Words matter, and English teachers use a lot of them. Most of us tend to (over) rely on our favorite catchphrases: the phrasings, mantras, and motivational expressions we use to drive home our intentions and purposes for our students. These are, more often than not, effective instructional tools; they also carry risk: these linguistic Swiss Army knives sacrifice nuance for brevity, and often become so assumed, so ingrained in how we engage with our students, that we either don’t notice, or choose to ignore, their failings.
One such phrasing many teachers of writing apply is the hypothetical imperative, or as I like to think of them, “Twilight Zone commands”, as they usually sound like the beginning of a classic Rod Serling monologue (“Imagine, if you will…”). It shouldn’t take long to identify these in your own practice; I know I’ve presented countless writing prompts that began with some variation of the phrase “Write as if…” (as in “Write as if you were reaching out to the mayor”). While often effective for our finite and immediate classroom purposes, this seemingly innocuous phrase can turn a process of liberation into one of limitation.
When we present writing in here as a nearly-but-not-quite-real analogue of authentic writing, we send a subtle but insidious message to our students: the writing that happens in this classroom does not move beyond these walls. This Twilight Zoning reinforces the idea that school is a place where ideas are acted out, not acted upon.
This is not to say, of course, that there isn’t merit to these sorts of nearly-real writing experiences. Recognizing that there are many potential audiences for a student’s writing is an empowering awakening, and one that can and should be cultivated throughout a student’s time in school. My issue with this approach, however, is its inherent inauthenticity: the teacher is still, in even the most realistic of these prompts, the audience, as they’re the ones assessing the writing. They are wearing the mask of the mayor, the editor-in-chief, and the president, but the second the writing is submitted, the mask comes off and the illusion dissolves.
Why stop here, in such close proximity to the authentic, and ostensibly intended, audience? I imagine that many fear the potential for controversy. What if my student responds to an article in The New York Times and another reader replies back, perhaps rudely? Others may feel overwhelmed by the variables inherent in this authenticity. I once had a prominent scientist subtweet (the Twitter-equivalent of sotto voce trash-talking) my students after they emailed him with questions regarding one of his recent articles, expressing his frustration with their “asking him to do their homework for them.” (It is, apparently, quite possible to know everything about gene-editing technology and nothing about decorum.)
These are both valid concerns, and should be factored into any decision regarding authentic writing. But we must acknowledge the tendency in education (and everything else) to overstate the potential risks of a new paradigm and downplay those within an established approach. By maintaining either explicitly intra-classroom writing (teacher-as-reader) or pseudo-authentic writing (teacher-as-other-as-reader), we send our students the message that writing in here solely exists as a vessel for a grade. In fact, in many ways, this message is compounded, not alleviated, by this pseudo-authenticity: “You’re still just writing to me, kid, but let’s pretend your writing will actually be read by someone else.”
Ultimately, in my practice I believe that in spite of (and, in many ways, because of) the uncertainties involved, authentic audiences are essential for student writing, both for the development of literacy and citizenship. Telling students that their voices matter, in an actionable sense, is mere lip service if their words cannot be heard outside of the classroom. Rebellious writing instruction, then, is the process of challenging a system that simulates, rather than stimulates, authentic engagement.
This post is part of the Rebellious Education series, which attempts to challenge inherent assumptions in literacy and propose alternative approaches that empower both educators and students.
Matt Morone is an award-winning literacy coach and English teacher at Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale, New Jersey, where he currently teaches and advises the school’s literature and arts magazine Outside/In. You can follow him on Twitter @MrMorone and read his education blog at FailSafely.com