Sunday, February 5, 2017

Can an Eighth Grader Make an Impact?

I see my students constantly composing: texts, notes to each other in class, silly sentences for grammar practice, lists of all varieties. I overhear the amusing and detailed things they tell each other, and I'm excited by their proficiency with words. But when they are asked to write for school, the work they turn in is generally less than stellar. There is a marked difference between their witty repartee in speaking and the dry delivery of their writing. Why is assigned student writing so often insipid, disinterested, and uninspired? In an article in the English Journal titled "Real-World Writing: Making Purpose and Audience Matter," Grant Wiggins says:
The point of writing is to have something to say and to make a difference in saying it. Rarely, however, is impact [emphasis added] the focus in writing instruction in English class. Rather, typical rubrics stress organization and mechanics; typical prompts are academic exercises of no genuine consequence; instruction typically makes the “process” formulaic rather than purposeful.
Thinking about some of the writing assignments I’ve given in the past, I recognize that my students felt that their writing didn’t exist outside of my classroom. They couldn’t understand any impact or genuine consequences that their writing might have. Could this dearth of imagination be the spark that student writing is missing? What could I do to ensure that impact – genuine consequence – exists in my classroom, writing workshops, and assessments?

Naming Audience

In an ideal world, every student piece would be published in a magazine or sent as a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. In the school world, this isn't always practical. It is still possible, however, to teach students to consider an audience as an integral part of every piece of writing. Students can’t really impact anyone with their writing if they don’t even know what audience they are writing for.

In her article "A Cure for Writer's Block: Writing for Real Audiences" from NWP's The Quarterly, Anne Rodier relates how she encourages her students to think about who might be the audience for the kind of writing they are doing. Who would care about what they have to say? As an example, in the classroom, students might write their memoir to share with a family member or a best friend. An argument might be directed to a parent or an organization. In the beginning, students often need help figuring out whom they could be writing to, but once they have someone or a group in mind, it often automatically determines the genre, form, and tone of what they are trying to write.

One additional thing that Rodier emphasizes is that even with genuine audiences, writers are still "employing craft," or in other words, writers are performing, or acting through writing, using a specifically chosen and crafted voice or persona to "tell the right story to the right person in the right way." When students are consciously considering how to reach not just any audience, but a specific audience, they are going to be more motivated to fine-tune their writing.

Informative pieces especially benefit from audience consideration. A student of mine who was writing an piece on violins remarked, “I am writing this for my cousin. She knows all about how to play a violin, but she doesn’t know how a violin is made. So, I am focusing on that.” It was interesting to see how naming an audience directed her research and her focus and made the paper come to life. She looked for something that her reader didn’t already know, a way to impact the reader, and because she did, she wrote a better paper.

Giving Choices

In my adult world, I generally choose what I want to write about. I’m often motivated to write about things I want to remember or change. When I compose a letter to my senator, it is because I have an issue to discuss that I feel strongly about. When I write in my journal, it is because I've had an experience that has touched or profoundly affected me in some way. I have a very defined purpose, so I feel (hope) that my writing will make an impact on the reader.

Students aren't always so lucky. Few of them would choose to write an argument or essay on their own. However, we can give back the power of impactful writing when we give them choice about what to write about. On, Ruth Arseneault says that:

So, how do we give students choice? I think it has to go beyond a list of topics they can choose from. Students need to realize that they have choices when it comes to the way they write things as well. I have found that mentor text studies are very helpful for showing students that they can branch out beyond the five-paragraph essay and still write a powerful paper. Writers such as Rick Reilly, Leonard Pitts, and even athletes from The Players Tribune show my students that arguments don't have to follow a set structure. The claim can come at the end, or they can begin their arguments with a personal story -- and it can still work.

When we wrote memoirs earlier this year, we studied three strong mentor texts, "Chalk Face" by A. J. Jacobs, "Fish Cheeks" by Amy Tan, and "My Grandmother's Hair" by Cynthia Rylant. Each one described a single core memory (thanks, Disney!), but each had a very different style and approach.

After the students submitted their own work, I asked them about the choices they made. One student said, “I didn’t realize that a memoir could be about an object. I chose to write about my blanket that I’ve had since I was a baby. Writing about it was actually fun, because it brought back so many memories. I chose to organize it [chronologically], but I could have done it by place, too.”

Another student said, “I hadn’t thought about how short a core memory could be. I thought I had to choose something really amazing or life changing. Reading "Chalk Face" helped me see that I could choose something kind of everyday and quick to write about that was just important to me. So, I chose to write about when my brother and I slid down our stairs on a big piece of cardboard. The whole story took about five minutes, but it’s something I will never forget.” These student reflections demonstrate that the choice of how to write was just as vital as the choice of what to write when it came to engagement.

Performing Writing

In the past year, I read an essay in front of a packed crowd, presented at UCTE, gave talks, taught lessons, and led discussions. All of these involved writing that eventually had a live audience of real people. When we make time for students to present their writing, we allow them to experience the genuine consequences of writing. Some of the many things I've tried in my classes are writing circles, debates, Socratic seminars, poetry slams, occasional papers, pecha kuchas, and even just the everyday sharing of quick writes with the rest of the class. Students had to present writing in some fashion in each of these -- from formal to informal -- and that expectation made all the difference.

An example of this  happened last year when our grade level team worked together to have our students write job descriptions, resumes and applications for jobs as Santa’s elves. Some students were employers and others were the prospective employees. Tension and stakes were high for both parties, and students were highly motivated to write a great resume or detailed and concise job description because 1) other students were going to hear them read it and evaluate it (and them), and 2) they wanted the best elf job/worker (everyone wanted to make candy canes, no one wanted to clean up after the reindeer).

Part of this exercise included a job interview. Both interviewers and interviewees had an authentic experience as they wrestled with what questions to ask and what answers to give. Although no one was really getting a job at the North Pole, having a continual audience for everything they did made the assignment matter to the students. One student said, “This was one of my favorite things from last year. I worked hard on it because I knew that people in my class were going to see what I did. I don’t care as much when it’s just for the teacher. I guess I should, but I don’t.”

I also had my students debate each other as part of our argument unit. Watch below to see what two students had to say about the experience. Obviously, the opportunity to hear others and be heard themselves made them feel like they were making an impact with what they had to say.

Reaching Conclusions

In "Real Voices for Real Audiences" from The Quarterly, Joan Kernan Cone writes that student writers will always "play it safe" -- writing as little as possible, with as little voice as possible, and "writing not for an interested reader but for a mistake finder" until they have a reason not to.

I’ve found that giving students choice, finding an audience, and offering performance opportunities allows student writing to have impact – the impetus that students need to open their writing hearts and minds to us. If we don’t want to keep reading student writing that we know isn’t the best that our students can do, it is our imperative to help students find the impact their voices, thoughts, and stories could have on the world.

Authentic and Audience Friendly Writing Assessment Resources
Great examples of authentic, performance based writing assessments from nine different teachers from kindergarten to AP literature
An exhaustive list of writing activities, mini-lessons, and assessments that promote authentic, audience-based classroom experiences