I felt my heart skip a beat as I looked around the room. Faces of eager but nervous seventh graders, all holding notecards, gazed back at me, now all gathered at the center of the library. Behind them, a group of adults, holding clipboards and pencils. The time to commence had arrived, and all eyes now rested on me to set things in motion. I began, “Welcome to our Global Issues Symposium, everyone! We are honored by your presence today. This morning is an opportunity for many things: if you’re a student writer, today is a chance for you to present your views on a topic that really matters to you. If you are here as a guest, let me explain a little about today.”
At that point, I explained that some of the topics that would be addressed by our student writers might make some feel uncomfortable. Some may not agree with the views presented, I said. But, I explained, we know that in a civil society, a free exchange of ideas is foundational. I respectfully requested that any feedback adults chose to give be respectful and diplomatic. I reminded them that our student writers worked from a different level of world knowledge than adults. “But they’ve studied the topic,” I continued, “weighed the evidence, and today they will present a considered argument. We request all audience members feel free to ask a few questions at the end of each student’s talk. And if you’re willing, provide a little written feedback.”
My colleague Shannon then joined me at the front as we projected a seating assignment, followed by the bustling movement of 34 seventh graders proceeding to their assigned area in the library. Students had been organized into panels of 3-6, broadly grouped by topic. Issues ranged from the value of college education to medical marijuana, from school uniforms to gun control. I grabbed my clipboard and made my way to a low table located near the checkout counter. Six faces were already there, awaiting my cue. “Good morning everyone,” I greeted them excitedly. “Who’d like to go first?”
What took place that morning (and later in the afternoon) was nothing short of impressive. Broadly speaking, students came well-prepared: Across the library, they presented claims, reasons, and evidence that widely impressed the adults who had gathered to listen. Although not many students invited listeners from outside our school community, some did. A state representative had joined to listen to a student argue about the minimum wage. The president of a local animal shelter came to listen to a student discuss her views on the treatment of animals. A few parents came to support their students by listening to presentations. And many colleagues from my school joined to bear witness to student writers as they presented their positions.
As the students filed out of the library at the end of the symposium, one of the teachers approached me. “I’m so proud of them,” she said. “They really stepped up their game.” I nodded in agreement, thinking to myself about the importance that authentic audience plays in the writing process.