Authentic reasons to write

One of the 10 Reasons Your Students Should Be Blogging by an elementary special educator who blogs under the assumed name of “Mr. Foteah,” hit a nerve.  His fifth reason for having students blog is this:

5. Authentic writing for authentic audiences. The writing is authentic because kids are writing about whatever they want. Even if I decide to give them prompts or topics to write about, they know teachers and other students will be reading them – not just me. Again, it’s all about their investment, and no doubt knowing you have an audience waiting with baited breath to read what you have to write is something that motivates.

That comment is similar to dozens of others I’ve seen in various blogs by various writers. While I understand and value the concern for students that underlies it, I have serious questions about “Mr. Foteah’s” use of the term authentic writing to mean “writing about whatever they want” for a readership “waiting with baited [sic] breath” to read it.

When educators use the term authentic that way, they create the impression that students are going to be able to write whatever they want all their lives for readers who are salivate at the thought of being allowed to view it.

I know all too well my first year college students think they can write about anything they want in any form they like. They are shocked to learn a poem describing their honest feelings about dissection is not considered an acceptable alternative to a biology research paper. And they are horrified to learn their employer expects them to write the employer’s message rather than their own more creative ideas.

I am not opposed to students’ blogging. However, I am concerned that teachers use it in ways that don’t set up false expectations for students or create misunderstandings for other teachers to correct later.

Real writers write for strangers

Writers who have not developed the knack of writing about topics in which they have no interest for audiences to which they have no emotional ties have not learned to write for the real world.

In the workplace, writing topics are almost always given. A nonfiction writer is rarely free to choose what she or he wants to write about.  Of course, freelance writers can pick their topics, but if they pick topics publishers won’t buy, they may end up having to eat their words instead of groceries.

Typically, audiences to whom a writer must communicate are people who don’t share the writers’ background, beliefs, and experience. Often writers must espouse positions they don’t believe in: Writing what students describe as their “honest thoughts” is rarely welcomed by employers.

Writing for one’s self or even for close friends and family isn’t real writing — not even if the topic is astrophysics.

ELA lessons from senior pranks

Teaching responsible use of social media is a hot topic that threatens to obscure some non-digital behavior issues. Two  stories in New York state newspapers this week illustrate the kind of behaviors I mean.

Custodians arrived at Clifton-Fine Central School June 1 to find a squawking rooster loose in the building. One reported to the superintendent that the school had been broken into; she called the state police.

Troopers found no school property was damaged, nothing was stolen and no one, including the rooster, was injured. Each of the five students was charged with third-degree criminal trespass, but the school didn’t suspend them or impose additional penalties.


At Massena High School, two seniors played more colorful prank.  Dressed head to toe in green Spandex costumes to which one added a pink tutu and the other added black running shorts,  they padded through the hallways and visited classes.

Administrators said they did not recognize the pair as students because their faces were covered: They could have been terrorists.

Massena High suspended each student for five days.

Incidents such as these offer a good opportunity to show students real-world examples of why English teachers harp about the importance of knowing the audience.  Apparently, it didn’t occur to students in either case that the school administration wouldn’t be spending as much time anticipating senior pranks as the students were. Breaking that self-absorption is an essential part of educating students.

It’s not too early for writing teachers to start thinking about ways draw connections next year between the history,  literature, and current events students study and student behavior.

Should student writing be published?

The holy grail for writing teachers is to have students who are published authors before they graduate high school.

Before you jump on that bandwagon, think about what writing for publication entails.

Writers cannot just write to please themselves or their friends. As literary agent Caren Estesen wrote in 2009 on blog that’s since been withdrawn by its owners, “If you’re going to be a professional writer, whether you’re writing novels or nonfiction, memoir or poetry, when you’re writing to get published, you should understand that you’re not writing for yourself anymore.”

Writing is work. It entails discipline—what the education establishment disparagingly calls “seat time.” Real writers write whether they want to or not, whether its fun or not, whether they feel like it or not.

A writer has to convince an editor not only of the writer’s merit but of the writer’s long-term value. Book publishers want writers who can produce year after year, not one-book wonders. Magazine, newspapers, and online content publishers want writers who can produce quality content quickly and regularly.

Writing requires meeting deadlines. A student told me this week she had “only” missed the deadline by two days. I bit my tongue, recalling the time an official reprimand was placed in my personnel folder because I missed a newspaper deadline by less than one minute.

Writing means getting criticism. Novelist Carrie Ryan says publishing can “be blunt and brutal.” The 15-year-old novelist is not just competing against other 15-year-old novelists. That teen is competing against silver-haired writers with 30 published novels.

Students who have “only ever shared their work with people who do nothing but praise their efforts,” Ryan says, can be crushed by criticism that comes from publishing for authentic audiences.

You might serve your students better by being hard to please but very supportive than by pushing your top writers to seek publication before their high school graduation.