Students’ Writing Goes Viral

The search for an assignment that makes second-semester seniors want to read more is like the hunt for a unicorn—a noble quest that’s likely to fail.

But this year, my students and I captured the unicorn with a project that invited them to research the benefits of reading and share their findings with a global audience.

Over 1000 people read my seniors’ writing over a three-day period this month. And after the assignment’s conclusion, several students reported that they read more now than ever before.

In early February, we tweeted out this student-created digital flyer, which contains links to my students’ individual blogs, since visited by readers worldwide. Each student’s blog post describes a specific benefit of reading.

My blog was visited 17 times today! And one of my readers is from the U.K.! – a 12th grade student

I’ve included a photo of the top of the digital flyer here, but you can view the full flyer on Smore.

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How They Went Viral

  1. They created content that their audience values.
  2. They packaged that content in a manner that would reach and appeal to their intended audience.

The “Reading Reasons” Assignment

Inspired by an assignment Kelly Gallagher describes in his book Reading Reasons (2002), I asked students to investigate the research-based benefits of reading.

My version of the assignment had several stages, summarized briefly below. (For the full details, see this assignment sheet.)

  1. Select a persuasive contemporary article about the benefits of reading.
  2. Read and annotate the article carefully in order to lead a discussion about your chosen “reading reason” with your classmates.
  3. Write a blog post about your “reading reason” that incorporates peer feedback from the class discussion.
  4. Promote your blog post via Twitter using our class hashtag: #SESNH.

My not-so-secret agenda was for the assignment to expose my students to the many benefits of reading and to inspire them to read more.

Matching Medium to Audience

After students finished the “reading reasons” discussions, I invited the class to consider how to best collect their findings to create a final product (e.g., a classroom poster, a digital product). They decided that the best way to share their work would be to create a visually-appealing, digital collection of their writing that they could share via social networks.

They collectively explored a variety of digital tools on a wiki created by Troy Hicks. At this point, I invited students to participate in the following ways:

  1. A small group of students volunteered to create the final product over a few class periods using Smore.
  2. Another group of students researched different Twitter groups they thought would be interested in reading their work.
  3. A third group of students chose to use the class time to read silently. Huzzah!

Unanticipated Challenges

This is not to say that the “reading reasons” assignment was met with total enthusiasm. Though I’d hoped to scatter these discussions over several weeks, unforeseen schedule changes meant that some weeks, students participated in consecutive days of “reading reasons” discussions. Some students complained that we were doing too much talking about reading and not saving enough class time to actually read.

Others struggled to convince their peers that reading was valuable.  The more reluctant readers in the class responded to these presentations repeatedly with comments like, “Yeah, we know reading is important, but we just don’t want to do it.” At times, student discussion leaders didn’t know how to respond to their peers when asked for information beyond the scope of their research.

And clearly, as their English teacher, I was not without bias. I tried my best to limit any interjections during their discussions, but sometimes, I couldn’t help myself.

I worried if the assignment was doing more harm than good when a student candidly shared a disheartening discovery: “I think this assignment is actually making me want to read less.”

When I recently asked him for permission to share his comment in this blog post, I also asked him to explain it further. He said he’d endured years of teachers reminding him of the importance of reading, and he’d thought he’d outgrown the topic. He couldn’t believe that I was not only furthering the tradition of English teachers past, but upping the ante by forcing him to research it himself. However, I took it as a victory when he shared that in the past, no one had explained the benefits of reading, and that he did learn several specific ones from this assignment.

Feedback from a Global Audience

While I hoped their writing would be read by their peers, I didn’t anticipate that their digital flyer would reach such a wide audience, and by extension, that their individual blogs would find international readers.

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The digital flyer earned a digital badge on Smore for being viewed by readers from 10 countries.

After we published the flyer, we spent the next class period investigating the results. Students rushed to check their blog stats when I showed them that an educator from Loas had tweeted that he was “IMPRESSED by their thoughtfulness & command of language.”

Another educator tweeted about the photos of student writers included at the end of their digital flyer, calling them “#amazingauthors.”

twitter authors.JPG

Students were especially excited when Reading Reasons author Kelly Gallagher responded to their work:

gallagher

Lisa Dennis, an English teacher from Wisconsin, stumbled across the digital flyer on Twitter and decided to write about it on the education blogThree Teachers Talk; in the post, she reflects on the assignment itself, offers teachers several ways to use the digital flyer in their own classrooms, and most generously, writes individualized feedback to each student on their blog post.

She even situates their ideas within a larger conversation about reading among educators on the blog:

  • “I love that Noah’s insights run completely contrary to my piece Books Can’t Be Bullied
  • “Choice is nothing new to [the Three Teachers Talk blog], but what struck me about this perspective was the way one of Nicole’s classmates phrased her insights on why choice matters: ‘Assigned books become more of a obstacle, and shortcuts are taken because the grade is more important than the actual book.’'”

I can’t wait to surprise them with this post in class tomorrow.

And while not all of their public writing will reach such a broad audience, or be met with glowing compliments, I hope my students learned the power of their words to influence the world beyond the classroom.


Thanks to Julie Goldberg of Perfect Whole, John Wodnick, and five student volunteers for their editing assistance. Thanks to Lisa Dennis of Three Teachers Talk for taking the time to read and write about my students’ work.

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