If We Build It, They Will Come: Tales From Inside The Sharing Circle

Connecting learning to students’ own lives is something most teachers strive to do in order to build community and be relevant in the classroom. It seems obvious we want to build these bridges between the known and unknown, and between our students and ourselves, but it can be challenging to make time for learning that goes beyond delivering content—there is so much content! Despite this, I find over and over again that it is more than worth making room for these rich practices. Allowing time for students to share work with the whole group does more than just provide an audience.

The teaching share, taking place at the end of writing workshop is so easy to skip. The day is always getting away from me, and I want to squeeze in a few more student conferences or one more minilesson. As I head out of my third-grade classroom and into fifth grade this fall, I think about the unique challenges pre-adolescent writers face.  The shift from “teacher pleasing” to navigating powerful peer relationships adds challenges to building trust. At this point making time for the teaching share isn’t just a nice idea–it’s as important as any minilesson or conference because it makes room for a “sharing circle.”

While feedback is a necessity, there is a time and place for sharing without any comment at all, maybe especially with older elementary and middle school writers. The following reflects a kind of “less is more” idea, and in my experience, it has definitely lived up to that. At the end of writing workshop, students gather in a circle at the front of the classroom. I sit with the class on the floor to reinforce the idea that this is a student led activity. Anyone who wants to read aloud their own work does so. The norms are this: No talking, the listeners’ writing goes on the floor in front of them face down, the listeners are turned toward the sharer and responding like readers. If it is funny we laugh, and if it is sad, our faces reflect that, too. We look interested because writers are a curious people and this is what we aim to be.

The most important part of the whole thing is when the student finishes reading their section, there is NO response except to snap our fingers twice, in unison, and NOTHING else. We then move on to the next volunteer. We give two snaps to everyone instead of clapping because it’s scary enough to share your writing in a group, and even scarier when the person who shared before you received thunderous applause. What if yours is only worthy of a polite golf course clap? Or worse? This all puts the focus where it ought to be in a sharing circle. On the sharing itself.

The students learn from each other that it’s okay to try writing an informational piece about the history of jazz that is actually rap lyrics. Or maybe poetry doesn’t have to rhyme at all. When one student read his one act play personal narrative OUT LOUD, the genre police didn’t come bursting in to take away his pencil. All this creates the kind of safety required to build a writerly community we all want. More people share knowing it isn’t the time or place for judgment of their work. Also, it encourages a kind of risk taking that only comes with this kind of safety. The academic benefits of this are huge. Having taken the fear of feedback away, students are less anxious and learn more from what they hear their peers doing.

Students learn that writers are a gutsy lot, they try things that are hard, take risks, play. The writing that results from this is sometimes terrible, occasionally beautiful, always human. It connects us. That’s why we do sharing circles every day for the first month of school. After that, they become a part of the teaching share repertoire.

Sometimes we do gather for more explicit instruction in the form of public conferring where I teach a student while the group listens in. Sometimes students share strategies for each other’s benefit, but we don’t call these “sharing circles.” In these cases, we simply gather and I sit in a chair for teaching’s sake. Students know when I sit on the floor with them that we are in full sharing circle mode. It’s a subtle but powerful distinction. Having both is necessary, but if I only had time for one, I’d go with a sharing circle every time. It creates the necessary conditions for all other learning. Without this community, no public, peer or teacher conference will have nearly the effect it could.

In fact, the sharing circle is the reason some students write at all. It provides an “instant audience.” Reluctant writers get inspired to write something if only because they know there will be an opportunity to share it with the group very soon. Without the risk of receiving any kind of feedback, even upper elementary and middle school students will share. Eventually, a class may have all students sharing their writing on a regular basis.

Whenever I am tempted to forgo the teaching share in favor of getting a few more things done, I try to remember that less is almost always more and call my whole group together anyway. I sit down on the floor with the knowledge that in an age where scripts try to stand in for authentic learning, the sharing circle is keeping it real. It is meaningful and fulfilling work for the students and I to build these bridges together, and we are all better writers for it.

 

Lori Van Hoesen (@lori_reader) is a fifth-grade teacher, National Writing Project Fellow, and very occasional blogger at Read, Write, Teach, Live.