Creating Authentic Audiences for Writing Students

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One of the surest ways to motivate students to not only write, but to write with passion, purpose and power, is to make sure they have an authentic audience. This means they must write for somebody other than me, their teacher. Students must know that there is power in their words and that they can be heard.

Here are my suggestions for creating authentic audiences:

1) Write book reviews. At the beginning of the school year, I have students read a high-interest book from the Bluford Series. Since there are more than a dozen titles, the student-written reviews from the year before are a great way to get this year’s students to look beyond the cover in making choices.

2) Create a book. English teachers have been creating classroom anthologies for decades, but now free self-publishing tools are available online to make this even better. (I’ve used lulu.com, but there are dozens). I have students write documentary poems and short expository pieces about their city, which we publish and sell as a scholarship fundraiser. My students didn’t really believe me when I told them we would publish our book called, Our Oakland. So it was priceless to see the look of delight and satisfaction on their faces when they held their professionally bound copy for the first time. This year the book was purchased by the Oakland Public Library and is available for reference in the history room of the main branch, pushing the reach of student voices even further.

3) Write letters to the author. My colleague Annie Hatch was moved by her students’ informal letter responses to Elie Wiesel’s Night. One student wrote, “People where I come from go through hardships such as being jumped for wearing the wrong color or being a certain race. I can’t compare my experiences to yours, but I relate to the violence and hatred you witnessed.”  Hatch was so moved that she had the students craft full-length letters to Wiesel. She then sent the letters to the author. The same students I taught last year, the ones who doubted anyone would buy their book, never believed that a famous author would read their letters, let alone write back. Imagine their surprise when he did! He wrote, “We must continue to struggle against the rise of hatred. Your letters reflect your resolve to be sensitive and kind to those who are different. I have hope because of young people like you. By your example, you can make a difference: start somewhere, anywhere.”

4) Teach younger students. What Wiesel wrote is true: start anywhere. 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. 

When I proposed this project the first time, I generally heard comments like, “We aren’t going to change their minds,” or “They aren’t going to read it.” After all, ninth-graders are at the bottom of the high school hierarchy. But to sixth-graders, they’re practically all grown up. My students were delighted when their sixth-graders wrote back about new things they had learned. Since then, I’ve even hosted a day for the sixth- and ninth-graders to meet each other in person. More than a few of the partnerships turned into friendships that lasted beyond the project.

Wiesel’s message is only a more eloquent verson of what we tell our kids every day. Creating authentic audiences for student writing is like telling your students they are beautiful and should be seen and heard by the world at large. It allows our students to be powerful and to feel powerful, some of them for the first time in their lives.

Writing teachers, what authentic audiences have you created for your students?

Thomas is an English teacher in California.

Comments

Many thanks to Jill Thomas

Submitted by Jing Fong on 28 April 2011 - 4:30pm.

Many thanks to Jill Thomas for her spot-on suggestions to authentically nurture student writers.

To me, writing is personal, and it is also powerful. If every student felt confident about their writing, how they could be heard for as Miguel de Cervantes said, "The pen is the tongue of the mind.

I am not a teacher, but the education outreach manager at YES! Magazine. YES! Magazine is an independent, nonprofit media organization that uncovers stories about real people who drive profound change through positive, practical solutions. We publish a quarterly ad-free print magazine and have a vibrant online presence.

A couple of years ago, the YES! Exemplary Essay Project was created to address the very thing you're talking about here—providing an opportunity for students to write for a real audience (other than their teacher). The Project also gave students the spotlight to show off their stellar writing and share their passionate opinions. The carrot or motivator was the chance to have their essay reviewed by magazine staff and editors, and, potentially be published on the magazine's website.

Participating teachers have told me that while most students won't admit that they like writing essays, they really got into their writing because of the discussion and debate on the writing prompt, and because they knew a real magazine was going to read their essay. The thought of being selected pushed them to revise one more time. For those whose essays we published, we've been told the moment was life-changing because they were taken seriously as writers.

We have now shifted to a national student writing competition (I use that term loosely as there is no monetary prize and our plan is to conduct this every school quarter) where everyone reads and responds to the same YES! story and writing prompt. Rather than work with one classroom at a time, this is less time intensive and more inclusive. The Spring 2011 writing prompt is: What is your gift? How do you share it? It's based on Puanani Burgess' article, "Blessings Revealed," about a young man, written off as a loser, who discovers his gift. Here's a link with details and how to sign up: [http://www.yesmagazine.org/for-teachers/essay-bank/yes-exemplary-essay-quick-facts]. Hurry - deadline is May 13!

Here's to helping young people make their voices heard through writing for real audiences.

Best,

Jing

Thank you for posting about

Submitted by Jill E. Thomas on 6 June 2011 - 5:27pm.

Thank you for posting about YES Magazine. I will definitely keep it in mind for next year's curriculum and pass this idea along to colleagues. Thank you for helping create authentic writing venues!

Your idea of creating an

Submitted by Susan Brindle on 22 March 2011 - 12:43pm.

Your idea of creating an authentic audience for student writing has recently worked very well in our high school and middle school settings. As a part of our district- wide bullying program, we invited a group of middle school and high school students to write and then perform monologues about bullying in our school. Through collaboration with the theater department of our local university, these students have now performed these monologues for the community through local theater, the faculty/staff of our district during an Inservice day, and with their peers at every level. After each performance, there is a time for sharing and discussion with the audience. Imagine the joy and excitement these students felt in bravely sharing their personal stories and then having conversations with adults and peers about the real impact of bullying and harassment they face every day. The power of their words is changing the face of our educational environment and they are seeing the results everyday as teachers and students connect on this issue. Sharing their voices has enabled many other students to come to school feeling safe and secure in who they are and in feeling justified to expect more respect from not only their peers, but from the adults in their daily lives. It has been such a positive process!

Susan, Thank you so much for

Submitted by Jill E. Thomas on 22 March 2011 - 10:41pm.

Susan,

Thank you so much for sharing this example of an authentic writing experience. Not only did your students share very personal experiences, but they did so by performing. I can only imagine how much work they put in to revising their writing to make it performance ready. This allows the teacher to become more of a coach rather than the final evaluator. The best part is the tolerance message of your work. It reminds me a lot of the work of Anna Deveare-Smtih. Do you show models of this kind of monologue beforehand? If so, which models do you use?

Do you have a website where student performances have been published or posted? I would love to see this first=hand!

With gratitude,

Jill E. Thomas
Oakland, California

I totally agree that

Submitted by Brooke Fitzgerald on 15 March 2011 - 11:54am.

I totally agree that authentic audience is a HUGE catalyst for student motivation -- motivation to write and motivation to REVISE their work to really make it a publication they can be proud of.

A few years ago, my co-teacher and I did a blogging project with our students (an ethnographic study of our community). They had to go out into the community in several different neighborhoods, talking to people about their quality of life, and their feelings about the city we live in. The people they interviewed often said that they were surprised to find such eloquent, outgoing, interesting and friendly teenagers from our city -- we were breaking their personally-held stereotypes and they hadn't even read what we wrote yet! We gave out cards with the blog address on them, and, soon enough, the comments were coming in. People had follow-up questions, left comments about how much they enjoyed meeting the students, and gave their own opinions on what the kids wrote.

Once they saw they had an audience, the kids were even more excited about posting their perspectives. I've never seen a group of teenagers so eager to have their work peer-edited and corrected! And online/blogging is certainly a medium they use with familiarity and ease... well, they do now if they didn't before!

Thanks for providing another

Submitted by Jill Thomas on 16 March 2011 - 12:02pm.

Thanks for providing another example of an authentic writing opportunity for students. I love that the public had an opportunity to change their opinion of teenagers, and the teens probably also changed their opinions of those adults!