Leave Room for the Abstract

A couple of weeks ago I was giving a presentation at a middle school in our valley. After the presentation an eighth-grade student approached me and introduced herself. She talked about some of the points I discussed in my presentation which was about why we need to design writing opportunities for students that move them beyond a teacher audience. The student then told me about a blog she writes for young adults on the importance of positivity. She added that she also hosts a closed Facebook group for her readers so they can interact with and support one another. As if all of this was not impressive enough, this 12 or 13-year-old girl then proceeded to hand me her business card.

Note her title as “Motivational Influencer.” Teachers, let me introduce you to the students of the 21st century. They are using technology not only to mindlessly click through Snapchat but also to confidently send their voices and their messages into the world. They are using technology to connect with others, to communicate their ideas, and to promote themselves. What are we doing to reach this new student audience? Do you even know what “influencers” are? Influencers are people on social media who have many followers. Marketing agencies and companies seek these people out and use them to promote their brands. Influencers receive free merchandise, procedures, and money in exchange for writing about and taking pictures of themselves with the products. There are influencers of all ages. In fact, you don’t even need to be human to be an influencer. When my dog, Rocco, was about 3 months old, I started an Instagram for him. Rocco now has 1100+ followers and I have been contacted by dog food and clothing companies offering to send me free products. Yup, even animals can be influencers!

Why is this information important to teachers? As teachers, we sometimes need to enter the world of the student and then bring that world into our classrooms. And to do so, we first must understand the world in which our students live. Last year a student showed me a website he created for his favorite football team, the Atlanta Falcons. The website was designed to discuss current happenings with the team and bring fans together. He certainly has achieved that goal and more. The student now makes money from the traffic to his site and has guest bloggers and moderators from all around the country. He started the site when he was fifteen. A friend’s son, at the age of 12, started his own YouTube channel and gives make-up tutorials for his audience of thousands. They understand how to use their voices to reach an audience and relay a message. They recognize clickbait, but can also write their own. They measure their success in followers and pageviews. This is your student audience.

The reality is, students are creating more than they ever have. They are reading and writing more, too, just not in traditional ways. Our students are both consumers and creators. What are you doing to meet them where they are? Are you delivering content in ways that engages students?

Do they know how your content fits into their world?

The students we have today are innovative and need to continue to be so in order to compete with their peers. Do you design experiences that allow students to take content and apply what they’ve learned to create brand new things? “Things” is a word I tell my students not to use in writing. “Things” is vague. We can’t visualize what is abstract. But that is exactly the point: Leave room for the abstract. Teachers, we don’t need to control every aspect of creation. Let students be in charge of both the design and the product. Allow students to not only consume but also create. Embed within your lessons the responsibilities and ethics that come with both consumption and creation. Give students opportunities to solve real-world problems, to address real-world issues, to enter into real-world conversations, to speak to real-world audiences. Our students live and learn in the 21st century. Meet them there.

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