Writing for Authentic Audiences #1: Class Open Mic

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Click here for link to Slide Deck: Open Mic Protocol

Student writers need to write for real audiences. They simply write better when it’s for someone besides the teacher.

I tried to avoid this truth for many years. I have valid reasons for my denial. Having students write for authentic audiences can be challenging. First, I have to find an audience and an appropriate task—one that also meets the Common Core State Standards.

Second, I have to be willing to take a risk. Seventh grade writing is usually not perfect. Sometimes I think, do I really want the whole world to see this? Maybe I should just do some more revisions… Ultimately, this line of thinking is besides the point. If we want students to be better writers, they need to want to write better. And usually, this means writing for real audiences, including their peers, their families, our school community, and even the world.

This blog post will be the first in a series in how to help students publish writing to authentic audiences. The class open mic activity, where students bring writing to read aloud in front of the class, is an easy and low-stakes way to start. I started using this technique after I experienced it as a participant in the South Coast Writing Project’s Summer Institute in Composition and Critical Literacy. Experiencing it myself made me realize how simple (and powerful) oral publication can be.

Six Steps to Creating a Successful Open Mic Day:

  1. Discuss why it is important for writers to publish their work to actual audiences.  Here’s an anchor chart from this year’s class brainstorm on the topic. 10-20 Why Do Writers Publish- Anchor Chart
  2. Go slow. Before asking student writers to come up in front of the class, implement a regular practice of simply “publishing” to small groups or elbow partners. After students read to small groups, ask volunteers to read to the whole class. You can also ask group members to nominate writers to read. As the teacher facilitator, try sharing your own writing. Be part of the writing community.
  3. Employ three ground rules: First, writers reading their own work. Don’t allow students to pass their writing to someone else to read. The other person can never read it as well or with as much feeling as the actual writer. It also sets a bad precedent. Second, read the writing. Don’t just explain it. Third, no apologies. There’s no point in saying, “I didn’t have enough time,” or, “This isn’t very good,” or whatever other excuse comes to mind. We are all in the same boat on this one. The idea is to just read what you wrote.
  4. After students are accustomed to reading in small groups, announce that there will be an open mic day (or several days if you have large classes like mine). Provide opportunities for them to practice reading a specific piece with small groups. You may think this sounds boring for listeners, but  I found when small groups know a writer’s piece they can root for her when she comes up to the front of the class to read.
  5. Consider bringing a small snack to make the open mic day more festive. Popcorn and juice plays well with the junior high crowed. I’ve also tried granola bars. It doesn’t really matter, but students, like adults, feel more comfortable at social occasions when they have a little something to eat.
  6. I don’t use an actual microphone—mostly because I don’t have one—but I ask students to sit on a stool in the front of the class to read a short piece. I read mine too. We don’t clap after each reader because some junior high students aren’t very good at moderate applause. Instead we snap our fingers (“beatnik applause”). Another good alternative is ASL deaf applause. As the facilitator, I usually say, “Thank you,” after each speaker. No other comments are necessary.

Note: Some students are too shy to get up in front of the class and read. I try not to force them the first time. If we do one round and a student or two doesn’t participate, I give those students an alternate way to get the points. Students can record their voices with their phones and send me the file or they can call my Google Voice number and read into the voicemail system. Google Voice makes an automatic mp3 file which can be downloaded. It also translates the voice to text which makes my life easier if I don’t have time to listen to the student reader. The good news is that most shy students want to participate in the next round of open mics. They see what a positive experience it is for their classmates and they want to be a part of it.

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