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Ways Students Can Write for 'Authentic Audiences'

(This is the second post in a five-part series. You can see Part One 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.

Today's guests are Jayne Marlink, Cheryl Mizerny, Erin Starkey,  Nicole Brown, Dawn Mitchell, and John Larmer.

Response From Jayne Marlink

Jayne Marlink is the recently retired executive director of the California Writing Project (CWP) and a former middle and high school teacher in the Grant Union High school district (now the Twin Rivers Unified school district). She is writing two books that draw on the wisdom of CWP writing teachers and their students:

As often happens for educators, a group of students inspired me to come to terms with this question. I was teaching writing for high school English-learners, the majority of them Hmong students who were a few years in the country but newly arrived in our community and living at one apartment complex. Within just a few months of their arrival, tensions with nonimmigrant apartment residents over cultural and religious practices exploded, resulting in hurtful television and newspaper coverage. 

My Hmong students were devastated. Their parents did not know enough English to communicate with neighbors or reporters, and although my students wanted to help, they didn't know how. I suggested they could write letters to the newspaper and television stations to help reporters understand the Hmong people and culture. Eagerly they took on the opportunity, discussing the messages they wanted to convey, reading examples of letters, and pairing up to select and address the most important points. We sent about 30 letters, and within a few days, a reporter called me. Eight letters would be published, but more important was the reporter wanted to visit the classroom to get to know the students. The newspaper had decided to publish a series on the Hmong in Sacramento.

At first glance, this writing experience fits the most common definition of writing for an authentic audience, for that real audience outside of school. But it was not that for everyone—only for my Hmong students. I had offered my other EL students the opportunity to write letters about issues they cared about, but for them, this was not a call to write. They were very clear that their job was to be an audience for their Hmong peers, helping them communicate, being supportive readers and responders.

Because of this experience, I began to rethink what authentic could mean in terms of audiences for student writing, as well as for compelling reasons to write.

What are effective ways to strengthen the connection between a writer's purpose and the range of potential audiences? 

I was fortunate that I did not have to rethink alone. With fellow writing teachers in the California Writing Project (CWP), I worked for several years on developing writing opportunities that were engaging while elevating the importance of writing for varied audiences. Our collaboration focused on creating powerful invitations that would support students' learning and practicing of a wide range of writing genres, along with the goal of opening up options for students to go public with their writing. 

One of the most powerful writing opportunities we created was CWP's Upstanders, Not Bystanders. We invited students to inquire into and write about public, historical, literary, or personal upstanders and about issues and problems that needed upstanders. Embedded in the invitation was the opportunity for students to take their writing public.

Together we addressed these questions:

  • What about this topic or issue gives your students a reason and purpose for writing? 
  • What "response" will you ask students to write? Which specific writing genres could you teach them to write? 
  • Will students write a print genre, a digital genre, and/or a multimedia/multimodal combination?
  • How can you support your students to go public with their writing beyond the classroom or school?
  • How can students use their writing to take action and make change? 

Hundreds of teachers and thousands of students responded to our invitation, but here are three illustrative examples: 

Liz Harrington's middle school students in the San Gabriel Unified school district wrote editorials for the school newspaper, explaining what an upstander is and how their school would benefit from having more upstanders on campus. Digital transformations included podcasts or digital stories of the editorials and Be an Upstander Public Service Announcements. 

Mary Asgill's students at Turlock High School wrote individual problem-solution essays about an issue of intolerance in their school or community and then collaboratively composed a "digital" problem-solution essay in several formats: video, Animoto, Prezi, Photostory, podcasts. Print and digital versions were posted in local and statewide anthologies and online discussion forums.

Carla Truttman's history students at Yreka High School used their classroom study of the struggles of Americans who were disenfranchised or excluded to tell the story of America's Upstanders, those people and groups who stood up and advocated for change and equality. Digital stories and multimedia videos were posted for the local community and on a CWP online forum.

Upstanders, Not Bystanders both situated and expanded students' reasons to write and elevated their understanding of going public for varied audiences. But note our deliberate move from discussing with students writing for an audience to planning for going public with their writing.    

Why did we focus on going public with writing?

Our collaborative work was influenced profoundly by the This I Believe multimodal writing projects of Rochelle Ramay's students at Corning Union High School. Students began their projects by writing statements of belief and the experiences, observations, and learning that led to those beliefs. Students chose one belief and used it to anchor the writing of a personal philosophy. After much writing and rewriting, they framed the multimodal version they wanted to compose next. How would they read and record their This I Believe writing for a visual presentation? What images and music would they use to illustrate and enhance their writing? How would they turn their print text into a video? Just this composing process alone is valuable, but every student knew this project was so much more. They would be going public with their videos.

About the project Rochelle said, "Because these videos explore authentic points of view and share deeply held personal philosophies, my students prepared themselves for a public showing and designed a plan for sharing their work. We reserved the school's library, which houses a large projection screen, and we invited juniors and seniors to a full-day showing of the videos. With over 100 students, teachers, and administrators present per period, we played every video. The huge room was silent as the videos aired, and at the completion of each one, the room thundered with applause.... This is what it means to take writing public."  (The Current, Educator Innovator)

Supporting students to go public with their writing moves them from a focus on a known or unknown "who" to a more active, strategic, intentional writer's choice of the voice, genre, and message that will communicate with the "who." More than a semantic difference, planning for going public puts more of the power in the writer's hands.

Many of my colleagues and I no longer quibble about what an authentic or real audience is. We have found it much more productive to think hard with teachers and students about how we move from a call to write to going public and how that shapes the writing and messages we communicate in, outside of, and beyond school. 

Link to the CWP Resources page and scroll down for an Upstanders, Not Bystanders instructional toolkit and lesson templates:

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Response From Cheryl Mizerny

Cheryl Mizerny has been teaching for over 20 years, is passionate about middle-level education, and serves on the faculty of the AMLE Leadership Institute. Her practice is guided by her belief in reaching every student and educating the whole child. She currently teaches 6th grade English in Michigan and writes an education blog, It's Not Easy Being Tween, for Middleweb.com:

One thing I know for certain is that if I want my students to be inspired to do their very best work, I need to make sure that I am not the only person who sees it. By writing for an audience, their work automatically becomes more motivating and relevant. Finding an audience has become much easier with the advent of digital platforms for children to share their writing through blogging, but there are many other ways they can do so.

In my class, we have a great deal of fun writing letters for various purposes. When studying argumentative writing and rhetorical devices, my students compose Letters to the Editor (with the option to actually send it if they wish), to the principal or teachers asking for a change at school, to their parents asking for something they really want, or to legislators in order to express their well-developed arguments, all incorporating ethos, pathos, and logos. They are thrilled when one of these results gets action. They've also written letters to authors expressing the influence of their work for the Letters about Literature contest sponsored by the Library of Congress. (There are dozens of writing contests to investigate if you have students interested in doing so.) Finally, students write formal emails to companies of products they enjoy or that have been defective. Many receive free samples, stickers, or coupons in return. All of these work well because they show students the power of their words.

There are many opportunities to write for an authentic audience beyond letters. A motivating writing activity is making a poetry anthology dedicated specifically to a beloved person with a poem on one side and the explanation for why it was chosen on the other. Time and again, these become treasured gifts. Some years, I've compiled a classroom anthology of poems and made arrangements to leave them at local coffee shops. Students also enjoy writing creative stories or picture books for younger students and reading them aloud to their audience. Interviewing an older, influential adult about an important event in their life, transcribing the story, and then presenting it to the person have been meaningful for both parties. 

Finally, one of the simplest ways to give students an audience is within the classroom. When my students design infographics or symbolism projects, I display them, and we share them via gallery walks, quick talks, or slide shows. Writing book talk scripts and sharing them aloud provides the dual benefit that their peers can add titles to their "to be read" lists. In the spring, my students do a multimedia presentation to share their learning and final products from their Passion Projects. 

Not every writing project requires or deserves a large production. Sometimes just briefly sharing with a neighbor or around the class is enough. But when there is something that feels more significant, making an effort to find and provide an authentic audience truly pays off.

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Response From Erin Starkey

Erin Starkey is a PBLWorks National Faculty member and co-author, along with PBLWorks colleagues Sara Lev (@saramlev) and Amanda Clark (@Clark21Amanda), of the book Implementing Project-Based Learning in Early Childhood: Overcoming Misconceptions and Reaching Success (Routledge) about implementing PBL in early-childhood classrooms. Connect with Erin on Twitter - @edtechtraveler:

"The key to education is the experience of beauty."—Friedrich Schiller

Inviting authentic audiences into our classrooms to engage with our students opens up the world to our students. Imagine how the level of ownership or the motivation to persevere increases for our students when authentic audiences are present throughout our students' writing process. The four types of project authenticity outlined by PBLWorks present a constructivist lens to help us reflect on the writing we ask our students to engage in. 

Do we offer an authentic context for student writing? Have we looked at the writing standards with an eye for how those standards might be used in the adult world? Are students given opportunities to write class books, thank-you letters, proposals, job resumes, emails, and research papers? Consider the research paper in the Water Quality Project. Students studied corrosive inhibitors within the context of the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and had graduate students visit the classroom to give the students feedback before they submitted their final work to the University of Virginia. Could your students learn to write like scientists by inviting graduate students and professors to offer feedback? For our younger learners, could older students from middle and high schools come in to offer feedback? 

In what ways does student writing involve real-world tasks, tools, and quality standards? Are students given workshop space to draft, peer edit, and ask experts to weigh in? Does the writing task mirror the adult world of work? Consider how much richer students' writing might be if they know a field expert is waiting to give them feedback as opposed to telling the students it is time for the expository writing unit. What happens if students co-create or give input in the creation of the rubric used to evaluate their writing? What if students were able to publish hard copies of student or class books? Companies like Classroom Authors, School Mate, and Studentreasures offer kits that publish class and student books. Their books could play key parts in students' portfolio presentations each year or be put in school libraries to be checked out by other students. Elementary students could use these books during Daily 5 "Read to Self" and "Read to Others" stations. Students could take their books to nursing homes, shelters, or hospitals to tell about their writing process and share the final product with others. Imagine the social-emotional learning, speaking and listening skills that are developed as students read their work to residents at each facility. 

Do we open the door for student writing to make an impact on the world? What if we identified writing opportunities within the persuasive-writing standards to model how citizens can create real changes in our communities? Are students able to write for local papers or city blogs? Could students write proposals to their community leaders or write to persuade a congressperson? Teaching persuasive writing in the context of making an impact helps students understand that their writing can impact the way people live and think. 

Do we create space for students to craft narratives, creative fiction/nonfiction, and poetry that speaks to students' personal concerns, interests, or identities? In Taking Care of Our Environment, Sara Lev's students took on the task of teaching others how to take care of their classroom, playground, and playhouse. Her students created a class book to accompany their training day and video and used these books to teach their parents, caregivers, siblings, and incoming kindergartners how to take care of each important space. Could students meet poetry standards by composing original works or songs to perform at local poetry slams or open-mic nights in your community library or local coffee shop?

Mark Twain said that he "never let his schooling interfere with his education." Let's be sure that we continually seek authentic audiences for our students' writing so we enhance students' learning rather than interfering with it.

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Response From Nicole Brown & Dawn Mitchell

Dawn J. Mitchell works in instructional services in Spartanburg (S.C.) School District Six. She specializes in literacy professional development and leads the district's induction course to provide relevant strategies and support to first-year teachers. Mitchell also serves as an adjunct instructor at Furman University, where she supervises and mentors preservice and induction teachers through the Teacher to Teacher program. She is currently serving as president of the South Carolina Chapter of ASCD and is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015. Connect with Mitchell on Twitter @dawnjmitchell.

Nicole Brown works at Anderson Mill Elementary School in Spartanburg District Six. She taught elementary school for 20 years and has been working as a literacy coach for the past four years. Nicole received her undergraduate degree in elementary education from Clemson University and her master's degree in leadership and administration from Converse College. She is a member of the SCASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2017. You can connect with Nicole at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @nikkismithbrown:

Top 3 Ways Students Can Write for "Authentic Audiences"

When crafting writing lessons for students, most teachers start with the standard he or she wants to teach. This standard is then turned into a purpose for writing. Are we wanting to explain something, persuade someone to do something, write about characters with a problem and solution? Having a purpose for writing is important. As adults, that is actually WHEN we write. When we have a purpose for doing so. Typically however, the students have one person in mind as their audience—the teacher. If our students are going to be proficient writers as adults in today's world, we must start thinking about for WHOM they are writing. When students have a "real" or "authentic" purpose AND audience, students become more engaged and (dare I say it) EXCITED about writing! 

A few years ago, when we were collaborating with a group of 3rd grade students on researching different regions of our state, South Carolina, we knew from our own experience as teachers who write as well as from a recent professional-development read called Study Driven by Katie Wood Ray that in order to provide motivation for all the parts of writing, including informational reading and research, drafting, conferring, etc., our students needed a real purpose for their writing as well as an authentic product and audience beyond our classroom walls. 

That year, we learned that many of our students gravitated toward graphic novels and toward magazines and websites during their choice reading time in the classroom and in the media center, so we decided on the list-article genre as a possibility for students' authentic product for their S.C. regions unit of study.  Students had a choice, not only of what region they wanted to research, but they also had lots of options for list articles to study from our text set curated from list articles from travel articles in publications such as Travel & Leisure, Southern Living, USA Today Travel section, our local Spartanburg Herald Journal, National Geographic for Kids, and more. 

After immersing our students in ongoing inquiry into both the region of our state they'd chosen with their group to research as well as a text set of list articles, students were also given choice over how their final product looked and who they wanted to share it with.  Students were excited to share their finished products with each other, they also but wanted to record themselves reading their list article so we could share their products digitally with their parents and community members.  We also emailed their finished products to the state tourism department so they could share the videos on their website as well. Click this link to view our class's list article video. 

Students worked with an excitement and intensity when they knew their work mattered, not just for a grade or for the bulletin board, but to inform and persuade their peers, parents, and larger community to visit their chosen region in our state.  This was a positive, formative experience for our 3rd graders and for us as teachers of writing.  We learned from this experience and from many others since then the importance of helping our students discover authentic audiences and purposes and products for their writing. When students feel as though their work matters, it builds confidence and provides motivation for all! 

Here are our top three suggestions for encouraging writing that is for a real purpose and an authentic audience. 

  1. Provide Content Connections - The world is full of published information people are passionate about learning, whether this is on the internet, in newspapers, magazines, or in our Amazon and Barnes and Noble carts.  This doesn't mean the information is dry or dull and written only in five-paragraph form or in penciled worksheet templates.  In fact, the opposite is true.  The published work is highly engaging for the reader, including visuals such as graphics and photographs, text that is both informative and entertaining, and opportunities that allow for the reader to interact with the text and others through links to additional resources and opportunities to discuss and share what they thought. Consider providing students with genres that help connect the content they are passionate about with the craft of writing that helps their words connect to an audience. We recommend this resource from NCTE's ReadWriteThink that provides helpful tips for students to write in authentic genres and for real-world audiences. 

  2. Provide Choices That Matter - Choice is an essential ingredient for student ownership, and we've learned that students need choices throughout the learning process.   Choice doesn't stop with audience, though. If a student doesn't have ownership over their topic or the product they are creating and/or has no agency over their process for creating it, it may not matter who the final product goes to. Consider where student choice matters throughout your writing unit of study.  Definitely having choice over their audience promotes interest and engagement for the reader.  Not every student is motivated by sharing with their younger or older book-buddy partners in a different grade and not every student has a parent at home who can provide parent feedback.  For these reasons and more, it is important to provide students with more than one choice for an authentic audience. 

  3. Provide Structures That Sustain Inquiry - When we first began structuring our writing instruction within a workshop model, we found our students had opportunities for inquiry into their reading and research, into their mentor texts and the writing process, and into  themselves as learners. This went beyond just assigning a writing topic and providing students with an audience.  Students had time during class that included ongoing support and instruction within this predictable structure that grew both the writer and the writing over the course of several weeks.  Over the years, the workshop model has provided consistent opportunities for students to grow as readers, writers, and thinkers while their products continue to grow in accuracy, in quality, and in complexity.  A few years ago, we both embarked on a journey into the world of project- and problem-based learning, which is similar to a workshop model but provides ongoing opportunities for students to solve a real-world problem and/or create a real-world product.  We have found Pbl World and New Tech both to be helpful resources for this work.  Whether you are utilizing a writing workshop or a pbl /prbl approach, consider structures that sustain student inquiry. 

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Response From John Larmer

John Larmer is editor-in-chief at PBLWorks (the new brand name of the Buck Institute for Education), where he oversees all of its written materials and manages its PBL Blog. He wrote and edited the PBL Toolkit Series of books, rubrics for 21st-century success skills, and materials for PBLWorks' professional-development programs. In 2015, he co-authored Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning, co-published by ASCD, and in 2018, contributed to and edited Project Based Teaching, also co-published by ASCD. For 10 years John taught high school social studies and English and co-founded a restructured small high school, and he was a member of the National School Reform Faculty and school coach for the Coalition of Essential Schools:

An elementary school educator I know, Myla Lee, told this story:

"As a teacher of literacy, I remember assigning my students informational reading and writing, and they just weren't excited about it. It wasn't as enticing as the mystery books, realistic stories, fantasy, or science fiction stories they had in their desks or the creative-writing drafts they had in their writers' notebooks. One 3rd grader in particular, Madeline, asked me one day, "Mrs. Lee, what does it matter if I read this informational text and write about it? It's only for a grade. Who's going to read it anyways? Who cares?" 

Reflecting on this and other similar experiences led Myla to become a PBL (Project-Based Learning) teacher, creating projects that were authentic, that gave students a real purpose for their writing. Instead of writing "pretend" pieces to, say, explain why an endangered species should be protected, students could actually work with a local conservation organization to write pages for its website. Or instead of writing a class book of poetry for no particular audience (besides themselves and their families), one class (as reported in The Philadelphia Inquirer) wrote a book of poems to inspire fellow students who were depressed.

To help students write for authentic purposes in PBL, four tips we offer teachers are (1) provide models of what the writing looks like, (2) have students analyze the models to co-create a rubric or set of criteria for what good writing of that type is, (3) bring in outside experts who can help coach students in how to write for particular audiences, and (4) have students share drafts of their writing with each other, the outside expert(s), and, if possible, a focus group of the intended readers, so students can get feedback and revise their writing.

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Thanks to Jayne, Cheryl, Erin, Nicole, Dawn, and John  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 [email protected]. 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.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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