Viewpoints and Findings from the REL Mid-Atlantic
Writing with Authenticity and Choice Are More Important Than Ever
By Marilyn Pryle, English Teacher, Abington Heights High School, Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania and REL Mid-Atlantic Governing Board Member
As the pandemic—and virtual education—continue, it is more important than ever that students feel they have some agency in their learning. To put it simply, agency gives students voice and, often, choice in how they learn. Teachers can achieve this through activities that provide space for authentic writing. By writing for real audiences, students can recover control and efficacy in their thinking.
I teach 10th-grade English, and I've always tried to incorporate choice, authenticity, and real-world audiences into my writing curriculum. My students choose their topics and often their genres; they also peer edit and publish regularly. In September, I didn't know whether these practices would work as well this year as in the past. Happily, I can report that they have.
Letting students choose their topics and genres gives them a sense of ownership because they must look within to decide what they want to write about. They have a chance to showcase what they understand about a topic and research what they would like to learn. Both of these activities are strong motivators. And research shows that framing writing projects around personal interests encourages learners (Gebre & Polman, 2020; Bennett et al., 2007), helps them connect background knowledge to new information (Bruning et al., 2011) and fosters authenticity of learning (Gilje & Erstad, 2017).
The element of choice carries into publication as well. When students write in different genres, we discuss how to best put their writing out into the world. For example, they can send letters via snail mail or email, submit informational pieces to the school newspaper, gift poems, and print and hang up or electronically post infographics. Knowing that your writing will be read by others not only increases motivation but also strengthens your sense of efficacy.
All of this is true for younger students too. Young writers typically start out with a sense of voice and ownership in their writing, and then years of standardized tests, as well as canned prompts and curriculum, train them to think otherwise. Often, by the time students reach high school, they have to be convinced that they have something to say at all. How wonderful would it be if students could rise through the school system convinced of the power and importance of their own authentic voices!
Younger students can write letters, reviews, stories, and journal entries, among many other genres. This wonderful resource from REL Mid-Atlantic reviews techniques for teaching early writers based on the What Works Clearinghouse practice guide, Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers. And once any writing is under way, teachable moments around spelling, punctuation, and grammar can be woven in. This video from REL West demonstrates how to get young children brainstorming and creating content together.
Although writing instruction can take many forms, some elements always hold true. Through authentic writing, students strengthen their voices, extend their thinking, and even become better readers. They learn to center themselves and notice their thoughts and surroundings, even if only briefly. In addition to strengthening their sense of agency and efficacy in these difficult times, writing cultivates a sense of presence and mindfulness. And students of all ages need these skills to grow not only as learners but also as human beings—especially now.
Gebre, E.H., & Polman, J.L. (2020). From "context" to "active contextualization": Fostering learner agency in contextualizing learning through science news reporting. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 24.
Bennett, J., Lubben, F., & Hogarth, S. (2006). Bringing science to life: A synthesis of the research evidence on the effects of context-based and STS approaches to science teaching. Science Education, 91 (3), 347–370.
Bruning, R., Schraw, G., & Norby, M. (2011). Cognitive psychology and instruction (5th ed.). Pearson.
Gilje, Ø., & Erstad, O. (2017). Authenticity, agency and enterprise education studying learning in and out of school. International Journal of Educational Research, 84, 58–67.
Graham, S., Bollinger, A., Booth Olson, C., D'Aoust, C., MacArthur, C., McCutchen, D., & Olinghouse, N. (2012). Teaching elementary school students to be effective writers: A practice guide. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.
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