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Last spring, during my month spent blogging about teaching the essay, a teacher asked me a question that I had no ready answer for:


It is one thing to have students write narratives that they share with others or practice argumentation through writing letters to real people, but how can teachers make essays about books in their classes authentic?


My initial response was to roll through some of the common suggestions given for how to make writing in schools more authentic:

  • Have you tried having students use technology to share their thoughts (via blogging or podcasting) with classmates?
  • Is there some “real-world” audience for them to share their pieces with?
  • Did you build up to the essay with interesting mentor texts to frame the assignment?

But over the following weeks this question stuck in my head. There was something I was missing, and finding the answer was really important because what she described–the essay on a book the class has read–is still the dominant paper in the ELA classroom, and if it remains largely inauthentic, then writing in our schools may remain largely inauthentic as well.

It wasn’t until this summer, when I was listening to a Talks With Teachers Podcast that featured Jim Burke that I suddenly had my answer. Burke was discussing how he plans units, and he said…

“Whether it is fiction or non-fiction…I generally organize my units and the kids’ reading of the books around an inquiry into a topic. When we read 1984, we won’t read it because we should read 1984; we will read it as an inquiry into power…with high school seniors, power is something that they are very interested in, oftentimes because they don’t have very much of it.”

Jim Burke in Talks with Teachers

What Burke is getting at here is that we read (and also largely write) in the first place as a form of inquiry. We look to books because we want answers for how to best travel through this difficult world. And when we find good answers, suddenly the experience is meaningful, or in other words authentic.

While the medium that a piece is shared in or the tertiary audiences that can be found for it can at times amplify its authenticity, what ultimately tips the scales between meaningful, authentic writing and forced, inauthentic writing is how much that writing connects to and impacts our students’ lives.

And when I look back at the essays I’ve done that have had the most buy-in from the students, all of them had a larger topic or experience that guided both the students’ reading and writing. There was a unit on Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings where the class and paper focused on how we can process, heal, and ultimately overcome the trauma life will inevitably toss our way; a unit on Animal Farm where the class explored the various ways that good intentions and ideals can be corrupted; and a unit where students read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and then wrote their own essay on the intersection of race and their lives in response (in the way that Coates’ book is a response to James Baldwin).

These are the papers that I would consider to be the most successful, but until I heard Jim Burke talk about his approach, I’d never fully realized why these papers work so well. They work because they are built around meaningful inquiry of something that matters. Life requires that we all navigate trauma, corrupting factors, and racial divides. The students know this, and so they respond differently to essays where they get to explore those topics in ways that authentically connect to their lives than they respond to essays on some random topic chosen by the teacher that may or may not connect to their lives.

With that in mind, here is the response that I would give that teacher if given a do-over:

What makes a piece of writing authentic is not the medium it is shared in. Nor is it the audience. Or the mentor texts used.

What makes a piece of writing authentic is the meaning it has for the student. If there is meaning in the writing, it is authentic. If there isn’t, it is not authentic. It is as simple as that.

Of course, the tricky part of this is that we all derive meaning from different topics. A question that fascinates me might be incredibly dull to someone else. With that in mind, this year, I have created a simple list of rules to help guide me in the pursuit of making every writing assignment meaningful (and therefore authentic) for every student. The list goes as follows:

  1. Like Burke, I am organizing every unit around a central topic that is so big and impactful (like trauma, corruption, and race) that it is almost guaranteed to have some meaning for most or all of my students. I then touch upon these central topics early and often.
  2. I am doubling down on my policy of not giving specific prompts. Instead, the exact direction students will take on any given paper will be somewhat up to students.
  3. I am explicitly telling students that if they aren’t interested in the topics presented in class that I encourage them to meet with me so that we can create an approach that is meaningful for them.

So far, this approach has led to a quarter of some of the most interesting and enjoyable papers I have ever read; I don’t think I’ve ever looked so forward to reading and responding to student work, and I’m positive my students have never looked so forward to writing them because, as I’ve said before, writing is fun… if one is writing something authentic.

Yours in Teaching,

Matt

Let me help you!

Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on how to give feedback faster and better.

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