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August 29, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 1
Classroom Conversations

Get It Out There!

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The more eyes on a powerful piece of student work, the greater the pride. 

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Instructional StrategiesEngagement
Classroom Conversations / Get It Out There!
Credit: BILLION PHOTOS / SHUTTERSTOCK
One morning, as last school year was winding down, one of my 10th graders enthusiastically waved me over to his seat. Since my students were writing their final analytical project, I figured this was just another request for me to peek at a rough draft. I gave him the universal "One sec, I'll get to you next" sign. He sighed in dramatic mock exasperation and, within seconds, impatiently flagged me again. When I finally walked over, he said, "I just remembered something. When I was in elementary school, I got my poem published in a book. Do you want to see it? I'll bring it in." I said yes, and the very next day, he giddily approached me with a dog-eared book opened to a poem he'd written way back in 4th grade.
A few weeks later, right after final grades went in, another sophomore wrote me a lovely thank-you note for the year that included the cryptic line, "By this time, I'm sure that [her classmate] has given you a copy of the book." What book? Sure enough, the next day, her buddy handed me a creative writing collection that a group of students had written in an extracurricular minicourse they'd just completed. Later that very same day, another student handed me another physical book. I opened the front cover to see that they'd written, along with an arrow pointing to their name on the table of contents: "Thank you for being such a great teacher this year. I wrote this poem in 8th grade." Moved by how proud these students were of their published work, I twice tweeted out thanks (Kay, 2022) to the teachers that preceded me (or, in some cases, worked with these kids in extra-curricular programs).

Thinking Beyond an "Audience of One"

Many folks, myself included, have written about the value of student publishing. In my first book, Not Light, But Fire (Stenhouse, 2018), for instance, I argued that one of the clearest ways we can signal to students that their hard work in the classroom is about developing and celebrating their voices (and not merely about their grades or test preparation) is to encourage them to publish their writing for a broader audience. This is especially true when we take into account that most student writing (or art, engineering projects, etc.) has an audience of one. My students used to spend hours planning, writing, and editing absolutely gorgeous stories that were essentially just for my eyes. Often, when I sent an email home praising the work, the kid's parents would reply, "Thank you! I hope I get to see it!" (Now, with the student's permission, I just link to it in the email.)
It's usually not even practical to share with the most obvious audience—the classroom community that has engaged in similar work. With immense public school class sizes, "sharing days" can take forever. Some formats, like gallery walks, do help the process feel less tedious, but even then, students' time with each other's work is limited.
The deeper we get into this age of social media, the more of a missed opportunity this "audience of one" becomes. Yes, our students are publishing all of the time. Yes, TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube definitely count as publishing. Yes, these platforms tend to reward specific forms of visual content, and are often just what our young artists, photographers, and budding producers need to showcase their work. As we've seen, they can even get some kids paid! However, a good portion of the content that many students publish via these platforms—and others like Twitter—frankly, doesn't represent them very well. The larger community, then, gets to know many of our students first through social media feeds that algorithmically showcase their petty dramas, youthful indiscretions, and harmful self-perceptions (Feldscher, 2021). Meanwhile, in our classrooms, these very same students are producing amazing works of creativity, ingenuity, and bravery—works that they are incredibly proud of—but remain for our eyes only.
This can be changed by, at the very least, offering students publication options that go well beyond their own networks. Just this past year, for example, I added a section to one of my freshman assignment sheets that reads, "Historically, students have been very proud of these projects. Here is a resource with plenty of publishing and/or contest opportunities." Sometimes, you can find an awesome community partner like the Philadelphia Young Playwrights (PYP), which hosts an annual playwriting competition. Upon finding out about it, I changed my Native Son creative project from a screenplay, a years-old project that ultimately just had an audience of "me" (save a few read alouds) to a one-act play that fit PYP's requirements. We could still share in class, but now kids might get an audience of hundreds, including many they don't know personally. It also gives me a lot of joy to tell students, "Hey, you won! They are going to produce your scene!"
Or, we might do what my students' former teachers have done—put a class book together after a particularly cool project, using products like Affinity Publisher (found on Apple's App Store). Students can even design and publish their own books (and earn royalties!) via Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing platform. Some of my alumni still sell books online that they published in my class years ago. These students—now adults—remain proud of the work they produced as teenagers, just as my current students still look at their elementary and middle-school publishing credits with pride. I sure wish their former teachers could see them gleefully distributing limited-edition autographed copies!

A Habit Worth Pursuing

The physically printed word is old school, for sure, but it still matters. As do the online class websites and blogs where kids' creativity can be seen and celebrated by classmates, parents, grandparents, and neighbors—and even past and future teachers. Publishing is habit-forming. I've noticed that after my students get one publishing activity, they tend to ask if the next project will offer a similar opportunity. This eagerness to publish their most scholarly and creative selves—and not just their most clickable hot takes—is a habit that we should systematically encourage at every opportunity. When we do so, we increase the likelihood that they'll believe us when we say that their voices are important; and that they can meaningfully contribute—as writers, artists, theorists, scientists—to conversations that make the world a better place.
References

Feldscher, K. (2021, October 8). How social media's toxic content sends teens into 'a dangerous spiral.' Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Kay, M. [@MattRKay] (2022, May 26). Whatever publishing idea you have for your students, just do it …. Twitter. https://bit.ly/3IOpCe9

End Notes

1 Resource list compiled by my good friend, and Philly educator, Melissa Donner (https://bit.ly/3NlDsFO).

Matthew R. Kay teaches students English at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and is the author of Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom (Stenhouse, 2018).


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