Building a Community of Writers: Creating the Emotional Space

As a 7th grade teacher, I loved ending the year with poetry.  There’s just something about poetry– perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of easing rigid language rules and heartfelt meaning-making that helps this genre to feel so accessible to adolescents.  But aside from being accessible, I always felt poetry was the perfect culmination unit for the writers in my classes.  All year long, I always made it both an explicit and important goal that as writers, we would all come together as a writing community across the year.  This meant working to not only become stronger writers togetherthrough partnerships, sharing, etc.; but it also meant giving strength to the space in which we would be writing, and confidence to the writers in that space.

A safe space is something I think all writing workshop teachers strive to create.  Since we don’t assign topics or prompts to our kids, we understand well the importance of helping our students mine their lives and experiences for meaningful writing fodder.  Given choice, writers are able to uncover engaging topics, ones that often embrace the critical issues that shape their sometimes tumultuous lives.  Take, for example, the following poem written recently in one of my colleague’s classrooms this year.  The writer wished to remain anonymous, so I will call him “Jared” here (warning: this poem contains disconcerting content):

Student poem

Only in a safe and supportive space is the birth of such a poem even possible.  This type of authenticity can sometimes bring issues, yes.  So as teachers-as-mandatory-reporters, we must be aware that creating such a writing environment– an environment in which students feel comfortable enough to put words to paper about their most intimate and troubling matters– comes with responsibility.

Yet, some may wonder: how do we create the space in which raw emotion, unbridled honesty, and willingness to risk, such as that unleashed by Jared, can define the classroom writing climate– a climate which I’ll call an environment of authentic authorship?  Consider the following tips:

  1.  Connect through your own stories– I recently wrote about this topic.  One important way we can connect with our students is through the power of story.  As teachers, if we model the courage and generosity it takes to share our own stories with our students (especially stories of trouble), we help to make a safe space for our writers to do the same.
  2. Protect the sanctity of the space– Although not a fan of a whole bunch of “rules”, one rule in my classroom was that the content of what was shared in writing workshop was to be considered confidential.  If students know that their private stories, ideas, and issues will not be discussed beyond the physical walls of the community, they can then feel more free to write about what really matters to them.  And let me say, I understand this is difficult to “enforce”; however, verbally sending this message and reminding all writers of it can go a long way.
  3. Be a writer yourself —  There are just so many positives for teachers to live as writers themselves.  I would offer that the authenticity we are able to bring to our teaching may have a lot to do with nurturing a safe writing community.  For when students see us sharing and struggling alongside them, the effect is highly desirable: they want to emulate us.  We are “walking the walk,” so to speak.  And if our goal is to create a community in which authenticity and honesty are held in high regard by all, then being a writer alongside our students can speak volumes.
  4. Send the message: Our lives are worth writing about —  This is arguably one of the founding theories of writing workshop.  Now, I understand that in a middle school scope and sequence, narrative writing can only encompass so much time.  Information, research, argument– these are all important, as well.  But consider that these types of writing can be influenced by our lives, too.  And therefore, by honoring such a theory, we help to make the space for the Jareds in our classrooms to write poems about what is critical in their lives.

As the days become warmer and summer break begins to cast its healing spell on us educators, consider marking these tips for next year.  Which one(s) do you already do well?  Which one(s) might need attention? What would you add to the list?

When writers know someone cares about their words, it changes how they relate to writing.  And although most of us would wish the circumstances for Jared’s words on no child, how incredible was it that he felt safe to write them?  Be the person who cares about your writers’ words.  Create the space.  It can be such a gift.