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Student Engagement

How to Set Up Authentic Assignments in High School English

Assignments that align with standards and hone students’ critical thinking skills can boost their engagement in learning.

September 24, 2021
High school students work on group project
kali9 / iStock

During my district’s teacher-led summer professional development, my colleagues and I often discussed the benefits of authentic learning, which helps create a culture of learning. With authentic activities and assessments, ELA students work on a variety of tasks that connect to the real  world. Authentic learning is effective in virtual and in-person classes, and increases student engagement while deepening learning. 

What makes an activity meaningful or authentic? Authentic activities mirror real-world tasks. They give students an opportunity to showcase their work to others, the community, other students, or parents. Authentic assignments have several defining characteristics. When considering and planning authentic assignments, think about how to incorporate the following:

  • Collaboration 
  • Real audience/ assessment 
  • Interdisciplinary connections 
  • Polished products
  • Multiple solutions/ perspectives
  • Real-life relevance 

Authentic learning has many benefits in the classroom. Students individualize their assignments, hone critical thinking skills, practice autonomy, innovate and adapt, and become agents of change. 

Core Authentic Learning

Authentic learning assignments closely align with the Common Core State Standards and 21st Century Skills. The Common Core State Standards center on preparing students to read, write, listen, and speak across all content areas. The skills and knowledge that make up the standards prepare students for the real world. Here are some examples of the standards:

  • Writing. 9-10.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  • Writing. 9-10.6: Use technology, including the internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.
  • Reading Information Text. 9-10.8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.

These standards serve as the foundation of the authentic tasks. In my planning, I always look at the language of the standard to help design the authentic task. For example, the writing standard encourages a variety of ways to use technology to publish student work. Additionally, the Speaking & Listening Standards encourage students to question, share, and expand.

A common misconception is that teachers lack the time and resources to implement authentic learning, but they can easily integrate mini-lessons covering specific skills. Teachers can focus mini-lessons or small group work on these standards while also providing independent time for students to work on their authentic projects.

5 Examples of Authentic Tasks

1. Blogging/vlogging: Students capture their thoughts, ideas, and questions while showcasing their work to a wide audience. They can blog about current events, or react to themes in a unit, or explore ideas from class. Keeping a blog or vlog helps students learn how to write for an audience and practice using their voice.

2. Community newsletters: Communication is a foundational skill and part of the Common Core. Creating a newsletter is a good example. In my school, students make newsletters about what’s going on in our classrooms to send home to their families. Additionally, using a template from Canva or Google Docs, students can create newsletters about what’s happening in the local community. Sending out the newsletters to others, such the local newspaper, school community, and parents, gives meaning to student writing.

3. Student presentations: Speaking and presenting are two critical skills for students to learn, and teachers can invite other classes, administrators, or even community members to watch the presentations. With an audience, students practice their public speaking and gain confidence. My favorite students’ presentations have been when our class re-created Shark Tank and invited community members to listen, provide feedback, and comment on the projects. If time is an issue, students can record presentations on platforms like Flipgrid or upload videos to Padlet or Google Sites.

4. Student-designed assessments: The classroom is always abuzz when students create tests and quizzes for each other. The competition among peers results in increased motivation and engagement, with students competing over who can make a harder test. In the past, I’ve provided students with the Common Core State Standards they needed to assess, which culminated in deeper learning for all students.

5. Competitions and contests: The New York Times and NPR both run student contests that are free to enter. The New York Times offers a variety of options throughout the school year, and NPR has a student podcast challenge each year on any topic. I also check local organizations and groups for a variety of essay or poetry contests.

Remember to focus on making learning fun, applicable, and rigorous. Authentic assignments are flexible for teachers, as students can work on them independently, in small groups, as end-of-unit assessments, or as whole-unit assessments. These learning opportunities create student platforms that will engage all students. Most important, meaningful assignments foster highly effective student collaboration and critical thinking for a lifetime of learning. Authentic tasks help prepare students for the expectations of tomorrow. 

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  • Student Engagement
  • Critical Thinking
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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