Authenticity: The Unicorn in the Garden

Authenticity: The Unicorn in the Garden

Before the holidays, in a rather heated meeting (it was already starting to get hot by then) a colleague asked me if a text I had written and used for an oral comprehension exercise was authentic. For a moment I was flummoxed.  How to answer? My immediate reaction was of course it is. I wrote it. I’m a writer. So, the text is obviously authentic. My knee-jerk reaction was also affected by my sense that there was some sort of value judgement involved. Was she trying to say that my text was non-authentic? Worthless?  I had the same sense of panic as when, as a mother of twins I am asked in French, ‘sont-ils des vrais ou des faux?’ real/true (identical) versus false (non-identical). After twenty-two years I still don’t know the answer to that and feel as stupid as the first day I was asked. (They are virtually indistinguishable physically, are both male, but had separate amniotic sacs which means without doing an DNA test we don’t actually know, at least this is what the doctor told me at their birth.)

I am digressing (it’s summer so that’s allowed) and of course this wasn’t what my colleague was implying at all. In didactic terms, authentic can be taken to mean a text written for some (any?) purpose other than teaching. The opposite in this case would be contrived  = written for teaching purposes. That’s one way of looking at it. But when one writes and teaches it seems to me that it’s not quite so clear cut. I do a writing class based on James Thurber’s wonderful short story. The Unicorn in the Garden in which we look at the model before adapting it for our own writing purposes. I have written a short story entitled Doolally inspired by this and here is the lesson plan from that story.

Sometimes I write texts for no reason at all and end up using them for teaching purposes (with or without adapting).  And in my last couple of posts I wrote short texts that came into being because I was thinking about encouraging learners to use colour in their writing. In this way lines between teaching material and writing become increasingly blurred.

So where does that leave me? To try and clarify my thoughts I turned to an informative article:

by Alex Gilmore, in which the author traces the history and debate between authentic and contrived teaching materials.  In this article he provides eight different definitions of authenticity and chooses to work with the definition of Morrow (1977: 13): ‘An authentic text is a stretch of real language, produced by a real speaker or writer for a real audience and designed to convey a real message of some sort.’ Whilst the skill of creating and writing teaching material can be useful to a teacher, a more important skill is being able to choose material (authentic or not) adapted to a particular classroom context.  However, I do agree with Alan Maley when he says that in the creative writing classroom in particular, teachers’ participation in creative writing can be particularly enriching, not only to keep our English ‘fresh and vibrant’ but also because of the ‘power of the teacher as a model and co-writer’. The idea of co-writing is important to me and one that I try to apply when writing creative feedback to students’ texts.

In his review on Authenticity in Materials Development for Language Learning, (eds) Alan Maley & Brian Tomlinson (2018), Rod Bolitho points out that Maley’s conclusion underlines ‘the need to remember that teaching and learning is an interpersonal encounter in which authentic and genuine behaviour on both sides is ultimately more important than any materials’. Wise words indeed and ones that I will bear in mind as I start trying to analyse the way in which teacher, students and texts interacted in this year’s blogging course. This with the aim of making instruction, learning and maybe even language development increasingly pleasurable and efficient.

Featured image by Fig_Tart, Instagram


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