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Read Aloud Podcast: Authentic Writing for Real Audiences

r para (13)Today on the Heinemann Podcast, how can writing for real audiences change student engagement?

It's the conditions, not the kids that determine success," writes Kelly Boswell. And today we'll listen in on a preview of Kelly's new audiobook, Every Kid a Writer: Strategies That Get Everyone Writing. Kelly reminds us that every writer is reluctant to write at some point. And in her book, Kelly provides six field-tested strategies to get everyone in the classroom writing with energy and enthusiasm. In this section, Kelly challenges us to stop doing meaningless writing exercises in our classrooms and instead, write for real audiences

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Full transcript below:

Kelly Boswell:

Even through the closed door, the music was deafening. My two young sons, ages four and six at the time, had navigated an iPod to their favorite song and had turned up the volume full blast. Concerned that they would wake up the neighborhood at the early hour, I sprinted through the house toward their bedroom. Through the closed door, amid squeals and giggles, I could hear the pounding of little feet, jumping and dancing. As I reached for the door handle, I saw the note, five words scribbled onto a sticky note and taped onto the door, "The best dancing song ever." I'm reading this as it was intended to be read, but it actually contained some six-year-old creative spelling and took some skill to decipher. I had to smile. We are born with a need to be seen and heard. Don Graves noticed this in his research and work with young children. He put it this way, "Children want to write before they want to read. They are more fascinated by their own marks than by the marks of others. Young children leave their messages on refrigerators, wallpaper, moist windowpanes, sidewalks, and even on paper."

What happens to children's fascination with writing? Why is it that we don't see the same enthusiasm from students in many elementary school classrooms? Why do the energy and engagement fade? I think there's more going on than the mere fact that we don't allow students to do their writing on moist windowpanes. I wonder if it's because somewhere along the way, our students have lost sight of one of the most foundational understandings about writing. Writers write for readers. My young sons, so enthralled with a stellar dancing song they had discovered, felt compelled to share their opinion and writing with the world, even if the world consisted only of our immediate family. This desire to be seen and heard to communicate with the world around them quickly fades for most children when they enter school.

At some point, writing pivots from a way to communicate and instead turns into meaningless assignments that must be completed and dropped in the teacher's basket to be graded. This kind of writing rarely goes anywhere or says anything of importance to the outside world. As a result, students begin to see writing as a chore, a mundane and sometimes miserable task that needs to be completed in order to meet the requirements of the assignment. And as a result, not surprisingly, students become less motivated and energized. Instead of a room buzzing with excitement and energy that only true engagement can bring, many classrooms become filled with dawdling and unmotivated writers who are looking for any excuse not to write.

Reflect on audience in your own writing. So what can we do? How can we reignite our students' energy and passion for writing? I'll share some practical ideas soon, but before we explore them, I'm going to ask you to pause for a moment and reflect on your own life as a writer. I found in my work with students that it helps immensely to consider myself first as a writer and then as a teacher of writing. When I consider the things I do when I write, I'm in a much better position to support kids when they engage in writing. So think back over the last 48 hours, in what types of writing have you engaged? Emails, texts, grocery lists, social media posts to-do lists, report card comments. Now ask yourself to whom was I writing? What was the purpose? Chances are you'll be able to answer both of these questions easily.

You wrote the to-do list to yourself so that you wouldn't forget to pick up the dry cleaning or a gallon of milk. The report card comments were for parents so that they could better understand how their child is progressing. The takeaway here is that in life we almost always write with an audience and purpose in mind. That's what makes writing meaningful and worth the investment of our time and effort. In her essay, notes from the Battlefield towards a theory of why people write, Mem Fox, beloved author and teacher puts it this way, "You and I don't engage in meaningless writing exercises In real life, we are far too busy doing the real thing. And by doing the real thing, we constantly learn how to do the real thing better." And yet sadly, much of the writing that we ask students to do in school falls into this meaningless writing exercises category that Mem Fox describes. Most of the assignments that are given to the vast majority of elementary students are devoid of a real audience or genuine purpose.

As I reflect on my own beginning teaching years, I realized there were times when the audience was the teacher, me and the purpose was a grade in my Gradebook. While that may have been motivating for a few of my students, it surely didn't motivate or engage the vast majority of them. Research has found that students are more likely to become proficient writers who enjoy writing when they have some choice of topic and audience, and they value the writing purpose. In other words, it's not just a nice idea to make sure a student's work reaches a real reader. This practice actually serves as a catalyst to help students improve their writing skills and enjoy the process along the way. As writing teachers, it's our job to make sure we are providing opportunities for students to engage in writing experiences that are authentic, are connecting to an actual reader and are worthy of their time and effort.

What does this look like in the classroom? You might be wondering, okay, so what does this actually look like in the classroom? Are you suggesting that we just throw out all writing assignments and just ask kids to write emails, to-do lists and text messages? Not quite. Following are a few examples of the kinds of writing experiences that connect students to an authentic audience. Invite them to write for a specific purpose and just might increase the energy engagement and joy in the room. Kids take over some of your writing obligations. Fifth and sixth grade students in [inaudible 00:08:17] class worked in pairs to contribute short articles for the parent newsletter that was sent home. Students learned how to clearly communicate lots of information in a short text and how to collaborate with other writers. And once the parent newsletter was printed and sent home, students felt the exhilaration and joy that come from having their writing published. And as an added bonus, parents were more likely to actually read the newsletter because the kids were excited to show them the article that they contributed.

Kids offer help to community organizations. After reading and studying a myriad of travel brochures, multilingual learners in Kathy Haskins fourth grade North Dakota classroom worked with a partner to create their own brochures. The brochures which showcased family-friendly activities in their town were polished and photocopied, and then given to the local Chamber of Commerce to display. The brochures were also given to families who were new to the area. All writers jumped in with a fresh enthusiasm because they knew that the writing wasn't simply going to be dropped in the teacher's basket for a grade. The final piece would be shared with actual readers.

Kids get involved in a real issue under discussion. Renae Ely's third grade students at Liberty Elementary in Bismarck, North Dakota had the opportunity to design an all-inclusive playground for their school. In addition to learning about area and perimeter, force and motion and engineering and designing 3D models, the students learned how to craft powerful persuasive pieces to go along with their ideas. The designs, along with the writing pieces were presented to the local Parks and Recreation Committee for consideration. One more bonus. Students were highly motivated to do the hard work of revision and editing because they knew their writing pieces were going to be seen by community leaders.

Kids decide who needs to hear their message. After working with Melissa Potts first grade students as they created their own How-to posters. I gathered the students to talk about the work we had done and to reflect on what we had learned. I asked students to think about where they might display their posters. I told them that I was planning on putting my How-to poster about laundry up in my laundry room at home as a way to help my two sons who were learning how to do their own laundry. "Who might benefit from reading your work?" I asked. As the students turned to share their ideas with a partner, I noticed a dramatic shift in the energy and excitement in the room.

"I could put my poster in the library. It's about how to find a good book. I'm going to put mine right next to our cubbies. My poster teaches people how to get their snow pants, coats and boots on before recess. Mine's on how to play kickball. Maybe the PE teacher would let me put it up outside." What struck me was that simply suggesting that their writing could go somewhere and accomplish something, created an entirely new and almost electric energy in the room. As I left the room, I heard one of the students ask his teacher if he and his classmates could keep working on their posters. The teacher obliged and after a collective cheer, yes cheer from the students, they continued writing. As I looked around the classroom, I couldn't find one unmotivated, disengaged, or distracted student in the entire room. The bathroom passes hung quietly near the door. I would have counted that as a success, but this story has a little something extra. When I arrived at the school the next morning, Melissa called me into her classroom.

She explained that one student, Brock, had been so inspired and excited by the previous day's writing experience that when he got home, he asked his mom to help him make homemade play dough. Brock then hopped on his family's laptop computer and created another instructional poster to teach his friends how to make their own. The teacher showed me Brock's new poster, along with the individual bags of homemade play dough that he'd brought in to give to each of his classmates. Friends, writing is a social endeavor. It was always meant to be a means by which we could be seen and heard, to communicate with the world around us.

However, if students are simply completing assignments and turning them in for a grade, is it any wonder why we see the shrug, the slump, and the sharpening of pencils when we ask students to write? Without an actual audience to read and respond and react to our writing, the hard work just isn't worth it. Instead, if we invite students to do the real work of writing, if we invite them to write for readers who matter to them, we just might find the key that unlocks true engagement and energy.


Thanks for tuning in today. To learn more about Heinemann Audiobooks, visit heinemann.com/audiobooks.


Kelly Boswell has many years of experience as a classroom teacher, staff developer, literacy coach, and district literacy specialist.   

Her latest book is, Every Kid A Writer. She is the coauthor of Crafting Nonfiction and Reading Solutions and the author of Write This Way and Write This Way From the Start. She is also the author of several nonfiction children’s books.  

Kelly works with schools and districts around the country to support educational leaders, coaches and teachers. Her emphasis is on developing literacy practices that help students become joyful and passionate readers and writers.  

Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Every Kid a Writer, Kelly Boswell, Read Aloud Podcast

Date Published: 05/20/24

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