Audience is Everything

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

In my first post, I said I was in an alumni production of Our Town. Now, the play is over, and the reviews are in. Wilder’s play survived my assault on Doc Gibbs, but the experience has me thinking about teaching writing.

Audience is everything.

Audience_3_previewDifferent disciplines define “audience” using other words, but it all comes down to the perception and experience of the end user. All products, all successful products, are designed with the user in mind, as determined by product testing or a focus group. Art and music, while often very personal,  succeed when they “find and audience.”  Sketching, journaling, and playing random chords because they please you is fine because you are the only audience. But if you want to find out if you’re good, however that’s defined, you need an audience.

What’s the measure of success in writing? Did it achieve the writer’s goal with her intended audience? As a teacher, I know that my goal is for my students to be successful actors in the play that we call writing. I am both the director as I guide them through the process, and a participant as I write alongside them.  But where’s our audience? Who are we working so hard for? How do we know if our choices are the right ones if we never get to see the audience, hear them laugh in the first two acts, and then go silent in the third because we set them up for that on purpose?

When we rehearsed Our Town, our only audience was each other and the director. We ran our lines and worked through how to deliver them, but we had no idea how they’d be received by an actual audience. There were places that we suspected would be funny or poignant if we delivered the lines well, but we didn’t really know if they would work as we expected them to. There were words and phrases that we had to say, either because another character depended on hearing them as a cue to deliver another line or because they were vital to delivering some thematic idea. We had to be fast and bright in the first two acts because we planned to shock the audience with our somber tone in the third.

The director helped us imagine our audience and what they would see and hear, but that’s not the same thing as having an audience. The whole endeavor, the play, was aimed at the audience, not me. I was having fun, but the audience was who I was working for. When we did perform the play, we knew where it worked because we could see and hear the audience react. It was a rush when we got it right, and it stung when it fell flat, but at least we knew for sure what the audience thought.

That idea lingers.

181748002In the past couple of years, I have been putting more and more emphasis on the importance of audience in writing. I talk with my students about who their audience is, its characteristics, what moves it, and recently, we talked about what might delight the audience. The mantra “when you write for everyone, you write for no one” echoes through my room as we try to imagine that one person we’re trying to reach. (I know who it is for this piece.)

The problem is–it’s fake. There is no audience, not really. We give excellent feedback to each other, but it isn’t the same thing as having an audience. I had been aware of that, but until I walked across a stage and delivered my lines for a real audience, I didn’t feel it. I do now, keenly. The question becomes: where do I get an audience for my students?

My students have been blogging for years, and my use of new media platforms has evolved from a place for me to make announcements to a static discussion board to a place where my students can engage each other. But the audience is still “us,” the theater company. We are currently setting up blogs on Tumblr. This will be our third year on that site, and I have a decent sense of how to use it to talk about 21st century writing, but my goal this year is to try and get my students’ best work in front of a real audience. I’m not entirely sure what that will look like or if I can accomplish it. Is this something I can do using Tumblr blogs, or is that still too insulated?

Peer feedback is another option I’m working hard on, but again, it doesn’t feel-big enough. When I was at an NCTE Conference, I saw a presentation on having a Writers Week, but that’s a ton of prep for really only one week. I’m looking for help here, gentle reader. If you have a suggestion, please share it.  I want my students to feel the sting of missing a line, or having something they think will work fall flat, and then come back with a better idea. I want them to know their writing has succeeded, not because I gave them an “A,” but because they can hear the laugh and see the audience cry a little in the third act.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Webinar – How Student Blogs Support Literacy Learning & the Common Core

Facilitator: Stephanie Dulmage, Technology/Curriculum Integration Specialist,
West Bloomfield, MI School Districy
Monday, February 16, 2015  7-8pm EST (optional follow up discussion from 8-9pm)
recording    slides     resources

Learn about the what, why, and how of bringing blogging into your classroom during this interactive webinar.  We will explore how writing in a digital environment shifts student thinking about audience, purpose, and content, as well as ways to seamlessly incorporate blogging into classroom practice.  Participants will learn about a variety of blogging platforms and things to consider when choosing one for their own students.

Stephanie Dulmage is a Technology/Curriculum Integration Specialist in the West Bloomfield School District. She has 27 years of classroom experience and 2 years serving at the district level to support technology integration and school improvement. Her most recent accomplishments include: participation in the Galileo Leadership Academy, earning an  Education Specialist degree in Educational Leadership, and organizing EdcampOU and Edcamp WBWL. She’s passionate about educational leadership, learning, learner engagement, and leveraging technology to transform the learning environment with a focus on: increasing student voice and choice, ownership and personalization of learning, and learner contributions. Stephanie is an active blogger with a strong presence in Twitter educational learning networks and chats. She hosts three blogs and the #800voices Galileo Leadership Academy chat.

Twitter ID: @stephe1234

Student Blogging: Benefits & Challenges

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

Week one in my 5th grade classroom is almost over, and I am exhausted, inspired, and excited! We started blogging the first day of school (yes,I actually tackled it on the first day – a half day!).  It is Thursday night and I still have students who have not posted–the hiccups of technology and password issues, but we are getting there.  When I sat down to read and respond to posts two hours ago, it crossed my brain that I must be crazy. Now, I am so glad that I made the decision to have my students blog. The prompts I gave my students were–tell me about your favorite book & why it’s your favorite and tell me “what is reading?”

blog 1

Student blog post – click for an enlarged view.

The responses I’ve gotten have helped me to know my readers in ways I might not have otherwise for weeks. After one week, I know:

  • what books resonate with them,
  • where their thinking is in terms of what they believe reading is,
  • who they are as writers from the voice (or lack thereof) in their posts;
  • and what grammar lessons I should teach first and what skills are fairly solid.

Being able to respond quickly to each post allows me to connect with each student as well. All of this from one blog post per student! I resisted the urge to give corrections in my comments as I might have done in the past; I recognize that I need to connect and encourage at this point. I also did not make corrections to my students’ posts — I left the misspellings, even as I cringed while I read. I don’t want to shut down their writing process by giving criticism, even if it is constructive. These students don’t know me yet, and we need to establish a relationship of trust before they will be ready to receive this type of instruction. By forcing myself to ignore the grammatical errors, I find that I am intentionally looking for what my students do well as writers. This is a shift from our normal practice of evaluating what is wrong so we know what to teach (though I still do this with their pre-writes).  With these blog posts, I am focusing on my students’ thinking, asking myself: how can I help them grow and develop as thinkers in addition to growing as readers and writers?

blog 2

Student blog post – click for an enlarged view.

I am hopeful that by the end of the year, my students will look back at all their blog posts and be surprised and pleased by their growth. I am also hopeful that they will begin to correct their own errors because they are writing for a larger audience than just me: initially we share with our two 5th grade classrooms; then we will add in parents as audience members; finally, in March, we will participate in Two Writing Teachers Classroom Slice of Life challenge, which opens us up to a global audience.

There is a constant struggle for teachers these days to find balance between district mandated curriculum and expectations and making a professional decision because you know it is best for kids. Blogging these first days has been one of those decisions for me.  My official workshop “launch” looks different this year with the inclusion of blogging. Some colleagues have questioned my choice. I am okay with this because what we have done with this blogging is so valuable and foundational for this school year. It is writing in a real-world context. My expectations are no different for blogging than they are in writing workshop. If anything, the bar is raised because my students have to employ what they have learned about digital literacy and internet safety. Still, I am sensitive to the criticism. I’m wondering how other teachers handle this type of conundrum? I’d love your feedback in the comments section below.

Where will we go from here? Honestly, I’m not sure yet. But I’ll keep you posted!

Beth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University. 

Beginning Again

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom
my classroom reading corner for mini-lessons

my classroom reading corner for mini-lessons

It’s August, and even though school doesn’t officially start for two more weeks, most teachers I know are getting back into the classroom, dusting off binders & computers (literally) and thinking about the upcoming year.

No matter how many years I’ve been teaching, there is something exciting about the beginning of the school year: new students, new supplies, often new curriculum, and new possibilities. This year, I decided to re-do the color scheme in my 5th grade classroom. Before it was rainbow colors everywhere, and I was ready for something more serene. I defended this decision to my husband by saying that I spend more time there than I do at home during the school year, so it should be a space that makes me happy. (Luckily I could back it up with “extra” money I earned this summer!) But there is more going on here than just aesthetics, I find. This re-doing of the classroom is causing me to re-evaluate and revamp the way I teach.

This summer, I’ve been reading favorite blogs, sifting through professional books, attending workshops, and having deep conversations with colleagues in an attempt to constantly do what is best for my learners. I am blessed to work in a district that embraces a Culture of Thinking and is training us in project-based learning. My principal gives us books like Mindset by Carol Dweck. I am collaborating with teachers in other buildings on a project for the beginning of the year. All of this pushes me to be a better teacher and a deeper thinker about learning. My expectations are higher not only for my students, but for myself as well.

One of the changes I’ve decided to make this year is in writing instruction. In the past, I have had my students blog for  the Two Writing Teachers classroom Slice of Life challenge in March, but this year I am making the commitment to have them blog all year long. While this may not sound like a big deal, allow me to elaborate: this will be in addition to writer’s notebooks and writing workshop. Having fifty 5th graders blog multiple times weekly means that I will be spending hours reviewing posts and approving them for publication, as well as managing the comments that I am requiring of students. Their comments will have to go beyond the typical 5th grade “awesome,” or “cool,” but will have to reflect back to the writing process and the content.

481399781This is a huge undertaking that is born out of reflection and the desire to do what I know is best for my students. I know that having an authentic audience and getting consistent feedback inspires and motivates my learners. Our district Ed Tech Specialist just gave me a link to a site called Quadblogging that allows us to connect with other classrooms for a collaborative blogging experience. I’m still contemplating this leap..I think I’ll get to know my learners first, and we will decide together  if Quadblogging is right for us. This is new thinking for me as well: in the past I would have made the decision, but now I want feedback from my students; we are a team in our learning. I will update our progress in future posts!

As these final days of summer draw to a close, I look around my “new”classroom, and I find myself truly excited for the learning that will happen here.  I’m wondering how other educators are embracing the changes that inevitably come with a new school year.  Please share in the comments section what changes you’re making to your classroom and teaching this year.  As for me, I simply can’t wait to meet my new students and begin again.


BethBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University.