Audience Trumps Structure Every Time

Last week, in my reading of Kate Glass’ article at ASCD Express “ReThinking Five Paragraphs,” I related to much of what Kate portrayed in her writing.  The staid structure of writing that we’ve all been exposed to as students, and perhaps perpetuated as teachers needs some close scrutiny.  When, other than on standardized tests, do we read arguments that wrap up neatly in five formulaic paragraphs?  This is, as Dan Meyer put it in his 2010 TEDxNYED talk, akin to an impatience with irresolution.  And Glass notes that:

Freedom can be a little scary. Kids sometimes even panic when they are told they can decide how many paragraphs their essay needs. It can be shocking for them to find out that, yes, sometimes a paragraph has only three sentences.

Without a doubt, writing in an unstructured form is scary for students struggling to discover their voices as writers, but it’s precisely what will make them better when coupled with guidance, coaching and support from a patient teacher.  However, by continuing to force a good percentage of student writing into that frame, we are working to stagnate their development as writers more than we are to foster it.

Glass further points that even after wrestling for years with the historical background of the format

I never missed an opportunity to remind my students that the structure was actually derived from Aristotelian principles of logic. Who better than Aristotle to endorse your lesson plan?

she came to the conclusion that teaching that format as default was doing more harm than good:

I finally came to the conclusion that the five-paragraph essay just no longer serves kids in the 21st century.

and

…not only were my students complaining that they found the structure too constraining, but so were the very college professors I’d be turning them over to when they graduated.

which is exactly what we found when we spoke to college professors who teach primarily freshman in the traditional freshman comp at universities.  The format has constricted our students abilities to see writing as thinking, because thinking doesn’t necessarily fit neatly into five boxes.  What they expect is that students can have original thoughts that have value; what they find they get are canned responses.

In workshops with teachers this summer, I used the work of Andrea Lunsford and the Stanford Study of Writing (Clive Thompson hits it better here though) to show that all hope is not lost for this generation of students.  One thing that Glass pointed to as paramount to her teaching and the teachers of writing everywhere was the ability to write for audience:

Of course, I still have to train my kids how to use the five-paragraph essays for standardized tests, but now more than ever, in this world of Facebook and Twitter, our students need to learn the crucial notion of audience.

Lunsford used a Greek word, kairos, to describe what she found in her study as the students’ ability to detect audience and adjust their writing accordingly.  I wonder where audience comes in when we talk about the idea of changing the definition of literacy in today’s day and age.  Regardless, it has to factor as prominent, and if we accept that, to whom are our five-paragraph essays aimed at?  What audience demands those other than the standardized test?

We Need You to be the Lead Learner.

[slideshare id=4806056&doc=nyscate2010-100721094405-phpapp02]

This morning I had the opportunity to present at the New York State Association for Computers and Technology in Education’s annual Leadership Summit in Troy, NY.  When I pitched the proposal a few months ago, I was really leaning heavily on technology as the focus: what strategies could leaders employ to model learning and collaboration?  As the last few months have unfolded and my thinking has been influenced less by technology and Web 2.0 and more by things like Understanding by Design and designing learning communities, the impetus behind this presentation changed to reflect that.

Above is the slide deck I used, which, as the participants in the session will concur, most of which we did not see.  Again, we took time to talk to one another and to discuss some of the questions that came up, which is the real reason why we were there.  However, when I began designing this in its slide form last week, I wanted to do it in the style that I would ask a teacher to design a unit of study, so I used UbD to do it.  I started with what I wanted my audience to leave with: my transfer goal.  I came up with this:

I want you to learn the specific challenges facing education today so that, in the long run, you will be able to, on your own, create innovative and collaborative solutions to overcome them.

From that point I looked at the understandings they would need to have

  • Students today are not as academically tech savvy as they need to be.
  • We take in an enormous amount of data each day as consumers and our students need to be equipped to handle it critically.
  • Leaders responsibilities include that of growing future leaders, and in doing so, we must model the behaviors that we deem valuable for leaders to have: willingness to try and of fail, transparent learning, and collaboration.

and the questions I would use with them to help guide them:

  • Do the teachers in your district own the technology, or do the students?
  • Are your teachers more technology “savvy” than the students?  Is that a problem?
  • What is the dominant mode of learning in your school/district?
  • What is your role as a leader in your school/district?

From there, I realized that there would be no real way to assess them as they left the presentation, but I felt good about designing the presentation this way.  It had that “walk-the-walk” feel to it as I put it together and delivered it, and there is a lot to be said for feeling that way about the work you do.

In a nutshell, if students’ intake of information breaks down like this:

Should your classroom instruction look like this

or this?

There is no right answer here, but the real meaning lies in the discussions that have to happen along the way to deciding what they look like.  I spoke today about the lack of “grey area” thinkers as espoused by Dan Meyer in his TEDxNYED talk, and it applies here.  Leaders need to be very comfortable with difficult conversations about what we expect of our students and our teachers.  We need to be able to confront people’s belief systems (nod to Andy Greene).

Quite a Slate

This coming Saturday I will be riding the rails to the Upper West Side for TEDxNYED, a conference not officially affiliated with the groundbreaking TED Conference held yearly.  I’ve had all sorts of travel restrictions this year due to the budget constraints being placed on us by both the state offices and our own offices, which was the sole reason I wasn’t able to attend EduCon this year, so missing this one would have been unbearable.

The conference is organized in the format popularized by TED–short, 20-minute maximum length talks detailing the passion of the individual. This is coming at a really great time for me as well, as we are heading into the time of year where creativity and resourcefulness are key.  An infusion of new ideas and energy is sorely needed.

Here’s the schedule of speakers for the day:

10:00am PARTICIPATION

Andy Carvin
Michael Wesch
Henry Jenkins

BREAK

11:30am OPENNESS

David Wiley
Neeru Khosla
Lawrence Lessig

LUNCH

2:00pm MEDIA

TED Talk
Jay Rosen
Jeff Jarvis

BREAK

3:10pm NETWORKS

TED Talk
Gina Bianchini
George Siemens

BREAK

4:30pm ACTION

Dan Cohen
Amy Bruckman
Dan Meyer
Chris Lehmann

There are individuals on this list from whom I have stolen mightily, and from whom I hope to pull some more insight this weekend.  I’ve designed slides based on Dan Meyer’s advice, discussed school structure based on Chris Lehmann‘s ideas, created curriculum from the ideas of George Siemens, and used Michael Wesch’s videos in front of more audiences than I care to remember.

After having sat through a session with Alan November today that, although re-affirming for the group I came with, contained nothing in the way of new, motivating ideas.  I am really looking to Saturday for that to happen.  Hope to see some of you there.