May 10, 2022
As humans, we love to “strut our stuff” and show what we know. It’s in our nature. As a teacher, the best part of a project is when my students get to do just that. However, there are some methods that are more effective and transformative than others. In my experience, presenting in front of an authentic audience is the most challenging and rewarding method for students.
What Is an Authentic Audience?
According to the Possibilities for Learning, an authentic audience includes “individuals with expertise in, or closely related to, the subject of the students’ product.” An authentic audience can be your classroom, which is a great place to start. And an authentic audience can be expanded to include anyone outside of your classroom. It can include students from another class, another grade, or another school. It can be people in your neighborhood community. It can also include people you’ve never met in-person but whom you have connected with using social media.
My Students Created Their Authentic Audiences
Recently, I posed this Essential Question to my students: “How can we balance the need for resources from the ocean with our ocean impacts?” To begin, they had to identify 10 major pollutants in our oceans and briefly research their impacts. Based on their initial findings, they were required to choose one pollutant on which they would conduct more in depth research and analysis. What was the goal? To create a plan to reduce the impacts of that type of pollution while still allowing for its use.
Through their research, students began to understand how various activities we do on land and in the ocean, such as industrial production, agriculture, aquaculture, and ocean mining, can negatively impact marine environments. Our actions and thirst for consumable resources can have dangerous consequences for our oceans. But many students wanted to focus on impacts in our own backyard—our school.
They took the challenge seriously. Some created social media accounts on TikTok (of course) and Instagram to spread awareness of ocean impacts and propose steps we could take to minimize them. They even took the initiative to tag organizations that were working on these issues already to spread their reach.
A few groups interviewed the cafeteria staff at our school to evaluate the best ways that we could limit our use of plastic containers during lunch. They met with our cafeteria supervisor to discuss their concerns and share their ideas on how to reduce our impacts. One idea was to increase the number of recycling cans in and around the cafeteria. The logic was that more recycled materials equate to less waste in the ocean.
One group emailed a company, goodstartpackaging.com, that makes compostable food containers and got them to send us a sample of their products. They used these containers to provide a visual comparison of size, functionality, and cost during their presentation to our school president. This meeting was set up at their request! Students provided an overview of the problem and the impacts of plastic use. Most importantly, they focused on the impacts on our school and how we could limit our use of plastic overall. Students provided a cost analysis, which caught the attention of our president. Their estimates indicated that switching to those combustible materials could actually save the school money.
My students were able to create authentic audiences through sharing information they learned via social media, talking to school staff, emailing industry experts and professionals, and making proposals for change to our school administration. They did more than just present slides in class: they involved people that could help them bring their ideas to life.
It is important to note that before my students were allowed to contact industry professionals or create social media accounts, we discussed protocols they were required to follow. While they drafted written correspondence, it was sent from my email, not theirs. Only students whose parents had already permitted them to have social media accounts were allowed to use online platforms to spread social awareness regarding their pollution projects. And as an additional layer of protection, the students were strongly encouraged NOT to use their faces in their posts. They were encouraged to use graphics with data or other relevant images to display their information.
What Are the Benefits of Presenting to an Authentic Audience?
By engaging with people and organizations beyond the four walls of our classroom, my students were not just engaged in the project but also became more invested in it. They took the work more seriously. They wanted to make sure that their plan to minimize the use of plastics, improve methods to reduce oil spill impacts, and implement more efficient recycling practices would not just be cool ideas. They worked to make sure they could actually get done.
They tagged organizations in their social media posts and websites that were involved in efforts around the world similar to their project goals. This was done to increase reach and awareness of how people around the world could get involved or donate to these organizations and help support their efforts financially.
Students drafted professional correspondence and sent it to industry professionals to solicit the professionals’ help in obtaining information on pollution impacts. They also reached out to scientists to obtain real-time data regarding the impacts of various types of pollution on coastal areas around the world.
Taking these actions helped my students grow their written and oral communication skills. They also improved their analytical skills as well. Reviewing information from a variety of sources and in a variety of formats required them to first evaluate, then categorize, and finally, synthesize the information into usable chunks that could be shared to further their goal. They did not just learn content. They learned how to apply the content they learned to solve a real-world problem.
What Steps Can You Take To Create Authentic Audiences for Your Students?
I did not tell my students to find an authentic audience. The project design required them to. I did not tell my students which audience to target. The solutions they designed determined their audience.
The project suggested three possible solution paths for them to follow:
- make an adaptation to an existing tool or machine,
- create a new law or amendment to address pollution violations or impacts, or
- design a social awareness campaign.
Were the students limited to these ideas? Absolutely not. But these pathways allowed them to carve out and create their own unique plans for how they could tackle the problem.
You can do the same. The starting point of creating an authentic audience for your students is for you to give up control and let them take the wheel. Allow them to “drive” their own learning. Challenge them to create ways to share it beyond your classroom, with more than just their peers. When you can challenge your students to make what they learn “real” for someone else, it becomes important to them as well. As a result, knowledge is gained, skills are learned, and solutions can be created that will benefit us all.