Connected Learning Teaching Writing

The Power of Authenticity: Motivating Students with Meaningful Audiences

Curators notes:

Three LRNG Innovator grantees noticed a common thread running through their projects as they all strive to give students authentic audiences for their work; here are their stories.


Three educators present the projects that provided their students with authentic audiences motivating the students’ best efforts. These authentic writing opportunities include developing broadcast Media, collaborative “maker” projects, blogging, Ted-style Talks, and submissions to Film Festivals. Included are samples of student work and classroom resources.

Back in the day, when we completed school work, we did so for an audience of one: our teacher. We knew that our teacher would be reading and grading our assignments, and that was pretty much the end of our audience. Was that an authentic audience? Well, sure. There isn’t anything inauthentic about producing work for our teachers. But the better question is: was that a meaningful audience?

For some of us, grades were all that mattered, and in that case, our teacher was a meaningful audience. But I have to wonder, even for those students, at some point does the teacher-audience become less meaningful? Do students begin to wonder about the value of the work when the teacher is the only one who sees and responds to it?

The most powerful feedback I got from my 8th graders when I introduced them to blogging was: “No offense, Mrs. Bradley, but when I knew my writing was going to be posted on a blog where all my friends would see, I worked a lot harder on it than when only you were going to read it!” And that opened my eyes to the power of a meaningfully authentic audience.

It seems so obvious now: if our students care about who reads/sees their work, they will put more effort into making it the best work possible. While we teachers like to think we are an important audience, the truth is that the opinions of peers are often far more important to our students than a teacher’s grade.

As recipients of $20,000 LRNG Innovator grants from Educator Innovator (the National Writing Project, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and John Legend’s Show Me Campaign), we represent three different projects in different schools and different states:

A common thread running through our three projects is that they all strive to give students authentic audiences for their work. Here are our stories:

Our LRNG grant funded equipment for our school’s broadcast media program. Two 7/8th grade classes produce a daily news show that the students upload to YouTube and tweet out, which is then viewed campus-wide the next morning. Unlike most classes, the work our students do each day contributes to a final product that will be published and widely viewed. Our students quickly learn that the quality of the show depends heavily on the quality of their efforts in class. This is a healthy kind of pressure that motivates students to do their best work in an environment where their peers are partners in the same production.

Although we are often pressed for time and have to film the episode in one take without any time for revisions, recently the students decided to start filming sooner so that they could call “Cut!” when they felt the quality wasn’t strong enough. They came up with this idea on their own, which showed me that their audience was meaningful enough to them that they would work harder to deliver a better final product.

Check out resources from Laura’s broadcast media program here.

The Birch School is a multi-age, self-directed learning community developing around connected learning principles. We are an experimental school founded in 2012, with students from ages 7 – 17.  Our LRNG grant project was: “Maker Rings: Students supporting students to do their best work.”

At The Birch School, each trimester concludes with a Student Showcase, held at school in the evening. Showcase offers opportunities for students to share their work with peers and with others beyond the school building. Parents, grandparents, friends and siblings are invited to this evening event. During the event visitors talk to students about their work and sticky notes are available for guests to leave written comments. The sharing and assessment of work continues the following school day, when students review each other’s work and offer feedback for their peers.

When we asked students why they were so focused and industrious in the days leading up to Showcase, a student answered: “My parents will be here looking at my work, but also my friends’ parents and other people will be seeing it, so I want it to be good.” Opening the audience to others outside the school community is also a mechanism to include many voices in authentic assessment of student work. It has given opportunities for feedback from more than just teachers, offering students richer and more complex assistance than they might get just in the classroom. It also allows our school community to be more connected to the larger community surrounding our school. The authentic motivation that students feel when they know that their work will be public is invaluable to continued student growth. Student Showcase has become a foundation of student learning at The Birch School.

Check out resources from Kate’s maker ring projects here.

Our LRNG grant provided funding for teachers from six different schools to engage our students with a plethora of digital production options. Each teacher received a class set of Matt de la Pena’s novel We Were Here, which helped us start the conversation with our students about why they were here, what it meant to be a member of their community, how their community was viewed by others, and how they could answer these questions using a variety of media. We also ordered microphones, spit guards, flash drives, speakers, and other equipment that would help us to produce audio and video.

A couple of teachers were able to bring Robert Galinsky, a renowned media coach who focuses on building confidence and presentation skills, to their schools to coach students on creating empowering and engaging TEDTalks. We envisioned our students presenting their work at a student-led conference near the end of the year. Giving students the opportunity to share how they had used digital spaces to tell their stories was key to their investment in considering the questions and producing their media.

Check out resources from Jen’s digital publishing projects here.

Here are some ways that students can be given authentic audiences for their work:

Check out this Edutopia article on how authentic audiences motivate students to revise their work.

This post is part of the Designing for Connected Learning and Teaching collection.

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