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Writers as Class Guests

posted: 5.20.14 by Steve Bernhardt

Teaching can be an isolating profession, as Dan Lortie underscored in his classic Schoolteacher (U. Chicago, 1975, reissued 2002). Teachers tend to be isolated inside classroom walls with only their students. But classrooms can also be connected—the walls can be porous.

Three guest speakers joined my Introduction to Professional Writing class last week, and I think we all connected. Our guests were two writer/editors (Nicole Gabor and Donna Brown) and a media specialist (Kevin Keane) from Kids’ Health,  a very successful Web site (Kidshealth.org) sponsored by the foundation associated with Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, in Wilmington, Delaware. My students were able to gain an insider’s perspective on what is involved in creating aninformative and interactive Web site. Kids’ Health attracts a million visitors per day, providing a full range of information about health, disease, nutrition, sex, and behavior. It is the most successful Web site for children’s health.

The speakers immediately focused on their rhetorical strategies for reaching their three key audiences: kids, teens, and parents. They emphasized an early decision to cultivate a plain English style, with a voice that is familiar and comfortable to each of their audiences. It is this plain, yet lively style that distinguishes their site from many health and disease sites. The site explains such topics as why we have boogers and how the nose works, why feet stink and how to keep your tootsies dry.

The speakers highlighted a range of genres for reaching their audiences: animated cartoons, posters and flyers, informative exposition and advice, videos of people speaking to their own bodily conditions, quizzes and surveys, and various data displays. What is in English can be switched to Spanish, and what is written can be spoken with a simple click. Throughout the presentation, the speakers focused on the situation of their audiences: kids with cancer or genetic diseases, teens with anxiety disorders or hormone disturbances, a mother tending a sick child in the middle of the night. It was a wonderful demonstration of what it means to know your audience and to reach them with empathetic information.

My students got to hear discussion of the writing process, including how to choose a topic, how to brainstorm for important content and put that content in “buckets,” where to go for reliable research, how to develop multimodal texts, how to storyboard a video or animation, and how to edit toward a finished product. All term, we’ve been discussion what it means to be a writer as well as a designer, how we might use technologies to our advantage, and how to reach diverse, multicultural audiences. Everything our speakers said reinforced our classroom discussions, projects, and readings.

Most importantly, my students met three professional writers who all felt lucky to be in their current positions, doing important work, and enjoying being part of a strong production team. The students got a glimpse of working professionals who found great satisfaction in their careers as writers and designers. They gained some perspective on how to establish a career goal and what skills and behaviors to develop. They learned something about the often irregular path toward one’s ideal job. And they discovered the could identify with individuals out there, beyond the classroom walls.

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