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A Key to Authentic Learning Projects: Authentic Audiences

I love an ambitious learning project. There's something special about getting students to think deeply and creating work that allows students to develop their expertise. Designing a project for my students feels special because I get to tailor my instruction to their needs, and take them further than classroom content standards generally dictate. However, while a plan for a project can look great to a teacher, to students it can look like a series of hoops they must jump through for a grade. So this past year, I experimented with a new factor that helps students see projects as an opportunity for deeper learning—authentic audiences.

My first experiment with an authentic audience was with an oral history project. Each student had to conduct an interview with someone, record their interview, and then write about the experience and what they learned. At the same time, my school was celebrating its 35th anniversary with a weekend for the school's alumni. I gave students the opportunity to interview alums as part of a series of interviews the school was conducting, and have the alumni interview count as their oral history project.

Afterwards, I spoke with the students who interviewed alums and was bowled over by their responses. One student, who is generally indifferent to much of what we talked about in class, raved about what she learned:¬† Back in the 80s, the school had a student lounge where students were allowed to smoke! This student wanted to learn more about how the student culture had changed over the years, and proposed a much more ambitious project of going through yearbooks to create a visual anthology of student life at the school. Speaking to an alum was real to her—so much more real than reading anything in our textbook. The freedom of the project allowed her to seek out information that she was fascinated by: high school social dynamics.

A second opportunity to give students an authentic audience happened later that year at my school's first National History Day competition. We invited parents, faculty, and graduate students from local universities to serve as judges. Leading up to the day of the event, I knew that many of my more articulate students would have no trouble talking to the judges, but I worried about my students with learning disabilities, many of whom struggle with shyness in class discussions. But during the competition, I was surprised to see confidence and expertise. Educators talk a lot about how, given the right kinds of assignments, students will generally meet the bar that's set before them, no matter how high that bar is, but it's a different thing entirely to see a student break out of their conventional behaviors and demonstrate their learning.

These two experiences of authentic audiences spoke more deeply to me this year than they normally would have because of my own authentic learning experience in writing this blog. As I've been writing more consistently this year, I've observed my verbal communication become more articulate, and my thinking become more clear and analytical. I've learned about the importance of word choice, the importance of being concise, and the impact of careful feedback in my writing development. As a teacher, it's important that we take opportunities to keep learning, so that we can keep our students' mindsets front and center. Learning is hard—harder than we often think—and giving students time to digest, reflect, and present to others enriches students and gives them the skills to more deeply understand the content.

Projects take a lot of work. They require an environment that welcomes experimentation, and a teacher who's prepared to be nimble. Projects develop skills that don't tend to show up on assessments, which is wonderful for students who need to learn about research, teamwork, and time management, but may cause anxiety for school leaders who are overly concerned with standardized tests and GPAs. This disconnect sometimes puts teachers and school leaders at odd with each other, but rather than bowing to the dictates of a standardized tests, teachers (and leaders) should be pushing for better assessments that measure the real-world skills that students learn through projects.

At the end of the year I gave my students a survey asking them about what they learned, what stood out to them, and what they suggest I change for next year. No one asked for more worksheets. Most students recalled the times in class when they did their oral histories, talked with classmates in a Socratic Seminar, or presented for National History Day. Students speak the truth when they say that they learn by doing, and as teachers we need to follow their example and make their learning, and ours, more connected to the  world outside of our classrooms.

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