No one writes anything worth writing, unless he writes entirely for the sake of his subject.~Arthur Schopenhauer
During my first years of teaching, I assigned the kinds of assignments I was supposed to be giving my students: narratives, arguments, informational texts, literary analyses, etc. But I started to notice that it didn’t matter how much I asked them to write or how much instruction I gave them, their writing did not improve as much as I would like. It certainly wasn’t interesting writing. And they were not falling in love with the craft of language the way I had hoped. I had big dreams that my students would love writing as much as I, but I wasn’t witnessing that. Discouragement clouded my classroom experiences, and I fell into rote, formulaic instruction, succumbing to the idea that not everybody can be a writer.
Except, at heart, I knew this wasn’t really true. It took a few years for me to acknowledge this. First I had to get over the new-teacher humps of navigating everything from classroom management to NCLB to understanding assessment. But then, when my legs felt a little less shaky, I went back to the soul of writing.
I started to closely examine my teaching practices in light of my writing practices, and the most glaringly obvious misalignment was in who was reading the writing.
I always write for an audience–whether it be a letter, a post, an article, or a chapter in a book. Ultimately, after the multiple drafts and revisions, my final pieces are always intended for somebody. But in my classroom, my students’ writing was only intended for me. And the purpose was to put a grade on it and hand it back, and it nearly always found itself to the garbage can during binder clean outs.
I believe, fundamentally, that writing well is the most powerful tool we can give our students. It harnesses their ideas and voices and empowers them to gather their idealism into productive and meaningful work. To write well is to think well. And I cannot think of any greater gift for our students as they catapult into a technology and text-driven society where words matter. I was failing to give this gift to my students.
As I shifted the focus in my classroom, I started small–an assignment here or there. But eventually, every single writing piece we took on had an authentic, live, real audience. Sometimes it was their peers (we would write product reviews and hang them in the hallways where other students would browse). Sometimes it was somebody else in our school community. (One girl wrote a data-driven piece on the benefits of gum chewing for students with attentional issues and permanently changed our school-wide gum-chewing rule.) Sometimes it was a larger audience outside of school. (One student wrote a moving argument for why our school district should have a lacrosse team. It was published in the newspaper the day of voting, and the article narrowly passed. We’d like to think that her articulate and researched words helped move voters.)
Sometimes the audience was larger than our immediate community. Students who wrote powerful letters received replacements for their defunct North Face jacket, post cards from Adam Sandler, and correspondence from our senators. We hosted a book review website where students posted reviews monthly. I would then tweet the articles out, tagging authors, and countless students received word from their authors that their work and words were appreciated. We held community nights at the local library where their work was on display. They wrote research podcasts that we put on iTunes. We created websites with their research published. They entered contests. They created a literary magazine.
I knew I had accomplished my goals when one day one of my most limited students who sat at his desk, revising a poem, looked up at me and said, “Who will be reading these?” I was stopped in my tracks. This was one assignment I couldn’t quite determine an audience for, yet his question reminded me that knowing audience was going to be important to him during his revision process. I confessed to the class that I had no audience for their poetry. They looked at me blankly (like why not?) and then set off on the journey of creating one. Each student chose their favorite poem and we created laminated copies of them with fancy April is National Poetry Month banners at the top and we plastered the gas station, laundrymat, post office, grocery store, library, and restaurants with student work, making National Poetry Month a town wide celebration.
To teach this way, there needs to be a shift in thinking. Nancie Atwell once taught us to ask our students, “So what?” about their writing. I’m asking you to consider this for your teaching. When we sit to build units and lesson plans, we need to keep this forefront in our minds and ask ourselves, So what? What is the purpose in this? What do we want our students to learn? (Opposed to, what do we want our students to do?)
When I present this topic at conferences, the most dynamic literacy leaders from around the country still have concerns. Here, I would like to address some of the common questions I receive about making a shift to authentic writing in the English classroom.
1. How do you grade authentic writing? It is so personal at that point, how do you slap an assessment on it?
Assessing writing is always a tricky subject. (That’s another whole workshop, right?) But getting past the murky philosophy, the reality is we have to give grades. I only give summative grades for writing, never formative grades, and I rely on the 6+1 Traits language: Organization. Ideas. Sentence Structure. Word Choice. Voice. Conventions. Publication. This language became familiar in our writing projects and among our team members as I taught others how to assess writing. It gave us a common vocabulary, and it gives students the flexibility within the structure to identify which key components would fall in each category. What makes a good organization for a memoir? What about a letter? An essay? Students helped construct our rubrics based on our common knowledge. They know it is intended for an audience, so the focus is no longer about the grade, but about how to craft the best piece possible. With intentional excellence comes good grades.
2. How do you find time to do this?
Teaching authentic writing isn’t any more time consuming than teaching inauthentic writing. It’s still teaching writing. It may be a little more intense, because students are actually invested, but it’s still the same process: draft, revise, publish.
3. What about writing about literature?
What about it? They can still do it! We just have to think about who reads these. Would a literature blog be appropriate for your class? Are there sites that recruit student thinking on literature? Would the local newspaper be interested in publishing student literature reviews? (We once had a Sonnet Showdown, and the winners’ sonnets were published in the newspaper.)
4. How do you prepare them for teachers’ classes where audience isn’t addressed & more formulaic pieces are expected?
First of all, (and this may sound harsh), I will never adopt a practice in my classroom I disagree with to prepare my students for that practice in another classroom. If students are writing rigorously and frequently, they will become adaptable craftsmen who can adequately address the demands of less-engaging writing. Writing for an audience does not mean lowering the bar—in fact, it means raising it. Publishing your work to a real audience means deliberate thinking and composition and intensive, intentional revision. By engaging them in this process you are not only preparing them for the next class, you are preparing them to be a critical thinker and active citizen.
5. What if my colleagues do not agree with this? What if I receive departmental pressure?
There are many arguments to institute authentic writing into your classroom. As with any pedagogical decision, you should use research and standards to support your practices. Daniel Pink’s motivation research in Drive is an excellent read that clearly illustrates how autonomy and purpose increase quality and creativity. The Common Core Standards specifically call for students to write for a variety of purposes and audiences, using a variety of modes to publish their work, and the AP Language course description acknowledges the importance of audience. When discussing student motivation and engagement at a departmental level, propose integrating audience into assignments and assessments. The conversation will likely be lively and interesting.
6. What about the colleagues who will talk about me or make me feel like a terrible teacher for shifting the focus in my classroom?
This question was most startling for me. It is not the culture in my current school, yet I recognize it is a stark reality in many schools. In the past, I have certainly adopted practices that did not sit well with me because of highly critical colleagues. And I have heard from many teachers from around the country that they have done the same. Fear of confrontation, tension, being talked about, or receiving jabs in meetings forces many teachers to fit into a mold. Sometimes it is easier to fall into line than to push the limits and try new things. I get that. But here’s the thing: that is professional bullying. If our students behaved that way, we would not tolerate it. As professionals, it is our job to support one another, encourage each other to try new things, be open to taking risks, and have collegial conversations that challenge our ideas and perceptions. Rigidity and judgment serve no one, especially our students.
7. But there’s a test…
Yes, there is. And I would challenge you not to teach to it, but to teach beyond it. I want my students to write better than what is expected on the test. When students have a strong command over language and style and are confident in their abilities, they will be adaptive writers who can address any writing prompt appropriately. There have been times where I have read the test writing prompts and groaned, thinking I have never had my students write like that and they are not going to be successful, but in the end, they come up for air and tell me it wasn’t so bad. And my writing scores reflect this, as well. After having students for three years straight, our proficiency went from an average of 35% (the same as the state level) to an average of 90% (nearly 30 points higher than the state average). Never once did we do test prep–instead we did real world prep, which meant a great deal of writing. Do not let tests scare you into being inauthentic or uncreative. Our students will achieve greater results if their educational experiences are purposeful. As one audience member said today, “Teaching more five paragraph essays will not make better writers.”
Yesterday, my dear friend and colleague, Sarah Brown Wessling addressed the entire CEL convention and asked us to consider purpose over task. It’s not about what we, the teachers, are going to do today, but rather what our students will learn. Reconsider your writing assignments–are you having them complete a task? Or are they writing for a purpose? Are you inspiring them to fine-tune their voice? Are you breathing passion into their need for expression? Are you empowering your students?
Ultimately, ask yourself that big question: So what?