Throwback Week continues on Two Writing Teachers. Every day this week we are featuring one of our favorite posts from our recent history. We hope to give you a chance to revisit great content or to catch up on posts you might have missed.
Today, I throwback to Deb’s August post on building writing communities. As October ends and the holidays loom, it is a great time to check in on the community-building plans you made at the start of the year. Are your writers really getting to know each other? Are they supporting each other in ways that show they understand each other’s goals and struggles? Certainly, fostering an environment where writers feel supported, cheered on, and known is crucial in a writing workshop classroom. Check out Deb’s tips below for ways to nurture your own community of writers.
Building Writing Communities
Community is defined by Merriam Webster as:
- a group of people who live in the same area (such as a city, town, or neighborhood)
- a group of people who have the same interests, religion, race, etc.
- a group of nations
When I think about developing a community of writers I consider how we will learn together as a classroom of writers and how we will learn and collaborate beyond our classroom. Being a part of a community builds confidence, inspires new ideas, and teaches perspective.
What is a Writing Community?
A writing community is a group of writers who are working together to learn more about the life of being a writer. They work to understand how writers get ideas, how they capture small moments, how writers collaborate, and how they share their work, just to name a few.
Through reading and collaboration, writers find fresh ideas, give and receive feedback, and study the work of authors. Writers are free to find their own process and techniques with the support of their community.
Writing Community Decisions?
Writing communities work with common beliefs about what it means to be a writer, how we take care of ourselves, our space and each other. As a classroom community we spend time discussing our needs as writers and we consider the needs of our peers. In our first six weeks of school we make time to consider each of the following in developing our community:
- Time-How much time do writers need to think, plan, compose, and share?
- Space- What type of space do you prefer to work in?
- Noise level- What is and is not an acceptable volume level during writing time?
- Sharing- Who is my audience? Who do I choose to share with? Why do I share my work?
- Use and sharing of tools- What tools help to best create my message?
- Common language- understanding and using common terminology to improve communication and understanding.
- Common and Individual goals- class goals and Individual goals to improve skills and practice as a writer.
- Mindset- Work ethic- (We do hard things and we work to solve problems.)
- Conferring- Am I ready to conference? Who will I confer with, why?
- Celebrations- How can I celebrate my process, my work and when do I choose to celebrate?
Establishing a Community of Writers
As we learn about ourselves, our peers, and our community we begin to establish common expectations for our classroom. We discuss, chart, and role play our expectations. We discuss what our expectations look like and what they don’t look like. I have found that contrasting the behaviors we expect helps students not only develop a clear understanding of what is appropriate, but it also helps the students understand why these expectations are important. I often create T charts with the students. One side of the T-chart is labeled “Writers DO… and the other side Writers Do Not…” This chart provides students with a visual reminder of our conversation to refer to when needed.
During the first six weeks we also learn what it means to be collaborative and HOW to be a listener. I have found students are frequently directed to listen, but few are TAUGHT what it means to be a listener. We begin each day with a morning meeting. We gather in a circle where each and every student is visible to everyone. We begin by passing good morning greetings around the circle. As students share their greetings, we practice looking at the person you are speaking to. We learn to use voices that can be heard around the circle and to look at others as they are speaking, even when it isn’t our turn.
Collaboration requires a deeper level of listening. Listeners are required to think about what the speaker is saying, to connect their thoughts, and ask questions when we are confused. We learn to comment back to the speaker, maintaining the topic of conversation. These skills are difficult for adults, but essential in a community of learners so we take time to define them, teach them, and practice them every day.
Knowing the Writers in the Community
Collaboration is just one element of our writing community. Knowing each other as writers is also important. Knowing the interest of our peers, their writing preferences, and the voices of the writers around us enables us to bond as a community.
At the start of the year, each student creates a paper doll adorned with pictures, uniforms, costumes, buttons, ribbons, glitter or whatever families choose. We refer to these paper dolls as “mini-me’s”. Each item placed on the paper doll represents an interest of the child. As these are returned to school the students share the doll and tell the group all about themselves and their interests. As the child is sharing with the class, I record the conversation in VoiceThread. I snap a photo of the paper doll and record the sharing so we can refer to the conversation and ,if desired,leave a comment asking for more information or to share a common interest. Students love revisiting this recording throughout the year and will often leave new comments as the year progresses. Once mini-me’s are shared they are hung on the wall in the room. As kids are writing they can refer to their mini me’s or those of their peers for writing ideas and writers with shared interest.
In our quest to learn about the writers in our community, we also create a border for our writing display board. While in our morning meeting I begin to ask seemingly random questions about popular hobbies or interest in our room. I might ask, “Who in our class likes to cook?” Several hands shoot into the air. I ask them to tell us about cooking and other friends begin to connect and share their stories, after a while the room is abuzz with cooking stories. Now I ask, “Is this something you could write a story about?” The group nods with eyes wide and big toothless smiles! I hand the group a sentence strip labeled “cooking” and ask them to draw pictures of cooking, filling the sentence strip. Once the sentence strip is finished I place the strip on the border the writing board. Now we have a group of kids with a common interest as well as a reminder of our cooking friends and ideas to write about!
Members of writing communities share common language and goals. In our writing community we build language and goals through minilessons, books we share, and classroom experiences. Sharing books, authors, and characters leads to conversations unique to our community. These common experiences and conversations bond our class around story. Writers feel accepted and feel free to take risks in writing and are brave to share with others. These bonds allow writers to seek and accept feedback in a way that will support writing growth.
Because writers of a community are inspired by the work of other authors we make time to learn about authors we admire. When possible we reach out to them on Twitter, visit their web pages to learn about the authors’ work space, how they get their ideas, the tools they use, decisions they make, and other interesting information they may share on their websites.
Why a Writing Community is Important
As a member of a writing community, students work with common language and understanding. Students know the writers within the community and feel comfortable asking for feedback and offering feedback that serves to push the writer, not to flatter them. Writers within a community understand the importance of their writing community and work to maintain its existence. Because the students value their writing community, they also feel accepted and free to try new ideas, take risks, and push themselves to be their personal best. They feel encouraged internally and externally.
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).