Student Athletes Have Audiences. Why Don’t Student Writers?
When students share their writing with an authentic audience, they raise their game.
Friday Night Lights is a film about high school football in Texas in which student athletes compete on Friday nights before large crowds. In curriculum discussions, the term Friday Night Lights has become a metaphor for events through which students make their work public—publishing writing and other products for an authentic audience to view.
A challenge of teaching writing is that students generally find the experience to lack purpose beyond practicing the skills. It’s part of the game called school, where the students’ audience is the teacher, classmates, or a make-believe audience.
Writing can be scary, and when I taught high school many students coming into my classroom on day one were scared. They believed they weren’t writers, even though they had at least eight years of writing experience. I raised the stress level when I told them they’d be required to submit one of their written works to a publication at least once a semester. One student asked me for a pass to the counselor’s office because he wanted to drop my class just to avoid this expectation.
I understood how he felt. I convinced him to stay and give me a chance to change his mind about writing. Just the act of submitting something for publication counted as fulfilling the requirement—we had little to no influence over a publisher’s decision. So sending in a submission counted because the student’s work was getting read. And the student who wanted to change to another class not only sent his writing to an editor—he was published.
An Authentic Target Audience
Students generally find writing experiences to be artificial. A common outcome of that artificiality is that teachers feel disappointed in the quality of writing turned in because the students are capable of better results. There are many components to improving writing skills through the writing process. The journey requires a destination, a Friday Night Lights event where students demonstrate what they have learned to an authentic audience.
Students can feel a heightened need to step up their efforts when the target audience shifts from the teacher and other students in the privacy of their classroom. They want to make a good impression on people and organizations when they’re sending their written products off to inform, convince, or persuade. Students value being taken seriously for initiatives and projects that have meaning beyond traditional work.
Having students submit their work can be done gradually so they build comfort with the idea of their writing becoming public. Here are various ways to support Friday Night Lights moments,, moving from smaller experiences to big moments.
Classrooms and school hallways: Allow students to own the school walls. From their writing collection, let them choose drafts to revise and publish. Students should have shared decision making about what gets posted. Teachers manage requirements such as dates when content must go up.
Classroom blogs: Maintain an online presence where students post content and comment on each other’s thinking. By writing pieces ranging from article responses to complete, original articles, learners develop a professional digital footprint. The result is confidence with posting ideas for the whole school to read.
Contests and local and online publications: The preceding options have guaranteed publication, which builds a comfortable starting base. This next step has students submitting their work to someone who will read and judge their content for wider publication. While students may feel more stress, the opportunities lead to greater attention to the details of the craft of writing. In high school, my son learned this when he had to write and submit an essay to a contest. He did more with the writing process than in prior learning experiences. On reflection, he said, “The audience was these outside people. I was not going to fake my way through the experience.”
Specific people and organizations: This level of publication is about students taking a stand on an issue or problem that needs attention. The students are targeting a specific person or group to persuade to consider the ideas or to act on the proposal. The stakes are high, as the writing must be well-thought-out in terms of words, ideas, and construction. Publication is sending to the identified audience and being prepared to act on the response. Students can repeat this level of publication multiple times.
Risks Bring Rewards
Publication moments can feel nerve-racking, even scary, for students and teachers. The unknown of how an audience will receive the products and performances creates anxiety. In those moments, remind the students and yourself of the work and preparation that went into the process: attention to details, critiques and revisions, and the other skills developed along the way. As with sports, the public experience demonstrates skills and development toward accomplishing a goal. In publication, students can entertain or influence other people’s thinking. In the process, they learn more about themselves and their next steps for growth—until the next Friday Night Lights.