. So... I set about brainstorming a way to help them understand the importance, preferably quickly. I found one, but I shall return to that later.
When I really looked at the results, I have to say something really interesting happened with this assignment. Students either wrote AMAZING things, or they wrote terrible essay-ish things. One student wrote a fantastic letter to a company who allows advertisements for "barely legal" escorts, who are often, in fact, underaged, kidnapped sex slaves who have been forced into prostitution. Her letter was fantastic and very convincing. I expect it to achieve results. Another student wrote a petition (which, admittedly, she lacked a final audience for) to convince media outlets to stop portraying women unrealistically. Today, the very last paper I graded, was a beautiful, beautiful children's story. It was an allegory about bullying using a crow as the main character. This story is honestly so fantastic -- solid plot, great details, beautiful message -- I wholeheartedly believe it deserves to be published. I wish I had this book to read to my children. I started searching for "How to get a children's book published" and printed some resources for the student. I will stand by him in this process for as long as it takes, because this story is one that every child should hear.
Today, before passing back the paper, I did an activity to help the students understand the audience issue. (One cannot give back Ds and Fs to an honors class without prefacing it with some sort of commentary). First, I wrote on the board "Write a paragraph about love." They wrote for 5 minutes. I stopped them. "Now," I announced, "I want you to write a paragraph about love you might give to your future spouse some day." After 5 minutes, I stopped them again, "Now, I want you to write a paragraph about love you could write in a card to your mom or dad or a parent-like family member." After this, I asked them to read the three paragraphs over again and to decide which was the best writing. Only a couple of students liked their first paragraph the best (which worked out just like I expected of course), and so a wonderful conversation ensued about how knowing who you are writing for produces better results.
There is a Taylor Mali poem about "What Teachers Make," in which he says, "I make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor." After explaining to the class the audience issues with the paper, I explained that there were significantly higher numbers of Ds and Fs than usual, mostly because of the audience issue. I offered them the opportunity to rewrite, which many will take. But I have to tell you, the celebrations that went on in my classroom today... they were wonderful. I am an admittedly tough grader. I give very few As. In my book, a student who scores in the top section of the rubric has very little room for improvement. This does not go over well with my honors students, but by May, they are starting to get used to it. If you have ever taught honors students, then you know that anything short of an A is often a disappointment, yet today, there were celebrations. A student with a B- said, "I am so proud of myself! I really worked for this B- and I know I deserved it!"
A couple of weeks ago, one student sent me his rough draft of an audience-void essay in which he essentially stereotyped every Christian and talked about "them" all as the hateful Falwell-esque, "God Hates Fags" types. I pointed out the error in his logic and the irony in his stereotyping, told him honestly that I was hurt and offended by some of his remarks, and asked him kindly to revise. He did. He did his research, thought about what he was saying, and wrote a passionate, reasonable letter to a church denomination. I was genuinely proud of him, but the letter still had its issues. It received a C-.
After he looked over his paper, he looked up and me, beaming from ear to ear, and said proudly, "It improved a lot, huh?"
"Yes, very much," I replied with a smile.
A C can certainly feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor... or in this case, a Nobel Peace Prize. And honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if this kid someday wins one.