Lauren Heimlich Foley
For some of my students, an authentic audience equals a writing competition or online publishing site. Yet, for most of my middle schoolers, writing for their own personal enjoyment or to someone in their life—a classmate, friend, family member, or teacher—creates the rewarding and exciting real-life writing opportunities they seek.
Nancie Atwell’s letter-essays, discussed in The Reading Zone and In the Middle, offer a great starting place. Students write to a classmate about a book they have read and receive a response back. I have been adapting this letter-essay assignment for my English class. In their October letter-essays, students recommended their Independent Reading Books and analyzed their texts for the interaction between elements of fiction, literary devices, and/or conventions. When launching the letter, I invited my students to write to anyone. I wanted my eighth graders to think about their recommendations as a piece of writing that could reach beyond the four walls of our room. Students’ letters became more than an assignment for school; their authentic audiences drove their writing and their focus.
While they shared their work with their tablemates, some students also addressed their letters to parents and siblings. Other students wrote to friends on different teams or in different schools. One student reached out to her cousin in Scotland. Another student recommended Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie to a family friend dealing with a similar life situation. He wrote, “I thought that you would enjoy this book [because] it really shows how siblings are there for each other and how Steven helped his younger brother in times of need.” Two students recommended books to me, and one student recommended her book to our technology teacher. She reported, “Mr. H. already responded to my email. He says he’ll check out the book.”
In addition to writing about books, my students find authentic audiences for their genre studies and Self-Selected Writing Pieces. With weekly student writing conferences and small-group, teacher conferences (based on a recommendation from Dr. Mary Buckelew), students have been writing more for one another. Classmates become invested in their peers’ work and want to see how the final pieces turn out. To foster this collaboration, I might say to Evan, “Make sure to read Dave your ending; see what he thinks. And, Dave, you need to finish your story for Evan.” Their dedication to finishing the piece and sharing their work with someone fosters their writing process and progress. When Meg asked me to read her short story—which brought me to tears—I asked if everyone at her table had read the piece. They already had and revealed that they too had become teary-eyed.
Sharing and celebrating creative and original writing within our class has become a staple, and this mindset has propelled me to add a new question during my conferences: “Who are you writing this for?” For example, when a student began developing ideas for a picture book, we discussed who she might read it to when she was all done; her little cousin was on the top of her list. Another student, inspired by her Social Studies Research Project on Jesse Owens, created a short story about his life and his ability to overcome the hardships he faced. I encouraged her to share the writing with her Social Studies teacher. Last week, students, inspired by an astronomy lesson, decided to create a multiple perspective story, exploring if the sun died. Although still in the planning and developing phase, they are already excited to share their finished piece with their science teacher.
In December, the letter-essay will be adapted for an assignment after our whole-class reading of The Outsiders. Students will engage with the text by writing a letter to an adult in their life. They will recommend the book, explore a theme, and connect to our larger unit: Words to Live By. Like a more traditional literary essay, this assignment will ask my students to analyze The Outsiders and engage in theme development; however, it will also enable them to put a more personal touch on their writing. My hope is that these adults will read The Outsiders or remember when they read the book, creating a space for my students to have a readerly conversation with them. Also, my students will be conducting research for our January non-fiction unit. In addition to students selecting the topic they wish to learn about and the genre they will use to showcase their knowledge, an extra question will ask them who they are writing to—who they want to inform with their writing.
Finding authentic audiences encapsulates why we as humans write: to share our stories and let our voices be heard. Helping my students to think about who they are writing to and why they are writing has become a focus during instruction. The seemingly simple questions “Who are you writing this for?” and “Who will read this piece?” have shifted our writing process and created real-life writers out of my eighth graders.
I would love to hear the ways you are getting your students to write with authentic audiences!