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Teaching Opinion

Students Feel More Motivated When Writing for ‘Authentic Audiences’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 14, 2019 18 min read
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(This is the final post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, and Part Four here.)

View EntryThe 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.

Part Three‘s contributors were Martha Sevetson Rush, Donna L. Shrum, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Michael Fisher, Tamara Letter, and Keisha Rembert.

In Part Four, Rita Platt, Alexis Wiggins, Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin, Kristen Koppers, and Mara Lee Grayson share their ideas.

Today, Shanna Peeples, Mary K. Tedrow, Amy Sandvold, and Laverne Bowers “wrap up” this five-part series. I’ve also included comments of readers.

Response From Shanna Peeples

Shanna Peeples is a Student-Centered Learning Fellow at the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington, where she is completing a doctoral residency in education leadership at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Follow her on Twitter @ShannaPeeples:

The most immediate, authentic audience for student writing is their classmates in writing circles. Much like literature circles, writing circles help students develop their skills in an engaging, interactive, and social process. Because the environment is supportive and collaborative, students are willing to take risks in their writing, revise, and edit it.

I’ve used writing circles with students as young as 8 and as old as 23; with every kind of class from language-learners to honors students, middle school through college seniors. As they repeatedly practice the writing process, students gain mastery in many writing skills and are motivated to take their writing to the next level.

The instantly responsive audience of their peers helps them develop an internal sense of writing for a reader. Knowing what’s funny or sad or thought-provoking gives the writer real-time feedback on what’s working.

For teachers, this collaborative revision means the final drafts your circles turn in will be more enjoyable for you to read and assess. Another benefit is that the time you spend helping students to work productively in small groups will free you up. You can then focus on students who need targeted interventions or conduct one-on-one writing conferences while circles meet.

Getting started

It’s worth spending a week on grouping students. Groups bigger than five students usually have trouble making sure everyone participates equally. Groups of three to five students are ideal, depending on your total class number. A free guide with a one-week plan for grouping students into writing circles is available here.

Writers need to have a list of three possible topics when they join a writing circle. Spend a class period helping them to generate ideas, both individually and in their groups. Consider using this free lesson plan for student-generated questions excerpted from my book, Think Like Socrates: Inviting Wonder & Empathy Into the Classroom, Grades 4-12.

Generally, a writing-circle meeting day will follow this structure:

Minilesson (5 minutes)

Time to write individually (10 minutes)

Writers then join their circles

Share and respond to each other’s writing (15-20 minutes)

New topic selection, if needed and/or if a circle finishes early (5 minutes)

Whole-class sharing (5-10 minutes)

Writing-circle notebook reflection (3-5 minutes)

Writing time (if available, to the end of class)

How to assess writing circles

Students should take turns trying on the leadership moves of timekeeping, agenda setting, and circle leader. You can give students check grades for participation in each of these responsibilities, grade completed drafts, and/or allow students to grade themselves on a rubric that you co-create to describe what good work looks like.

Make sure students have a way to keep track of their writing-circle drafts—either in a shared working portfolio or in a separate section of their writing notebooks. Writing circles are an opportunity for students to demonstrate responsibility and practice shared trust. It is their responsibility to show sufficient work for the time they spend together.

Using student questions in writing circles to create shareable books

In looking for ways to extend my middle schoolers’ questions into meaningful work, I asked writing circles for help. Together, writers brought their individual big questions or wonderings to the group to find patterns in them. They sorted the questions, creating big ideas about feelings, the environment, space, friendship, and other categories. These categories generated ideas for writing.

“What if we used these ideas to write books for the little guys in the elementary school where you used to go to kindergarten?” I asked.

They loved the idea and the thought of a real audience close by. Imagining these young readers prompted the 7th graders to see their writing as purposeful.

“We can’t just slap this out,” Jeremy said. “This is for kids and for them to learn, so we have to make sure it’s right.”

Together, they decided to focus on high-interest nonfiction topics. This produced topics like tornadoes, spiders, and how to be a good friend. We studied children’s books and made anchor charts of what we noticed and could use in our books.

Because the project was for a real audience and had a genuine purpose, students worked harder on it than anything else I’d seen them do.

We received special permission to print out book pages created from Power Point slides because they were ink-intensive. Each slide was laminated, trimmed, and hole-punched, then bound together with plastic rings.

Administrators and I planned the visit to present and read the books. We decided to use the day right before Thanksgiving break. An assistant principal and paraprofessional joined to guide classes of students to the elementary school, which was in easy walking distance from our middle school.

The plan was for students to read the books one-on-one to kindergarteners and 1st graders, then leave the books for each class to have as a gift.

What continues to stay in my memory is how Jonathan, a dyslexic student whose learning challenges caused him to be a behavior problem in most classes, eagerly read his book to child after child. Because Jonathan had attended this elementary school when he was younger, the staff knew him well.

“I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” his former counselor said. “I honestly didn’t know what would become of him because of all the trouble he’s had and how hard it is for him at home. To see him be so gentle, so patient with these kids— I just have no words,” she said, pressing her fingers to the corners of her eyes to keep tears from blurring her mascara.

Response From Mary K. Tedrow

Mary K. Tedrow, an award-winning high school English teacher, now serves as the director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project. Her book, Write, Think, Learn: Tapping the Power of Daily Student Writing Across the Content Area is available through Routledge:

Every year, after the first monthly publication of the school paper came out, my journalism students viewed me, the adviser, as an ally in getting writing right. Their paper was read by a highly valued and authentic audience: their peers. The writers knew if something was wrong, they would hear about it. When their issues were shared, read, and talked about, the staff was jubilant. Assessing and attracting the attention of their audience quickly became uppermost from planning through to publication. These regular publications made all the lessons of the English classroom immediately applicable. Students worked hard to look good.

This is the power of an authentic audience: Students are invested in their learning. Any teacher can capitalize on authentic and valued audiences. And it won’t mean a lot of extra work on your part. In fact, most often you are passing your role on to the students.

Here are ways a classroom teacher can bring real and valued readers into the writing process:

  • In the elementary classroom, put your students in charge of the weekly or monthly newsletter sent to parent/guardians. Besides writing for real people, the activity provides needed time for reflection and review of classroom work and fun.

  • In any class or grade level, look for opportunities where students will learn more if you let them take control of the process—including creating class posters, devising logos, managing announcements, providing opinions around school policy, designing work and play spaces, recording daily reports to be read by absentees....

  • Have students write to each other. My 9th graders wrote back and forth to a class of 3rd graders in the neighboring elementary school. This regular task engaged students with surprising fervor around regular, required lessons.

  • More letters: Write to a local politician with an opinion on an issue. Write to the author of a favorite book to ask questions from curiosity. Write to a researcher to clarify recent findings. Letters (and emails) extend the classroom outward. My 11th graders focused on an issue of concern to them. (To tease out issues, try this prompt: What are you worried about?). The catch was they had to find the best person to address their issue, which meant doing a little local research. After letters were carefully edited by the class, we mailed them. When a letter was ready to mail, I slipped in a note asking the receiver to take a minute to respond. For weeks students arrived waving responses and sharing with the class.

  • Create books or informational flyers in any subject to share with a younger or uninformed audience. A clear understanding of content is apparent if students can translate knowledge for novices. Add the student-created texts to your school library. Distribute flyers as a public service.

  • Challenge students to find outside publications for their writing. After teaching students how to locate the editor, search calls for manuscripts and locating formatting expectations, set them loose to research and create a class list of potential publishing outlets. Then, ask students to submit. Full credit is given to those who provide proof of submission. Celebrations are reserved when some are published. My 11th graders adapted an argument piece and submitted to the publication of their choice. Several in each class were published, even in nationally distributed magazines.

  • Create a classroom blog and let students post and comment on each other’s summaries and application of content. Prompt them to discuss classroom topics.

  • Number a set of notebooks, with one number for each student. Students in different classes can write back and forth to each other in the same numbered, anonymous notebook. Use the notebook to explain content, ask questions, develop theories, comment on the news—any method to extend class learning.

The simplest method for moving student writing to a real reader comes from James Moffet. After encouraging students to write over time and for their own purposes, Moffet asks them to do the following generic task:

“Choose any one of your exploratory writings from today and rewrite it in any way that you think will make it more understandable and interesting to certain other people. Feel free to add, subtract, rearrange, reword, or turn into a poem. You can distribute it to whoever your audience may be.” (Moffet, 33)

This simple request requires a great deal of deliberation on the part of the student and incorporates many thinking skills, one of which is determining the appropriate audience for the writing. This is the way real writers work in the real world, and we can bring that real world right into the classroom.

Moffet, James. Active Voice: A Writing Program Across the Curriculum, Second Edition. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1981.

Response From Amy Sandvold

Amy Sandvold is a literacy coach in the Waterloo Community Schools, in Waterloo, Iowa. She is an experienced educator in both private and public schools, having served as a principal and classroom teacher with over 25 years in education. She is co-author of the bestselling The Passion Driven Classroom and The Fundamentals of Literacy Coaching. You can read her Lit Coach in Iowa blog at https://amysandvold.wixsite.com/iowalitcoach and follow her on Twitter @LitCoachinIowa https://twitter.com/LitCoachinIowa:

Honoring Students as Authors

For years, we made writing about us...the teachers. Oftentimes, we only published or shared what we deemed the very best (or best edited) pieces. This keeps all the power with the teacher. This is not very authentic. Writing should have a message and purpose, and the purpose is not just to please the teacher.

No matter what the grade level, ability, or subject, writing is powerful and relevant when our students see themselves as authors. By making a simple mindshift, we can honor all students as authors, and students will thrive as writers.

Here are some suggestions for putting the writing power back in the hands of our students:

  • Create a student-author center in your classroom and/or school library. Just like real authors, organize their published pieces by last name in author binders. Students can “check out” the pieces and read them. If you implement a reading workshop, make the published pieces a book choice.

  • Work writing into daily routines and jobs. Many elementary teachers have classroom jobs. Turn these jobs into real-life equivalents such as meteorologists (report the weather and write a report, displayed in the classroom each day); historians—students write a blurb/fact about an important person of the week and display in a prominent place; comedians—instead of just telling a joke of the day, write the joke and the answer. Display in the classroom window or hallway for other classes to read. The possibilities are endless for working writing into daily jobs and routines.

  • Expect all students to be writers and share writing daily through journal writing. Keep journal writing separate from your other writing purposes. Students are expected to write their opinion in response to smart questions and topics such as “Do you think kids should have cellphones in school” and have them share their work. Teach them to listen to the opinions of others respectfully. Set aside 15 minutes each day, and students will improve their on-demand writing abilities and expressing an opinion with others.

All of these suggestions create a writing environment where the written word has a purpose and the audience is immediate...their peers. Let’s give students the power back and give up some of our teacher issues of power and control. We can honor all students as authors!

Response From Laverne Bowers

Laverne Bowers is a 4th grade teacher at Gadsden Elementary School in Georgia’s Savannah Chatham County school district, where she was 2018-19 Teacher of the Year. Bowers has created a cooperative, caring community of learners in the classroom and models the importance of mutual respect and cooperation among all community members. Her educational philosophy is that each child can learn with sufficient support, interest, and path of opportunity:

Young writers become more effective when they learn to write for an appropriate, authentic audience. Typically, the only audience the student writes to is his/her teacher. After the piece has been graded, it is usually posted on the walls of the classroom or a bulletin board for peers, parents, and teachers to view. But an authentic audience is the reader you’ve shared relevant issues with. After reading the student’s piece, that audience member has either been given information, persuaded to do something, or has been enlightened by what you have written. Giving students a platform to write on issues that allow their thoughts to make a difference will present that student the opportunity to address a broader audience beyond the classroom and empower the student to take ownership of his or her work, think meaningfully on a cause, and invoke a social connection at the community and, sometimes, global level.

So how can students write for authentic audiences? Here is where exposure to the world becomes relevant. A number of my students may not have the background knowledge or life experiences to have much awareness of a topic of interest for the audience they want to address. These students, however, are technologically-driven and social-media-fascinated, enjoy interactive learning, and are self-reliant. Some suggestions for this population of students to write for authentic audiences are as follows:

  1. Blogging
  2. Posting or live streaming on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram)
  3. Creating Youtube videos (writing the scripts to record)
  4. Journal or letter writing
  5. Texting
  6. Authoring a book

In my opinion, teachers who have a passion to write and are trained to write are going to emphasize and influence the writing passions of their students. My students especially enjoyed the writing assignments, like blogging, that involved technology. The challenging aspect of the writing assignments from the textbook is conveying to students how the passages from this medium can be translated to their lives and style of writing, but tapping into their interests and providing adequate background knowledge can lead to great student work. The Ready Writing textbook is one of many excellent tools to use to develop an effective writer.

Teachers who can bridge the gap between the student’s self-confidence and the real world have now changed the paradigm of writing from a teacher audience member to a worldly audience. When students see that an authentic audience can be found between the pages of a journal, from news feeds, on social media, within their community, and around the world, it becomes their “A-Ha” moment.

Many of the writing tasks in my classroom, including quick writing, answering extended-response questions, and responding to writing assignments, come from the Ready Writing textbook. The writing assignments, in particular, require the students to read, think, and write more critically for an authentic audience. With teacher guidance, students get to navigate through the process of reading the passages given from the text to obtain background knowledge and then use that information to incorporate into their writing. For the many teachers across the country who also use this textbook, my suggestion is to take lessons learned during i-Ready instruction and apply those writing techniques to authentic audiences where other forms of medium are used. This will enhance the lessons to increase background knowledge and achieve high student engagement as they develop into successful writers.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Shanna, Mary, Amy, and Laverne, and to readers, 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.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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