A Community of Writers
During this year of quarantine and distance learning, we would be remiss as English teachers if we failed to note the irony that we feel closer to our colleagues and more in need of each other than ever before. We always intuited this truth about our mutual respect and need for each other, but after teaching through screens while navigating the anxiety, grief, and chaos of the past year, we can now say for certain: community is a critical aspect of well-being. On the days when I wade in the deep waters of fear or anxiety as a teacher, especially during this pandemic, it is really only my colleagues that can swim down to meet me and give me the oxygen I need to make my way back to the surface and the shore.
As we wrap up our March focus on writing, well-being, and community, we asked our dearest colleagues to share a meditation on how they develop community in their writing and literature classrooms. As always, we hope to model the spirit we would love to see in our students by sitting down and putting pen to paper to reflect on our own personal journeys, and in this case, our journey to build writing and reading communities as an effort to support student well-being.
Rachel Davies (11th and 12th grade English teacher)
As long as I can remember I have believed the healing power of conversation (which probably speaks to my extroverted sensibilities!). Yet over the past few years, with the guidance and inspiration of my wonderful colleagues, I have seen the transformative impact of regular journaling on the conversations that I believe are so necessary. Where once, sensitive conversations within class might have stopped either at the assertions of loud voices or the quiet of my more subdued groups, now we have individual journaling as a shared path through thorny issues. I have seen with delight the confidence of my students grow, both that they can formulate something of value to add to any conversation and that their thoughts will be heard and engaged with. By pairing consistent journaling with consistent opportunities to share -- on everything from Homeric speeches to contemporary racial justice – I have seen my students come to trust themselves and each other.
Melinda Smith (Journalism teacher, Newspaper and Yearbook sponsor)
Building community in journalism class and particularly on the publications staff is a continual process. As we all know, sharing or publishing what you’ve written is a very personal experience of which we are all sensitive to others’ comments and critiques. Certainly, when those comments go so far as to challenge the content or beliefs in one’s writing, the reporter is especially sensitive. Through the give and take of evaluating and being evaluated, the girls come to realize the power of tone and of word choice and the harm that each of them can evoke or inspire. Generally, by the end of the school year, we all are a far more empathic, cohesive group than we were in September.
Megan Griffin (10th and 11th grade English teacher)
One of my favorite communal writing activities is a strategy I learned at the Bard Institute for Writing and Thinking called a Text Explosion. When first reading a text—often a poem—I ask students to circle a single word or phrase and free write for a few minutes. These free writes can be simple word associations driven by a student’s personal interests (“what comes to mind when you hear this word/phrase”) or more directed (“what historical or cultural events do you associate with this word/phrase”). Then, I slowly read the poem aloud for a final time, asking students to read their writing as soon as they hear their word. The result is an entirely new poem, infused with the various voices and experiences of our class. Afterwards, we reflect on how these voices have shifted or reinforced our initial understandings of the poem. While the first Text Explosion can be messy and awkward, with sudden starts and stops and hesitant giggles, later ones often feel like a gift: a shared creation reflective of our class community.
Monica Cochran (9th and 10th grade English teacher)
For their first paper of freshman year, students write a group essay based on a main character’s various personality traits in their summer reading, whereby two to three girls collaborate to write an intro paragraph with a well-crafted thesis and a concluding paragraph as they learn the differences between the introduction and conclusion paragraphs. Then, each girl writes her own body paragraph demonstrating knowledge of concrete detail versus commentary. Freshmen learn the basics of writing, and they learn from each other as they meet new friends.
Kate Schenck (9th and 11th grade English teacher)
When our classes went online last spring due to the pandemic, everyone was scared, worried, and burned out. Every day felt like a new challenge, from planning online classes to engaging with students through our screens, and my spirit sank as I scrambled to preserve the camaraderie of my classes in our new distant and online way of life. One day in April I was planning with my colleague Sarette and we were preparing a freshman lesson on The Odyssey. I had just listened to an Ezra Klein podcast in which he interviews Madeline Miller, author of Circe and The Song of Achilles, and was telling Sarette how much I enjoyed getting out of the house and walking around my neighborhood while listening to her discuss her writing process, a luxury during the early days of lockdown. We both kind of laughed and said, what if we ask the girls to do the same--can we assign a walk and a podcast as classwork? This was the moment I realized that the pandemic would force us to completely redefine everything we thought we knew about teaching because what we all needed more than anything was our mental health and the space to breathe. When my classes gathered to share their thoughts about the podcast assignment, many more students than usual jumped in to share online. I credit the communal spirit of our debrief to the conspiracy that we “skipped class” and did something radical, yet totally rejuvenating--we simply took a walk together and enjoyed a rich conversation about literature.
Corby Baxter (12th grade English teacher)
Community is always at the forefront of my planning: how are the relationships forming within the classroom? What kinds of teaching/learning do the students respond to? Do we trust each other to share ideas and learn? Building a strong community establishes trust, which allows students to take more risks and invest in the class. The time I devote to intentionally building community is consistently paid back five times over with the quality of the learning; community time is never wasted time.
Andi Shurley (11th grade English teacher)
Collaboration in class used to look like clusters of desks and girls leaning over each other’s papers. Now it looks like fourteen girls sitting in rows all facing forward, my least favorite view of a class. What is beautiful, though, is that while they do not look like they are collaborating, they are, in fact, collaborating like mad! Through interactive collaborations, the classroom community grows stronger. For example, with each peer editing session their fingers tap the keys, their styli sweep the screens, and as they take in the words of a peer, they can’t help but call out affirmations across the room – That was a great opening sentence! I love your topic! I didn’t know things like that ever happened! Community finds a way.
Erin Keller (12th grade English teacher and Performing Arts teacher)
The biggest way I build community through writing in my class is by offering opportunities to share. Sometimes the sharing is formal and required: sharing drafts of essays for peer critiques or presenting our research. Sometimes the sharing is informal and optional: sharing what we wrote in our journals. It all combines to help the students know each other better which improves the collective ability to give and receive usable feedback.
Frank Bauroth (9th and 12th grade English teacher)
I often use the reading out of student writing to help build trust and community in the class. This started when I taught Creative Writing. Students would get used to reading out their own work (usually exercises at first) and hearing their classmates do so. This was meant to build a comfort level so that the students would listen and trust each other when we started having peers offer feedback on students’ creative pieces. More recently, I used a variation of this by having students do a personal writing called “Who Am I Who Nobody Knows.” After creating an alias, students drew aliases randomly and then read the alias’s essay out to the class as that alias. Finally they wrote a response to the alias’s writing. The responses often showed considerable empathy to an unknown classmate.
Allison Hibbitt (10th and 11th grade English teacher)
No one likes in-class essays, least of all my high-achieving AP students who would readily endure weeks of excruciating work culminating in a pristinely crafted argument rather than suffer forty minutes of duress yielding a shoddily written, poor excuse for a thought, also known as a timed writing. What causes their angst is the fear of not having time—time to think, to organize, to refine—, and it is just this fear that I seek to dispel through casual writing exercises that encourage students to develop their ideas and their voices in a fast-paced but fearless environment of collaboration. For me, paradoxically, the key to building this community is sometimes to start with anonymity, as seen, for instance, in the thirty-minute activity we completed after analyzing O’Brien’s “Speaking of Courage.” I gave students fifteen minutes to respond on nameless pages in OneNote to a prompt: Build an argument about what subjects in our world today need to be addressed but are all too often ignored because they’re viewed as off-putting or too difficult to effectively take on; address how can we best bring these issues to light and initiate discussion. After students clicked away at their keyboards for exactly fifteen minutes, after they quickly compiled their evidence and experimented with stylistic choices, after they then read and responded anonymously to the ideas of their peers, interacted with their classmates’ musings and complemented their moves, and, most notably, after they processed the feedback they received on their own fifteen minutes of frenzied argumentation, they unanimously decided that writing—even writing under pressure—could be freeing and delightfully fun!
Stephen da Silva (10th and 11th grade English teacher)
Discussions of community have come up most meaningfully in my classes in relation to assessment of writing. Students often wonder about discrepancies between the ways in which different teachers evaluate them. Is evaluation purely subjective? I use Stanley Fish’s idea of interpretive communities to try and get them to see that we are situated within writing communities. Yes, there is a spectrum of evaluation within those communities, but there is a general consensus on the criteria that are used to evaluate writing.
The idea of writing communities also raises the issue of audience. What counts as good writing in one context might not be as effective in another rhetorical context. I like using the global example of Anglo-American conventions as opposed to writing conventions in Arabic communities: going straight to the point comes across as rude and blunt in Arabic communities where I understand the convention is to circle around the main idea rather than proceed in a linear fashion from thesis to evidence. These differences can lead to a lot of miscommunication if one is not attuned to global differences between writing communities or at a more local level differences among different disciplinary communities – rhetorical conventions in science as opposed to English, etc.
This final observation is not related to writing specifically. Just as important as affirming community, I think it is important for students to see that a community can be constraining and can erase particular differences. Discussing the opening of Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, the juniors register Janie’s isolation and alienation from the community gossiping about her on the porch as she walks back into town. We discuss how the option is not pure individual revolt against the community. Arguably, Janie creates her own new mini-community with Phoebe, so the takeaway is that even while we are situated within communities, we can pragmatically create new communities and alliances when those groups do not affirm our values and interests.
Sarette Albin (9th and 12th grade English teacher)
I had an English teacher in high school – Mr. Lewellen – whose only classroom décor consisted of two large bulletin boards. One held layers upon layers of pages in different sizes and colors and fonts – these were his rejection slips, all the times his creative writing submissions had been turned away. The other bulletin board held a couple dozen letters, lovingly pinned up. These were his acceptances. I remember my amazement when he explained the boards on the first day of class, how I marveled at his willingness to lay bare his efforts as a writer and invite us into his journey. Throughout the year, we’d celebrate with him when a new acceptance got added and join in his gallows humor when another rejection arrived. By making his progress a shared experience, Mr. Lewellen showed us that writing is communal. Emboldened by his vulnerability, we became risk-takers with our own writing, celebrating successes together and working through struggles collectively. Since becoming a teacher, I think about Mr. Lewellen a lot. Perhaps it’s time I invited students into my own writing life. Perhaps it’s time I make some bulletin boards of my own…
Jessica Bailey (10th and 12th grade English teacher)
Over the years, I have found that it is common for teachers to focus on building community amongst their students, but to remain on the outside as the facilitator or coordinator, not a community member themselves. After completing two workshops with the Bard Institute for Writing and Teaching, I noted how the facilitators engaged in the writing and learning with us, participating in the discussions and sharing their own writing. This practice made a significant impression on me and I made a conscious choice to begin writing with my students during free-writes and sharing my own writing with them in order to model expectations, but also to be a part of the classroom community as a learner. Not only has this afforded me more personal writing time, it has put me on the level with my students and provided me with a deeper understanding of their thinking, as well as broadening my own. By engaging with my students as a learner, in addition to being the teacher, we cement our own classroom community where each member is just as approachable as the other and the walls come down between us.
"A Community of Writers" is the final post of our March focus on writing and community.