I’ve been talking a lot about authenticity with some ever-thoughtful NTN folks: facilitators during our Southwest “Meeting of the Minds,” our Teacher Design Group, and coaches. Geoff Krall– and a few other people– have been making me think about authenticity in math, but, a little selfishly, I’d like to dig a more deeply into authenticity in an English context.
What makes an English project authentic? This is such a tough question. For example, what’s authentic when you’re required to teach, say, the Scarlet Letter? What does an authentic project look like in this case? Even if you have them watch the racy movie?
Geoff Krall raised an interesting point in regard to math- what’s an authentic mathematical experience? What does it mean to be engaged in authentic mathematical processes (like problem solving)? His questions made me think about the characteristics of a “real” English experience. When crystallized and distilled, an authentic experience (maybe process) in an English class is really about examining text for both its purpose and effect, and communicating that understanding through writing. Writing that includes evidence. Yeah, yeah, it’s not quite that simple, but then again, it sure is close. So, is reading the Scarlet Letter closely, examining a particular section, thinking rigorously about the impact of that section, and then writing about it, enough? Can I say that’s authentic and call it quits? Is my project an analytical essay? I’m certainly getting a bit of a sinking feeling, and wondering how the kids are going to feel about all this. Will the students feel this project is authentic?
But then again, what does it mean that something is authentic to students, anyway? I’m thinking it’s relevance, for the moment, although I could be persuaded that it’s more than that. I say relevance because something that is relevant matters, is genuine, in some way, in the students’ world. I’ll freely admit that I’m probably sidestepping a larger argument, here. But for now, let’s stick with authenticity to students as meaning some kind of relevance. In that case, you have to choose things to read and write that connect to learners’ lives, or build that connection and relevance. I should note that I believe that you can show students that something matters to them- it’s not necessary for them to start off thinking that way. That might mean reading something other than John Donne- or it might mean using John Donne to deepen students’ understanding of a contemporary issue or theme.
And what about joy? Isn’t a real English experience also about pleasure? Reading for its own sake? Writing to say “This is who I am and what I think?” I think this is the ultimate in genuine English experiences. Experiencing that frisson of pleasure, whether it’s because you deeply recognize something in what you’re reading, because you’re savoring the aesthetic effect of the language, or because you’ve just experienced something new, and different, and strange, should be a key component of someone’s experience of books and texts. If you’re going to make that happen for a majority of your kids, in my opinion, you can’t assign one classic text. You have to give learners lots of choice and let them choose texts that give them joy (both to read and to write). And you have to make English social.
So, as we talk about authenticity in English, and authentic projects in an English class, I think we need to be thoughtful about the kind of authenticity we’re aiming for, and why. Ideally, we could create a project in which students have an authentic English experience that’s highly relevant and brings them joy, but it seems likely that won’t always happen. In that case, what kind of authenticity are we prioritizing? This time, at least? And why?