Have you ever thought about the impact that traditional publishing has on our understanding of what makes a text worthy of being taught? Early in my teaching career, it occurred to me that though I was reading and enjoying texts written and “published” by all kinds of people in all kinds of ways—from underground ’zines to blogs to photo essays—I was only giving my students traditionally published works.
I have shifted my thinking over the years, realizing that giving students a wider range of texts to explore is not only more engaging but more relevant and inclusive. I started sharing out-of-the-mainstream works with my students, and their interest and engagement increased, especially when we could link these new media texts to traditionally published ones.
I also began to see how traditional publishing suppressed voices of the Other, and the important work English teachers can do to undermine this—for more on this work, I encourage engaging with #DisruptTexts. Now I’m fully committed to giving students a wide range of engaging, relevant, and inclusive texts to explore. As the internet—and my confidence in sourcing and assessing texts—grew, I shared diverse types of content beyond traditional texts for students to analyze and discuss—blog posts, memes, discussion boards, speeches, mini-documentaries, and YouTube videos, to name just a few.
I also began sharing my own content with students as I moved to a self-paced instructional approach, in which I made video lessons for students to watch when, and as often, as they chose, and focused more class time on coaching them on reading and writing skills. It was important to me to make those videos engaging, often using the same techniques we noticed and discussed in other content.
Exploring and Supporting Student Creativity
Incorporating text variety includes asking students to create content of their own and examining their process. After a student shared her growing TikTok following, I asked myself: How do students come up with their content? How do they find the courage to share? How do they deal with criticism, and how do they manage content when it gains traction or goes viral?
Students are already creating and sharing content. So I thought about what I could do to help them understand the ways they are using language in their world. Here are a few additional guiding questions to consider when encouraging student creativity:
- How am I helping them to effectively lift their voices on platforms with millions of users clamoring for attention?
- How am I helping them ensure their message has power and impact—and why it often doesn’t?
- How am I supporting their understanding of style, and how, for example, the ubiquitous conventions of YouTube are both silly and compelling?
I’ve learned a lot about what my students are wrestling with when they create their own content, and I’ve realized the advantages of meeting them in their world—and I’ve started creating my own content and sharing it with my students.
Here are four reasons why I think doing this is beneficial for students:
1. Understanding students more deeply: Creating and sharing content fosters a deeper understanding of our students—experiencing their world helps us understand how they think about the value of content creation.
2. Helping students reach their goals: In 1996, Bill Gates said that in the future the internet would be driven by content, adding, “No company is too small to participate.” In fact, no person is too small. Our students do not feel intimidated by the idea of creating and promoting their content. Neither should we. Students are the leaders of the future, and we can help them understand the power of their voice.
3. Fostering stronger communication skills: Have you ever liked, commented on, shared, retweeted, or reposted something? Social media platforms elevate content that has high engagement—the fundamental difference between these texts and traditionally published ones is the possibility of further creation and engagement. To experience what it means to have our content shared is to understand what our students want their own creations to achieve. And we can help them learn about the impact their content has on others, including what it feels like when a post is not received as they intended. We can help our students build awareness of the ways their words can hurt or heal.
4. Helping students build a variety of skills: Creating content can help teachers further understand how to deepen curricular links and coach students on communication skills, digital skills, and social and emotional skills. We do this already without creating our own content, but in my experience, doing this work has unearthed more connections than I could have imagined. My understanding of the complex suite of skills, both practical and academic, necessary to create a simple video is now more nuanced and robust, and this has improved the ways I support students making their own videos.
Producing Original Content
When I started creating my own content, my first attempts were clunky, boring videos. I reviewed enjoyable visuals on social media and picked up some ideas. Asking my students for feedback on my videos gave me additional feedback, which led to more changes. I learned how to add captions to make videos more accessible for all students.
There’s an art to making content like videos and other media compelling, even for a captive audience. When a colleague and I created a podcast, I had to think about our audience in very specific ways. We made careful decisions about what we would share on the platform and considered listeners’ questions and comments.
While I encourage teachers to try creating their own engaging instructional videos, you don’t have to create content for your students in order to learn how to better engage them in class; you can create content for friends and family about your garden, your pets, your travels, your quirky hobby, or even, of course, your favorite books and poems. Your students will benefit—and I think you’ll have fun too.