“It is time to bring humanity back to education,” our superintendent’s words rang out across the packed auditorium, with more than one thousand employees, gathering on our opening day, for the first time since 2019. He went on to share a call to action, to do all we could to ensure that we welcomed kids back to school and fostered a sense of belonging. As a staff, we were given permission to go slow, not to rush into curriculum, and above all else, prioritize knowing the stories of the children entering our classrooms. His words resonated and reminded me of the power that I know comes with connections, relationships, and stories.
One thing that draws me to literacy is all the ways reading and writing help me, as a teacher and a coach, get to know people. I have seen the power of knowing students as writers and through their writing. All of the pieces that make a strong workshop also provide a foundation for community building. So many social skills can be taught, supporting and enhancing the academic work of writing workshop. These skills and the community formed are something that can be fostered and nurtured all year long, only growing stronger with time.
Here are some of the ways that social skills and community building can happen through writing workshop:
Devoting time to collectively brainstorming story ideas during a narrative unit or expert topics during an information unit allows us to know one another better. Students can quickly see who they may have something in common as they share ideas. They may also discover who they may want to get to know better. These opportunities to share and see collective ideas can help kids to develop relationships-to be known and form connections.
Storytelling, something often associated more in the primary grades, is something we have been experimenting with more beyond the primary grades this year. Just last week, we had fourth graders reenact recess scenes, playing four-square with an imaginary ball, right in the classroom. There was reluctance at first, but the joy that soon filled the air was palpable. We froze them, mid-action, having them story tell the scene that had just transpired.
Storytelling is an art and it requires explicit work in the areas of listening and speaking. When students have opportunities to hear each other’s stories, they can begin to know about their classmates in a variety of ways. Who are they outside of the classroom? What matters to them? What might they be dealing with that we would have never known about?
Living Like Writers
Recently, a teacher caught me as we were walking in the same direction in the hall. She was so excited to share something she had tried, creating a class heart map. She shared that the class had brainstormed stories they had experienced together as a class and added them to a class heart. They used the ideas from their heart to brainstorm and write a shared piece together. The teacher reported high energy and excitement. I have since stolen the idea and tried it in several classrooms. Having a place to have kids add their stories helps them to live like a writer. I love the moments in school when kids are telling me about something that happened to them, and I coach them to add it to their notebooks. “I can’t wait to read that story!” Communities help each other see the stories that they’re living.
Honoring Individual Writing Processes
Part of our work as teachers is to help writers to discover what works for them as writers. Everyone’s writing process might look slightly different. For example, orally rehearsing might work well for some students while others might prefer planning on paper. As we foster our writing communities, we can help kids to see one another and highlight how different writing processes might go. There is so much to celebrate as students get to know themselves and others as writers. Here are two really great posts to read more about honoring different writing processes.
Thinking About and Honoring Individual Writing Processes by Melanie Meehan
Teaching into what it means to be a writing partner goes a long way toward fostering the kind of community that supports each other, works together, and truly sees one another. To start this school year, many of the classrooms I am working with are focusing on being able to see and name specific work that their partners are doing well. We’ve slowed down the work of partners and been explicit in naming and teaching into the kinds of things partners can help each other with. When it comes to partnerships, the possibilities are endless- giving partners tips, working through hard parts together, and most importantly helping students to see how their work grows stronger with the support of others.
Communities don’t just form during the parts of our day designated for community-building activities. I would argue that there is no greater way to build community than through writing workshop. Writing workshop provides a time and space for us to know each other’s stories and to grow around them, as a community of learners.