This case study is shared in its entirety by Jonathan Bisson. Learn more about Jonathan in his bio following the case study.
I was teaching Literature at The Kildonan School back in 2018. My grade 12 World Literature class entered a PBL unit centered on genocide. Using the driving question, “How can we design a presentation that will save people’s lives?” we studied The Holocaust by reading Elie Wiesel’s Night. Then, we researched the attempted eradication of the Rohingya in Myanmar and brainstormed ways that we could help. My assumptions about the final demonstration of learning were blown wide open by the initiative of my students. One of them, in particular, enthralled me during a conversation together by connecting our class’s research to her hobby of listening to The Moth Radio Hour. She excitedly posed to me, “What if we designed a Moth event to help raise money for the Rohingya?” Inspired, I told her that I was on board as long as her peers agreed to the project. We met as a class, and after they eagerly signed on, I ditched the plans I had made for the rest of the year. To answer our original challenge, we needed a new unit and a new question: “How can we tell our own stories for a charitable event that we design?”
The Shift: From Teacher to an Authentic, Public Audience
When we looked ahead to the event, neither I nor my students considered me the main audience of their learning. There were two reasons for that. First, I would be joining my students on-stage, “walking the walk” by crafting and performing my own story. I could not assume all of the responsibility of observing and evaluating my students’ work, for my feedback alone would be unreliable, incomplete, and inauthentic. Second, the audiences who attend genuine storytelling events are rich composites: there are folks associated with the hosting organization(s) and venue, those who attend such events regularly, loved ones and friends of the performers, interested members of the larger public, and others. My students wanted a similar audience, and I accepted – and acknowledged to them – that they deserved more than me.
Once I stepped aside as the primary audience, new pedagogical questions emerged:
(1) Who would be responsible for constructing feedback during class time?
(2) How would we bring in an audience for our event?
(3) How could the audience help us evaluate our work?
Fortunately, The Moth offers excellent resources through its Education Program (application required) for teachers and schools wishing to create storytelling events. In the package was a guide for listening and giving feedback. After I adapted and modeled the strategies with my class, we formed an ongoing workshop to develop our stories. We shared the responsibility of offering constructive feedback, and we reflected and acted on the data we received individually. In this way, we formed a proto-audience in which my voice mattered less than the collective input of the entire class as well as peer-to-peer critiques.
As for the performance, an authentic and public audience does not just happen. We would need to create one. That effort saw us adopt the energy and collaborative spirit of event planning. Throughout the process, we drew deeply on our own connections and gifts. We leaned on our social capital by reaching out to individuals in our school, families, communities, and beyond to initiate conversations and secure deals with our venue and donors. Each task also allowed us to choose how/whether to plug in our particular strengths. We needed a poster to publicize the event? A student with graphic design and social media skills rose to the challenge. We needed lighting at the venue? A student who helped set up lighting for school concerts partnered with the music teacher to borrow/arrange equipment on-site. Our partnerships remained flexible, student-led, and task-specific, ending and rearranging in order to ensure that we were comprehensively building the event together.
Finally, we designed evaluations of our learning so that they arose from two sources other than me. Audience members were invited to complete comment cards at their tables during the event. Additionally, students reflected on their narrative and event design skills throughout the process: leading up to the performance, afterward, and to close out the unit following a review of audience comment cards.
Tips and Takeaways for Making the Shift
(1) When possible, join your students as a participant in the project. Once you do, you’ll realize you can’t demonstrate your learning to yourself. You and your class will need a different audience!
(2) Welcome the process of event planning into your project, and help coordinate it to build a real audience. The most important lever for this work is student ownership. If you have never dabbled with event planning, don’t worry: it’s impossible for any individual – including you – to have all of the answers or responsibility. Dig into your own social capital. Reach out colleagues who have designed similar projects, event planners in your network or who are known by your students/families, or others.
(3) Get the audience meaningfully involved in student learning. What if my class’s audience had just been invited to observe the event while I insisted on conducting all of the evaluation myself? Our unit would have had a drastically different result: my students would have performed for me that night, and the audience would have been an afterthought. Thank those who take the time to show up for you by empowering them. Give them the ability to celebrate, critique, and grow your students’ learning.
I am entering my 9th year as a special education teacher. Currently, I work as an Academic Support Center (ASC) Associate at Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie, NY. Before that, I served in a number of roles at The Kildonan School in Amenia, NY before it closed in the summer of 2019. Both institutions are independent boarding schools accredited through NYSAIS. Additionally, I previously maintained a private tutoring practice focusing on content assistance, test preparation, and individualized goals. That work connected me with youth from elementary school to college – as well as other teachers – across 12 years. You can connect with me using my LinkedIn profile.