My favorite teacher-blogger, Dina Strasser, reminds us in a wonderful post on The Line this week of the power of making her seventh and eighth graders send out their written work to an audience other than their teacher.
Getting to more authentic writing takes a single step, she has found: Make sure someone other than you sees it.
Here’s the rest of her post, reprinted with her permission. (My response follows in a twin post.)
Kids are now reflecting on altruistic experiences in their lives, choosing one, and articulating its deeper meaning for themselves (the “SO WHAT?” in Nancie Atwell language). They then write a friendly letter to the person involved in the memory– and, in all cases where it applies, addressing an envelope, putting the letter in, licking it closed, and SENDING IT.
“We’re SENDING IT?” they howl.
“We’re sending it,” I repeat, smiling. (Because I actually enjoy seeing them react like this; like watching a canary in coal mine, chances are that if I’m making them visibly uncomfortable, we’re hitting Vygotsky’s sweet spot.)
As they get over their shock (quickly– they’re resilient folks), a two-part realization hits me. One: that kids don’t do nearly enough of this kind of thing. My announcement should be boring them to tears.
Two: that kids, without malice or deviousness, come to count on the fact that you are their only audience.
Far from raising stakes or expectations, the knowledge that their writing products live, move, and have their being merely within the artificial bubble of school decreases those products’ value to kids—no matter how clever or challenging the work.
It also encourages the path of least resistance that we all tend towards. Why bother to capitalize, think a sentence through, or search for just the right word, when the only person who cares about it is Ms. S? Doesn’t she live with the other teachers in the janitor’s closet anyway?
In contrast, the make sure someone other than you sees it approach has already garnered some of the neatest handwriting, the most complete grammar, and– most importantly– the most genuine thinking I have seen all semester.
And as I mention above, it doesn’t have to be complicated, technical, or even require a reworking of assignments you already have.
- Photocopy final products and have the kids mail them home with a post-it.
- Throw another set into a manila envelope and have the kids watch you mail them to the superintendent.
- Circulate word-processed assignments to your colleagues via email.
- Email some more to friends or family of the kids’ choice.
- Put together an anthology for every homeroom.
- Create a quarterly literary magazine (read: stapled double-sided copies).
- Distribute homemade poems at lunchtime.
- Or if you fancy it, use one of the multiple powerful technologies available to classroom communities: blogs, wikis, webpages.
Who the audience is or should be, of course, is a question deserving of its own post: pros and cons to all, from peers to parents to the Internet. For now, though, if there’s any dark side to this approach, the word of caution I would give is not to use authentic audience as a punishment or a threat. Speaking simply in terms of keeping the assignments real is going to go a lot further with middle schoolers than “You had better spell this right, or your mother will be ashamed of you.”
The second half of the year is looming, and as implied at the beginning of the post, I continue to wrestle with the balance between totally kid-generated writing, teacher-guided writing, and writing that is teacher-directed from A to Z. Regardless of the writing’s generation, however, I am making a personal commitment to have every single product my kids create this year go out into the world in one way or another—and that the kids are active participants in that process.
It’s not a magic bullet. But it comes close.
—DS, in The Line