(This is the first post in a five-part series)
The new question-of-the-week is:
How can students write for “authentic” audiences?
Helping students to feel motivated to write and, particularly, to write their best, is sometimes not a very easy task for teachers. One way to create the conditions that might encourage students to put in that kind of effort is if they have an “authentic audience"—in other words, someone in addition to their teacher.
This series will explore what this means and how to do it.
Today’s commentaries come 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.
Here are some collections of additional resources for students in multiple subject areas to do academic work for “authentic audiences":
Response From Katherine Schulten
Katherine Schulten, a former high school English teacher, was editor-in-chief of the New York Times Learning Network from 2006-2019 and is still a contributing editor. She is currently writing a book for W.W. Norton that will draw on award-winning student writing from the site:
When students send their work out into the world, it changes everything—at least according to the many teachers who answered our call last fall to tell us why they encourage it.
Having an authentic audience lets young people see that their voices and ideas are valuable, they say. It proves they can do something real with what they’ve learned. And the work itself gets better: Students are more engaged, more thoughtful about their choices, and more eager to revise. Perhaps most important, they begin to think of themselves as real writers, not just students who produce papers for a grade.
So how can you help them do more of it?
Start small with the school and local community.
I still remember when my twins’ elementary school had the 4th graders write site-specific poems and post them in the locations they celebrated. There were water-fountain poems, cafeteria poems, bathroom poems, and bleacher poems—and 44 delighted young poets watching their work get read by everyone who passed by.
Whether you post student work in physical spaces around the school building or at a local coffee shop, send it out via the school’s website or social media. or host live events like poetry slams or TEDx talks, it’s a remarkably effective way to make students feel “seen.” It also changes the classroom dynamic—you are no longer the sole judge of their work, but, instead, a coach to a community of writers.
Encourage low-stakes public writing to practice.
For many high school students, the first time they’ll write in their own natural voices for an adult audience they’ve never met is in their college-admissions essays. That’s a pretty high-stakes “rhetorical situation” to take on with no practice.
There are lots of ways for students to hone their public voices along the way. Our site, The New York Times Learning Network, is one. We get over 1,000 comments from teenagers around the world every week via our daily writing prompts and our weekly discussions of photos, graphs and films. Some of the most interesting this year came from a class of ELL students in Queens. Their English wasn’t perfect, but their enthusiasm for writing about everything from politics to pop culture was infectious, and we watched their skills and confidence grow as the school year went on.
Consider encouraging small opportunities like this, from commenting on a news site to writing reviews on Yelp to being part of curriculum-related conversations on social media.
Help students find meaningful purposes for their work.
Malala Yousafzai. Greta Thunberg. Marley Dias. The Parkland students. There’s no shortage of inspiring young people raising their voices to make change right now. Teachers, too, are increasingly tweaking curriculum to meet real-world needs.
For the midterm elections, government teacher James Smith’s students in Kettering, Ohio, created and published a nonpartisan election guide designed to support local first-time voters.
Heidi Echternacht’s 2nd graders in Princeton, N.J., interviewed and drew portraits of local workers, including chefs, firefighters and the mayor—then exhibited the results in the town library.
And David Nurenberg’s ELA students in Concord, Mass., learn about writing in different modes for different audiences and purposes by doing tasks like writing complaint letters to companies, arguing for change to their elected representatives, and creating advertising for local businesses.
How might the skills and content you teach meet a community need?
Make sending work out a requirement—but flood your students with options.
Every semester, students in Christa Forster’s Houston English class have to send out at least one piece of writing. What and where is up to them; simply doing it earns the grade. But over the years, many have been surprised by winning Scholastic Art & Writing awards, getting published in the local paper, or being honored in our own contests.
Christa keeps an extensive list of places to submit and says matching the student and genre to the appropriate opportunity is a great way to differentiate and help individual kids make progress in the moment.
Our site can help, too. We’ve published a list of over 70 places for students to send writing of all kinds—from research papers and “citizen science” to flash fiction and poetry.
Which might fit your students best?
Response From Kelly Love
Kelly Love came to teaching as a second career. She has taught middle school for 13 years and is moving to an alternative high school for her 14th year. She is an artist, writer, and teacher. Usually all three at the same time. She and her thoughts on education can be found at https://blog0rama.com/, where she is a curious curator of creative content:
Staging Success: How to Find Authentic Audiences
The ubiquitous term “authentic” may turn some educators away from the underlying work on igniting students to write and consider themselves writers. The idea that we, as teachers of writing, don’t see ourselves as writers is a myth we need to confront, too. Oftentimes, we don’t think of ourselves in the role because someone didn’t pay us for the work, we are not published by a publishing house or literary magazine. We equate money with success and value. Our students do, too. The other unaddressed silent pitfall for students is that they are only writing to/for the teacher in the room, for that one task, or at least that is their unspoken and unconscious perception. Clarifying what authentic writing means is first an exercise in clarifying audience and purpose, because to that end, all writing is genuine and all purposes necessary. We are driven to communicate and must not stifle that impulse.
Another disturbing and discouraging trend for writing instruction is the false practice in believing that students are getting enough writing instruction with readers’ responses. Many of the state standardized testing questions switch a writing question for what is actually a reading one. It’s the cowbird of assessment: placing its egg in another bird’s nest, a brood parasite of pedagogy. While many of us educators are fighting back (read Why They Can’t Write by John Warner), we don’t have time to waste on pretending reading responses are writing instruction and best practices. What we can do, right now, is teach students three essential concepts:
We are writers: We are communicators, and each of us has unique experiences and perspectives we share for connection, reflection; and we (writers) are paid for our work and creativity in many ways including, but not exclusive to, financial gain.
All communication can be written. All movies begin as scripts. All songs sung are poems/lyrics. Every text message has an audience. And most of the time we as writers are subconsciously aware and motivated to be as clear as possible to that audience.
- Interview the world: Ask questions and answer them for your reader/audience. Your reader may be yourself. Your audience is vast: your own life or others in the world. Whatever you write, you are writing to an audience and answering questions before they ask them. This is what writers do.
For audience awareness, student-writers and the teacher-writer lay the groundwork for different kinds of communication and desired goals. Co-construct as many types of writing we all do in a day: social media, lists, texts, journaling, assessments, blogging, and add the format of the writing (see Ruth Culham’s work on Modes, Genres, and Forms).
Now filter the list/anchor chart to a menu of formats and choice. Formats may range from blogs, literary magazines (print and digital), fanfic sites,* writing contests, NaWrNoMo for young writers, and many others: to these student-writers will find audiences to read their work. Keep this chart available and use as a tool for where students publish their work and share it, their personal gallery or studio. How you frame this as instruction, accountability, and growth are up to your professional judgment. Include your own choices and writing venues and share your writing life. Promoting a culture of writing workshop and sustainable feedback that is detached from “peer editing” (which is a deficit mindset) is key to allaying fears and encouraging vulnerability and risk-taking. Workshops must be framed around a studio/art culture, where work is discussed, questioned, challenged, and supported.
Blogging with student-writers proves to be a powerful venue to allow student voice to the surface, and sometimes this leads to a tsunami of creativity. I recommend Edublogger because of its customer support, platform user experience, and student-privacy options (and no, I did not receive a stipend from this endorsement!). What blogging provides students is that magical gratification of seeing one’s work published: The message is there, it is professional and digitally lit, and others may comment and remark. The writer’s world is open. When one of my ELL students asked to keep writing on the class blog even after he was out of my class is one of my great joys. What he responded to were the positive comments I and others left on his posts. What they choose to write about is the heart of writing instruction and tapping back into their burning questions. The genuine, authentic audience, however, is waiting for their words. All we need to do is show them the stage.
*Some Fan Fiction sites can be on the adult side of writing. Proceed with caution in a classroom setting.
Response From Tatiana Esteban
Tatiana Esteban, M.A. Ed., has taught ELL, gifted, and SpEd students in various classroom settings since 2007. Currently, she is embarking on a new curricular adventure as a phonics interventionist at Gulliver Academy, an independent school in Miami, while continuing to grow her knowledge base in her passion of curriculum- and instruction-design and -implementation:
Sometimes, as teachers, we need to be creative in finding an “authentic” audience for students to write with purpose. One way I have been able to do this is by pairing with another class and having students write short stories for our partner class to read & critique. This gave both classes a chance to write for real readers and also practice opinion writing.
After publishing their short stories, the classes exchanged stories, and each child wrote a review for the story they read. When I did this, we were paired horizontally; however this pairing could be done in different ways. Think of older students writing for younger students, or science classes writing a report for an English class to include in a research project.
Response From Kimiko Shibata
Kimiko Shibata is an Itinerant ESL/ELD teacher for the Waterloo Region district school board in Kitchener, Ontario. She can be found on Twitter @ESL_fairy and has a resource website:
Writing with a clear purpose and audience helps our English-language learners and ALL students to engage with writing tasks. Writing for a known audience can be highly motivating for students who may find writing to be challenging. Here are a few ideas that I’ve used or that have been used by some teachers with whom I work:
-write a friendly letter to a teacher, famous person, Disney character, local politician, etc.
-write a persuasive text to a principal or school council about raising funds for a new set of outdoor play equipment, etc.
-write a persuasive text to a teacher for a desired desk/classroom arrangement.
-write a fairy tale or other form of fiction to be shared with a reading buddy in a younger grade.
-use an app such as “WriteReader” to create mono- or dual-language texts in any genre for peers to read at home with their families during home reading.
-write lists in the classroom to keep track of resources needed or used.
-write a daily message in the planner (in English or the home language) to communicate to parents or teacher one thing for which students are grateful at the end of each day (can encourage home-school communication or deepen a teacher-child relationship in the event that a parent is unable to read the planner and helps to train the brain to scan for the positive and overcome negativity bias).
-write thank-you notes to custodians, secretaries, and other school staff who keep our schools running but rarely get the credit they deserve.
-write short “exit tickets” to independently reflect on and extend the learning at the end of a math, science, or social studies class.
-write a procedural text to teach a classmate or reading buddy how to do a set of dance moves, play a game, decorate a gingerbread cookie, create a piece of art, etc.
-create posters using a tool such as “PicCollage” to advertise actual school events and fundraisers to parents and community members.
-create a highly visual Google Slides presentation with dual-language labels and captions to summarize their own learning and help a newcomer student who speaks the same home language to understand important concepts and vocabulary in science or social studies classes.
Response From Alycia Owen
Alycia Owen is an international educator, instructional coach, and EAL specialist who has implemented the co-teaching model in math, science, and language arts. She has provided professional development for schools in the U.S. and abroad and has been a workshop presenter at international teachers’ conferences, as well as the SIOP National Conference. She currently lives in China where she serves as EAL Department Chair for American International School of Guangzhou:
Writing for a Reason: Connecting Students to Authentic Audiences
“Class, take out your language arts folder and let’s get ready to write. Copy the prompt from the board before we get started.”
Prompt: Describe your most memorable moment.
Go ahead, teachers. Take a moment to cringe. NOT the most stimulating foray into becoming a writer. And no wonder so many of our students check out and shut down when assigned writing tasks like this one, that have no real purpose beyond practicing basic writing fluency and mechanical skills. There is no real audience for the writing, except for the teacher. It will be evaluated based on some kind of rubric, with a few bits of feedback possibly scribbled in the margins, and is then returned to the students. The class will soon move on to a new, similarly decontextualized writing assignment. These assignments, without a broader purpose and authentic audience, are the source of countless bouts of writer’s block in the classroom. If the only purpose for writing is to be evaluated by a teacher, our writing assignments are missing the mark.
Writing is taught in schools to help students develop into adults who can write for a broad range of audiences and purposes and who are able to communicate effectively with others beyond the classroom. It’s logical, then, that we would set up opportunities for our students to engage in authentic writing tasks that mirror the writing they will do as adults. These lessons should include some measure of student choice and should have a broader context than isolated writing lessons. To do this, students can write for a more authentic audience. The infographic below identifies several potential real-life audiences to whom students can write and some ideas about the types of writing assignments to consider.
Does every writing task have to be authentic in this way? No! As with most things in life, balance is key. Go ahead and assign that paragraph to assess last night’s reading. By all means, teach students how to construct a research-based essay in MLA format. Absolutely, continue to ask students to produce quick writes, dialogue journals, vocabulary sentences, and other traditional written assignments that only you will see. These are all useful practice opportunities that help our students develop basic writing skills, synthesize ideas, and even provide teachers with formative data.
However, if our ultimate goal is to raise effective writers who can apply their writing skills in multiple contexts outside of school and into adulthood, students benefit from the productive struggle that comes with publishing for a wider audience and purpose.
Response From Jennifer Orr
Jennifer Orr is a national-board-certified elementary school teacher in the suburbs of Washington. She is a mother of two and an obsessive buyer of children’s books:
The great majority of writing that students do in school, from kindergarten through college, is done for an audience of one: their teacher. If the topic or assignment grabs the student, that may be enough. However, the great majority of the time the result of that audience of one is that students will be writing because they are required to do so. They will be aiming for a good grade, not aiming for growth as a writer.
This is easy enough to shift. Writing for a wider audience immediately changes the game for students. I have seen this with kindergartners through 5th graders. When they know others will be reading their work, they look at it and invest in it differently.
This may not be an option for every assignment, but it is a target worth your aim. Sharing writing with classmates, as audience rather than as editors, is the simplest option. This can be done in partnerships or small groups or as an entire class. Students can read their writing to their classmates, something that is especially effective with poetry, personal narrative, and fiction writing. Or they can publish their writing for others to read. In my elementary classroom, we have a large classroom library. We have quite a few baskets of books sorted by the author or illustrator. One of those baskets is for books we write. Instead of “Matt de la Pena’s Books” or “Books by Pam Munoz Ryan,” we have a basket labeled “Books by ExploreOrrs” (which is what I call my class). There we place books students have created, ones on which they worked extra hard, ones that others should read.
Sharing writing with families is another low-key possibility. The older students get, the less likely their families are in the loop about what is happening at school and what they are doing. Inviting families in during class or one evening to hear or read their student’s work is powerful for the student and for their family. A high school English teacher friend of mine does a research project with her students in which they interview someone in the community and write a profile of them (similar to what you might read about a celebrity or politician in a magazine). They then invite their families and their interviewees for an evening celebration during which they share (at least some of) their writing.
Your school librarian is another way to share writing more broadly. For the past few years, my 3rd graders have created brochures as the end product of their research unit. The results of all their work have been displayed in a small brochure holder in our school library. Another librarian with whom I worked collaborated with teachers during writing units and displayed the results in the library. She had a special shelf that held individual student writing as well as a large space for big books written collaboratively by classes. (One of my 1st graders, when writing her individual book to be shared in the library, added a bar code to the back, telling me, “I know library books have these.”)
Writing does not always have to be text. Students can share short pieces of their writing on a morning news show at school. This can be live or prerecorded. It can be a full piece of short writing (poem or short story or such) or can be just a teaser to get others interested in reading more.
It is also possible to set up an online newspaper or magazine cheaply and easily. In this way, students and classes can share their writing with as wide an audience as possible. Students can edit sections of the website to ensure high standards (as well as address privacy concerns). This can involve classes and teachers throughout the school. P.E. teachers can have students write about field day or cover a school competition for the site. Music teachers can do the same with concerts and can share videos of students performing. Librarians can get students writing book reviews to share. The possibilities are endless.
When students have an audience beyond their teacher, they will often put in far more effort, both in craft and mechanics. Collaboration, with others in your school as well as with people in the community, can offer myriad opportunities for such sharing.
Thanks to Katherine, Kelly, Tatiana, Kimiko, Alycia, and Jennifer for their contributions.
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