This is the second in a series of postcards of my key takeaways from the National Teacher’s of English Conference in November. It also marks my last post of 2022. I hope all those reading have a good, healthy, and restful break!
Regular readers will know that Matt Kay, one of my co-authors of Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Middle and High School ELA, is on my pantheon of great writing teachers. I’m not sure there is a more remarkable and inspirational educator anywhere, and, if given the choice, he is probably the first teacher in the country whose class I would put my own children in.
At NCTE Matt Kay once again proved why he is one of the all-time greats when he made an argument for writing teachers to approach community building as thoughtfully as they approach designing a lesson or crafting a writing prompt. His reasoning went like this: The primary audience for students–especially in a modern classroom that is full of group work, discussion, projects, and choice–is not the teacher; it is each other. As adolescents, they are constantly and somewhat obsessively watching, comparing and contrasting with, and performing for each other. If they have strong community and relationships, or in other words, their relationship with their primary classroom audience is strong, everything done in the classroom will benefit.
I have a hunch that most teachers reading this will likely know this already at some level. They will know how smoothly discussions and peer response and projects go in that section that has truly gelled and how difficult those things can be in the class that hasn’t quite come together yet. What makes Kay’s point different and important from the general argument that community is important is that he points out that even when we know that community is important, we also tend to quietly and often unconsciously downgrade it as a second tier concern. It is something to focus on during the first few weeks of the year or after the lessons are planned, email is cleared, and all papers have responses.
At NCTE Kay sought to remind us that community building is a top-tier concern, one that we should loudly proclaim as important and keep our eye on, not just during the first week, but throughout the whole school year.
Kay also gave a simple, effective recipe for how to build a strong, supportive community all year long:
- First, explain directly why community building matters. Don’t assume that students know why sharing good news or engaging in a silly competition or having a cookie contest before winter break will help them.
- Then systematize it. Community-building is often the first thing to get bumped and it can be scattershot. Kay argues that when community building is dropped in favor of content or done haphazardly, the message is clear to students: it doesn’t matter as much as other aspects of the classroom, which can cause them to disinvest from it. Kay’s suggestion to avoid this is to ritualize it: “[When building community], make sure there is an every Monday we do this. Every Tuesday we do this. Every Wednesday we do this…” By systematizing it and pinning specific community building elements to specific days we can show its value and protect against dropping it when things get busy.
- Then keep it up all year. Community building in the first few weeks is expected, but continuing it once the crush of our class’s content comes upon us is not always easy. If we want community to run deep though our classes, we need to have the same commitment in week 34 that we have in week 1.
I have written a lot about community over the years because I feel that it is the secret sauce for what makes a learning community–and especially a writing learning community–truly great. And yet, truth be told, I’m not sure I explain its value enough after the first week, have it as organized as it could be, or am as dogged as I could be about ensuring it doesn’t get bumped as the year pushes forward.
Kay’s reminder was just what I needed, and it feels like a good thought to conclude the blog with for the year, as I have a feeling that community will be critically important when we face the challenges of 2023, ranging from making it through this tripledemic winter of illness to the rise of AIs like ChatGPT.
There is much more to talk about in January, but for now thanks for reading and your support in 2022, and I’m looking forward to our 2023 together.
Yours in Teaching,
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