From the Classroom: What Does Real-World Writing Look Like?
By Tricia Ebarvia
Speaking on a panel at the NCTE Annual Convention last fall, author Cris Crutcher commented, “Reading Shakespeare is an academic exercise. It’s not one that’s going to get me to love reading.” Though I disagree with him about Shakespeare―I think studying Shakespeare can give us tremendous insight into who we are as human beings and speak to us in profound ways―his remark did give me pause. How many of the things we assign―books, writing assignments―are no more than academic exercises?
Too often there’s a disconnect between school assignments and what happens in the real world. I know I’ve been guilty of assigning writing that may have few, if any, real world equivalents (I’m talking to you, Five-Paragraph Essay). But it’s the skills not the assignment, I tell myself. Maybe. But if that’s the case, why not assign writing that not only addresses the skills but can also teach students about what writing looks like in the real world―and better yet, writing that can also develop and nurture student voice?
In Teaching Adolescent Writers (2006), Kelly Gallagher makes this important point:
If we want our students to understand the value that writing can play in their lives, maybe we should consider shifting instruction away from strict adherence to traditional discourses and begin having our students explore the reasons real writers write. When students understand the real-world purposes for writing (instead of simply writing to meet the next school requirement) they begin to internalize the relevance of writing, and more important, they develop an understanding that writing is an important skill to carry into adulthood. When students begin to understand this relevance, their writing improves (122).
So what does writing look like in the real world? According to Gallagher, writing in the real world is done with authentic purpose. As he lists in Write Like This (2011), real-world writers use writing to:
- Express and Reflect
- Inform and Explain
- Evaluate and Judge
- Inquire and Explore
- Analyze and Interpret
- Take a Stand / Propose a Solution
We often talk about teaching our students to “read like writers.” As teachers, we also need to remember to “read like teachers.” This means examining real-world texts and stopping to ask, Could this text add value to my students’ learning? And if so, how can I bring it to our classroom? Open any reputable newspaper, book, magazine, or website, and it’s not difficult to find writers who “express and reflect,” “analyze and interpret,” and so on. Of course, finding material is generally the easy part. It’s what we do with material that matters most.
With the Common Core’s emphasis on reading non-fiction, many teachers already understand the importance of finding non-fiction texts to bring into our classrooms. We use these texts to add another layer of understanding to the novels we teach―like this New York Times book review of The Things They Carried, used during a study of Tim O’Brien’s novel, or this article from the Atlantic discussing the contemporary relevance of George Orwell’s ideas, used during a study of 1984.
However beneficial this use of real-world writing is, it’s not enough. Rather than see these texts solely as supplemental materials for students to read, why not use them as mentor texts for students to write?
Taking this stance forces us to choose our non-fiction texts more carefully. Instead of just looking for a text whose content supports our reading, we can choose a text that demonstrates thoughtful and effective writing as well. It’s a higher standard, to be sure, but one that ultimately benefits students―especially when we take the time to analyze a text for its craft.
That said, I’ve spent some time this summer collecting inspiration from the real-world texts I read on a regular basis. Reading these publications like a teacher allows me to see their value both for reading and writing. So that New York Times book review of The Things They Carried I mentioned earlier? Rather than serve as just background information, why not take the extra time and care to look at how wonderfully the critic, Robert Harris, expresses his opinion of the novel:
By moving beyond the horror of the fighting to examine with sensitivity and insight the nature of courage and fear, by questioning the role that imagination plays in helping to form our memories and our own versions of truth, he places ”The Things They Carried” high up on the list of best fiction about any war.
In these lines is what a real-world thesis statement looks like. Much can be pointed out here to students―the way Harris uses pairs of ideas for balance, the “sensitivity and insight,” the “courage and fear,” and the “memories” and “versions of truth.” And of course, there’s the parallel structure that provides the sentence’s rhythm, and using a periodic sentence, with the main clause withheld until the end, Harris leads the reader to his argument―that the novel is among the best of any war fiction―with grace and clarity.
In paragraph 6, Harris writes:
So just what is courage? What is cowardice? Mr. O’Brien spends much of the book carefully dissecting every nuance of the two qualities.
Pose a question, then answer it: a technique that students can easily integrate into their own writing immediately. A student’s review of John Green’s Fault in Our Stars, for example, might include the following sentences:
So what value is there in life? What value is there in death? Mr. Green reveals the meaning of both through Hazel and Augustus’ star-crossed relationship.
In addition to reading this real-world writing for its craft, publications like the New York Times, The Atlantic, and the New Yorker, among others, include many different types of writing that can inspire students to write with a purpose. Below are just a few examples of writing assignments students can do―writing assignments that give them an opportunity to practice real-world writing in our classrooms.
From the New Yorker―
The Profiles section is described as “an in-depth look at the lives and work of innovators, politicians, scientists, activists, writers, and entertainers.” Students could choose a person—parent, sibling, relative, teacher, mentor—and write about that person using illustrative details, narration, etc. Mentor texts might include Margaret Talbot on John Green in “The Teen Whisperer” or Rebecca Mead on Neil DeGrasse Tyson in “Starman” (And though not a New Yorker piece, Chris Jones’ Esquire profile of the late Roger Ebert is remarkable and really, just beautiful).
The Personal History column includes essays in which “writers reflect on the intimate events and memories that shaped their lives.” Students can write about a significant event that “shaped their lives.” Depending on the grade level, there are many wonderful mentor texts in the New Yorker. Older students would appreciate, for example, Lena Dunham’s latest essay―”The Bride in Her Head“―on her changing attitudes toward marriage, especially in light of the recent Supreme Court decision.
From the New York Times―
In addition having students use the New York Times book reviews as mentor texts to write their own reviews or using the Op-Ed section to write their own persuasive pieces, students could work in groups and choose an issue to research. Each student could then write a short piece describing a different point-of-view on the issue, similar to the “Room for Debate” section on the New York Times.
Additional ideas inspired by the New York Times can be found on the newspaper’s Learning Network site (there are many!).
From Harper’s magazine―
One of the most thought-provoking sections of Harper’s magazine is their regular Harper’s Index. As creator and Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham describes, the Index is a “single page of numbers that measure, in one way or another, the drifting tide of events.” Here, for example, is the most recent Index. Students could be challenged to create their own version of the Index, researching and placing side-by-side facts and statistics to make an argument.
As Kelly Gallagher points out in In the Best Interest of Students (2014), each issue of ESPN magazine has a one-paged column called “6 Things You Should Know About” (see example at right). Though the examples are all sports related, Gallagher asks students to “brainstorm topics both inside and outside sports.” For example, in the list Gallagher models for his students, he includes “6 Things You Should Know About” buying a car, becoming a teacher, applying for a job, among others. Students can use a program like Canva to arrange their list visually to mimic the original style of the magazine. If you wanted to apply this to a literature study, why not ask students to write a “6 Things You Should Know About” Holden Caulfield or Jay Gatsby.
From Time magazine―
Speaking of lists, one of the regular features in Time magazine’s travel section is a list and description of “10 things to do” in various cities around the world. After reading the samples online, students could create their own list of “10 things to do” in a city or area of their choice. An interesting variation would be “10 things to do” when instead of in: for example, a student could create a list of “10 things to do when you’re feeling stressed” or “10 things to do when you change schools.” The lists would be generated from their own personal experiences. Again, a literary example might be “10 Things to Do in West Egg.”
These are just a handful of examples. Indeed, once you start looking at real-world texts through the eyes of a teacher―through the world of mentor texts―then the possibilities are truly endless (Gallagher’s In the Best Interest of Students has many additional examples. If you are a high school teacher, I would also recommend MovingWriters.org, where they have done a lot of work on writing with mentor texts. If you teach K-8 and looking for mentor text inspiration, then I recommend the work of Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli at Mentor Texts with Lynne and Rose.)
What do you think? Please share your thoughts below.
Tricia Ebarvia currently teaches 9th grade world literature and AP English Language & Composition at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA. An avid reader of classics, YA, and everything else, Tricia continues her quest to nurture a love for reading in her students by integrating more independent reading choice, inspiring reading-writing connections in her classroom, and finding opportunities for students to develop voice. Tricia is a co-director for PAWLP and blogs regularly at pawlpblog.org and her website, triciaebarvia.org. Connect with her on Goodreads and Twitter.