I was on unfamiliar terrain: the engineering classroom that I walked past every day on the way to my own room but had never entered. I was there for a summit of sorts. A few of the students who were in both Architecture and English in Action, a brand-new project-based class that I was teaching, wanted to use their final Architecture project as their final English project as well. For Architecture, they were doing a very cool assignment in which they designed a community building, like a new town hall, that would fit into our local downtown. They had to understand the requirements of multiple stakeholders, think about how space would be used, consider the aesthetic of our main street, and perform the considerably challenging task of designing a building. The kids insisted this could double-count if they did all the accompanying research and writing assignments from English in Action. I kept saying no. My colleague from Engineering had my back (we teachers stick together) but seemed a little hazy on why he was on my side.
In order to explain my stubborn refusal, I should back up and explain English in Action. We had designed this new course, English in Action, to show students how they could apply and develop the skills they learned in English class to meaningful work in our community. The cornerstone of the class was something we were calling a Community Action Project. We wanted our students would make or do something to improve the community… but we couldn’t really define what that something was. (Spoiler alert: we still can’t.) We had a number of stumbling blocks in defining the Community Action Project. For starters, each student was different: they would have different topics, different research journeys, and different skill sets that would naturally lead to diverse projects. But more fundamentally, we couldn’t define it because we’d never seen it. This class was totally new. While had sound educational principles, reams of curriculum notes, and a thirty-plus page handbook, we’d never done anything like this before and we were pretty much flying by the seat of our collective pants. We’d spent hours imagining what kids could do. Maybe a student who was passionate about literacy could make a “literacy backpack” with books, toys, and games on a single theme for kids to check out of the local library; maybe a student who loved football could run a skills camp for middle schoolers; maybe a student who was a budding environmentalist could organize a plastic-free week at our school. But when the school year began, these imaginary kids were replaced by real ones and these maybes were starting to become a reality… or not.
That was how I found myself in the Engineering room going twelve rounds with some very passionate seventeen-year-olds. The kids couldn’t understand my position. And then I finally blurted out, “In English in Action, you need to actually do the thing. You need to make it. For real.” I was pretty flustered at that point, but my colleague from the Engineering department immediately understood and explained it to the kids in much more measured tones. This Architecture project was far more ambitious than the English in Action one (new town hall vs. backpack full of books about dogs) except in one crucial way: while the Architecture assignment did not require the kids to actually build a new town hall, our English assignment insisted that they actually assemble the backpack and actually make it possible to check the backpack out from the local library.
This exchange clarified something essential about English in Action: we insist that students do authentic work. In other words, we want students to do the kind of work that people do every day outside of classrooms. We are especially wary of the trap Anne Elrod Whitney points out in her article on authentic writing in which we teachers “accidentally end up just having students pretend to write for someone other than us” (19). These thought-experiment type assignments have their place in the curriculum — they make a lot of sense for my colleague in Engineering who couldn’t finance multiple major construction projects — but we find that students get much more out of doing real authentic work than simply imagining that their school work could be authentic.
And so, the kids finally understood why they couldn’t double-count their projects. In the long run, this worked well for one of the students. He retooled his expectations, rolled up his sleeves, and figured it out: his Community Action Project was a phenomenal promotional video to get more people involved in our local branch Habitat for Humanity. For the other student, it never clicked: she wound up dropping English in Action and taking a more traditional English class instead. In our first year of the course, we had some failures and a lot of successes. Our kids learned a lot; we learned a lot, too, about how to help our students do work that was meaningful and authentic.
It is an enormous challenge to design curriculum that is rich with authentic work. We often get things wrong. However, it is a challenge worth taking for so many reasons, foremost among them that it gives students a sense of meaning and purpose. In the weeks ahead, we will share with you some of the authentic work that students do in our classes. Even though much of our experience comes from English in Action, a personalized and problem-based class, we’ll talk about tasks and assignments that you can transfer to any classroom (and that we’ve transferred to our more traditional classes). We’ll also share how we develop authentic assignments and the impact that these assignments have on our students. We hope that our Authentic Work Series will help you to incorporate more authentic work into your own teaching.
Nell K. Duke, Virginal Purcell-Gates, Leigh A. Hall, and Cathy Tower. “Authentic Literacy Activities for Developing Communication and Writing.” The Reading Teacher, vol. 60, no. 4, 2006, pp. 344-55, eric.ed.gov/id=EJ749450.
Anne Elrod Whitney. “Keeping it Real: Valuing Authenticity in the Writing Classroom.” English Journal, Vol.106, no. 6, 2017, pp. 16-21.