As I stood in line at a doughnut shop waiting to get a cup of coffee one Sunday morning, I admired the letters from local first graders praising the bakers on their delicious work. In addition to the rave reviews, each child offered a suggestion for an innovative take on a doughnut creation—peanut butter and jelly doughnut, key lime pie doughnut, mint chocolate chip doughnut, etc.
As I read each letter, I had these thoughts: “Yum—what delicious flavors, and what a fabulous, authentic assessment. Why aren’t I doing more activities like this with my high school students?”
After that revelation, I assessed my writing assignments and thought about how I could make them more authentic for my students. I found that the easiest way was to alter the audience. Instead of having students write or present just to me and/or their classmates, I started offering opportunities for them to write and present to people beyond our classroom walls.
While some of the assignments have been simply tweaked to provide a real audience, other projects have required more time and preparation. Here are some examples of ways that I have offered opportunities to my students to write and present to an audience outside of our classroom, categorized by the level of time and preparation required.
Turn presentations into an exhibition for other classes and colleagues: For years, my students have delivered presentations to their respective classes. In an effort to create a more authentic audience, we invited other people into our classroom to view the presentations. My students and I have hosted exhibitions in which we invite other teachers, staff, and students to visit our classroom.
For example, my sophomore students created “museum exhibits” inspired by themes revealed in Lord of the Flies. Students showcased their interpretations of the thematic connections to the novel through various art forms, performances, and video games. Instead of presenting only to our class, staff and students from other classes were invited to participate in an interactive gallery walk-through of exhibit stations.
Offer opportunities for students to write to a person beyond the classroom: Since I started teaching, my students have written various essays, research papers, and creative pieces. Until my doughnut shop epiphany, most of these assignments were directed to me or a hypothetical audience. In an effort to increase student engagement and create an opportunity to write to an authentic audience, I began assigning writing pieces to real people—parents, community members, authors, and contest judges.
For example, my current students just wrote personal narratives as a part of their course curriculum. In addition to completing the standards-aligned writing as an assignment for my class, they also submitted their work to the New York Times Personal Narrative Writing Contest.
For another assignment, students were challenged to create a review of a favorite product or service. Students were then invited to send their reviews to the actual business referenced. Last week, my students sent emails to their parents with a recap of activities from the marking period. For these assignments, students still follow the same writing process and submit completed drafts to me. However, the finished products are also sent to their intended audience.
Incorporate contests and competitions that are aligned to curriculum standards into instruction: While there are many low-prep contests in which the requirements are very similar—or even identical in some cases—to an already established assignment, participation in other contests involves a bit more planning. Currently, my students are participating in the Local Letters for Global Change Contest in which they read curated articles from the Pulitzer Center database, identify a global issue, and write to an elected official to advocate for possible solutions. Not only do students have the opportunity to write for a contest, but also they direct their letters to someone beyond the classroom—who may even write them back or inspire them to take action.
Aside from honing their writing skills, students practice advocacy for solutions to problems and learn that their voice can influence policies and issues in the world. I consider this a medium-prep assignment, since we spent a few class periods discussing global issues, exploring the articles, and reviewing letter formatting.
Join forces with another class: Another medium-prep strategy for increasing audience authenticity is to combine classes. My fellow English teachers and I have developed assignments and projects that students have either worked on together or presented to each other during common class time. For example, during our study of dystopian novels, students were challenged to create a utopia as a culminating activity. Working in groups, they designed all of the elements of their ideal place and created a physical exhibit to present to each other.
Partner with local businesses and retailers to give students real-world learning experiences: In an effort to create a more engaging learning experience, my students have worked on projects through partnerships with local organizations and businesses. They’ve created advertisements, social media campaigns, and logos for local businesses and organizations. For one project, I connected with the event planners for the local “Holidays on Broadway” shopping event who were interested in having students create a logo to use in their event advertisements and social media platforms.
In each class, students arranged themselves in groups of four to five with at least one student with strong design skills in each group. Over a few weeks, each team collaborated to design a logo for the event. The panel of judges—the event planner and two other local business owners—determined the winning design. Students then wrote about their experience and reflected on the process. While the upfront work of partnering with community members takes some time and effort, the result of having deeply engaged students is well worth it.
Create an all-school contest or competition: Every year, my students participate in Poetry Out Loud, a national recitation competition in which students select a poem from the POL anthology, memorize the poem, and recite it to their classmates as well as a panel of judges. Usually, my colleagues serve as judges, and students participate in the selecting and the requesting of the judges.
We have about 15 classes participate, and the winners from each classroom contest move on to the school competition. The school competition takes place after school so that parents, students, and staff may attend. The winner of the schoolwide contest represents our school in the regional competition, and the winner of the regional competition moves on to the national competition.