Students Writing for Authentic Audiences

21 Sep

audienceUgh. Just ugh. I am human, I suppose. Lately, I have not been making the time to write. I know I should just be kind to myself about this, acknowledge the craziness that is starting a new school, and put my butt in a seat and my fingers on the keyboard. I try to carve out at least ten minutes every day for my own writing, but I have fallen out of this habit. Well…back to it, then. My apologies, dear readers.

In the core of this teacher’s heart, I know this to be true. Students’ writing is better when it matters to them, and the most important step to getting students to care about their writing is helping them…guiding them…forcing them…begging them…bribing them…to write for someone other than their balding English teacher. I begin every school year dedicated to making each essay assignment one that matters, one that is written for an authentic audience. In reality, I am happy when my students produce one such piece every three months or so.

I suppose, like most things I attempt in the classroom, the “hybrid” approach works best. I use more traditional essay prompts (students responding to literature or a question I create . . . writing something that stays within the walls of our classroom) to gain a sense of how I might help individual students improve. These “practice essays,” then, lay the groundwork for the more meaningful moments where I ask the students to create their own writing for an audience they find.

For instance, in the grade 11 Rhetoric classes I taught last year, we began the term with a THIS I BELIEVE essay, followed that with a personal narrative, and ended the trimester with a student-generated descriptive essay. For this third major essay I did not create a prompt. I simply told the students they must demonstrate their skills with descriptive language by writing a piece to someone other than me.

We brainstormed possible topics and audiences over a few days (while completing other lessons) and, as homework, students read previous students’ work. We discussed what worked in the model essays, and students quickly conferred with me about their own ideas.

This set-up is fairly predictable and simple. The results, however, are anything but. Reading these self-guided pieces is never a chore. Instead, I am energized by the students’ work and excited to see them taking ownership of language and audience.

Here’s a list of the authentic audiences my students find. I begin with the audiences I find most successful, but any of these are better than something written just to me. Please share your ideas in the comments section. I am ALWAYS looking for more ideas about how we can help our students find authentic audiences:

The students’ family or friends: I encourage students to think about the people closest to them and how these influential people have shaped their own lives. Then, I ask students to write something to a key person as a thank you for this support. These pieces are always filled with voice, authenticity, and emotion. The writers craft them carefully, too, as they see the essays as great gifts. Indeed, they are. The grandparents, coaches, girlfriends, brothers, and teachers that receive them always respond positively and usually let me know how much they have been moved. I find the essays illuminating, too, as they always reveal a new aspect of the writer, no matter how well I thought I knew them. The writers begin to understand, as well, just how powerful and precious their words can be. This site is easy to use, and the writing is rated by the random readers that go there. At first, I really did not care for this site, as the audience, I felt, was too generic, and the site seems to publish anything that is submitted, no matter how bland or banal. This year, however, my opinion of changed dramatically. Excellent work does “rise to the top,” in that some exceptional writing can be singled out as an “editor’s choice” and even included in some special editions. In addition, I realized that is an excellent forum for students realizing that other people can care about what they write. This past year, a student who showed promise all year long also struggled to bring her essays to a level of sophistication and development that I knew she had locked away somewhere. She decided to post a personal story to teenink about the struggles she faced when being bullied in middle school. The act of sharing this story with the broader world was dangerous but transformative. Here’s what she shared with me after getting incredible feedback from her posting:

“When my article was posted to Teen Ink I was ecstatic, but I never realized the impact I could make today. Without the requirement of posting my writing for the ‘world to see’ I would never had allowed people to see it. I was scared. But making the story public just unleashed a whole side of me that no one except people closest to me knew about. The moment my sister posted the link on Facebook my inbox blew up. I was getting messages from family members whom I hadn’t spoke to in years, random people from school, even strangers confided in me to tell me what they went through at my age.

A few days after the eruption of my ‘fame,’ I was texting a friend comforting her about a problem she was facing. In the middle of the conversation she said, ‘I wish I could be as confident as you are.’ Before writing the article my story bogged me down. I couldn’t find the words to describe what I went through but three years later I found those words and told them to the world. I felt confident about something for the first time in my life. 860 views later, I’ve found my voice for the first time in 16 years and it shines through the power of social media.”

I still can’t read these words without getting choked up, and I realize that it is illuminating moments like this one that truly fuel my work in the classroom.

Blogs and magazines: Asking students to find blogs and magazines that match their interests can lead to more sophisticated work, whether or not students’ work gets published or not. To be honest, most of my students that attempt this step fail, in that their work is not published. Of course, learning from failure [LINK TO THIS BLOG POST] can be quite informative, and occasionally my students’ work does get published elsewhere. Last year, one student wrote a descriptive piece about a visit to Auschwitz, and the last time I checked in with him over the summer, his work was short-listed to be published in a national Judaica magazine. I’ll share further details about this article once I have them.

Writing contests: I ask students to find writing contests that match their interests and submit work. This step takes more time and deadlines often don’t match-up with our class calendar, but the students who persevere and find an interesting contest usually see some sort of results. Once, the cast of HBO’s Band of Brothers visited my school because of the number of students from our classes that submitted entries to a writing contest the network sponsored.

Write to authors and celebrities: Four years ago, Robert Pinsky visited my classes because a group of students wrote to him about the poems we had been studying. He waived his speaking fees because he was interested in talking to students that wrote to him with sincere eloquence. We don’t always get such a response, but 50% of the time students receive some sort of reply.

Write to younger students:  I’m inspired by this excerpt from “Creating Authentic Audiences for Writing Students” by Jill E. Thomas: “…Students don’t need to write to a person in power or publish in order to see that writing has purpose. In fact, my favorite authentic writing opportunity is to have students craft persuasive letters for a group of younger students. I have my ninth-graders read Eric Schlosser’s young-adult version of Fast Food Nation, called Chew On This, and then create a questionnaire for the sixth-graders who share our campus. Each ninth-grader gets one questionnaire back, and, depending on “their” sixth-grader’s answers, they write a persuasive letter convincing them to change something about their fast food habits. Some students encourage their sixth-grader to stop drinking soda, while others stress the importance of teaching their good habits to friends and family.”

The Learning Network, The New York Times: While reading other blog posts about teens writing for authentic audiences, I stumbled across this promising resource. I’m excited about finding a way to incorporate these ideas into my own classroom:

twitter: @NYTimesLearning

Facebook page for The Learning Network

How teachers can use the The Learning Network in classes

Ten Ways to Promote Writing for an Authentic Audience

One Response to “Students Writing for Authentic Audiences”

  1. Philip Skipitaris September 26, 2013 at 8:52 pm #

    Hey Mr.Neal! Hope everything is working out for you in Germany!

    I still think about my “This I believe” sometime and you’re completely right when you say “Students’ writing is better when it matters to them.” That’s why I feel my writing improved so much towards the end of the last year.

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