Friday, March 10, 2017

Giving Students Audience, Occasion, and Purpose


Imagine 17 years of basketball drills and never playing a game. Imagine 17 years of piano practice and never accompanying a sing-along or performing for anyone. Imagine 17 years of creating artworks that were never displayed even on a refrigerator. I think I’d lose motivation after about 2 months. Now imagine 17 years of writing for no audience other than your teacher, no occasion other than an assignment, and no purpose other than a grade. 

Unfortunately, that doesn’t take as much imagination. Seventeen years is the life of a student from kindergarten through college—and during these years, students rarely (if ever) write for a real audience. Is it any wonder students’ writing motivation languishes?

When we write as adults, we write with an audience, occasion, and purpose in mind. Because of that, we want to grab and hold attention; to communicate clearly, attractively, and convincingly; and to not undermine our message with distracting or discrediting errors. I’ve been increasingly trying to replicate that for my students over the last several years—with varying degrees of success. Until this week in 11th grade. The prompt suddenly took root and took on a life of its own to the extent that students were asking if they could actually give the speeches they had written. 

Before reading and discussing a variety of pieces—long and short, fiction and nonfiction—on the topic of the individual and community, the students knew that at the end, they would respond to the following prompt, taken directly from our textbook, The Language of Composition: “The author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote, ‘What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.’ Write a speech that you would deliver to a group of your peers (identify which group) that uses Vonnegut’s idea as your main point and recommends ways to ‘create stable communities’” (392, #9).

I knew from reading the drafts that the speeches were fantastic. (My previous blog was on the individual writing conferences on this piece.) Students had bought into the idea of targeting an audience they knew with a topic they cared about, and they could imagine how they needed to connect with and move that audience. When students were ready to hand in their final drafts, and I had them self-assess on a 6-traits writing rubric, they said, “Oh! Can we do another draft? I don’t think I really have a thesis!” So we talked a bit about thesis (open, closed; beginning, end)—things we’d “studied” earlier, but then it was just “information.” I assured them I thought they had theses that were appropriate to the audience, occasion, and purpose. As they listened to each other’s speeches later, they could, indeed, come up with the thesis at the end of the speech. 

Then I asked them to do some metacognition: What did you learn about writing while working on this speech? Here are some of their responses:
  • I learned that writing a speech to a specific audience is kind of nerve-wracking, especially if you know them well. I know my class would start talking to their friends or stop listening pretty soon, so I wanted to make sure I kept their attention.
  • I never realized, until this section, that sentence variety is important. Not only does it keep a person engaged, but is also helps create vivid pictures. I feel quite poetic!
  • I learned how much anecdotes can help connect ideas.
  • From this essay, I learned that when I connect the prompt to my life, it’s much easier to write about.
When students read their speeches, they saw the immediate responses from their audience—laughter or gasps—and at the end we had a brief debrief discussion. I think they understand more about voice—their own and others’, commenting on how very differently people could respond to the same prompt, use the same quotation, or build their entire speech around an anecdote that no one else had picked out to use.

I don’t really know why this particular attempt of mind to give students an audience, occasion, and purpose worked so well when other attempts have been less successful. What I do know is when students take to heart an occasion, audience, and purpose, the energy around the writing is palpable, and the learning is, too.


How have you been successful in giving students occasion, audience, and purpose for their writing?

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