Authentic Writing: Turning Heads and Saving Necks

They hurtled into the room, grabbing the thickest, most neglected books from my shelf—titles like The Reader’s Encyclopedia of Shakespeare and The American Tradition in Literature—rushing them into the hallway, returning for more, until they’d built a wobbly skyscraper of books. What kind of assignment could spark such enthusiasm?

When educators talk about authentic writing, they are talking about assignments written for real audiences—not just for the teacher—that provide students with opportunities to make choices and write about ideas that matter to them. Ken Lindblom argued in a recent Writers Who Care blog post that good writing instruction offers opportunities for students to write in a variety of genres, invites students to write for real audiences and make meaningful choices, and incorporates feedback from multiple audiences throughout the writing process.

I’d like to reflect on a project from my tenth grade classes last year that challenged students to craft authentic writing by reaching out to experts and writing for real audiences.

Real-World Inquiry

When I learned that the school would be providing tablet computers to all students for the following school year, I wanted to encourage my students to consider the implications of such a significant change in their schooling. The school had distributed Windows Surface tablets to teachers a year ahead of the students, and through my experience using the tablet, I grew concerned that it was not designed for extended use, such as the sustained reading and typing that often occur in the English classroom. I launched an inquiry project, inviting students to “investigate how using a Surface tablet impacts health, formulate recommendations, and present an argument.”

assignment

Contacting Experts

Over a period of three weeks, students worked in small groups to investigate the question. Many groups reached out to experts for information, contacting clinicians such as local eye doctors and chiropractors for their recommendations, interviewing teachers to learn about their experiences using the tablet, and talking with students from nearby schools who were already using computers in the classroom. In their research, students encountered high level texts, such as scientific research studies and government publications, and culled facts and details to support their arguments. They even contacted vendors for price quotes on ergonomic furniture and computer accessories.

 

book-skyscraper
A student demonstrates the challenge of maintaining appropriate posture while using the computer in the classroom.

Choice in Designing the Final Product

I gave students the freedom to design their final products, encouraging them to select the genres and audiences that they deemed appropriate for their arguments. As a result, students crafted a wide range of texts: letters written to the Board of Education, original video PSA’s for the student body, fact sheets for teachers, and digital presentations designed for students, faculty, and administrators. Students raised concerns about posture-related strain on the neck and shoulders, referred to as “text neck” or “tech neck,” and many offered recommendations for ways to protect the eyes, wrists, arms and back from injury, including free suggestions such as stretches and posture tips, and purchases like computer accessories and flexible furniture.

Extending Influence

After the presentations, we talked about how to use students’ findings to effect change. We selected volunteer representatives from each of the small groups across both classes to develop a master presentation for the administration, pulling the best information and resources from all of their classmates’ presentations together.

During the last week of school, the students invited the Superintendent, Principal, and Director of Technology into our class to view the final presentation. Three students volunteered to deliver the presentation, meeting ahead of time to go through a dry run in front of their classmates before the administrators arrived. They hoped to share the health risks associated with extended device use, and to convince the administrators to consider their recommendations for what they called “healthy device use.” Watching the students passionately present their argument to the administration in front of an audience of their peers, all of whom had contributed in some way to this final product, was a highlight of the school year.

Authentic Writing Yields Authentic Results

Regarding feedback on authentic writing, Lindblom argues that “the best kind of authentic writing results in something tangible that shows the writing was successful, such as a letter written in response, a change of policy, a series of good questions (from an in-person audience), and so on.” After the administrators viewed the presentation, they gave a variety of feedback, asking questions about the writing process itself, and offering their opinions on the recommendations. Following the extensive Q&A session, the Director of Technology promised to include some of the students’ findings in that summer’s mandatory student training. Immediately, the students’ efforts had resulted in a policy change that would impact the entire student body.

The students also recommended training for staff, so the Principal agreed to allot some time to these issues at an early faculty meeting. I enlisted the help of a physical education teacher and an athletic trainer in September to co-present the students’ findings to the faculty—I shared some key slides from the students’ presentation, and the athletic trainer led the staff in a short movement routine consisting of stretches that teachers could use in their classrooms with students. The Principal encouraged teachers to give students breaks from device use, pausing instruction to invite students to move out of their seats and stretch. To follow up the presentation, we shared a list of “healthy device use” tips and resources with the staff. Later that week, a faculty member informed me that she’d purchased computer stands for her colleagues.

Student Recommendations.PNG
Students’ recommendations for promoting healthy device use.

In my own classroom, I continue to incorporate students’ suggestions. I’m more mindful of the time that students spend in their seats, so I create opportunities for students to get up and move around. I worried that the short movement routine might disrupt the flow of instruction, but that has not been a problem. I’m still working on the “20−20−20” rule for eye health: taking a break from the screen every twenty minutes and looking twenty feet away for twenty seconds. I’m hopeful that as students spend increasing amounts of time on devices, they must they remember to take breaks, to get up and stretch, and to be mindful of their posture.

This school year, I will continue to encourage students to engage in inquiry, pursuing the answers to questions that matter to them, reaching out to experts, and crafting their writing for audiences to effect change.

Special thanks to Julie Goldberg, John Wodnick, and my period 6 students for their feedback on an earlier version of this post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *