Teaching the Real Purpose of Writing
Originally published in TEACH Magazine January/February 2019
By Ashley Yarbrough
As teachers, we know that students need to be motivated in order to learn. Especially in English where it requires students to sit and read for an extended period of time, I find it to be frequently challenging to get my students to WANT to do their work. “Challenging” is really an understatement if we are being honest; it’s more like “nearly impossible” at times. I have taught homeless kids, kids from multi-million dollar homes, 6th graders, 10th graders, 12th graders—you name it. They’re all the same in this way. They need purpose, and due to their maturity and the instant gratification age, that purpose needs to apply to them right now.
Every year that I’ve taught, my students read 30-45 minutes at least three times a week. We read short stories, novels, and other pieces of literature. For most students, getting a good grade is their motivating factor. For others, it is avoiding the wrath of their parents. Almost none of them read for joy or curiosity. It’s a shame and a very serious problem, because reading, as we know, increases intelligence, ups social understanding (like empathy, appreciation for diversity, etc.), heightens knowledge—the list goes on.
Even if I motivate most of my students to read and even excite them about our current book, there are always a few students who just won’t do it. They’re apparently satisfied with failing the quizzes and tests. Their parents’ wrath or disappointment in them is not motivation enough. They’d rather sit and stare at the book than read a single word.
One year, I had such a student. I’ll call him “Dylan.” He would literally spend 45 minutes every day staring at his desk. He was failing my class badly—like 21% failing. I tried getting him to read smaller chunks. I tried calling home. I tried having him read aloud to me. Nothing was working. I had to ask myself, “What can I do to motivate this kid?”
I had noticed that Dylan really liked cartoon, comic-type shows. He liked shows such as, Dragonball Z and Batman. So I had this random idea to ask him write to a review of one of the shows, instead of the book. My expectations were low, but at the least, I hoped he’d produce something minimally acceptable that I could enter into the gradebook. My goal was to show him how much his grade would change if he simply turned something in, because at that point, anything above a C would drastically boost his grade.
The next day, as he was studying his desk’s wood grain pattern, I asked if he had decided what show to review. He said, “Why should I bother? No one will ever see anything I write.”
I replied, “You’ll use writing everyday as you get older—emails, job applications, social media statuses. Anything, really.”
He replied, “Yeah, but I don’t want a job where I have to read or write, and I don’t use social media.”
Suddenly, I had another idea. I asked, “Do you want someone to see what you write?”
He said, “I guess.”
I told him, “We can make that happen. I’ll show you something tomorrow in class. We’ll have the whole class do it.”
During the planning period, I looked up some websites that offer submissions. There are tons! Popular places like Buzzfeed, The Atlantic, and Story Magazine accept submissions. I narrowed my search and found a listicle of (appropriate) fanfiction sites, especially those geared toward anime/cartoon stories and I printed it out. I found another listicle of places that publish book reviews and printed that out as well. I called Dylan’s parents and asked if they’d allow him to submit his writing to a website, sharing with them my list of publications.
The next class, I handed Dylan the listicle of fanfiction sites, and told him to write a story using his show’s characters. I told him that if it was good, we could submit it. One of the sites would pay if it was accepted. I reminded him that anyone could see his story. His eyes widened and he asked, “You can get paid for writing?”
“Yeah! Definitely! You just need to be accepted. Sometimes that takes a ton of tries, but the more you write, the better you get. If it doesn’t get accepted, we can ask why and try again, using their advice.”
I presented the other listicle to the class for book reviews and sent a permission slip home to the parents.
Dylan—and the rest of the class—really knocked it out of the park. Dylan came back the next day with a 10 page story while the others handed in their stories over the next two weeks. We held workshops to improve the writing and allowed parents time to return the permission slip. Only one parent did not want her child’s work submitted publicly, but she was fine with it being submitted to the school’s newsletter.
After two weeks, the students worked together in the computer lab to submit their revised work to various websites. I required them to choose three sites to better their chances of acceptance, but really, I just wanted to them to see for themselves what’s out there. It took the entire class period, mostly, because I required them to read and follow the instructions for submission, that usually requires email addresses and often a blurb for the submitter’s profile.
It was so awesome to see their excitement. I had to keep reminding them that they may not hear back for months, and they will likely need to try again several times, learning how to meet the editors’ expectations. They were highly motivated by having a purpose for their writing outside of the classroom or even home. They realized that writing has a REAL purpose. They also learned how to revise drafts, how to write for an audience, about author’s purpose, etc. It was a fantastic learning experience for them.
Over the years, I’ve found as many ways as possible to have my students write for someone besides myself and their parents. We’ve submitted pieces online—with parent and administration approval, of course. Local papers tend to have online versions and will often not have age limits! I used this for nonfiction writing, as well as persuasive writing. We’ve also written guides for incoming students, informing them of “need-to-knows” from students’ point of views. The important thing is, they know what they are writing has a purpose and what they are reading applies—not in the future, but right now.
Ashley Yarbrough is a secondary English teacher, mother, writer, and gardener. She has taught students from diverse backgrounds in both public and private schools. She keeps a blog at www.mamahoodmemoirsblog.wordpress.com. Feel free to visit and reach out to her!