Relevancy. Rigor. Authenticity. These are buzzwords in education. Pundits overuse these terms, which makes teachers ignore their meanings. We may avoid confronting these terms because we know, deep down, that these concepts are difficult to achieve in the classroom.
It’s difficult to make a curriculum relevant to the lives of 25 teenagers, meeting all of their needs and wants.
It’s difficult to scaffold lessons, pushing students to the edge of their zones of proximal development.
It’s difficult to create a classroom where students read and write authentically, not just “playing school” for extrinsic rewards.
I try to create a classroom full of relevant, rigorous, authentic reading and writing. While I sometimes fail, one instance where I think I’ve succeeded is in teaching students to read and write editorials.
Recently, my students wrote editorials inspired by The New York Times’s Room for Debate series. Students formed groups, developed guiding questions and wrote from various viewpoints. Many of the final products were even formatted like the Room for Debate pages from The New York Times.
By studying writing through genre, students and I have freedom in selecting meaningful topics. I choose mentor texts that teach students about the craft of writing while piquing their interests. Students can write about topics that they feel passionate about.
Last year, we began with editorials responding to the question, “Is social media making us narcissists?” This year it was, “Do American high schools make sports too important?” Both had students eager to discuss, and with some prompting, they were returning to the texts to support their opinions.
Studying editorials by focusing on writer’s craft is rigorous because the editorial is as far from formulaic as an essay gets. Writers use a set of tools to manipulate the reader into believe him or her–there’s no one path to success.
The editorial was an entry point to discuss voice. We often “hear” a writer when he or she makes a passionate argument. Pieces by Leonard Pitts, specifically, “Healthcare? One Desperate Man Finds It in Jail” and “Violence, Videotapes and Police” led students towards identifying rhetoric and discussing voice–but not without some of the aforementioned scaffolding.
I presented the first Pitts piece, asked students to find craft moves, and share where they could hear Pitts’ voice. The response was mediocre.
Then, I handed out the second Pitts editorial, and asked the students, “Where in this piece do you read something that reminds you of the first piece?” Now, there were a flurry of hands, with students pointing to punctuation, syntax, repetition and anecdotes.
Here, I learned that sometimes the more challenging task is more interesting to the students. Comparing two texts was more interesting–and I’d argue, more “rigorous”–than looking at one.
This year, I wanted to raise the bar, after seeing The Contrarian Librarian’s presentation at the Conference on English Leadership about sharing writing with authentic audiences. She said that teachers talk about publishing student writing for authentic audiences, but few teachers do it. I was guilty of this.
So, towards the middle of the unit, I told students that I’d changed the requirements for the assignment.
They had three options: submit their editorial to a newspaper, mail their editorial to a public figure, or display their writing with a graphic element (many used Infogra.am) in the halls of our school.
The results of this shift were significant. When I met with students, I asked, “what do you want the reader to think/feel/experience here?” and “how can you clarify this for the reader?”
No more “playing school”
Earlier this year, a student told me that she loved reading and writing, but had rarely enjoyed English class. She could “play school” well, but she wanted something more meaningful.
This conversation sent me reflecting deeply. I won’t romanticize the results, but the conversation has led me to ask, “how can I achieve instructional goals while giving students meaningful experiences?”
There are moments where I catch and find students “playing school.” And while some teachers may call this phrase just another buzzword, I argue that it’s another one that’s easy to ignore, but important to deal with.
Gerard Dawson teaches English and Journalism to high school students in New Jersey. You can read more from him atGerardDawson.org.