Keeping it Real: Exploring Essential and Real World Ways to Motivate Students in the Writing Classroom

I teach Junior and Senior English at a local alternative ed school.  My year so far has been spent trying to perfect a balance between teaching the “essential” state mandated standards my district pacing calendar requires and teaching the real world communication skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) that I and others who live in the real world find essential.  Often, I have to stop, take a comforting deep breath and ask myself:  What kind of communication would my students find “essential”?  I never ask; I think I’m too scared to find out.  To scared find out the answer probably does not align with the district’s or my high academic and social expectations.  I listen and I observe.  I’m trying to learn my students.  But I don’t like what I’m learning.  I’m going to be honest here.  There language is atrocious!!  Don’t get me wrong I’m a huge fan of the expletive, and sometimes even the “F” bomb.  However, there is a time and place for such language and it’s definitely not the academic classroom.  My criticism of their language does not come from a place of judgment or superiority.  It comes from fear.  Fear that that my students won’t make it.  Here in alternative ed., this can become pretty horrific if you start to listen to some of their narratives.  And I have.  Actually, for my own comfort I skip personal narratives altogether even though they love writing them so much.  I don’t want to read about so many dismal stories and forlorn fates.  Yet I have my own dismal story.  I have a unique perspective of the marginal place that my students inhabit.  I graduated from the exact same alternative ed. school where I teach.  I believe I’m the only teacher in the district who has this position.  Given my own journey in alternative education as a secondary and junior college student, I’ve come to realize the long, hard way what it takes to make it in an academic environment and in the real world. 

So, as I grapple with trying to find a topic worthy of my time and research, I’m trying to keep it real.  Real world, that is.  I guess my research focus in rhetoric would be purpose and audience.  As for composition, I pretty sure I’ll be focusing on motivating the unmotivated writer and learner, trying to get these students to accept the need to acquire some academic language and a bunch of literacy.  I’ve been struggling all year, especially with the seniors.  They don’t care.  They just don’t care.  They are just so glad and so satisfied to make graduation, given all the obstacles in their real lives and the obstacles in the school system.  I’m a messy person and thinker and I like things to connect and overlap.  I need to complete a technology lesson plan for BTSA, this research essay, and find answers for myself as a classroom teacher.  I’d like all of these endeavors to work together.  I’d like to expend all of my energy in one direction for all three things.  Rather, than one third of my energy at three small less worthy endeavors in three different directions.   

Allow me to break-down what I’m thinking.

First I like to find some theoretical, practical, methodological research to answer the following questions: Can audience, purpose, and media (technology) provide motivation to write?  In the classroom can I harness that motivation and transfer it to allow my students to acquire some academic English and gain literacy? Finally, where at exactly does technology fit, meaningfully, into the English Language Arts classroom?  I’m hoping that I can use my classroom as an ethnographic starting place.  The projects I will attempt will be based on research, particularly inspired by the Wigginton’s “Foxfire” Environmental Journalism projects.  Since the only writing that inspires my students so far are their daily journals, we’ll begin with a classroom blog.  Next, to extend the boundaries of our classroom to the real world, I’ll probably have them design a webpage about their career goals.  And finally, if there is any time left in the year, we’ll revamp and reevaluate some of our journals for publication in our school’s first ever literary E-Zine.  Since all projects will be technology based my hypothesis is that the audience will finally be real.  Also, since the writing will be seemingly unacademic, my students might find purpose.  Also I have been competing with electronic communication all year:  myspace, texting in class, photo-phones, and mp3 players.  Perhaps, the technological media that we can include in these projects could offer motivation.  Though research suggests that students should be part of the planning process, I intend to offer choices, but because I have a special group of students I don’t know how much I should leave it up to them.  Maybe we can make the grading rubric.  For theoretical inspiration and grounding, I’ve been looking at some writing by Sarte “Why Write”?  In this essay Sarte marries writer’s purpose to reader.  Stanley Fish’s “interpretative communities” offers some freedom to allow students to write what’s meaningful to them.  I skimmed through Elbow’s teacherless classroom and his readers seem to match the kind of readers I’d like my students to turn into.  I spoke to my friend about the possibility of ethnography in my classroom (she has a degree in Ethnographic Cinematography), but she suggests that I need to work on defining my classroom as a group, so I think I’ll head over to Geertz to see what he has to say.  Of course, I will use some ideas from “Foxfire” in the classroom applications that I have mentioned earlier.  However, I plan to use technology because that’s what my school has and, financially and resourcefully, I don’t see publication in any other way.  

One final note on the district’s “essential” standards.  I’m in alternative ed, so I’ll make them fit.  Also, we have a lot of flexibility here at alternative ed.  That is one of the reasons why I work here in the first place.  Finally, if the project is implemented carefully and explicitly I think I’ll be a teaching enough “essential” academic and real world standards.

1 comment for “Keeping it Real: Exploring Essential and Real World Ways to Motivate Students in the Writing Classroom

  1. March 19, 2009 at 5:29 pm


    This is a great topic. There have been a number of articles published about how technology might be used to increase student engagement. Some studies also look at online communities of different types to see what motivates participants and whether that can be replicated in a writing (or other) classroom.

    I’ll comment again with some suggested sources.

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