Evaluating Writing Graduate Students Teaching Writing

Authentic Writing

photo-1414919823178-e9d9d0afd0acEmily Chambers is an English M.A. student in the Teaching Writing and Literature program and a Graduate Research Assistant for Mason WAC.  She taught sixth grade English for five years in Culpeper, VA before beginning her studies at GMU.  Emily’s main interests are in teacher development and curriculum resources.  She can be reached at  

Educators often note that much of the writing students do in school settings (from k-12 to their first few years of college) is written for the “teacher as audience.” Many have suggested that “authentic writing” opportunities are more helpful to students, teaching them to consider audience and motivating them to write. Defined in simple terms, “authentic writing” is a phrase that describes writing for “real life” audiences and purposes. Examples might include asking students to write web text for a non-profit, proposals to granting agencies, letters to the editor, or pieces that will be submitted for publication.

In my five years of teaching middle school classes, the most successful and rewarding authentic writing experience was when I asked my students to submit to the America Library of Poetry Contest.  My sixth-grade students used the writing process to compose poems, and after peer- and teacher-conferences, they submitted these poems to be read by national judges.  We spent time through this lesson reading poems and talking about the strengths of good poems in our class sessions. This summer, I happened to read a short autobiography by a former student, written for a fundraiser.  As one of her interests, Lindsay listed “writing poetry,” and mentioned that she was a winner in a national poetry contest.  She had won! I was overjoyed to see that a classroom writing assignment had become a proud moment in my student’s life, and that she had taken on a role as a writer.  

This has not always been the case for my students.  Indeed, one of the main difficulties in writing is motivating reluctant writers.   I have found, however, that authentic writing experiences are an excellent way to motivate students and teachers alike.  These authentic writing experiences are ones in which there is a specific audience, usually outside the classroom, and possibly outside the school.   As fellow teacher Patria Slagle defines it, “authentic writing implies that the student is writing in his or her voice to a real living person or group about a matter of concern” (“Getting Real: Authenticity in Writing Prompts”).  The audience provides feedback to students, either with in-person conversations and interactions, or in the form of letters, contest results, etc.

It did require patience to wait for American Library of Poetry Contest results, but the wait was well rewarded.  Students found great joy in knowing their writing was reviewed by an outside audience, and this joy was even greater when they received responses.  Some, like Lindsay, even had their poetry published in the Library of Poetry’s annual, national poetry journal. These students were extremely proud of their accomplishments, and often returned to tell me of their publication in the poetry journal.  As their teacher, it was greatly rewarding to share in the successes of their writing journey.

At the collegiate level, authentic writing can take many forms.  There are numerous essay contests, such as “This I Believe,” another national contest that solicits essays about personal beliefs for publication and broadcasting on their NPR program.  Another publication opportunity is The George Mason Review, GMU’s undergraduate-run journal, which offers students the opportunity to write for an authentic audience: in this case, that of their peers.

In fact, many students already write for personal reasons, on blogs, Twitter, Instagram, etc.  Teachers may tap into these platforms with class material, asking students to summarize their learning in a tweet, or write a blog post explaining a scholarly topic to a friend in non-academic language.  Author and researcher Elaine Hirsch reviewed different professor’s experiences with blogging and found that the blogs created an online community, where students could connect and re-teach class materials to one another (“Getting the Most Out of Student Blogging”).  Alternatively, having students discuss course materials online through Blackboard or a similar platform can provide authentic writing experiences, while furthering in-class discussions.  Students can also create online portfolios to share their writing, comment on one another’s writing, and show the progression of their writing through online sites like Kaizena.  Kaizena also offers teachers the opportunity to provide timely feedback and track patterns in students’ writing, similar to a paper-based portfolio.

When college professors make connections to the writing in their student’s chosen career field, they provide invaluable resources to their students.  These career-specific writings can be mirrored in writing assignments for class, so that they are better prepared for the work force.  This is, in part, the goal of the required Writing Intensive (WI) courses that a student must take at George Mason University (GMU).  By requiring three writing courses, GMU helps students develop their writing skills over time (starting with 101, then preparing students to write for their disciplinary communities in 302, and finally to write for the disciplinary audiences of their chosen career field in their WI Course).  For instance, in their WI course, Business students are asked to craft a research proposal, outlining a future project and investigating a problem they find compelling.  Alternatively, Biology students are asked to analyze and integrate lab results into a scientific essay. Communication majors analyze media messages in speeches, ads, and movies for multiple audiences.  Still further, students studying Game Design write an analysis of the game’s characters, storyline, and overall effectiveness—an assignment that mirrors the sorts of reviews that are popular in the game playing community.

Campus organizations at GMU such as the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR) encourage student research, creative activities, and scholarship through classes, articles of note, mentors, and funding competitions.  OSCAR provides encouragement for authentic writing in every subject, in order that all GMU students are encouraged to pursue questions and research projects they find intriguing.  While pursuing research and scholarships, students must apply for funding (including a written application), communicate with mentors (a writing skill), and report their findings (via written conclusions and/or oral presentations).  These skills prepare students for their future careers, while developing their writing and research skills.

The genuine audience provided by such authentic writing assignments will require and motivate students to craft essays well.  Most of all, the responses and rewards from such an audience will encourage students as they continue in their development as writers.

Selected Sources:

  1. The America Library of Poetry contest is a free, national, and annual contest.  Download the forms and read the guidelines here.  Students have the opportunity to be published in a poetry journal published each year, and they can purchase a copy if they are accepted.
  2. Educational writer Elaine Hirsch summarizes findings from three instructors who used blogging in their courses.  She offers insights from their experiences and ways to improve the use of blogging in the classroom.
  3. The George Mason Review is an undergraduate journal at GMU seeking to promote and present undergraduate scholarship across the disciplines.
  4. “This I Believe, Inc” offers a “public dialogue about belief,” through essays, podcasts, and collections written by those who submit their essays.  Contributors are invited to share, in a brief essay, that what guides their personal beliefs.
  5. Kaizena allows teachers to track student progress and provide feedback: “timely feedback, personalized feedback, peer feedback, actionable feedback, continuous feedback.” Teachers can record comments, communicate with students, and Kaizena creates an automatic summary from the rubric or criteria teachers use.
  6. OSCAR (the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research) provides mentors, grants, and travel funding to GMU students in order to promote student scholarship at GMU.
  7. Long-time teacher and education author Patria Slagle shares successful authentic writing prompts from her classroom, prompts in which she asks students to write for an audience outside the classroom.