Authentic Opportunities To Write

In a stack of papers called Connections, Writing.

  • Dec
  • 08
  • 2005

I’ve been thinking about this entry for a while and it’s time I just put the ideas out there, even if they aren’t as polished as I want them to be.

Idea One

At a meeting on Monday, a friend of mine talked about giving his students “an essay in disguise” for Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, wherein he would write a fake letter from the board banning the novel and the students would have to reply with an argument about why the board should or should not take such an action. I like the idea and think that students need as many chances as possible to have a clear audience for their writing while developing their skills. I did something similar 2 years ago when our district was on the brink of instituting a dress code: I took the superintendent’s letter, made copies of it for my students, and turned the issue over to them for a debate and a formal response in the form of a letter. I think that several of the students sent those letters on to the district office and more than a few of them changed their minds once they started to think about both sides of the issue. I’d imagine similar results for my friend teaching Siddhartha and I’d imagine that’s because the topic seems more realistic (authentic, as we pedagogically inclined folk tend to call it).

Idea Two

To that end, I’ve been thinking and planning for a while now to have my students record audio pieces second semester. I listened to Dan Gillmor’s podcast on driving quite some time ago and it started an idea. Listening to KQED radio’s “Perspective” commentary segment on the way to work last school year, on a few occasions I hear teenagers on the radio expressing their opinion about things, the idea took more of a solid form, with those “Perspective” bits representing the final product of my students’ work. If each of students could be working on one of these during the second semester, we could create a bank of student opinion.

Just this past weekend, I came across the submission guidelines for those “Perspective” pieces and realized that KQED had done much of my work for me in terms of an assignment sheet. Not only that, in addition to grades being a motivating factor, KQED has added a bit of fame and $65 to encourage students to do their best.

Idea Three

And that got me thinking even more: what if teachers were to use contest guidelines as assignment sheets for writing or acting or whatever? If there’s a real contest to enter that meets the standards of a given unit, great. If not, create the assignment sheet to look like a contest (of course, tell students it’s fake). For a lot of students, the most ernest writing comes from someone other than their teacher reading the end result. If it’s for money, so much the better. I’m looking at a contest form from Everbind that ended October 20, 2005 (why I recieved this in the mail today, I do not know) and the guidelines are almost exactly what I would create for an essay. This thing even meets state standards (the assignment is to compare and contrast a fictional character from a contemporary text to any character from a Shakespeare play) and there are formatting requirements that read as if they are directly from the MLA handbook.

Idea Four

Cable in the Classroom’s We Are Hamlet presents a similar situation in which participants record their dramatic rendering of a soliloquy. Here’s what they are looking for:

We’re looking for video clips of your own interpretation of the “To be or not to be” speech (or any other well-known speech written by Shakespeare) to post right here. (Source)

How many of us have seen an assignment sheet similar to this, only the student will perform in front of the class or in front of the teacher? Here’s that same assignment with the chance for students to have their work showcased on a Web site seen by everyone around the world. And there are submission guidelines along with a terms and conditions contract to read, sign, and submit.


So my point is that maybe using contests and other opportunities as a means to generate reading or response to literature/life is better than creating them under false pretenses in the classroom. If students have a chance to display their work to a larger audience AND to the teacher for evaluation, they might stand a better chance at taking the work seriously and putting forth their strongest effort.


1. Ben says:

[12/10/2005 - 4:59 am]

I had meant to comment on this earlier in the week, but a snow day yesterday got me side-tracked with having extra baby time.

I really enjoy your Idea #1. I did a similar writing exercise at the beginning of the year. After studying the Core Democratic Values I have the students do a “Take A Stand” essay in which they must defend a position using one or more of the CDVs to back them up. I usually pick a make believe topic that I know will rile them up like “It’s too noisy in the lunchroom, so sixth graders no longer get to talk, while 7th and 8th graders are welcome to.” I usually try to pick something that on the surface is blatantly unfair, but that they have to think hard about in order to refute beyond the simple “it’s not fair” line of defense. We really had fun with a make believe essay about the school being awared a 200,000 dollar grant fron the state and didn’t know what to spend it on; new computers for all the labs, or a football field (we don’t have one). That got a lot of really good responses as the kids were torn between having brand new computers (which they love), and a football field (which they’ve always wanted).

2. Hassan says:

[2/12/2006 - 7:48 am]

Thanks a lot for your useful writting . by the way I recieved your kind e -mail I will reply it soon .
Hassan from Kurdistan