Per Henningsgaard, Curtin University
English teachers concerned about student motivation might consider seeking a more authentic audience for student writing. This classroom task offers one possible solution to identifying an authentic audience: assigning students to collectively write and publish an ebook.
In her 2010 journal article ‘Writing for Whom? Cognition, Motivation, and a Writer’s Audience’, Alecia Marie Magnifico poses the question, ‘When writers write, how do they decide to whom they are speaking?’ (p. 167). If you, a teacher of English broadly defined, were to ask this question of your students, how would they respond? Most likely, your students would say that they are writing for you, their teacher—you are the audience to whom they are speaking. Magnifico (2010) then asks the follow-up question, ‘How does this decision affect … their motivation to write?’ (p. 167). This is not a question for your students; it is a question for you. How do you think it affects your students’ motivation that the audience for their writing is a solitary figure—someone they might respect and even admire, but still just one person whose lived experience probably seems light years away from their own? Magnifico (2010) subsequently details the benefits of identifying a more authentic audience for student writing: ‘When educators choose situated writing activities that create space for learners to do work that they see as important, often by giving students the opportunity to interact with an external audience or to serve as an authentic audience for their peers, learning can be deeply authentic, social, and experiential’ (p. 180).
English teachers’ efforts to identify an authentic audience for student writing are often ineffective. For example, in the case of blogging and peer feedback—two oft-employed efforts to identify an authentic audience—neither task represents a much more authentic conceptualisation of audience than the solitary figure of the teacher. Students understand how search algorithms work and that their class blog will be buried in any Google search results; outside of their classmates and the teacher, no one else will even know of its existence. They are also of the opinion that good peer feedback is when a peer tells them exactly what the teacher would have said—acting as some kind of ventriloquist dummy. This is not an authentic audience but rather an indirect route to the same old audience.
Instead, English teachers might try assigning their students to collectively write and publish an ebook that is then distributed through a variety of online marketplaces. This suggestion is inspired by a pedagogical model known as ‘classroom publishing’, which was developed by Dennis Stovall (“2015 Jack D. Rittenhouse Award”, n.d.). In Classroom Publishing (1992/2010), Laurie King and Stovall claim that ‘some part of the publishing process is accessible to virtually everyone; those students who might not write confidently may excel in designing the book, creating its website, or handling the announcement of its publication’ (p. xv). In other words, students with widely varying skills and investments in the task—and with varying levels of preparation—can all productively contribute to the publication of an ebook.
In-class, before class, group writing, editing, independent research
Scalable to unit requirements
This task can be completed by a group of any size
Level of Difficulty
Intermediate or advanced undergraduate, all the way through postgraduate
There are thousands of websites that can show English teachers how to create an ebook, but publishing industry veteran and digital publishing guru Jane Friedman’s (2017) blog post titled ‘How to Publish an Ebook: Resources for Authors’ is the perfect starting point. No specialist software is required to publish an ebook. However, if it suits your learning objectives, you can usefully incorporate tools/technology such as Adobe InDesign, XML coding, and so forth.
Level of Preparation
For the instructor, it is imperative to be well prepared. This does not mean you have to be an expert in ebook publishing. In fact, one of the joys of this task is watching your students take the initiative to solve technical problems, which they are able to do using video tutorials and other freely available resources. Instead of concentrating on the technical aspects of this task, the instructor must concentrate on the conceptual aspects—in particular, how to connect the unit content (including any skills you are trying to teach) to an ebook publishing task that has the potential to reach an authentic audience. Ebooks on specialist subjects, such as might be produced for a classroom assessment, have this potential. Consider, for example, an anthology of essays about Ellen van Neerven’s (2014) David Unaipon Award–winning work of fiction Heat and Light—such an anthology would have no competition, and it would appear high in the search results for this book because of the marketplaces on which it would be made available to the public. Furthermore, an ebook can be produced at no cost and made available to readers for free—thus increasing the chances that it will connect with an authentic audience. This hypothetical anthology presents an opportunity to brainstorm with your students all the different aspects of Heat and Light that readers might hope to see addressed, which has the potential to deepen and diversify both students’ understanding of the material and the anthology’s contents—again, increasing its appeal to an authentic audience. This is the conceptual work that must be done by the teacher in preparation for this task.
The first step an instructor must take to prepare and implement this task is the conceptual work described above. Share your vision with your students, but make sure you allow enough space in your vision for them to take ownership of the task. For example, if you plan to publish a textbook about social media best practices for healthcare professionals, facilitate student discussion about what topics need to be covered and in what order. This discussion could, of course, take time and involve many breaks for research. If it is an anthology of student creative writing, encourage them to identify a theme that is specific enough to promote discoverability. One possibility—if it suits your learning objectives—that could be used for any of these hypothetical book projects is to have all of your students write book proposals complete with tables of contents, blurbs, comparative titles, market research, and so forth. Then, compare proposals and have your students pick one that the entire class will work to. However it is accomplished, you must get your students to agree on an overall structure for the book.
The second step an instructor must take to implement this task is to kick-start the writing process. Once the overall structure is in place, students volunteer to write its component sections. Then the drafting begins. Drafts should be subjected to peer feedback that takes into account both the draft’s internal merits and its place within the overall book. As the instructor, you have a particular responsibility to encourage the latter conversation because it is one that students are largely unfamiliar with. Based on the draft material, are there gaps in the book’s coverage of its subject matter? Have the target audience’s expectations for coverage been met? Is there any unnecessary repetition between sections? Are there materials in different sections that would benefit from speaking more explicitly to each other? The cycle of feedback and revision that follows—which has been facilitated by identifying an authentic audience for student writing—is a revelation for many English teachers accustomed to students’ typically lacklustre response to these activities.
Around the same time that students volunteer to write the book’s component sections, there is another set of responsibilities that must be distributed. This is the third step involved in implementing this task, though it could be simultaneous with the second. These responsibilities stretch both students and the instructor beyond the act of writing to the act of publication. The following is a list of the roles that should be assigned: publisher (responsible for adherence to timelines, coordination of activities, and maintaining lines of communication), structural editor (responsible for ensuring consistency and flow between sections), copyeditor, cover designer, ebook production specialist (responsible for ebook formatting and making it available through a variety of online marketplaces), and publicist (responsible for helping connect the book with its target audience). Any of these roles could be shared by a couple students, or a small team of students might be assigned to the task, perhaps with a designated student leader. The manner in which these roles are distributed matters less than the mere fact of their existence, which encourages students to take ownership of the process and confirms that there is, indeed, an authentic audience. Students undertake their respective roles at the same time that they are participating in the cycle of feedback and revision, though of course different roles are busier at different times.
In all of this, the instructor’s role is that of facilitator. You need to prepare your students for the idea that it no longer matters what you, the instructor, want. Instead, your students should be asking, ‘What does the target audience want from this piece of writing?’ You provide the structures within which your students operate, but then you allow their understanding of the ebook’s authentic audience to dictate their actions, which opens the door for all kinds of valuable learning experiences.
I have facilitated or mentored student-led book publishing efforts in a variety of contexts, ranging from postgraduate (Ooligan Press at Portland State University) and undergraduate (Cornerstone Press at University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point) to secondary school (Unique Ink Publishing at Roosevelt High School and D.C. Everest Oral History Project at D.C. Everest). The unit content taught using this pedagogical innovation was equally diverse. One thing that all of these tasks had in common, however, was an enthusiastic reception by students. Among the tasks that were most enthusiastically received were those that had the most authentic audience, such as an oral history of the Hmong community in central Wisconsin, a guide to writing winning essays for university scholarships, and a critical examination of sustainability issues in the publishing industry.
The amount of writing involved in this task varies depending on the type of ebook you plan to publish. For example, an anthology of essays on the subject of van Neerven’s (2014) Heat and Light might require each student to write just one short essay. Alternatively, a textbook about social media best practices for healthcare professionals might require each student to write multiple chapters. But the potential benefits do not stop with writing instruction; this task can be leveraged to teach other skills and improve their quality. Magnifico (2010) asked how a teacher’s decision about the audience for an assessment affects students’ ‘motivation to write’ (p. 167), but it also affects their motivation to edit, design, code, and promote. An ebook is a great tool for teaching a variety of communication skills.
It is important for any instructor undertaking this task to understand that it offers the opportunity for your students to engage more deeply with aspects of the unit content and to hone valuable skills, but that may come at the expense of the breadth of unit content. To do this task properly takes time, and you have to believe the trade-off is worth it and ultimately better satisfies the unit learning objectives.
Friedman, Jane. How to Publish an Ebook: Resources for Authors. 2017. Retrieved from https://www.janefriedman.com/how-to-publish-an-ebook/
King, Laurie and Dennis Stovall. Classroom Publishing: A Practical Guide for Teachers. Ooligan Press, 2010.
Magnifico, Alecia Marie. “Writing for Whom? Cognition, Motivation, and a Writer’s Audience,” Educational Psychologist, vol. 45, no. 3, 2010, pp. 167–184
“2015 Jack D. Rittenhouse Award.” PubWest, n.d. https://pubwest.org/programs/rittenhouse/rittenhouse-recipients/2015-jack-d-rittenhouse-award
Ronan, A. “Why self-publishing may be the best writing lesson ever.” Edudemic, 25 June 2015, http://www.edudemic.com/self-publishing-writing-lesson.
van Neerven, Ellen. Heat and light. U of Queensland P, 2004.