Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Authentic Writing...for a 14-year-old

What is authentic writing?  Would you say that it is realistic, real-world writing that might be created in any advertising company, medical facility, auto shop, or grocery store?  Of course it is. That is most definitely authentic writing for advertisers, nurses, mechanics, and clerks.  It's just too bad that I don't have any students who have their professional degrees or licenses.  So perhaps my question should be this: What is authentic writing for a 14-year-old?

I have been asking myself this question and others as a part of my ongoing study into adolescent literacy.  How can I help negotiate or mediate the space between the teacher and the student?  What do I need to know about students and their writing in order to make their classroom learning real for them?  As part of this inquiry, I have taken some time out of the classroom to attend school full time but am currently working on a project with another teacher in the middle school where I have taught for ten years.

In this writing project, students tapped into their identities and drew out the personal inquisitiveness that sparks most young teens' creativity.  Another teacher and I led them on a quest to find out information about their names and how they felt about the name chosen for them.  Using Sandra Cisneros as a model, students created their own writings about their names, themselves, and who they wanted to be.  Even using a prompt, though, students had difficulty getting their thoughts on paper and constantly asked questions about what was okay as an answer.  They were so afraid of getting it wrong that they weren't experimenting with content, much less style.  Writing about themselves instead of an event was new terrain, and they weren't sure how to handle it.

Because of a few frustrating days, I decided to walk the students through several writing prompts.  I asked for honesty as they responded to these prompts after silent reading time:

  • What kept you reading today? Explain in the best details you can. How have you spent the last twenty minutes?
  • What made it difficult for you to complete that writing task?  What are some stumbling blocks you had as you described how you spent your reading time?
  • Think about today and your habits of reading and what you've written.  Now think about the last few weeks and all we have done (i.e. group work, computer time, etc.).  What have you discovered about yourself over the last two weeks? (i.e. as a reader, a writer, a student, a girl or a boy, a sibling, a daughter, a son)  Has there been an event that caused you to see yourself in a different light?  What would you have me believe about you since I am not your classroom teacher and know very little about you?  
  • Imagine a person your age who you have never seen and who you do not know.  What impression would you want this person to have of you?  What do you want them to know?

These, in addition to other questions, may have been too guided, but the students needed guidance at this point. They could see what Cisneros was doing in her writing but not how they could duplicate the effect. They were also unsure of themselves as writers and not sure what counts as writing.  After responding, they marked phrases, sentences, and passages in their notes from this day and previous days in the unit that tied together and could say something about them.

I then switched gears to get a general sense of what these students were understanding about the legitimacy and authenticity of writing.

Sparked by this article that described a 10th grader who wrote pages and pages of a game walk-through (see "The dumbest generation? No, Twitter is making kids smarter"), I asked the students about their writing outside of the classroom.  What a discovery!  Almost every student in that class has a twitter account, and at least half of the students post daily.  One student said he posts at least five times a day. This is the same student who had written very little on this project over the last few weeks, and I told him so.  I knew it was a mistake pointing that out to him when his comeback was that he had written a lot today.  Indeed, he had.  With guidance.  And purpose.

Most students (over 70% by a show of hands) have blogs. At least half of these students post or comment on a blog at least once a week.  A few students have tried writing video game walk-throughs themselves.
It was the question I asked next that was most telling.  I asked students to raise their hands if they thought this game walk-through writing was real writing.  Maybe they were worried about being wrong, or maybe it seemed odd that I would ask that question, but only a few students raised their hands; an additional few others raised theirs only half way.  I asked the same question about blogs and blog comments and received similar responses.

My next question:  How can we as educators work to see these other types of writing as legitimate while also helping the students see all of their writing as real? 

The question I am afraid to ask:  What writing do students see as real?

I promised their writing for this project would be real and posted here for comments.  Hopefully, I can make that happen in the near future as they send me digital pieces.  I look forward to reading what these certified 8th graders have to say.