ARTICLE

Students Write for Audiences Close to Home

Hands jut into the crisp autumn air, restricting my field of vision to a sea of shirtsleeves. While this is not an odd phenomenon after a new writing assignment, the types of questions are. “When will we mail it?” and “Can I make this longer than three paragraphs?” replace heavy sighs of “When is this due, again?”

Hands jut into the crisp autumn air, restricting my field of vision to a sea of shirtsleeves. While this is not an odd phenomenon after a new writing assignment, the types of questions are. “When will we mail it?” and “Can I make this longer than three paragraphs?” replace heavy sighs of “When is this due, again?” I surmise that the audience I have created for them has provoked my students’ fresh approach. I have just given my students a writing assignment to follow the reading of the book Crash by Jerry Spinelli. I tell them that like the main character, Crash, who stops bullying people after he is influenced by his grandfather and a traumatic family experience, we are also motivated in real life by other people we interact with. I ask them to pick an individual (parent, teacher, coach, friend, etc.) who motivates them and draft a friendly letter explaining to this person how they have positively impacted the student’s life. I also explain that once I have checked their final drafts, they will get to mail it to the person they have selected. As a teacher, I know it’s important to create authentic audiences for student writing assignments, but on this particular day, I am seeing firsthand how powerful this can be. In the following days, I was flooded with brainstorming sheets and rough drafts as anxious eyes tentatively watched me read over their work and offer feedback. I saw a different concern from my students on this assignment. Their apprehension was not based on grades or due dates, but instead tied to how the receiver of their letter would feel about their message. While I had hoped my students would recognize some of the valuable relationships they have in their lives, I did not predict the personal education I would receive. Over the week we worked on the assignment, my students taught me that motivation comes from brothers serving in the armed forces, parents who work multiple jobs and cousins suffering from cancer. Middle school educators are always reminded that early adolescence is a time when many students feel a great deal of personal angst. Experts assert it can cause adolescents to, at times, be less cognizant of others’ personal struggles. Yet as I read the letters my students authored, I had a new thought on this: Perhaps we are enforcing this stereotypical view of adolescence and suppressing our students with preconceived notions about what it means to be a teen. While my students wrote to those who have impacted them the most, they also wrote to me. No not with the traditional pen and paper, but instead with the stamps and addresses they retrieved, their revisions and edits to drafts, and, most important, their worries about the letter arriving in a timely manner. In terms of this assignment, the only thing late was me—I should have planned it years ago. Yahn is a middle school language arts teacher in Ohio.