Developing Authentic Audiences for Reading Work

I’ve been in a lot of conversations lately regarding what it looks like to create authentic and engaging reading experiences for students in terms of a summative assessment.  We often think about an authentic audience and experiences in writing by thinking about how to get our pieces into the public eye to share our stories and make a difference.  But this is a much more difficult thing to think about with reading, and our answers to it usually fall short–book reports, program quizzes, or a project of some sort that is fun, but often does embody what we do as real readers in real life. So, we continue to return to the question:

“How do I build lifelong readers through authentic work that reaches a larger, more meaningful audience?”

Recently I have come across of couple of resources that have stood out to me, and I wanted to share them with you.  They would tie in perfectly to two texts I used in my classroom during our Following Characters unit at the beginning of the year.  Those texts are  Chains and Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson.  In my classroom, I always read Chains as my read aloud and upon finishing it Forge never stayed on the shelf.  Kids just had to read it to find out what happened to Curzon and Isabel, two African American slave children who share their journey of life during the American Revolution.  At this time we were also learning about the American Revolution in Social Studies as well, so theme and perspective were two two components of reading I was able to address in a meaningful and thoughtful way because the viewpoints in the history books are in stark contrast to those in this text series.


Like many teachers, we would have these great, rich discussions throughout unit, including a role playing activity where students took on the role of a Loyalist, Patriot, slave, or town citizen to re-enact and debate their role and point-of-view of the war.  There was always great energy around this activity, but as with all great energy there came a great crash, too.  The reading unit would end as would the Social Studies topic, and on we would go to the next thing because time demanded us to do so.  Every year I was left feeling like their was something more I should have done on the reading end.  I felt that’s where it was falling short.  We had read this incredible text, thought about it from a variety of lenses, had intense and meaningful conversation while doing so, and then it was done.   Just kind of a yeah, that was cool, but so what? feeling.  I didn’t like it.

Recently, my “so what?” got answered.  I came across this article in the Washington Post about Maurice Barboza’s struggle and fight to get a memorial for the African American Revolutionary War soldiers on the Mall at Capitol Hill.  His mission to get this accomplished has not been an easy one, as the article documents.  You could have a whole series of lessons on legislation and governmental procedures with your class after reading it if that fits your curriculum.  But, what I love about it is that his struggle can easily be related to the themes we address in our study of the American Revolution.  Not only that, but it provides an outlet for readers to get involved as there is still much work to do to bring this to reality.  There is a page dedicated to finding land to build the memorial as well as funding issues still facing the project.  The link to the memorial’s site is provided in the article.  In there you can see the different land options being surveyed as well as the other factors impacting the project.  Students and classrooms can easily find ways to get involved whether it be through raising money to fund the project, writing to legislators to help get the land secured, or finding ways to promote the project to raise more awareness about it.

This is what I had been looking for.  A way for their learning and voices to reach beyond the four walls of the classroom in a way that addresses these issues in our world in a real way.

Additionally, I came across an interactive museum of Nelson Mandela’s time in prison.  This resource pulls in primary source documents and outlines the story of Nelson Mandela’s time in prison.  Using this resource helps students see that what happened during the American Revolution still happens today, it just isn’t happening in America right now.  It is an outlet to make present something that students often think is no longer an issue because the specific topic they are learning about happened in the past.  From this work students could then choose an issue that needs a voice in our world in order to bring awareness to their cause.  The interactive nature of it would allow it to be shared easily in social media and other technological outlets, therefore also moving beyond the classroom walls.

To me, these felt like the pieces that had been missing.  I loved how easily it would be to pull fiction and nonfiction together for the final work, just as we had done throughout the unit.  I know this is just one example for one unit, but I want to continue seeking out these outlets and thinking about how students can take their reading work out into the world to make positive change, just like they do with their writing.

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