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How to Engage Young Writers: Be Diverse. Be Authentic. Be Responsive.


Janelle Quintans Bence

It would be much more convenient if what worked for us as students of writing worked for today's learners, but that's simply not the case. Responding to the differences in how to engage today's youth in writing is crucial in developing not only their writing skills but also their self-perception as writers.

1. Writing instruction must address various writing demands, genres, and mediums.

Writing tasks are as diverse as they are plentiful, occurring in various digital platforms. Some may dismiss these demands as too casual or even somewhat inappropriate for an academic setting, but there is complex thinking going on in learners' lives. Consider the inferencing involved in following an exchange of facial expressionless text messages. Or the revising required to hone down a statement to 140 characters to articulate precisely for Twitter. Or the summary and creating a hook skills needed to write a subject for an email. Or the rhetorical appeals made when carefully selecting images and words to create memes, digital posters, or Snapchats.

All of these writing tasks begin with one thing: strong thesis. Including various digital platforms and analyzing for thesis, its development, and its analysis, enables educators to connect writing to what most youth do or will be expected to do in the world outside school walls.

2. Writing instruction must prepare learners to share their writing with authentic audiences.

It has never been easier to publish online. Students post every day about feelings and opinions for their friends, friends of friends, and even strangers. If they understand the implications of their digital footprint, writing becomes this process that is constantly being reexamined to best represent who they are. Learners need to know there is a process that occurs prior to "putting it out there" on the internet. And if what they write spurs further discussion or even controversy, learners must have opportunities to wrestle with the discourse.

It is the educator's responsibility to network with organizations and other learners around the world so students understand their writing is being seen by more than "just the teacher." It raises stakes. Learners become more intentional in the revision of their work. Plus, they gain a wider global perspective. English language learners have a chance to see more of their peers' writing. They understand clear expression of thought is needed in every aspect of their lives. The efforts of educators who connect to social media consumption and production indicate to the learners that their contexts matter, their interests matter.

3. Writing instruction must be responsive, not prescriptive.

Standards, tests, scope and sequence: just some of the many constraints placed on writing curriculum today. It is counterintuitive to think finding a writing style, voice, and owning it could be fostered with such a restrictive context. Quite honestly, many of the "academic tasks" required by such mandates are at odds with the authentic writing demands placed on today's learners.

It's time to reexamine what we value in writing.

Is good writing being able to compose on-demand timed essays with a checklist of criteria for evaluators who are anonymous or inconsequential to our learners who complete such tasks because they have to?

Or is good writing a powerful voice with demonstration of careful research because the learner's agency has been engaged due to the authenticity and relevance of the task?

When asking learners to be bold enough to explore what works for them as writers, we, too, must have the courage to step beyond our comfort zones to remain aware, open, and responsive to what works for each individual writer. It takes time and patience and trust in the process of inviting them to opportunities that speak to them and inspire a genuine response. It is only then when we honor our learners as writers and only then when they value themselves as such.

Janelle Quintans Bence currently facilitates English in a blended Humanities class at New Tech High @ Coppell in Texas. She has over 16 years experience working with English-language ;earners in both urban and suburban school districts. She is an active teacher-leader and has presented at many national conferences such as NCTE, SITE, and the National Writing Project, where she currently serves on the board. Her passion is teaching writing and offering her learners authentic learning experiences where they have opportunities to make meaningful changes in the world.

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