The Closet Project: Awakening Possibilities With Authentic Writing

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know that I am a big advocate of creating authentic writing opportunities for students without losing the rigor of academic assignments.  This is especially important for students who struggle with writing; real scenarios can give them the push they need to become motivated and invested in what they are writing. This is why I frame my “regular” senior English class as a “real world application” class.  In the first semester, we focus on the students themselves, and they learn to create workplace documents such as resumes and cover letters.

In the second semester, however, I like to “zoom out” and guide students toward using writing to benefit a cause greater than themselves.

I have done this a few different ways, but this year’s project was by far my favorite.  Early in the semester, I visited my assistant principal, Mrs. Conklin, and explained that I was interested in having students use their writing skills to create a real product that can be used in the school or the community.  I had hardly finished explaining my vision when she came up with the perfect idea.

Several years back, she noticed many students at our school were in need of clothes, shoes, personal items, etc. She began collecting items and had the construction class build a huge closet in the basement of our school to store the items.  While the closet has helped some students over the years, she felt as though the student body’s lack of knowledge about it was making it underutilized. Thus, Mrs. Conklin requested that my class use their advertising skills to spread the word about this awesome resource. I was immediately drawn to the idea; in a world where we are constantly competing with other writers for the attention of the audience, where readers are scrolling past or strolling past heaps of media at any given moment, it is more important than ever to be able to use language strategically in order to capture attention and send a message.  And so, “The Closet Project” was born!

Part 1: The Consultation

Students become more invested in writing when what they are writing is real, so I was very “business like” about how I pitched the project. I began class by explaining to students that they have been hired to complete a job for a client.  (It was fun seeing seniors in high school become curious again— they had a lot of questions about who the client was, what they’d be doing, and of course what their “pay” would be for the job!) Mrs. Conklin then entered the room and introduced herself as the client for whom they would be creating a product.  She began by asking students who had heard of the closet in the basement, and in my first hour class, only one student raised his hand. This was so powerful, as it established the dire need for students to effectively spread the word about the closet.

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She followed this up by showing some pictures of the closet and explaining what types of items are available and who to ask in order to access them.  My students were immediately hooked and had a ton of questions: What if someone needs food?  What if someone needs shoes, but the closet doesn’t have the right size?  The students thought of so many things Mrs. Conklin and I had not considered, which was great because it eventually gave them even more material to use for their projects.  

Not a lot of guidelines were given when Mrs. Conklin asked students to create their advertisements; she simply asked them to use their creativity and what they know about the student body to create something that would effectively spread the word.  Just like a professional consultation, “payment” was discussed: the student(s) who created the best product would get to choose between an open campus lunch hour or free lunch to be brought in from a restaurant in town. These were both huge motivators for this group!

Part 2- Drafting

I initially thought students might need a full-class brainstorming session before committing to an idea, but this was not the case at all.  In fact, I noticed most students came up with 2 or 3 different ideas very quickly, and they were reluctant to share these ideas with others because they were in competition with one another and didn’t want their ideas to be stolen.  

As I met with each group (I allowed students to work in pairs) to discuss their projects, I could see why; there were some really creative ideas that allowed them to put their existing talents to use. For example, one pair of boys was very familiar with video editing from their experience making daily school news segments in broadcasting class.  They decided to use their skills to create a short commercial for the closet that they later aired on the school news. Another student had experience creating displays on the bulletin board outside my room; she decided to put her talents to use and create an eye-catching display for hall traffic.

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As students brought their ideas to life over the next few days, I conferred with each group as many times as possible.  While doing so, I made a point to challenge students to use their language strategically in order to advertise. When a pair of students were working on mini-ads to be hung on lockers, for example, I discussed the importance of being concise.  When another student created a flyer, we had a conversation about how the visual appeal of the font style and size are perhaps just as important as the content of advertisement.

Just as I have done in the past with this group, I really tried to channel the audience when conferring with writers.  I found myself making statements like, “If this was on my locker, I would be confused by ____,” or “The fact that the flyer has ____ would cause me to stop in the hall.” I’ve found that responding in a way that sounds less like a writing teacher and more like a consumer of media frames feedback in a way that is real and meaningful.

Part 3- The Results

Once all the projects were submitted, I sent them Mrs. Conklin’s way anonymously.  While she originally planned for one grand prize amongst my two classes, she was so blown away by the quality of the projects that she decided to have a first and second prize for each class!  She visited each class and announced the winners. When she did this, she explained why she believed the winning projects to be effective. For example, she really enjoyed the commercial since each student watches the news daily and the video editing was entertaining as well as informative.  Winners were presented with certificates and told that their products will be used in the future to inform students about the closet.

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The closet commercial was the most effective advertisement.  Watch it here.

***

Perhaps what I liked most about this project was the unique opportunity it allowed for students to receive two totally different types of feedback.  The commentary they got from me was specific to a certain skill they were working on at a given point in the process; my feedback was meant to challenge and push.  Mrs. Conklin, on the other hand, only saw the finished product; her feedback was meant to compare and evaluate.

As writing workshop teachers, we try to stay away from making comparisons and instead focus on the individual, but this project is a reminder that this is not typical of what happens in the world outside of school.  Real writers compete. All the time. For publications, for promotions, for raises. So not only did this project offer students a real purpose to write, but it also presented them with an opportunity to receive the same type of feedback real writers receive.

Each time I have students write for a real purpose, I discover a new benefit such as the one above.  It’s as if there’s a whole other world of possibilities in the writing classroom that is only awakened when students are asked to create an authentic product.  Getting another glimpse of that world once again with this project has inspired me to continue slipping in real world writing into my curriculum for all my students, not just this ones who push back against academic assignments.  And I will begin by looking around; because if the ease of planning this project taught me anything, it’s that there are authentic writing opportunities everywhere.

What are some of the ways you incorporate real world scenarios into your writing instruction?  Have you partnered with other teachers or administrators at school to give students real world writing opportunities?I’d love to chat on Twitter @pbrink12!

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