Sometimes the most difficult part of approaching a writing assignment is figuring out who you are writing for. Without a specific audience in mind, hangups can appear in the form of levels of language (what status is my audience?), depth and breadth of focus (what does my audience want to know?), and prior knowledge (what does my audience already know?). Using the Seven Elements in a writing assignment or research project can help eliminate these hangups by allowing students to take on a specific role (with an evident status, motivation, and level of language) and write to a specific audience (with a predetermined interest and prior knowledge). These Seven Elements are:
- Summary. Give a brief description of the purpose, background information, and importance of this writing assignment.
- Role. A specific character, job, position or motivation that the student will undertake when writing this assignment.
- Audience. An imaginary person or group of people, complete with their own specific roles and motivations, that will be reading this assignment.
- Form. The format of the writing assignment, whether it be an essay, business letter, diary entry, or otherwise.
- Purpose. What the assignment is intended to accomplish.
- Focus Points. What you want them to focus on as a teacher (grammar, readings, specific research sources).
- Procedure. A play-by-play (or, if applicable, day-to-day) description of what exactly the students will be doing in order to research and ably tackle this writing assignment.
This type of Seven Element assignment can be used for any classroom—from AP Physics to sixth grade Creative Writing—the important thing is that the task is relevant, thoughtful, and presented as necessary (perhaps even vital) to the intended audience. I have provided an example below which could be used in conjunction with a high school biology course after a unit on bacterial and viral diseases.
- Summary: Bacterial and viral diseases are a significant part of life on this planet. For every living thing on Earth, there is at least one bacteria or virus looking to infect it and use its biological systems in order to propagate. Thousands of these pathogens are known to infect human beings. You are an expert on one of these pathogens. The thing is, although you are an expert, the community you live in is full of susceptible children who are not. Your job, then, is to tell the story of a specific pathogen of your choice in a way that a child (age 5-7) would understand it.
- Role. You are an expert pathologist recently employed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to teach a group of school children in a high-risk environment about one human pathogen of your choice (whether it be viral or bacterial). You have worked in the laboratory for decades, have spent years in the field, and have delivered countless lectures and seminars around the world. Without any question, you are the person for this job.
- Audience. Valner Able Elementary School is directly at the center of a community that has a high risk for catching and spreading the pathogenic disease you will be talking about. For example, if the pathogen you are an expert on needs to live in a goat’s stomach for one part of its life cycle, this particular community keeps a great deal of goats. If the pathogen you study infects the salivary glands, this particular community has the weakest salivary glands in the world. And so on. Point is, these people need your help and direction in order to not spread this disease, and, in the CDC’s opinion, the best way to do this is through the children. You will therefore be giving a short presentation to a group of 1st and 2nd grade students (age 5-7) on what exactly the pathogen is, what its life cycle is like, how it is propagated, and, most importantly, what the students can do to prevent getting it. This children have a very limited understanding of bacteria and viruses. They know what bacteria and viruses are and what they look like, but that’s about the extent of it. They also have a very basic understanding of plant and animal anatomy. You will really need to simplify things in order for them to stay safe and keep their community healthy.
- Form. Your presentation can take whatever form you like, as long as it is appropriate for a 1st and 2nd grade level of understanding. You can present your information in the form of picture book, a poem, a puppet show, a catchy song, or a short video. The choice is yours. But remember, these are little humans with very little attention spans. So make it simple, make it thorough, make it exciting, and most of all, make it stick.
- Purpose. The purpose of this presentation is to keep a community safe. Without your help, this school of germy children will naively spread a disease that could slow or even fully diminish the growth of their community. Lives are at stake here, and if you can help these children fully understand the disease and realize how to avoid spreading it, you can save them.
- Focus Points. Although you are presenting to 1st and 2nd graders, your presentation should still cover all aspects of the pathogen’s replication cycle: animal vectors, if it is lytic or lysogenic, how it moves and attaches, where it multiplies in the body, and how long it stays active in the human system. Explain how it is spread and how transmission can be prevented. Remember, make it simple, make it thorough, make it exciting, and make it stick.
- Procedure. We will spend the next two days in class researching our pathogen. Wikipedia is fine place to find the pathogen you wish to present, but it is not a definitive source. You will be responsible for using three other sources of research in addition to Wikipedia. Use the CDC’s website (cdc.gov) in order to conduct further research on symptoms and prevention. I will also provide a number of medical journals that can also be used for further researching your pathogen.
I will be available for any questions during this research period. Your presentation is due on Monday, when we start presenting.
The Seven Elements have now allowed students to focus on a specific voice, motivation, and audience for an otherwise daunting subject and science project. In addition, this type of assignment lets students get creative with their scientific inquiry, opening the field to those students who don’t enjoy the rigid constructs of experimentation and report.