Motivate Writers with Authentic Audiences
As societal shifts have increased the demand for writing skills, and the Common Core Standards have returned writing back to its equal place as an important partner to reading, increasing the amount of writing our students are doing has become a renewed focus in our schools. And it should be. College and career readiness favors those that can write well.
But as the Common Core raises the level of expectation across grade levels and content areas, we need to be careful that students don’t become compliant workers in an essay factory with rubric ready teachers supervising the assembly line.
In other words, as the amount of student writing surges, we must be cautious about continuing to write for authentic audiences and real purposes. Not only does research confirm that authentic audiences matter, my own teaching experience has always validated this. For me, and many of the teachers I have been working with through our Keys to Literacy writing workshops, authentic audience has been the single biggest game changer in terms of students truly engaging with their writing.
Recently one of the middle schools I have been working with has been focusing on incorporating more authentic audience experiences for their writers this year. Here is a sampling of what this experience looked like as teachers set up real audiences to receive the argument writing students completed:
- Arguments against the use of plastic were sent to the store director of the local grocery market, and students received a two-page reply in which he validated their concerns and responded by informing them about initiatives the store participates in to reduce their carbon footprint. Grocery Store Response Letter
- Argumentative letters making the case against nuclear energy development in the region were sent to the state president of the electric and gas company. The president responded with a letter that addressed student concerns, provided counterclaims for their consideration and recognized that their efforts in presenting both sides of the argument “brought credibility” to their letters. One of the best parts of her reply to students came at the end when she added, “I was impressed by your argument…It is my hope that you keep this apparent curiosity of the world around you. We always need good, thoughtful employees. So finish your education and give me a call…” National Grid Response Letter
- Argumentative essays claiming the internet is making us less intelligent were sent to Peter Norvig, the world famous computer scientist and current Director of Research for Google. He not only read the essays, he carefully crafted a three-page reaction in which he offered feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments, quoted several students, presented counterclaims for them to reflect upon, and suggested topics for further consideration. Google Response Letter
One of the teachers had her students reflect about the writing they had been doing. Many commented about the impact authentic audiences had on their investment in the writing assignments, but one student put it best – “I really liked how instead of just writing a paper about an argument to no one, we were able to make the writing ‘worth’ something..”
Motivation is complicated and cannot be reduced to a single variable, but what I do know is that students writing for real audiences are more invested.
Students will often ask the question “Why are we doing this?” or “Who is this for?” or “What is the point?” These are not irritating questions – these are smart questions! We need to anticipate them and come up with good answers because when human beings know why they are doing something, they do it better. It is our responsibility to help them make the connection that writing has power, and one of the best ways to solidify this connection is engaging with more authentic audiences.
What authentic audiences have your students been able to reach?