Writing is essentially a solitary act wherein writers put their fingers to the keyboard or pen to paper to create something that is truly their own. But writing should also be a communal or shared activity. Most writers, in fact, do their best work when they have the support of their peers. As educators Dan Kirby and Tom Liner state in their book Inside Out, “…learners and writers need to construct personal versions of the world around them, but then they also need to submit those unique versions to peers for response, negotiation, and confirmation.”
Peer support can manifest itself in a number of ways. For example, before some writers even get started, they find it helpful to talk with their peers about a potential writing idea. Other writers appreciate specific feedback during the development of their work. Still others find their fellow writers most helpful at the end of the process when they evaluate the finished piece. In truth, a supportive writing community does all of this, and much more.
Establishing such a community in the classroom may not necessarily be easy, especially if students have had little experience with writing workshops, peer responding, authentic writing, and so on. In this blog, I will share with you one strategy that I used early in the school year to help establish a community spirit in my middle-school language-arts classroom.
Community Building Strategy
At the beginning of the year, I had students write in their classroom journals (notebooks) every other day. They could write about anything they wanted, knowing, however, that this was part of a classroom activity. Students were instructed to write nonstop for eight minutes. (I timed them and noted that the number of words they wrote would be counted.)
On the non-writing days, students exchanged their journals with the person sitting behind them or beside them. Partners first counted the number of words and recorded the total above the entries. Then I asked them to read the entry two times: the first time to get an overall feel for the writing (these were far, far from polished pieces of writing and weren’t expected to be), and the second time to underline at least one or two things that they liked. They could underline surprising words, clever phrases, interesting ideas, and so on. But they had to find something.
Next, I would ask for volunteers to share with the rest of the class what they had read. I never lacked for a show of hands, since the students would be reading someone else’s work. We would have at least two or three readings—each one with the original writer’s approval. A brief discussion, focusing primarily on the parts that the reviewer underlined, would follow each reading.
Then all journals were returned to the original writers so they could see how many words they had written and what the reader liked in their entry. (Just seeing that a peer liked something was a confidence builder.)
This strategy got everyone involved in writing, reading, responding, and sharing. The discussions were positive because we focused on the strengths in the writing, and no one was needlessly embarrassed or hurt. More importantly, the strategy introduced students to the type of classroom I wanted to create—a community of supportive writers and learners.
A Simple Request: As a benefit to all teachers, please share a strategy that you use to establish or maintain a writing community in your classroom. Your idea may be just what another teacher needs to make his or her writing classroom operate more smoothly.