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Guiding Students in Authentic Writing
  • Sep 2022
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Guiding Students in Authentic Writing

23rd September 2022

A 'genuine' writing assignment is intended to have a specific purpose or objective (usually to an external audience outside of the classroom).

In contrast to academic writing assignments, the goal of authentic writing assignments is to fulfill academic requirements (usually to an internal audience within the classroom).

So, how can you provide students with real writing assignments? It has something to do with the audience and the purpose. In context, consider the following principles about content:

I. Writing should convey something, such as an experience, an idea, a reflection, or knowledge.

II. The underlying premise of any work intended for publication—that is, made public—is that the material is something that others (i.e., the 'public') may desire or need to know. (If not, what is the point of making it public?)

III. In addition published work must be either useful or compelling—ideally both. Publishable writing, then, is writing that is helpful and/or interesting to others and is something they would want or need to know.

IV. In digital situations, there is an additional cost of 'publishability': competition for attention. There are a functionally endless number of media and media forms, and those who want their writing read are 'competing' to be read.

With that in mind, imagine a student writing a brief essay about climate change. The 'target' of an essay like this is usually the instructor, and the purpose is to achieve quality requirements provided by the teacher—often in the form of a rubric or some type of grading guide.

In this situation, the 'audience' (i.e., the instructor) has a high intrinsic interest in the writing's quality but a diminished interest in the writing's content.

If the student was writing to a more real 'external' audience of some kind—say, a local firm with a mixed record of polluting local creeks, rivers, and watersheds—the reader would be more concerned with the aim and content (and tone) of the essay.

Because students frequently write with the instructor and/or classmates as their audience, the audience is mandatory in these circumstances, and the feedback loop de-accentuates content and emphasizes 'quality' (as dictated by academic standards, the teacher, etc.)

Students can be conditioned over time to assume that someone wants to read what they write, which is analogous to a politician running on the premise that everyone already wants to vote for them.

In this sense, every writing contains some persuasive elements: writers seek to persuade the reader to accept their thesis or to suspend disbelief while reading their fiction, and so on.

Starting with a genuine (to the student) audience and objective is the simplest method to bring authenticity to any writing task. Assist the writer in developing a defined objective for a specific audience. Spend a significant amount of time here as a type of pre-writing exercise.

Brainstorm. Consider similar captivating content and reverse-engineer it. 'Who are you writing to and why are you writing to them?' ask students.

What do you hope the writing accomplishes?' If you and the student are unable to come up with a specific and persuasive solution, return to the drawing board.

Is it possible that after reading the work, the reader will shrug and think, 'So what?' or even 'All right, now what?'

Begin with something easy, such as sending a text message to a parent or friend. Who is the intended audience, and what is the goal?

Get a little more sophisticated now—perhaps a nursery rhyme or a YouTube video. Who is the intended audience, and what is the goal? What about Whitman's "Song of Myself"?

The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America? What is the Pali Canon?

In How David Foster Wallace Taught Students To Respond To One Another’s Writing, I quoted David Foster Wallace”

"Creative also implies that this type of nonfiction tends to contain signs of its artifice; the author of the essay generally wants readers to perceive and comprehend her as the text's maker."

This is not to claim that an essayist's primary objective is to "share" or "express herself" or whatever feel-good word you were taught in high school. In the adult world, creative nonfiction is referred to as communicative writing rather than expressive writing.

And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not care about you (the writer), does not find you intriguing as a person, and does not have a deep natural interest in the same things that you do.

In reality, the reader will feel just what your written words cause her to feel about you, your subject, and your essay."

Of course, this is a less pressing concern for a first-grader than it is for a professional writer like Wallace. The idea is that we, as humans, continually have an impact on the planet. We influence it via interactions, labor, art, and other means.

Writing is a microcosm of all of this. In the real world,' we write to communicate—for example, to inform or convince. Informing is easier than convincing, but both need significant effort to be considered successful.'

In boxing or grappling, for example, one of the most valuable teachers is a stubborn, resistant opponent—someone who is attempting to dodge and counter everything you're doing. Both practitioners benefit from this.

A sparring partner who simply stood there and let you punch them would give you false confidence and, worse, would prevent you from learning any actual talent.

Writing works in the same manner. Authentic writing must be created with a resistant' reader' in mind (much as a good lesson must be designed with resistant' students' in mind by teachers).

Starting with a clear and authentic audience and objective and working backward from there is the simplest method to produce authentic writing assignments.


More Tips For Creating Authentic Writing Assignments For Students

1. Solicit suggestions from students. (They nearly always have good ideas, and even when they don't, it may be educational.)

2. Make use of real-life 'writing' as models and examples. Consider novels, music, video game plots and dialogue, films, and so forth.

3. Experiment with different media formats. You may begin with text and have it converted to a podcast or short video. Alternatively, start with a song or motivating video and convert it to text.

4. Look for challenges to solve—ideally ones that are 'natural' and true to each student.

5. Maintain a writing portfolio. This alone will not make an assignment 'genuine,' but it will make it more durable (in the classroom) and appear to have a purpose other than being assessed and forgotten.

6. Use anonymous pre- and post-assignment polls to determine how many readers, for example, have been convinced to change their view on an issue. (This is how Oxford-style discussions are conducted.)



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