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  • Writer's pictureRichard Koch

Joy and Authenticity in Writing: Engagement

Updated: Sep 21, 2021

“Educational practices should be gauged not only by the skills and knowledge they impart for present use but also by what they do to children’s beliefs about their capabilities, which affects how they approach the future.”

(Boykin and Noguera, along with Bandura, 2011, 52)

I do not believe we achieve successful education without the engaged heart and mind of the student.

We can, as psychologist William Glasser pointed out, achieve a passive “prison camp” control over students with rote memory drilling over facts and rules, and with the obsessive repetition of irrelevant paragraph development that occurs in much school “text dependent analysis.”

In Creating the Opportunity to Learn, the book quoted from above, Boykin and Noguera delve into research that clarifies that “engagement” appears to be the fundamental indicator of quality learning.

In their study the children who increased their learning were labeled “resilient.” Children who had not increased their learning as significantly were labeled “nonresilient.” Boykin and Noguera offer this understanding:

“One factor that distinguished resilient from nonresilient children was having a positive attitude toward school. Another factor, student engagement, also significantly differentiated between successful and unsuccessful students. In this investigation, student engagement was not measured by self-report, but it was instead indexed by the extent to which teachers agreed that a student’s attitudes and behaviors indicated an interest in school and a desire to learn” (44).

Subsequently Boykin and Noguera clarify that the power of engagement surpasses even that of “time on task.” More time on task may not be productive if not accompanied by student engagement. They say,

“In other words, engagement had a far greater effect on . . . gains than did instructional time. Engagement also had a far greater effect on gains. . . for the lowest achieving group” (45).

Because the engaged learner wants to succeed at the task—and cares to learn--the teacher is presented teachable moments—for coaching skills and craft needed. If the student connection is absent, and the teacher merely lectures about, or drills over, the skills and craft, that teacher is mostly talking to themselves, or, as I sometimes say, “teaching to the wind.”

The difference is big. It is the difference between powerful and empowering education or “education” that is not retained or transferred to life—school experience that draws students into a desire to continue learning or that drives them away from wanting to learn.


There are three things that have been particularly instrumental in making school and writing not-joyful and not-authentic—and therefore not-engaging to students.

1. STANDARDIZED TESTS—became mandated as the basic measurement for student success (2001). That moved decisions about teaching out of the hands of educators, and has resulted in a near total movement of schooling into the realm of “test prep.”

2. PROFESSIONAL PUBLISHING COMPANIES—produced texts that also promoted rote skills but added the dimension of “teacher proof” daily lessons that taught these rote skills in lock-step fashion.

3. A TEACHING FORCE NOT WELL-PREPARED to offer authentic opportunities for student writing--created a school vulnerability to the tests and publishers. Because many teachers grew up in schools that believed grammar or punctuation was writing they became insecure about the actual teaching of writing.


However, happily there are three fairly simple steps schools, or an individual teacher, can take to construct joyful and authentic opportunities for students’ writing.

1. CHOICE: Establishing/Making/or Stealing the time—for students to write about topics that matter to them, and that they choose to write about, is key. Choosing is inherently joyful! And sharing with others about topics that matter to you is inherently authentic.

2. REAL WORLD AUDIENCES FOR WRITING: While working with all ages of students, I start by promising them significant choice in what to write about. And I clarify what audience beyond the classroom we will be sharing with. Or, I invite them into conversation about whom we ought to share our work with and how. Often I orchestrate a “Writing Celebration” where parents, family, and friends are invited to hear students read writing aloud into a microphone, after which the writing will be displayed. This public audience establishes authenticity for students and becomes the lead reason for working hard to make the writing excellent.

3. TIMELY FOCUSED COACHING ON THE CRAFT: Providing one useful piece of coaching advice for a next step the writer might take is a powerful fuel when the writer has an authentic desire to make the writing “good” and when the writer is anticipating the joy of sharing out their finished writing. (Hattie and Timperley)


And how does this all relate to trauma-informed practices?

1. ADDRESSING SORROW: When we offer choice we include possible student choices of “hard topics.” This means they might choose to write out a sorrow, error, or deep sadness. They might choose to write out their views on injustice—focusing, for example, on race, gender, or sexual identity. We will model hard topics by sharing from our own lives. And, while we will also fully embrace topics of joy, achievement, and celebration, we will be sure to embrace these hard topics as well.

2. AGENCY: When we share out these topics with a public audience (with permission of the writer) the writer is put in charge of a topic that maybe in their past had been in charge of them—their emotions move from fear and regret to a sense of achievement and greater understanding.

3. HEALING SUPPORT: The acceptance that occurs when the hard topic is received as “appropriate” for school is a healing moment. The conversations that occur about the writing of the paper, which the teacher guides toward kindness, can also be healing because they show the writer that people care.

John Dewey portrayed how the most powerful education comes from engaging students in real-life problems or life-like experiences—that are as whole and authentic as possible. Choice writing focusing on real topics of interest carries us a good ways toward that type of learning.

And with respect to topics, this move also reminds us that joy and sorrow travel close together, in the world and in our hearts. Inviting the reflection on sadness is helpful to recovery—and therefore the pathway to our fullest joy.

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