Russ Hunt
St. Thomas University

Get Real:
Engaging Students in Authentic Reading and Writing


Some background

Getting more specific Down to the nitty gritty The online version Reflections on the process; Questions and discussion

Expansions of some of the topics above:

"Engagement" is a pretty trendy word these days; the NSSE has made it something that places like St.Thomas hold seminars on. I'm still not convinced you can measure it, but at the same time I'm pretty tired of the idea that if you can measure something it must be important (and if you can't, you can toss it out).  What I mean by engagement, and what I've meant for some decades, is closely allied to what Alfie Kohn (in Punished by Rewards) has described as "intrinsic" motivation.You can tell when you're engaged because you'd never ask why you were doing this, and the motivation is intrinsic if it's not external (pay, rewards, approval). Frank Smith, the education writer, used to describe (in Joining the Literacy Club) an "enterprise" as something whose point was perfectly obvious to everybody involved. Specifically, I'm concerned that when students speak and when they write (and when they listen and read), as often as possible they should be doing so in ways that afford complete involvement in what is being shared between speaker/writer and hearer/reader.  I've written about this in an essay called "'Could you put in lots of holes?' Modes of Response to Writing," in which I argued that it is primarily through having one's discourse responded to in the way it was intended -- not to approve, or admire, or censure, or help, but to engage -- that people learn to handle language. I've also argued elsewhere, with my colleague Doug Vipond ("First, Catch the Rabbit"), that reading that is truly critical, active and responsive can be characterized as "dialogic" -- which is almost another way of saying "engaged." If you are engaged you are taking what the speaker or writer says for itself, as a participant in a dialogic exchange.

"Authentic" is not quite so trendy, but it's almost as difficult to define. I've been involved for a number of years in a research project concerned to define and explain "authentic" teaching, and although I think we've made some headway in defining the term (see my "Institutional Constraints on Authenticity in Teaching"), it remains a problem.  Think of it as "not artificial."  A colleague, John McKendy, said to me in the hallway the other day as we were talking about how to structure a situation in which students actually had, and made, choices among real alternatives for setting up an investigation which was to take them some weeks, "The problem is that we're trying to artifically set up an authentic situation."  The issue is this: if I decide to investigate something, it's because I'm interested myself and, even more important, that I know others whose opinion I care about will also be interested, and will be affected by what I learn. Students in a class conducting an investigation, on the other hand, know very well that it's been done before, that nobody will be affected by it, and that it's really being carried out as a demonstration of their skills, and as a kind of practice.  John Dixon, one of the most influential voices in the Anglo-American dialogue about literacy instruction, calls such exercises "dummy runs" (see his Growth Through English). My concern to to create situations in which what students write is not written to be evaluated, but to be understood and responded to (after all, Bakhtin has described "all real and integral understanding" as constituting "nothing other than the initial preparatory stage of a response." (Speech Genres, 69).  And a "response" is not a role-distance-establishing evaluation ("ah, very good; B+"): if it's engaged, and if it's authentic, it carries the dialogue a step further. It takes what's said on its own terms, for what it says and assumes that the point is to engage in dialogue with the speaker. It's predicated on the assumption that the dialogic partners are of equal standing (power disparity produces monologic discourse, which is why teachers in classrooms find it nearly impossible not to be heard as evaluating rather than responding).

These issues, and others, have been increasingly central to my teaching because I believe that whatever else we're teaching is subordinate to helping our students become the most powerfully and flexibly literate people they can be. The manipulation and understanding of written language is the most powerful tool we have -- for understanding each other and the world, for learning, and for changing the world and its citizens. I do not believe that the ability to handle language -- oral or written -- is learned primarily through instruction. I believe it is learned in practice -- but the word I really want there is praxis: I don't think you learn it by practicing it in dummy runs: I think you learn it, mainly, by using it for things you care about getting done. Just as the baby learns that a gesture is a point by having it understood as one (as Vygotsky pointed out), and just as she learns that the sound /milk/ means that white stuff because that stuff is important to her, so our students learn to read as though intentional voices were implicit in the text because they've written that way, and had their voices understood that way. And as important as our individual "subject matters" may be, this is more important. After all, we might be wrong, and we need to give our students the tools by which they can learn -- or even show -- that what they were told in their first year biology class was, well, wrong (as many of us who studied biology before The Double Helix had to learn).

What this has meant for my teaching in practice is that I have invested most of my imagination in creating situations where students' writing and reading is conducted in contexts which marginalize or eliminate evaluation: where their motives are immediately and practically social and intellectual; where, as I regularly say, they're writing because someone else is going to read what they write, and where that someone else is authentically open to being persuaded, informed, amused, engaged -- and where they can believe that that audience is open to that. I've thought, in other words, pretty obsessively about modes of writing which do not lend themselves to evaluation, and which in fact are not evaluated, and about situations in which at least a substantial part of the motivation for writing is to inform, persuade, amuse, or engage others. I do not believe that students are easily fooled by dummy runs. Let me quickly describe two salient examples of the kind of activity this produces.

Inkshedding (explanation in "What is Inkshedding?").

Playgoer's guides (explanation in "Making Student Writing Count: The Experience of 'From the Page to the Stage'" ).

There are many ways to make classroom writing more authentically engaged ("Some Strategies for Embedding Writing in Dialogic Situations").

All of these ways of providing authentically engagable readers for potentially engaging writers have been made easier, and new ones afforded, by electronic communication, beginning with email, back in the dear dead days of BITNET, and continuing up through the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and MSN messenger, and cell-phone text messaging. For my classes, email, individual student Web sites, and web-based discussion forums have been, generally, the most productive in terms of giving students authentic audiences and providing for the continuation of actual dialogue through the means of visual text.

A couple of the written responses to the reflections on reading sections:

[A response to the comments on section 7 ["German foresters who had come to visit Hutcheson Forest had been surprised by the untidiness of the place, startled by the jumble of life and death. "These Germans are unfamiliar with stuff just lying around, with the truly virginal aspect of the forest," Stiles said. Apparently, the Germans, like almost everyone else, had a misconception of forest primeval -- a picture of Wotan striding through the noonday twilight, of Ludwig D. Boone shouting for Lebensraum among giant columns of uniform trees. "You don't find redwoods," Stiles remarked summarily. "You don't find Evangeline's forest. You find a more realistic forest."]:

I really like the response that said "Why is being a virgin forest so much better than being a managed forest?"  I would never think to question this.  I would just assume that something that grew naturally is better than something that was interfered with by man.  This usually seems to be the case, in my experience. It's a good point though.  What is the value of a virgin forest really?  Is it valuable just for research or is there some kind of intrinsic value in something that has not been meddled with by man?