The Power of Authentic Writing by Rob Gulya

The new Common Core State Standards pose many challenges for students with disabilities. One of the biggest shifts is around argumentative writing, which requires students to present multiple perspectives on a topic, choose a side to support, and find multiple pieces of evidence to support their claims.

This requires students to read, comprehend, and consider challenging complex texts and synthesize their ideas in writing.  For students with disabilities, who struggle with all of these skills, argumentative writing can be very frustrating and result in disengagement.

One way I strive to keep students engaged is through authentic writing assignments. Research has shown this to be effective in keeping students motivated, as they feel the skills will be necessary in the “real world” (for a great overview of authentic assessment see:

Authentic writing also helps students because it presents a specific audience and a specific purpose for the writing, which can help them organize their ideas and use appropriate language. On a practical level, if we look at education as preparation for post-graduation life, then authentic writing assignments should be the cornerstone of any writing curriculum.

One way I tried to incorporate this into my classroom this year is by asking my 12th grade students to write a magazine article exploring the experiences of recent immigrants to the United States. For this project, students had to synthesize the experiences of two immigrant narrators– Yunior from Junot Diaz’s “Invierno” and the narrator of Adichie’s “The Thing Around Your Neck”– with a person of their choice. Students were tasked with choosing someone living in the Bronx who had come to the U.S. from another country and interviewing that person about their experience adapting to American life. Students spent time crafting interview questions and sharing their findings with their peers. My goal was to help students see the connection between their classroom experiences and their lives outside of the classroom.

Then came the hard part:  The writing. It took a while for students to get into the mindset of writing an article about the narrators as people, rather than simply a formal essay. Furthermore, it required them to empathize with other’s experiences and translate those experience to an audience. There was the additional motivation and desire to express the story of someone they knew. What was at stake wasn’t simply an essay, but the story of someone they know and care about. To take the experience of someone marginalized by society and provide them with a voice.

When it comes to students with disabilities, it is so important to give them the opportunity to have their voices heard. Writing needs to be a form of self-expression. It must be purposeful. So often, these students are silent. So, by giving them authentic writing assignments, I not only look at it as a way to get their best work, I think about it as an integral part of their education.

Another way I have made writing authentic and purposeful is through share outs. In previous years, I have taught poetry to an ICT class that culminated in a poetry reading where students read their pieces to an open forum of teachers and students.

I also taught memoirs to a self-contained class that ended with a publishing party where administrators could come in, look at their pieces and ask them questions about themselves and the writing process. These activities made writing come alive. It made writing matter because someone was going to hear them. Someone was going to listen and ask questions.

It’s so important for us as educators to think about ways to empower our students to become advocates for themselves and others. Authentic writing can be a crucial part of teaching students the skills that don’t show up in standardized tests, but prepare them to live fulfilling lives.


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