I’ve heard the chatter in the hallways, in meetings, in the teachers’ lounge.
“I want my writers to love writing.”
“I wish my students would actually pay attention to conventions.”
“I wish my students cared about the writing they do.”
How do we fulfill this vision? Truth be told, I can’t pretend to have all the answers. I can’t even pretend to have most of the answers. But my students and I figured some things out, and it comes down to a foundational idea:
Students care about writing when they know they’re being read. When they feel the power that written expression holds for themselves and one another, THEN they have a true desire to practice and improve their craft. Until then, it’s just routines and class assignments and writing prompts.
One of the most powerful ways we’ve been able to build a community of writing peers is through what I like to call Trusted Reader Circles. Today, I’ll share the process of how Trusted Reader Circles came about in our writing classes, and offer ideas and support for how you might give it a go.
Before moving on, I should mention that none of this would have been possible in my classroom – or any other classrooms we’ve influenced – without establishing an environment of judgment-free feedback and support. This prior blog post details how we made it happen for ourselves. I’d also recommend this template of sentence starters, which serves as a guide for offering meaningful, positive feedback.
Where “Trusted Reader Circles” Started
Like most discoveries I’ve made as a writing teacher, the concept of Trusted Reader Circles grew out of my own interactions and experiences. I came to realize that I rely on a variety of people to fulfill a variety of roles for me:
The Technocrat. This usually falls to my husband Steve, who reads my work for meaning and tone. He lets me know when I need to clarify language, simplify wording, and he’s gentle about pointing out mistakes I need to fix.
The Cheerleader. In addition to my Two Writing Teachers community, I have my friend and co-teacher Kim, who’s there to read my work and tell me what’s great about it. She encourages me to keep going, keep writing, keep creating.
The Stranger. Sometimes, I need someone who sees the world from another view, who lets me know if my writing has hit the mark. For a long time, that has been my colleague Erin. I can always count on her to be honest and open about how my writing looks and sounds.
The Inspiration. There are people in my life whose facility with words awes me. Many in the Two Writing Teachers community fit this description, but in real life, it’s my friend and fellow storyteller Megan. Wise and intuitive, she has a keen sense of the abstract. Megan gets to the heart of any idea, and helps me find the soul of my writing.
All of these people, incorporated together, form my own Trusted Reader Circle: people I depend on to help me practice and refine my craft. As I considered the different supports that others offer me, I realized that my young writers might need varying types of partnerships as well.
How We Built Trusted Reader Circles
At the heart of trusted reader circles is TRUST. I can’t overstate the importance of developing a community of writers who feel comfortable enough to share their writing – both successes and challenges – without fear of judgment. That safety is critical to building partnerships in a classroom. Furthermore, students have to be working and writing with one another long enough to recognize the skills and talents that others have.
Once I felt my students knew and trusted one another as writers, I was able to survey them about potential partners for trusted readers. We used this form, which you are welcome to copy and try in your classroom!
Note: the categories I asked my students to consider were limited, as this form was just our entry into the process.
One of my favorite things about surveying my students? Almost every time, EVERY student gets mentioned by someone else, at least once. For a moment, just think how it feels to be somebody’s “somebody.” Powerful stuff. Imagine students holding on to that feeling, and you’ll understand what it’s like to be in our classroom when we start talking about partnerships. It’s a feeling I wish for everyone.
Using Trusted Reader Circles in the Classroom
With surveys complete, I do two things. First, I group the kids into pairs or groups based on whose writing and thinking they’ve noticed. I also make lists of students who consider themselves available as “experts” in one way or another. That paves the way for several things to happen in the classroom:
Deeper feedback. Once students know who’s in their Trusted Reader Circles, they can focus on giving most of their feedback specifically to those kids. It allows my students to be more deliberate and thorough in their comments. It also means that they get to know each other’s writing on an intimate level – more so than if they’re grouped as a whole class.
Support for conferring. When I’m working with a student, and either they or I determine an area for growth, I can recommend someone in the class who has already identified themselves as someone willing to help with a given facet of writing.
Development of academic reading and writing skills. Trusted Reader Circles put students in the position of reading from a writer’s view. That is, they filter the experience through the lens of craft, and they develop the skill of articulating literary responses to text (why, hello, state standards!). Furthermore, kids find themselves more willing to improve structure and conventions because their work is, indeed, being treated as literature, as mentor text.
Where We Are Now
When it comes to establishing a community of writers, I’ll be the first to say my students and I are not “there” yet. “There,” in my experience, has always been a moving target. As soon as my practice evolves, the next “there” pops up on the horizon, waiting to be realized. But my students and I have made progress, and I can only hope I’ve offered some ideas or insights that might serve you and your colleagues.
Do you have a way to support trust, self-efficacy or confidence in your writers? Has this article made you consider your own Trusted Reader Circle? Let the community know by posting a comment below!
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