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Classroom Management: Creating Real Work for a Purpose

Jordan Catapano

I feel bad for my students sometimes. When they work hard on a paper or project, I am often the only person who will ever see it. Then their work disappears from the world forever.

Take, for example, Chris. This student came to me and turned in his project last month. He had worked on it “for weeks” and told me he “stayed up all night to finish it.” It was amazing. His effort showed, and I couldn’t believe that this introverted, kindly student had created what I saw before me. I consumed it with enthusiasm, assigned it a grade, and gave it back to him, typical classroom management technique. The next day I asked him what he did with it. He told me he had already thrown it away.

What I’ve realized is that the work we complete in class is practice. Practice for college, practice for the real world, practice for some future application. I like the idea of schoolwork as “practice” and believe strongly that schools provide a powerful facilitation of student experimentation and exploration. However, I still feel bad for my students. Chris threw away his project because when something is only practice and only for a grade, its value is strictly derived from the number I give it in the gradebook. His work was more valuable than that.

So how do we take something that is institutionally “practice” and make it real?

Classroom Management: Making Student Work Real

There are a variety of classroom management approaches we can take to give students more value and purpose for their work. While we don’t necessarily need to do this for every piece of work they do – practice is important after all – we do want to seek opportunity for them to find authenticity in the application of their skills.

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Authenticity at School. The first place we might look to find an authentic environment for student expression is at school itself. Here are some easy ways you might facilitate students sharing their work with others at school:

  • Share work with classmates.
  • Hang work on the walls.
  • Hang work in the hallways.
  • Use work as student samples.
  • Have students present at assemblies, presentations or performances.
  • Create a school publication.
  • Keep and publish electronic documents.

Authenticity beyond School. In addition to allowing students to share with one another, you can provide students with the opportunity to showcase their work to the world, with a few of these ideas:

  • Submit written work to writing contests/competitions.
  • Submit written work to professional publishers of online content, journals, magazines, newspapers, books, etc.
  • Have students self-publish their own work.
  • Enter a competition, festival, or conference to perform and share works.
  • Generate a performance for your school, parents and the community.
  • Collaborate with local institutions like libraries and businesses.
  • Promote works to celebrities, authors and noteworthy individuals.
  • Host an event that incorporates skills and content learned in class.
  • Utilize technology to spread their ideas.

-Post videos on Youtube or Vimeo.
-Create a blog.
-Create their own website.
-Use social media to communicate specific content and connect with specific individuals.

Perhaps what students need to know – more than anything else about their work – is that there is a whole world waiting to hear from them. The world will be a better place with their ideas submitted to it. If they get comfortable creating their work for these authentic tasks rather than merely a teacher, then they will see that with a specific purpose comes a unique power. 

I’ve told my students if the only person they produce their work for is a teacher, then their work will always just be “OK.” If, however, they are able to produce their work for a real audience with a real purpose, then they can become experienced and powerful individuals. So encourage your students to have a real purpose – like serving a cause, raising awareness, making a change, spreading a message – and empower them to share their work with a real audience. This will allow all that hard work and “practice” to become a real difference for students and for the world.

How do you help students make their work more authentic? How can we all help facilitate a real purpose and audience for our students’ efforts? Share your ideas in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com.