Monday, July 2, 2012

How to Make Persuasive Writing More "Authentic"

As English teachers, it is part of our job to get students to write. We also do our best to help them improve their writing skills, but sometimes just convincing them to put forth any level of effort in a writing assignment is challenging enough on its own. As a composition instructor in particular, my curriculum demands that students produce between five and seven complete written works in a given semester (most requiring a research element). As I noted in my last post: "5 Ways to Help Students Choose Better Persuasive Essay Topics", persuasive essays are particularly common in the English curriculum, and prompts for persuasive essays exist on almost every English standardized test. So, once you have helped your students choose essay topics that they are interested in, that are research-able, and that they are (ideally) excited about, how do you make this kind of writing assignment more "authentic"?

This isn't a particularly easy question to answer, but it is certainly important that we try to make our assignments & assessments relevant to our students. If they are only writing to fulfill a requirement, to impress us or their peers, or even to develop specific writing skills, then they are engaging in a type of writing that exists in a vacuum. This is sometimes important and valuable, but it certainly shouldn't be the only type of writing students have access to. In this model, students can't engage with a real audience, because they don't have one. They can't value the difficulties of communicating information to the uninformed because everyone who will read their work has access to the same information. They can't evaluate the actual effectiveness of their persuasion if the teacher is the only one being persuaded. This, then, is the challenge we face: We must find a way for students to approach persuasive essays in a way that is consistent with the real-life persuasive writing that exists all around them. That doesn't mean that they have to write editorials or speeches (though using forms like this can help). I have a couple of strategies that I use (aside from these form-based approaches) described below. As always, feel free to include your own in the comments!

1909- Tyee- "Debate and Oratory"

I believe that authenticity and relevance are closely tied to audience awareness, so establishing a real audience for students is my first strategy for making their writing experience more authentic.

To help students understand the importance of audience, I lead several discussions about the types of audiences for persuasive writing (with examples). Then, the students have to create a research plan for their topic that demands that they state their topic, what they already know about it, what they need to find out about it, where they think they can find the information, and so on. An important section of this plan requires each student to identify an audience for their topic and to establish the relevance of their topic for that audience. For example, if my persuasive essay topic is on the positive role of gaming for engaging students in learning, my audience might include teachers, gamers, students, parents, and school administrators. I would justify the relevance of this topic for teachers in particular by stating that my research focuses on how teachers can implement gaming effectively in the classroom. If I want students to think even more deeply about their chosen audience, I ask them to narrow down those audiences even further. To continue with my example, I might narrow my audience to secondary teachers in this case (not elementary).

Once students have established who their audience will be, I introduce the idea of actually reaching that audience. Students often have only their classmates and their teachers as an audience for their writing, but I think seeking out larger audiences can motivate students to do their best work. After all, if a large number of people can see their final product, they want it to be as criticism-proof as possible. At the end of this summer session, my students will have produced an extended persuasive essay, and they are required to seek publication. We have discussed several venues for this, but primarily they will either submit their work to the school newspaper or they will post their final essays on a blog (mine or theirs). This provides some added pressure for them to revise their work carefully and to convey their ideas clearly to a specific kind of reader.

While focusing on audience and seeking venues for publication are both useful strategies for increasing the authenticity of an assignment like this, they don't work for every paper or for every student. The important thing is that we challenge ourselves to minimize the mentality many students have that writing assignments are written "for the teacher" and not for themselves or for a real audience.

*What strategies do you use to make your writing assignments authentic for students? Are there any major writing assignments you use that are not particularly authentic/relevant to students' lives, but that you still find valuable in some other way? What are they?


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