When Purpose Drives a Project

The Internet has the power to connect people across the globe. I think we can all agree that’s already been well-established. The realization that I’ve recently had, though, is what a powerful impact this can have on my own professional learning. The first time I participated in a Twitter chat, I felt like a superfan who had just received a backstage pass to a Broadway show. There were so many “stars” of ELA, and we were all part of the same conversation!

I feel that same electric excitement whenever I stumble across a blog in which another teacher writes about something I’ve also been working on. Such was the case when I read Allison’s post about children’s literature. In the post, there were a few main points that I felt immediately connected to:

Her kids worked with children’s literature as a genre. This was exciting because this year, I tackled the project of a children’s book with my literacy lab, an elective intervention class comprised of students who struggle with reading and writing. Using children’s literature as a genre was non-threatening while still allowing for in-depth analysis, and it opened the door to other, more challenging texts.

She wrote about the power of having students collaborate on their writing. Collaboration was crucial to our project – mostly because it was such a heady project to tackle. Instead of a bunch of individual stories each paired with artists, though, we all worked together on the same book and then partnered with an artist who was willing to illustrate their work. We found that we needed each other to succeed in this endeavor. Each student had different strengths ranging from generating ideas to rhyming, and they lifted each other up to make an enormous project seem a lot more “doable.”

She used mentor texts to drive the instruction. I share a classroom, and many times I wondered if my teacher-roommate thought I was crazy when she’d arrive before we’d finished cleaning up. The desks were stacked high with every sort of children’s literature imaginable from board books on up. The students even gathered a collection of anti-mentor texts, or books they deemed to be so awful they wanted to make sure to avoid pitfalls that could potentially put our book in that category.

As I reflect on my own experience with our children’s literature project, I know that these were three key factors to its success. What really was the game-changer for me and my students, though, was the authentic audience.

These drafts show our student artist’s concept for the main character of our class book: Wilbur the Wombat. Even the art went through the revision process.

Our project came about because our district has an initiative called Waterford Reads that aims to focus attention and resources on early literacy. Our superintendent is planning to put together a care package featuring a book to distribute to Waterford residents when they have babies in area hospitals. We decided that it would be best if the book we give could be something our own students produce, and I jumped at the chance to have my literacy lab kids tackle the challenge.When I first pitched this project as a possibility to my students, though, I was nervous. I was, after all, asking a bunch of teenagers, most of whom were boys who honestly didn’t tend to get too excited about school, to write a children’s book. I wasn’t sure they’d share my enthusiasm. The day after I first pitched the idea to them, one boy approached me and said, “My mom wants to know if we can get a copy of the book when we’re finished.” I’ll let that sink in a bit. A teenager – a junior in high school – talked to his mom about something we were doing in class! These kids were excited and proud to think of themselves as writers. Having this authentic audience to get kids excited was just the beginning, though. Knowing we were working for a purpose drove our learning throughout the project because it affected so many aspects along the way.

We used the authentic audience to determine a purpose and seek out mentor texts to analyze.

Once we knew who our audience would be, we had discussions about why we’d write for them and we determined that our overall purpose was twofold:

1) Promote early literacy so that students are learning at home and are prepared for school.

2) Make students want to come to our district.

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Students used mentor texts to decide to use the repeated “w” sound, funny exaggerations, a steady rhythm, end rhyme, and repeated phrases.

We made an anchor chart to remind us of our purpose, and we dug into our mentor texts (huge collections of books that were popular when my students were little as well as some newer books for young readers). From there, we looked at what made some of them lovable classics and what banished some to the “Don’t Do This” pile. The class decided that we should write a book that was light and at times funny but with an overall reassuring message to make school seem less scary. They scared the pants off of me when they unanimously agreed that our book should rhyme. (I thought this would be too difficult a task, but they took on the challenge!) They also noticed alliteration and other letter work, so we agreed to focus our letter on W (for our district: Waterford), and after much research and voting, they decided that our main character would be Wilbur the Wombat. As we dug into the complexities of how to write like our mentors, we posted more anchor charts with lists of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” to remember as writers.

 Our audience engaged students to authentically participate in the writing process.

I think that, no matter how valiant and well-planned our efforts are, we’ve all had peer conferences that flopped. As much as you might model and practice the qualities of an effective conference, sometimes the truth is that the students don’t always care as much about improving their writing as we do. This was not the case here. They knew their final published piece would reach a wide audience, but knowing that the publication process might take a while, I wanted to make this even more tangible for them, so I explained that once we had a solid rough draft, we’d test it out by taking our draft to our district’s elementary schools. I wanted my students to get the practice of reading aloud to children, but I also wanted them to get feedback from kids closer to their target audience. As we prepared for our visits, I had never seen students more focused. They developed questions they wanted to ask the elementary students, and at their first visit, they were so blown away by the thoughtful feedback and suggestions the kids offered, they went back to class the next day to work on more questions and areas to conference. They held class meetings to share the feedback they got from kids and to discuss which suggestions we should take. They considered their audience so carefully, they weighed the suggestions of fifth grade students against that of kindergarten students because they knew the younger kids were closer to their intended readership. I had certainly never seen such authentic revision for other genres or projects before!

A real audience empowered students to see themselves as writers.

For most of these students, turning in any writing was often like pulling teeth. For this assignment, they were proud to write for a real purpose.

Perhaps the most powerful result of our visits to elementary schools was how it changed the way my students saw themselves. I think it’s fair to say that, before this class, none of my students would have ever called themselves a writer. But in front of their elementary audiences, they blossomed. After many of the writing conferences we led with our elementary partners, the children wanted to ask my students questions. They asked questions ranging from “How did you get your idea?” to “Do you have any pets at home?” My students realized that these kids looked up to them as authors! In class, my teenagers who at the beginning of the year self-identified as non-readers and non-writers, told stories about how their own classmates would ask where they were going when they left for their elementary visit field trips, and how they were so proud to explain that they were writers and they were off to share their book!

What this means for my future students

Allison concluded her reflection on her children’s book project by asserting that she will do the project again in the future, and I couldn’t agree more. I may not always have a district initiative with grant funding to get us going, but there are plenty of other avenues for publishing. I’m excited to try iBooks, and through our visits to the elementary schools, I saw that we have the rapt attention of a local audience right in our own district. Since our visits, several of the elementary teachers have contacted me to say that their students are asking about getting their own class copy of the book. Partnering with an elementary school to write for a classroom in our district would be a great, low-cost way to introduce future students to a real audience for their children’s books.

This project also inspired me to work harder to find more opportunities for students to write for an authentic audience. Too often we as teachers are the only ones who ever read the elaborate projects we’ve created for our students. And then we wonder why their hearts aren’t in it. The more we give our students the opportunity to write for a real audience, the more we will empower them to see themselves as writers and really dig in to the writing process.


Have you used children’s literature with your secondary students? What other opportunities have you given your students to write for authentic audiences? I’d love to hear about your experiences. Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @megankortlandt.


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