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.