If you delve into the teaching of writing, you find all manner of high-minded advice about “writing for authentic audiences.” Students shouldn’t, the experts admonish, just write for their teachers.
The problem is that, if we’re going to be totally honest here, there isn’t a huge, ravenous audience for kids’ (or even, usually, teenagers’) writing. We, as teachers, are left to come up with situations in which our students can write for someone other than ourselves, their parents, or classmates. The dirty little secret is that these authentic writing tasks are often more contrived than just saying, “write me a personal narrative.”
I mean, yeah, you can have your students write something and then “publish” it… but let’s be honest, here. They’re writing something because you told them to, and the act of publishing is pretty much just putting together your final draft and adding some finishing touches. You can “share it with your audience,” but for the most part, that audience isn’t an organic, natural audience. From the student’s perspective, it’s usually still the equivalent of taking your writing home and making mom and dad read it.
Students are smart, teachers. They know (or many of them know, anyway) that their audience is reading their writing piece because they were asked to. They didn’t wake up and think, Huh. You know what I want to read today? A fourth-grader’s essay explaining the plant cycle. We owe students a certain amount of honesty. These aren’t organic audiences. They’re audiences we’ve hunted down and set up in the name of teaching young people to be better writers… and that’s not a bad thing.
There are challenges beyond the whole finding-an-audience thing. English language learners (ELLs) and other developing writers can have some anxiety about publishing their writing. Last semester, when I explained that we’d be working on writing good emails, the first question I got was, “Do we really have to actually send an email to someone else?”
Sometimes, they don’t want their writing shared with the whole, wide world… or even with a tiny little slice of the world. They are old enough understand that their grammar, sentence, structure, word choice, and organization are still developing, and also old enough to not want that difference put on public display.
We’re in a pickle, then, as teachers. How much do we help these emerging writers “clean up” their writing for public consumption? What if they don’t want their writing made public?
Dude, That’s Not Really Publishing
You might be thinking at this point that I’m just a grumpy teacher who doesn’t like the whole “writing for an authentic audience” and “publishing our writing” thing. I’m not, I swear. Well, I’m grumpy, but I’m not against writing for authentic(ish) audiences and (practice self-)publishing that writing. I just think we owe students a little more honesty and a few better options.
Telling them that they’re publishing their writing is a little disingenuous. Technically, yes, if we look at the definition of the word publish, we can say that they are ‘disseminating their writing to the public,’ but words are not just dictionary definitions.
Heck, I feel weird hitting the ‘publish’ button on this blog, because yeah, I’m putting it out there, but no, I’m not a published author. I’m a weirdo teacher with a blog. Publishing, as it is currently culturally defined, is for people have their poop in a group enough to write something they’ll get paid for.
School isn’t real life. A lot of what we have students do in school is not real life, AND THAT IS OK. Even when it’s writing.
What if we tell students that they’re “practice self-publishing” their writing? What if we openly admit that their writing is somewhere along a developmental continuum that leads to, eventually-maybe-sometimes, actually publishing writing?
Similarly, what if we tell students that they’re writing for authentic-ish (or if you want to be all grammatical, semi-authentic) audiences? Let’s face it, the authentic audience for a seventh grader’s biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. isn’t huge, but that doesn’t mean that the writing doesn’t have value, or that we shouldn’t seek out an authentic-ish audience for that writing. If we come right out and explain to students that we’ve set up a practice audience to read their final drafts, because after all, they’re still learning, isn’t that just a wee bit more honest?
I’m not suggesting we take away authentic-ish writing opportunities. Some of the best writing I’ve gotten out of my students this year has been in the form of their twice-quarterly book reviews that they post on Goodreads. They know that their reviews are going to be persuading other young people to read (or not read) a given book, so they crank out some good writing, check it over multiple times against my expectations, and even go in and edit if they catch a mistake after they have submitted (ah, the glory of internet). Rarely do I have to ask a student to do a re-write. I encourage them to make their status as a language learner known in their reviews, because that kind of information (a) establishes them as a credible author with a specific expertise, and (b) gives them a little “wiggle room” in their readers’ minds (and in their own minds) when it comes to the finer points of grammar and organization.
However, not every type of writing lends itself to that kind of authentic experience, especially at the developmental levels. When we set up audiences for our students, let’s be honest with our students. These aren’t readers who came beating down my door, begging to read twelve adolescent personal narratives. They’re awesome people who have agreed to be our practice audience so they can get a little taste of how it feels.
Honesty, people. Students can handle truth.