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This is the second post in a short series on small but fierce tools that can boost your writing instruction in the matter of a few minutes. For the original entry, click here.

For me at least, the last 18 months haven’t exactly been the ideal in regards to professional development. I have read far fewer teaching books, written even fewer posts about teaching, and attended only one (online) teaching conference, instead spending the hours normally allocated to those things just making it through the day in a way that is reminiscent of my first years of teaching.

During many moments this lack of time and space to grow has been a source of frustration, but recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how the dark screens of Zoom, the divided focus of hybrid teaching, or the endless fire drills of this fall have brought their own meaningful lessons too.

And of those lessons, the one that I have been thinking about a lot recently is how absolutely crucial classroom community–which is so often cast as periphery, nice-if-you-can-do-it-but-not-essential topic–is to doing the work we do at a high level.

Since March 2020, I’ve touched upon this topic a couple times. I’ve written about tools for how to get students to listen to each other and how I use Chris Lehmann and Matthew Kay’s Burn Five to build camaraderie. These things have been critical tools for building and maintaining classroom community in times that don’t lend themselves to community, but I realized this summer that I haven’t yet mentioned what is arguably the biggest competitive advantage writing teachers have when it comes to building community: The students’ writing itself.

So far this year, my students have already written about their names, their homes, and someone close to them. They’ve ranted about topics that are meaningful to them and built worlds from nothing but the synapses in their heads. They’ve told whatever story came out when I asked them to tell their story. So much of who they are is already scrawled in the pages of their writing notebooks, and so if I seek community, one of the best routes to get there is to find ways for students to spill the writing from their notebooks into the class.

This is, of course, not a new idea. Many writing teachers have expressed this before me, with Linda Christensen being my gold standard. Still, in my classes, and I suspect many others, even though I have an understanding of how important students sharing work is for the classroom community, I have often struggled to find the time amongst everything else to do it properly. Instead my approach has been largely been asking some variation of this question out loud after we complete a piece of writing:

Does anyone want to share?

And generally a handful of students–usually the same ones–do. We then politely listen and then we moved on to the next thing.

This year, given both my renewed understanding of the importance of class community and the fact that my students are undeniably rusty when it comes to interacting with each other, one of my major goals was to move beyond Does anyone have a piece they want to share? with my classroom sharing of work. There have been strikes and gutters in doing this, but there are three strategies that have worked pretty well for getting all or nearly all student voices into the classroom in the pursuit of building community:

Cascading Quick-Shares

A cascading quick-share is probably my favorite of the sharing activities that I have been doing this fall. To understand how it works, let’s say the students have written a short targeted paper that focuses on using deeper, more thoughtful, and often extended metaphors and similes to enhance writing. To do a cascading quick-share, I would go through the following process:

  1. The students would have a minute to pick out a favorite metaphor/simile they wrote.
  2. The class would then go around and each student would say their favorite metaphor/simile in rapid succession, one right after another. All applause would be held until the end.
  3. As they speak, I would jot down lines that grab me and echo them back at the end, with my goal being to echo every student at some point during a quick-share every month or so.
  4. We would then applaud and move on.

The time investment for this is five minutes or less, but the return is often wonderful. The rapid pace and anonymity of the cascade means that over 90%+ of my students generally end up sharing their work (they can pass, but most don’t). This dramatically expands whose work is heard, expands the range of student mentor texts they hear, and lays a foundation for the idea that everyone has something to say and share in the class.

Micro-Peer Response

Peer response is something that I talk about a lot, and when I talk about it, I most often talk about how do it well in regards to major papers and projects, as that takes the most significant investment of time and training. But just like how not all conferences or feedback need or should be large-scale endeavors (see micro-conferences and flash feedback), not all peer response needs to be an intensive dissection of a large paper/project.

This year, I’ve been doing a lot more micro-peer response, which is where students quickly confer over some small part of a piece. For an example, let’s say that we are discussing how to craft a strong opening paragraph in a narrative or essay. To do a micro-peer response, I would do the following:

  1. We would start with a mini-lesson on crafting strong leads that is followed by looking at a few mentor texts from previous students.
  2. The students at each table group would then take turns sharing the lead on their current papers and getting quick feedback from and giving feedback to their classmates.
  3. The students would then have a few minutes to apply those changes before moving on.

I have found these quick flashes of peer response to be excellent at building community because they are lower stress than normal peer review and yet the students are still working together on each other’s pieces, and when students work together, even briefly, it can be like a cheat code for building community.

Anonymous Wall Shares

I wrote last fall about how I began to regularly and anonymously share great student examples on my slide decks as a way to try and bring student work and voices into my far-too-quiet Zoom rooms. I have continued that this fall, but I’ve also looked for ways to anonymously share student work in other ways too.

My favorite example of this so far came from a happy accident, born out of a not-so-happy situation. Our school underwent a renovation this summer that lasted right up until the day before school. This meant I had no before school setup and my walls were completely blank on the first day, something that at the time I was quite embarrassed about.

Once school started, there was no time for crafting Instagramy bulletin boards, so I decided to spill the student work onto the walls, elementary classroom style. One example is that I asked the students to recommend books to each by creating a recommendation page on a Google Slideshow. Then, I simply printed them at the one secret color printer that I know about in my building and ten minutes of stapling later I had a whole moderately aesthetic pleasing wall of colorful book recommendations–and student voices–that covered nearly one entire side of my room.

Part of My book Recommendations Wall

This may seem a non-sequitur, but the kids’ program host Mr. Rogers used to carry around a quote from a social worker in his pocket that said, “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story,” and if you watch his shows, you can see this in action. I think that his ability to lovingly seek out the stories of those around him and even his viewers was a large part of why kids tuned in to his otherwise quiet and slow show even as there were louder and more active things if they turned the dial in either direction. I’ve taken that notion to heart this year and sought to get everyone hearing everyone else’s stories as much as possible in the hopes it will increasing the love, or at least the appreciation, present in my room. My execution of this goal has been uneven and far from perfect, and I’m still figuring out the best tools for me (If you have some that work for you, please send them along!). Still, even so, these micro-shares have been a clear force for good in my classroom and they have helped a great deal in building community in a fall that has desperately needed it.

Yours in teaching,

Matt

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