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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

‘Design Writing Tasks That Bridge the Gap Between Classroom & Outside World’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 09, 2019 17 min read
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(This is the third post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How can students write for “authentic” audiences?

Part One‘s commentaries came from Katherine Schulten, Kelly Love, Tatiana Esteban, Kimiko Shibata, Alycia Owen, and Jennifer Orr. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Katherine, Kelly, and Tatiana on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two‘s guests were Jayne Marlink, Cheryl Mizerny, Erin Starkey, Nicole Brown, Dawn Mitchell, and John Larmer.

Today’s contributors are Martha Sevetson Rush, Donna L. Shrum, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Michael Fisher, Tamara Letter, and Keisha Rembert.

Response From Martha Sevetson Rush

Martha Sevetson Rush teaches economics, psychology, and entrepreneurship at Mounds View High School in Arden Hills, Minn. She is the author of Beat Boredom: Engaging Tuned Out Teenagers (Stenhouse 2018), a curriculum developer, and an advocate of active-teaching strategies. You can find her at MarthaRush.org or on Twitter @MarthaSRush:

How can students write for ‘authentic’ audiences?

What is the most important piece of writing you have ever done?

I’ve got a few that top that list. None of them is an English paper—or blog posts, for that matter.

The first one that comes to mind is the “insurance letter.”

In the late 1990s, a hailstorm damaged the roof on our house in Wichita, Kan. We hired Sears to fix it—at the recommendation of our insurance company.

They did a terrible job. They left the decking bare for days, and another rainstorm came and caused leaks and damage all over the house. When they finished, they left inadequate seams, which continued to spring leaks for the next year.

The insurance company refused to fix the problem, saying it was our fault, since we hired the roofers. I can’t remember why Sears wouldn’t fix it, but they didn’t. Fixing it ourselves set us back around $4,000.

In frustration, I wrote a strongly worded letter to the Kansas Insurance Commissioner’s Office, and amazingly, it worked. They came down on our insurer, and we got our full reimbursement.

That letter was effective, authentic writing.

I had a similar experience as a college sophomore. My dad lost his job that summer, and I wrote a letter to the University of Michigan’s Honors College pleading for more financial aid. They responded with a full-tuition scholarship for that year.

I don’t know what I said, but it must have been good.

Writing well is, without a doubt, one of the most critical skills our students can develop.

It’s not just an English-class skill—it’s a life-survival skill. Giving students authentic writing tasks and authentic audiences is essential.

But how can we do that?

We can start by making a list of all of the authentic writing tasks in our everyday lives, then asking our friends to do the same: What do you need to write to do your job successfully? To build relationships? To navigate the world of personal finance? To promote your political views?

Here are a few responses:

  • Marketing campaigns
  • Memos
  • Emails
  • CaringBridge sites
  • Complaint letters
  • Cease and desist letters
  • Contracts
  • Pitches
  • Letters to the editor

In high school, too much of our writing work is tied to reading. Students are much more likely to write a lit analysis than a complaint letter, contract, or marketing campaign. But in the adult world, we’re much more likely to write the latter.

How do we create the opportunities for students to practice these skills, with authentic audiences?

We have to authentically integrate different types of writing across the curriculum.

In government or civics class, students should write letters (or formal emails) to local elected officials about an issue of concern. It can be about anything—the length of school lunches, access to skate parks, noise ordinances, truancy rules, curfew, and so on. As long as it matters to them.

In economics or personal-fFinance class, students should write to businesses with their complaints—like, why doesn’t my phone battery last longer?—or write pitches for entrepreneurial ideas.

In language arts, they should write editorials, movie reviews, or book reviews and either submit them to local newspapers, post them online, or ask a bookstore to display them.

In science, students who do authentic scientific inquiries—like testing local water supplies or tracking invasive species—should present their findings to local governments or community meetings.

There are countless ways students can practice authentic writing in our classrooms. The key is us. We need to embrace writing as a communication tool that transcends disciplinary boundaries—that, in fact, changes lives—and find ways to demonstrate its power to our students.

Let’s start by asking ourselves—and our students—why our content matters deeply and how it will impact students into their adult lives. Then, let’s design writing tasks that help students bridge the gap between classroom and outside world, so that what they are doing becomes deeply authentic to them.

Response From Donna L. Shrum

After teaching English for over 20 years, Donna L. Shrum is now teaching ancient history to freshmen in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She remains active in the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project and freelance writing for education and history magazines:

In teachers’ minds, “authentic audience” immediately translates to, “Where can I find publishing opportunities for my students?” However, many students are still reluctant writers, and suggesting that their writing might be published online or in print equates to telling them they’ll be performing on “America’s Got Talent.” And in their birthday suits.

Monthly writing marathons provide a peer audience and build confidence. Four years ago, I experienced the New Orleans Writing Marathon for the first time and wanted to try the model in my 8th grade English classroom.

I had one every month and received a grant for two off-campus trips. The others were just in different areas of the school. When weather permitted, we went outdoors. Once, I walked them to the elementary school next door, and we wrote in three different areas. We started by playing on the playground, and I told them to think of their younger days as a prompt.

The marathon model created a constant experience of writing for one another, not me. Before, I’d often had to share what I’d written before students would, but they soon beautifully cut me out of the equation. They wanted to hear each other’s work, and they came to know each other’s style and look forward to hearing new installments. Following the NWM’s example, at the end of the year, they chose their favorite pieces for publications, and I did the final editing and submitted them on Lulu, which creates a very professional final product with no upfront cost. Anyone who wants to purchase a copy of the book can do so on the site. Publishing in this way was very nonthreatening, but it expanded our audience. My grant paid for each student to receive a copy.

Detailed information about how to have a marathon is on the NWM site. To start, the class subdivides into small groups, either themselves or by teacher’s choice. Silent writing starts in the classroom with a prompt. After a few minutes, students leave for the chosen spot without speaking. Once there, the teacher might give a reading or discussion to prime the pump, or students can choose their topic. I took prompts on the first marathon if they had trouble starting, but no one used them.

Once the group writes, it’s in silence. No talking for any reason. At the end of the time, each person reads, and the rest of the group says only, “Thank you,” then moves to the next spot. That was difficult because they had questions and compliments, but they soon learned those could happen after the marathon. I taught students to use their Chromebooks offline, so they could continue a piece.

Tying into our culminating novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the theme for the year was our community, a one-stoplight town in no way comparable to New Orleans. The off-campus days weren’t exotic: the grocery store, a war monument, the covered bridge near the school, and a battlefield. It was so cold at the monument that I took them into the convenience store across the road to write in the candy aisle. The covered bridge was near a potato chip factory where we stopped for our read around.

Once your writers are comfortable with their peer audience and see their work in print, they will welcome the idea of publishing for a wider audience.

Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher and PBL coach. She is the author ofJust Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement (Corwin/AMLE), which shares the results of a nationwide survey of 6th-12th graders and what engages them as learners. She is also the author of DIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and History (Routledge) and DIY for Project Based Learning for Math and Science (Routledge), She is an 8th grade ELA teacher, a staff blogger forEdutopia, a proud member of the California Writing Project, and a National Faculty member for PBLWorks (formally the Buck Institute for Education). Follow Heather on Twitter:@tweenteacher:

Authenticity, as we often see in Project-Based Learning, can be achieved in multiple ways. Perhaps it’s the goal of the unit, a problem to solve that comes from the students themselves, or an issue in the life beyond school. Perhaps it is the use of bringing an expert into the classroom to help bring that more genuine voice into their learning. And perhaps it’s for whom you write or create for.

In Service-Based Learning, for instance, it’s typical to have people from the community actually help to evaluate the end products. In fact, in much of PBL, the audience students are writing and creating for are anyone BUT the teacher. The power of this switch in dynamic is great. After all, if the teacher is there as a guide to help a student increase the quality of their project for a different audience, then that teacher is now cast as an ally, not a judge.

It can be very effective for students to utilize the school or district website to communicate to the parents and community. It can be very effective to have the students pitch to a real or mock committee or board. It can be very effective to find a facility like a local bank or library to pose as a gallery for your student work as well. Tap into the issues around you. Tap into the experts around you. And tap into the audiences as well.

Response From Michael Fisher

Michael Fisher is a former teacher and now a full-time author and instructional coach. He works with schools around the country, helping to sustain curriculum upgrades, design curriculum, and modernize instruction with immersive technology. His last two books, The Quest for Learning: How to Maximize Student Engagement and Hacking Instructional Design: 33 Extraordinary Ways to Create a Contemporary Curriculum, both have themes of authenticity, relevancy, and contemporary instructional practices. For more information, visit The Digigogy Collaborative (digigogy.com) or find Michael on Twitter (@fisher1000):

As a generative endeavor, writing is a higher-order thinking task. Being able to articulate meaning and understanding through the written word is a sophisticated expression that many students struggle with. Part of this stems from formulaic-type writing tasks in school or audiences that often are only the teacher. When teachers change the task type and the audience, they change the quality of the writing. When students know that they are going to be accountable to a different group or perhaps the world at large, they tend to do better, higher-quality work.

Take, for instance, a student who is tasked with answering multiple-choice questions and perhaps writing a paragraph about how file structures work on a personal computer. This student answers the questions, writes the paragraph, and turns her work in to the teacher. There was no collaboration. There was no conversation. There was no feedback. There was just this surface assessment with the teacher as the primary audience. The teacher “grades” it, indicating what was right or wrong, and when the student gets it back, it is simply the trigger for the next learning moment.

What if the teacher changed the audience to next year’s students? What if the task was collaborative? What if the teacher reimagined the assessment as an opportunity for students to collaborate together and produce something of value for next year’s students, such as an FAQ about creating and managing files and folders on the computer or how to make green screen videos? Then, the audience target is next year’s students, not just the teacher. Students now have many other micro-decisions to make about the quality of their writing and how it will potentially impact a younger group of students.

If you’d like to see an example of a lesson experience with this shift in the audience for an intermediate media-arts class,click here. When students are writing with a specific audience in mind, it upgrades the quality of their work and the quality of the skills they engage in to get to the writing, such as research, the vocabulary they use, and the style and artistry of what they are doing. Breaking free from traditional constructs around writing helps students know what’s acceptable to write for particular audiences. On Instagram, their emoji cultures are just fine, LOL, OMG, Right? #YOLO. But for a resume, a formal letter, or perhaps an FAQ in their media-arts class, they must learn to switch from colloquial and informal writing that is accessible to some to more formal presentation styles that are accessible to many. Writing for different audiences, particularly authentic ones that allow students to produce a product for a purpose beyond a classroom, helps students to become better learners and ultimately, better writers.

Response From Tamara Letter

Tamara Letter is a passionate educator with more than two decades of experience in the public school sector. She received the 2018 R.E.B. Award for Teaching Excellence and is the author of A Passion for Kindness: Making the World a Better Place to Lead, Love, and Learn. You can connect with Tamara on her website at www.tamaraletter.com or on social media (@tamaraletter):

How can students write for authentic audiences? This question often poses a challenge to classroom teachers as the focus is often on the writing itself, not the recipient of the message being shared through the writing.

As a technology integrator and instructional coach, my role in education is to provide support for educators as they learn and grow in their own knowledge and implementation of impactful teaching and learning. We often compartmentalize writing in a box of curricular constraints instead of recognizing its applicable skills for communicating across all areas of content.

“Who are you trying to inform, persuade, or entertain with your writing?” The “who” of this question is actually the driving force of the writing itself as we seek to guide our communication to fit the needs of that audience, later leading to the “why” and the “what.”

If we want our students to write for authentic audiences, we need to connect our students with those people and organizations, building a bridge of learning and leading as we empower students to not simply communicate facts and figures but also to share their passions and reflections.

I have a passion for kindness, which I directly correlate to the language arts curriculum when I work with teachers and their students. We share our writing with classmates using technological tools such as Google Classroom, Google Docs, and Padlet. There are times when our voice and tone convey our messages stronger, in which case we shift to platforms like Flipgrid and Seesaw, which allow our messages to be easily shared with the world through guest access, QR codes, and public blog links.

One project that is near and dear to my heart is empowering students to scatter kindness in the world around them. Each student in the class receives $10 to create their own “Kindness Passion Project” where they complete an act of kindness in the local community and share their experiences through writing using a Google Slides presentation. We invite families, friends, and community members to explore our projects during a “Kindness Share Fair,” which provides a unique, relevant, and empowering opportunity to amplify student voice.

We then extend this ripple effect of authentic audiences by adding each project to a website and sharing the link on social-media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. We view the analytics for that post to compare Impressions with Engagements, making the “authentic audiences” aspect of writing a powerful and relevant result of their communication. With one post on Twitter, we received more than 66,000 Impressions (people who saw the post) and almost 1,000 Engagements (people who interacted with the post.) Our students could view the likes, retweets, and shares and craft responses to the comments added. When you multiply that audience by the additional sharing-through-conference presentations, television-spotlight segments, and references in published books, you realize the reach for authentic audiences is endless!

Students have a greater commitment for quality work when they know their writing will be shared with others. They will discover an internal drive that pulls them to write, edit, and revise. They will realize that their words have power, and no matter their age, their words can inspire, uplift, and elevate.

The writing journey begins in the classroom with teachers allowing students to interact with others throughout their writing. Perhaps classmates collaborate on a writing project or record themselves reading a story they wrote and share it for family members through an emailed link. Maybe it’s connecting students to residents of an assisted living facility to become pen pals throughout the year. You don’t have to stretch too far from your comfort zone to transform the writing process; you simply have to provide an authentic audience for student writing.

Start today. Take that leap. Nudge open the door to others and watch your students soar!

Response From Keisha Rembert

Keisha Rembert is an 8th grade English and US history teacher at Clifford Crone Middle School in Naperville, Ill. Keisha feeds her love of learning by continually refining her craft and has been the recipient of several grants affording her the opportunity to take courses at some of the world’s most renowned universities. She has recently been named Illinois’ History Teacher of the Year for 2019:

Teachers need to acknowledge that peers are an authentic audience whether those peers sit next to them every day or are from another school in the district or are from another state or country. I write a blog and I want my peers to read it. I also ask students to find a place in the world for their pieces. Oftentimes, they know better than I where their piece should be published. A boy a few years ago published his review on an online gaming site. I never would have known that site existed. This works best when students have choice and autonomy in their writing. There is often no place to publish/post your five-paragraph essay!

Thanks to Martha, Donna, Heather, Michael, Tamara, and Keisha for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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