Editor's Note: Today's guest blogger is Stephanie West-Puckett, a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant and a Teaching Instructor, Department of English, at East Carolina University
Both my Advanced Composition and First-Year Writing students need to produce better proposals to guide their research over the course of the semester. First drafts of their proposals generally lack clarity and focus, indicative of new writers stumbling clumsily around a topic rather than pirouetting on the ball of a contentious research question. To address these issues, I designed a scaffolding activity using the television show Dragon's Den as a framework for pitching research ideas. To integrate immediate peer review feedback into the pitch sessions, I used live audience polling as a simple peer-review mechanism for determining which students could proceed to the next stage of the research process, library research.
Introducing and Discussing Guidelines
Prior to the Dragon's Den activity, I introduced and discussed the research assignment. Written guidelines were broad enough to allow room for individual student interest and creativity, but with enough scaffolding to yield specific learning outcomes, based on the Writing Program Administrator's (WPA) First-Year Writing Outcome Statement for research. We also read and discussed mentor texts that modeled divergent approaches to the assignment. Strengths and weakness of each model was assessed, based on the assignment criteria. While students could effectively articulate how the mentor texts illustrated desired outcomes, most of them have historically had significant difficulty in moving to the next step of the writing process: imagining a project of their own that both sustains their attention for several weeks and produces outcomes that successfully meet the assignment criteria. To initiate the writing process, students were asked to use this basic guide for producing a research proposal, describing 1) their interest in the topic; 2) their readers' interest in the topic, background knowledge and understanding; 3) a potential research question and sub-questions; 3) and a process timeline including dates and specific research activities. Students were told that the draft of this research proposal would be peer reviewed during the next class period.
Why an Elevator Pitch?
On the proposal due date, about half of the students had drafts. Many lamented that they didn't have good ideas, didn't understand what they were supposed to research, or were confused about what they were supposed to produce for the peer review. Despite my careful in-class scaffolding, their confusion represented a rift between consuming and producing, between reading and writing. So I designed this activity as a gentle push that involved all students in early-stage peer review; even those with no products would be given a short amount of class time to create micro-products like the Dragon's Den elevator pitch.
If you aren't familiar with the BBC show Dragon's Den, it is a reality TV show in which "Budding entrepreneurs get three minutes to pitch their business ideas to five multi-millionaires willing to invest their own cash." Based on the success of their pitch, winners move to "The Boardroom" to negotiate business plans and investment terms. Since few students were familiar with the concept of an elevator pitch or the Dragon's Den show, we watched a two-minute YouTube clip at the beginning of class that provides a synopsis of both the show and the elevator pitch genre, highlighting the importance of marketing ideas precisely and concisely.
Calling the Pitches
After watching the clip, students were given ten minutes to excerpt their proposals. Some had drafts while others worked from scratch to create a convincing two-minute pitch for their research project that they would deliver to the class and have "peer reviewed" through live audience polling, which I had previously set up on Poll Everywhere. Students who had completed the pre-assignment were, of course, better equipped to compose their pitch, but all students in attendance were required to pitch their ideas, regardless of preparation. While I'm not a fan of on-demand writing as a summative assessment tool, this high-pressure rhetorical situation kick-started the thinking and composing processes of those students who were waffling and forced them to move beyond the chaos of topic selection and make some decisions. I stressed that their ideas would naturally change and evolve, but that they needed to identify a starting place for their research.
Students were reminded that thoughtful and engaged participation in this activity, not pitch quality, constituted a "good" grade. After 10 minutes, students were called up to the front of the class in groups of five, and each student in the group was given two minutes to pitch his or her idea. Some were nervous, some were confident, some had fleshed-out their ideas, others were floundering; however, all students in attendance pitched something and listened intently to their classmates as they shared ideas and attempted to persuade the audience that their research projects were worthy of a time investment.
Some of the pitches caught me off-guard. The rhetorical savvy one student displayed orally had not yet been conjured with the written word:
Have you ever seen those clean-cut, buff young men and women running across campus at 7am clad in olive drabs? Have you ever wondered why those same young men and women are front- and- center for every class, never staying out too late at the party, bagging A's and never forgetting to address their professors with a yes-ma'am or a yes-sir? I'll tell you why. It's because of pride. Pride in country. Pride in school. Pride in myself. This ethnographic study will document the culture of ROTC at East Carolina University, the daily life of an officer-in-training, and answer the question, what does it take to make it as a ROTC cadet?
Using their mobile phones or computers, students in the audience texted or clicked a link on the Poll Everywhere site to vote their choice of best research project idea. The results showed immediately in the form of a bar graph chart that I displayed on the classroom projection screen. At the end of the class period, winners from each of the five groups were applauded, and all students were asked to revise their research proposals for clarity, concision, and voice to sell their idea--using the persuasive techniques inherent in the elevator pitch.
About the activity, one student wrote,
It made me come up with a more defined idea of what I wanted to do. It also was hard because it had to be under two minutes. I never had to give an elevator pitch before and it was a new experience. Hearing others' pitches was great. Finding out what everyone is doing was interesting to me. There were a lot of topics I never thought of before. This helped me find out what my classmates interests were and possibly how to catch their attention.
Overall, students responded favorably to the concept; however, many stated that they would have liked more advance notice and preparation time. I didn't disclose the activity beforehand because I feared some students, especially those least prepared, might skip class. And while I probably won't give the full details the next time I try this activity, I will drop some loaded hints, because of feedback like the following:
Being called up in front of the class without warning was definitely a surprise. I had not thought too hard on my overall idea. The class voted against my idea. This decision didn't hurt my feelings, but it changed my confidence for my project, and this lack of confidence persuaded me to rethink what I should do.
Students also suggested allowing more time to discuss the results. I agree that if the activity were split into two class periods, a debriefing exercise might make the voting results more meaningful by providing additional feedback that would help students revise their proposals to move them from exploratory writings to persuasive, audience-centered writings.
A Student-Centered Activity Focusing on Higher Order Concerns
The pitch and vote sessions, conceived as a student-centered evaluation, normed our classroom research-learning community by exhibiting examples of acceptable research projects. Moreover, the informal assessment made plain which students were ready to work with sources and which I should monitor more closely and support.
The multi-sensory nature of the activity, paired with a popular social media tool engaged novice researchers in an event where they were challenged to synthesize their ideas in writing and compose short oral presentations to persuade an audience. The activity also focused student feedback on the higher order concerns of proposals, promoting immediate feedback on the quality of the proposed content, rather than the surface features of the texts.
Stephanie West-Puckett graduated from the East Carolina University English Department in 2001 and completed the Tar River Writing Project Summer Institute to become a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant in 2007. She has taught composition, literature, and creative writing, and her research interests include service-learning as a composition pedagogy, on-line social networking and educational technologies, and best practices in the teaching of writing and English Education. Along with exploring the home-grown cultures and texts of eastern North Carolina, she enjoys mothering, yoga, organic gardening, vegetarian living, and utilizing professional and creative writing to serve the communities to which she belongs.