What is Authenticity in the 21st Century English Class?

Susan Davis writing for “Getting Smart” begins her blog post on “Teaching Authentic Writing in a Socially Mediated World” with this idea: “…I don’t know where to start. You see, I’ve completely bought into the idea that what we teach our students should be authentic, that is, tangible and real in ways that are meaningful and purposeful for our students.”  I like how she problematizes what authenticity means by questioning its traditional roots. When examining the common core curriculum that she is required to teach, she comes to the realization that “They just don’t resonate for me or my students in today’s world.”

I believe that this is a common issue for many teachers, particularly in the language arts, and traditionally liberal arts stream. Biography, Philosophy, History and Theology (BPHT) seems to have been lost in the push for more Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses. With STEM resources like PBS’s STEM Education Resource Center there is a real investment into student success around these disciplines. However, Chris Cogle, writing for Ocala.com writes: “As a scientist, my most important skills are reading and writing. Being a scholar means that I read gigabytes of articles, essays and books every day.” His point is that we have to be very careful of not sacrificing good reading and writing for solely STEM learning.

So, what does this have to do with English class and authentic audiences. I think that we owe it to our students to reexamine what an “authentic audience” means in the 21st Century. It’s no longer just parents, school community groups, or peers. It has expanded with the use of blogs and social media so that our students can write with an incredible reach. Publishing used to be a million-miles away for our students, but no longer. There are a myriad of self-publishing tools on the web.


Susan Davis also brought me to this website “Taking IT Global” whose tag line is “inspire, inform, involve”. It is about getting youth engaged in creating positive change. I think that this speaks to the heart of what authenticity is in the 21st century. It is not longer about writing and broadcasting, it is about writing and connecting.

But I’ll leave you with what Susan Davis suggests as authenticity. It is a great place to start when reconsidering what your students can reach for.

How such writing is made authentic depends on the context of how it is introduced in each learning environment, and, of course, this is where things get tricky. Tricky or not, here is my tentative list:

  • Text messages to friends vs. text messages to colleagues
  • Captions for photos that convey important and relevant information
  • Questions that probe and dig for what matters
  • Status updates that share a mood or point of view with a particular audience
  • Comments on blogs and other interactive sites that continue the conversation
  • Reviews of videos, music, products or services that argue a point with convincing detail
  • Email that expresses an appropriate tone, conveys information succinctly, and invites further discussion or commentary
  • Collaborative documentation (Google docs, wikis, etc.) that goes beyond divvying up and delegating sections to become, instead, actual co-construction
  • Elegant tweets that add value and share perspective in a community of learners
  • Blogs (in all their multitudinous forms) that allow ideas and information to percolate over time
  • Citizen journalism that bears witness to the news of the day
  • Storyboards and scripts that lay out way all the elements of how a video or audio will unfold
  • Proposals to make, do, or change something
  • Process analyses that examine the way things work
  • Syntheses that draw together and make meaning of complex, disparate resources and multiple media; and
  • Reflections that share transparently and probe thoughtfully.

4 thoughts on “What is Authenticity in the 21st Century English Class?

  1. Thank you, Garth, for continuing the conversation. I like what you add about humanities teachers being left behind in the rush to reach out to students via STEM or STEAM (with some art thrown in). In some ways, many of us in the humanities are faced with clear choices that are anathema to our constitutions, much librarians have been. Our role as educators has changed dramatically, and we need to recognize this if we want to meed the needs of the students we teach. It’s no longer just a matter of authentic assessment, but of authentic and relevant teaching.

    • Hi Susan,
      thanks for helping me continue the conversation as well. Not only has our role as educators changed dramatically, so too has the landscape of education in general. I believe that our students have changed dramatically, and want more from their teachers and classrooms than ever before. These demands, be they discreet or made obvious and given a voice, are a real pressure on teachers and the education system in general. Much like disengaged youth, immigrant youth see increased percentages of dropping out of highschool, I believe that if the education system doesn’t change, our students are going to look elsewhere for their education, and get it! But would that be a bad thing?

  2. Hi Garth,

    I really enjoyed this post because my English department is working toward creating authentic experiences for our students…as you said getting kids to write and connect in meaningful ways.

    I am currently working with this young female colleague who is in her second year of teaching. This young woman was a student in my grade 12 English classroom (…years ago), and I remember working with her and her classmates and trying to get them to connect to Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in an authentic way. She and her classmates were the MTV/MuchMusic generation, and so I had them take scenes from the play and turn them into contemporary soap operas, incorporating music and images that resonated with them. The videos they created were tremendous, and just today, she and I watched her group’s video. We laughed and reminisced, and I told her that her classmates posed great challenges to me, as I wanted them to connect to the literary texts in meaningful ways.

    This year, she and I teach grade 10 English. We have designed the ISU novel study around the notion of comedy, in particular the sitcom. The end product will to be to turn their novels into contemporary sitcom by preparing a proposal and a script for one episode of the sitcom, and creating a marketing campaign for potential producers.
    Our goal is to engage the students in a medium that they hopefully enjoy and can create great connections.

    It is encouraging that my colleague and I are on the right track to setting up a learning environment that will create authentic reading connections in the 21st century. We have been using the following items outlined in your post in the formation of our unit:

    Storyboards and scripts that lay out way all the elements of how a video or audio will unfold
    Proposals to make, do, or change something
    Process analyses that examine the way things work

    It is also great that I can dialogue with my former student now colleague about student engagement, and when I reflect on our journey together as student/teacher (and many times now I am the student and she the teacher as she knows much more than I about the technologies of this Net Generation), I am glad to see that we have influenced each other in positive ways of interacting with literary texts.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful comment. As I wrote in my reply to Susan, the orginal blogger that inspired my own, I believe that the one of the biggest changes to the educational landscape is the make up of our student body. We have a highly attuned, demanding and diverse student body, and unless we can connect with them, unless we can engage them (NOT to be mistaken for entertain) than we will lose them.

      You and your colleague should look at your classroom through the eyes of the students, and start to gather feedback on whether or not they view your work (which sounds amazing!) as authentic. That would be an interesting place to go. I roll out 4 ‘course evaluations’ to my classes throughout the year in attempt to give students an opportunity to shape the class and their learning throughout the year. I hope that during our next face-to-face I can share some of these with you…it might be a useful tool for you and your colleague to measure authenticity…hmmmm…

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