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What to Avoid When Publishing Student Writing

Matt Hardy highlights the top ten mistakes

Writing is hard, and teaching writing is even harder. In an attempt to optimize their writing assignments, teachers often give students bad advice. While well-intended, these patterns lead to less motivation to write (boring tasks), lower quality (grammatical errors), and diminished audience (fewer readers). 

The following is a list of the top ten mistakes teachers make when their students are publishing online. If any of these mistakes personally apply, we’ve also included ideas for remedying them.

  1. Requiring generic titles
    Mandating titles like “Journal Entry #4” makes it easy to know which assignment is which. But it also makes it impossible for readers to know what an article is about. When presented with 25 pieces titled “My Reflection,” the reader simply skims over the thumbnails and moves on.
    The fix: Every title of every article should be unique. Encourage students to choose the most compelling or controversial phrase from their article and copy-paste it into the title bar. “Can we trust Canada?” is much more clickable.
  2. Naming your class space like a door placard
    “Room 3A” might be great for a visitor finding your classroom in the school hallway, but it’s as impersonal as the doorknob.
    The fix: Teachers can make their publishing space more inviting by describing their community of authors more meaningfully. “Writers with Attitude” is a space I want to belong.
  3. Using comments instead of actual articles
    The fix: Save the one-liner responses for Google Classroom or Blackboard or Moodle (or whichever of the 283 available LMS platforms your district mandates you use twice a week). Flip the script: give students the agency to publish their own articles, then the teacher responds via comments. To unleash your students’ full potential, they must publish real articles in their own voices (not just cookie-cutter responses to the teacher’s questions—for more, see #4).
  4. Using writing prompts
    Writer’s block is real. But the solution is not to dictate what everyone will write about during a particular session. Nowhere but the writing classroom are 30 people simultaneously asked to start an essay with the same sentence and write for three minutes. Writing prompts are poisonous to motivation for the writer and reader.
    The fix: Instead of asking everyone to answer the same question or start their article the same way, ask them to consider something that makes them feel angry, or motivated, or scared, or smart. Encourage young authors to collect ideas in a “writer’s notebook,” building up a self-generated list of thoughts and topics from which to choose. Help the author understand that they are writing for a reader—not the teacher. 
  5. Never publishing publicly
    Out of fear or uncertainty, teachers often prohibit students from publishing publicly. Not all articles need to be fully public (i.e., sometimes it’s fine to publish only for their classmates or the teacher). But arbitrarily restricting the audience for students’ efforts will decrease motivation and authenticity. 
    The fix: Audience is everything. Publishing publicly provides a sense of accountability for students’ quality of writing. Knowing that someone will read their writing is a powerful motivator.  
  6. Correcting grammar via comments
    “Reread the second paragraph and fix your spelling errors.”
    “You forgot a period at the end of the last sentence.”
    Could anything be more depressing to see as an author? Responses to student articles are often the equivalent of the dreaded red pen.
    Nitpicking grammar or punctuation mistakes will kill creativity. Teachers shouldn’t memorialize mistakes via comments when the comments will remain long after the errors are corrected. 
    The fix: Comment on content, not conventions. Instead of pointing out misplaced commas, celebrate insights and request elaboration on specific ideas. Use a live editing session to point out mistakes and fix them in the moment. The power of digital publishing is that editing is easy, and young authors will start to care about getting it right when they know there’s an actual audience (see #5).
  7. Omitting a header image
    In the interest of efficiency, teachers often discourage students from locating images to include in their articles. As a result, the article previews look too plain, and readers aren’t compelled to open them to read further.
    The fix: Include an image (or video) in every article. Spending five minutes browsing Unsplash for the perfect visual complement to a student’s article can mean the difference between a cavalcade of readers and responses and a ghost town.
  8. Insisting on commenting on every article
    Teachers often feel obligated to comment on every article from every student. This is a holdover from the days when students handed in assignments on paper and the only way to offer feedback was notes in the margins from the teacher. With online publishing, teachers are no longer the sole source of commentary.
    The fix: When students write great articles, quality comments from all readers will follow. Let students lead the way. Give up the compulsion to comment on every post, and focus thoughtful attention on the authors who need your specific feedback. Article responses are the engine of a dynamic community of authors. Invite everyone to contribute. And the dirty little secret is that students would rather hear from their peers than their teacher anyway.
  9. Grading everything
    The only thing worse than correcting grammar via article comments (see #6) is grading a writing assignment there. “Good work; 8/10” is a lame response to a student’s hard work.
    The fix: There is no more authentic formative assessment than articles published by students. Teachers can surmise grades around content knowledge, specific writing skills, and general participation. Put these scores in the gradebook, not the comment section.
  10. Fearing the unknown
    Teachers often project their own uncertainty about tech tools on their students. If something is confusing, we assume students won’t get it either. But students are fearless and will figure it out. 
    The fix: When publishing online, give students the freedom to explore and find their voices. Tools like Fanschool give students space to be themselves—and teachers peace of mind knowing they can moderate conversations for safety and quality. 

    Matt Hardy has a BA in computer science and an MEd from the University of Minnesota. He was a classroom teacher for eight years before founding an edtech company, Fanschool, in 2012. He lives outside the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul with his wife, three-year-old son, and one-year-old daughter.
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