What to Do with Student Writing? Publish It.

What to Do with Student Writing? Publish It.

Teachers spend a lot of time considering how to motivate students to engage deeply with their schoolwork. 

While we’d like to believe that students should try hard because school is important, most of us who have experienced school (as a student or instructor), know that this is not sufficient motivation, at least not for a huge proportion of students.

When it comes to writing, there’s a straightforward method for motivating students: Tell them you’re going to publish it.

With publishing as the goal, students get the experience of seeing what it’s like to write with more interesting stakes than a grade, while being supported throughout the process. At Educational Endeavors we practice this with our Ignite Scholars journal, where students working in our Writer’s Practice workshops showcase their work for the broader community. 

We think that showing young people how their work can impact the world around them, rather than consigning it to history with a single letter grade, is a superior way to not only motivate student engagement, but also show students how writing works in the world.

I suppose I could ask the audience to take my word for it, but it turns out a powerful example of the benefit of publishing student writing showed up in my email inbox recently.

After writing a column at the Chicago Tribune about my appreciation for the work of 8-year-old Dillon Helbig of Boise, Idaho, who wrote an 81-page illustrated Christmas book and then proceeded to stock it at his local library, where patrons started checking it out, I heard from one of my readers, Valerie, who introduced me to the Meadowbrook Writer

Back in 1996, Valerie was looking for an outlet for her daughter Jessie’s writing. Jessie loved to write, but there weren’t a lot of places for a grade schooler to showcase their work. Valerie decided to start a magazine open to all students at Meadowbrook School in my old hometown of Northbrook, IL. The 30-plus-page, spiral-bound Meadowbrook Writer was published three to four times per year, consisting entirely of student work.

Having had a chance to look at some digital scans of the original volumes sent to me by Valerie, let me tell you as a long time observer of student writing, the Meadowbrook Writer is a hoot.

Some of the efforts are prosaic, such as a first grader’s account of his birthday: “I saw poison ivy on the ground. I saw an electrical eel. I had cake.” Others are more fanciful and inventive, like the story of Frankenstein’s monster going trick-or-treating. (As a basketball player, of course, because he’s so tall.)

A stickler for mechanics would find plenty of nits to pick, but this is one of the reasons I think it’s so necessary to consider the conditions under which students work and how we treat the work they produce. 

Writers get better by writing, and anything that encourages them to write is a good thing. The mechanics will come as students become more invested in the precision of their expression for maximum audience impact.

Valerie and her husband (who did the computer formatting) were gratified by seeing the students show so much pride in their writing at the time, and I can testify to how fulfilling this can be from the teacher’s side of the equation.

In the case of the Meadowbrook Writer, we don’t have to settle for the impact at the moment. Those contributors are now in their 30s, all grown up. Valerie’s daughter Jessie is now Dr. Jessica Golbus, a heart failure and transplant cardiologist at Michigan Medical school. 

Valerie put me in touch with her daughter, and I was able to ask Dr. Golbus about the impact she thinks the experience had on her future trajectory. 

Today, Dr. Golbus writes every day, both formally and informally, as part of her job, including “scientific manuscripts of different varieties, editorials, study protocols…the list goes on.” She’s always enjoyed language and writing and tells me that “I have always found that being able to write well distinguishes me from others who may be smarter and more accomplished. There are lots of really smart people in the world but there are not very many good writers, and being able to write and communicate well has been a way to differentiate myself throughout my life.”

She credits having the chance to publish in the Meadowbrook Writer as helping nurture her love of writing, a love that has paid great dividends, even as she has pursued a STEM career.

It’s important to note that students like me and young Jessie who have the privilege of growing up in a place like Northbrook have other advantages towards achieving a prosperous and fulfilling adulthood than just having people pay attention to our writing at a young age.  

But as our Ignite Scholars journal shows, thanks to digital technology and readily available (even free) tools, it’s not overly hard to create a publication that will give students an audience for their work. 

We don’t need to wait twenty-five years to see how today’s Ignite Scholars are going to fare to know how important getting students engaged with writing can be.

Interested in bringing the Writer’s Practice or other Educational Endeavors student enrichment programs to your school or organization? Check out more information here.