The emPOWERment of Authentic Audiences

Written by Alison Gauthier, Dawn McConnell & Hope McConnell

Vermont’s Act 77 encompasses three pillars - Personalized Learning Plans, Flexible Pathways, and Proficiency-Based Learning and Assessment. Fluid across the three pillars, authentic audiences support students with both accountability and feedback as they grow and learn.

This spring, ninth grade students from U-32 experienced authentic audiences when presenting about their Earth Science unit related to Climate Change and Engineering. The unit was designed with Act 77 specifically in mind - a flexible process and product to reach a common set of proficiencies on the Sustainability and Engineering Science standards.

Based on interest, students were organized in “country” teams of two or three persons; each team represented a country affected by climate change. From Haiti and Bangladesh to the United States and Germany, each team had to determine the specific ways that climate change was affecting their area of the world - and determine feasible solutions to either adapt to, or mitigate, these effects. Each country had a budget (the country’s actual GDP per capita) to purchase items from the engineering store to design a prototype solution for their specific problem. Items at the store had inflated prices - for example, a piece of paper was $100 and a pipe cleaner was $50. Countries with a smaller GDP per capita were forced to think creatively about their project, or get grants from other, more-wealthy countries.

The summative of the unit were the country presentations where students had to “sell” their prototype to other countries. Each person was granted $20,000 from the UN to buy prototypes that their specific country needed, and these individuals were accountable to their team and to other countries because they were attempting to “sell” their specific prototype to others. To make their prototype more appealing, teams had tested out the prototype and analyzed data in order to yield evidence that this would indeed work for other countries. From slides to posters to short movies, no advertising scheme was the same.

This was the first authentic audience that students in this class experienced this year in Science.

Shortly after the country presentation, Hope McConnell,

a 9th grader at U-32, presented to a different authentic audience. U-32 received a Vermont Academy of Science and Engineering (VASE) small equipment grant earlier in the year to purchase engineering supplies for the store. These included several 3D pens, a soldering kit, and an introductory coding kit. Hope presented to legislators and VASE partners at the State House in Montpelier, describing her country’s climate change project, and explaining how the VASE-supplied 3D pen enabled her team to create a floating greenhouse.

Hope’s slideshow can be found here. As the teacher watching Hope present to legislators about climate change, I was struck by the level of conversations she engaged in with adults and other teens in the room. Hope also had background from her ninth grade Global Studies class related to the state and international policies related to climate change, and I quickly saw the conversations progress from discussing her project to discussing international policy. Hope talked animatedly about “mitigation” and “adaptation” and how her assigned country in the “Global South” is suffering from effects largely caused by the “Global North”. At one point, Hope encouraged legislators to push specific policies that would help Vermont mitigate its emissions.

Later in the spring, Hope McConnell (9th grader), Iona Bristol (9th grader), and Maeve Hoffert (8th grader) presented at the ECET2 conference in Hanover, New Hampshire. Founded by teachers, for teachers, ECET2 stands for Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers, and their mission is to bring exceptional educators together for meaningful collaboration and professional development.

Hope, Iona, and Maeve gave a presentation about the climate change unit to a small group of teachers from Vermont and New Hampshire. They explained how they were able to personalize their product and process, while still showing proficiency on the various scales. The presentation was engaging (they had the teachers try out an engineering problem) and informative. The teachers were interested in how the students were able to show their voice through the project. One teacher from New Hampshire asked each of them to explain something that went well in the unit, and something they would change for the future. As their teacher, I was taking notes of their responses as a form of feedback to make the unit better in the future.

At the conference, I was again impressed by how the students acted with this new audience. When watching other presentations by teachers around New England, they asked questions, were engaged, and came up to me after with ideas for our class and school. “Do you know how competency-based learning is happening at this school in New Hampshire?” Iona asked me. “Our principal needs to hear about this!”

Dawn McConnell, Hope’s mother, stated this following the ECET2 conference: “I was surprised at how much Hope enjoyed attending the teachers' conference with you. She had a great day and came away with a greater appreciation for what teachers do. I think it was the first time that she was exposed to what goes into the planning and thinking behind lesson planning. She was impressed by the care and discussions of the teachers regarding how to present information and engage students. She told me that she even spoke up in the one of the teacher sessions to offer her perspective on reaching students who are struggling in class. It occurs to me that these kinds of interactions are beneficial to the teachers and the students. I'm wondering if there might be other opportunities for students and teachers to share their struggles (and successes) with each other in a similar format. It certainly helped my daughter to have renewed respect for teachers and gain an understanding of their perspective.”

During the conference and following these words from Dawn, I realized that exposing adolescents to authentic audiences is actually an act of empowerment. By learning about various perspectives and understandings, students walk away with more tools in their learning toolkit. Authentic audiences not only benefit from the knowledge, skills and questions of our students, but our students benefit from the insight, inquiries, and opinions of others.