Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Creating an Authentic Classroom

My second semester students are revising the third drafts of their “This I Believe” essays, adapting them into speeches. Earlier this year I decided to spend the first few days of class on something besides hokey introduction games and diatribes on my syllabus. Inspired by NPR’s weekly broadcast of short essays on the theme of belief, I created an introductory lesson that not only gets students talking and writing about their core beliefs, but they also start our class by exploring the values and ideas that separate and connect cultures.

Reading through their drafts over the last few days, I am again surprised and appreciative of just how much my students put of themselves into these essays. They open themselves up, expose their hearts, make themselves vulnerable, knowing full well that I will be asking them to share their writing with their classmates. My desk is scattered with hand-written drafts about the betrayal of a first love, neatly typed pages about the loss of a beloved pet. Students write about their faith in their fellow human-beings, their joy at finding happiness in even the smallest moments. I have a student who shares a heart-wrenching story about how she learned to trust again following what seemed insurmountable family problems, and another who writes of the debt we owe to the mentors that have lit our path.

This semester, I’m trying a few new twists with the assignment. Last semester, I had students not only present their essay as a speech to the class, but I also video-taped each student as a way to have students reflect on effective verbal and non-verbal presentation skills. I encouraged students to submit their essays to NPR and rewarded them with extra credit. And while both of these opportunities gave students a way to adapt their writing to a specific audience, they received limited feedback. This semester I’m going to give students a couple of options for how they present their essays to a specific audience.

Students will have an option of either presenting their speeches to the class or recording their presentations for a video podcast. Either way, the students will have an opportunity to review their presentation skills and set goals for later presentations. Additionally, for those that opt to complete the podcast, I’ll have the students post them to our Ward’s World Ning, where others in our class can view and comment on the presentations, allowing for even more feedback on their writing and presentation skills. The added incentive will be that these podcasts will also act as an introduction for our pen pals from Morocco, India, and Liberia who will also be accessing our Ning.

My goal is to find more ways for students to write and interact with authentic audiences. I feel very fortunate to have access to technology in my classroom that makes it possible for me to facilitate connections between my students and those all over the world. I see these connections as a way for students to put a face on their world, increasing the potential for future connections. And not only are my students making those connections, but so am I. We are learning together, and isn't that what an authentic classroom should look like?

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