How to build a strong writing community in your classroom

In the 2003 film Love Actually, the ever-rumpled Hugh Grant informs the audience that “Love, actually, is all around.” As someone who loves to write and always strives to be better at it, bear with me as I take that quote and attempt to spin it in my own way: A writing community is, actually, all around. We can help young writers create a classroom writing community and then help them expand it ever outward to support their growth in a manner that is warm, flexible, and readily available.

It is often tempting to take an overly formal approach to writing. While the writing process is a critical tool for developing writers, there is no need to instill in them the idea that they need to send a formal invitation, written in calligraphy, to ask someone to provide feedback about their writing.

What, after all, is the goal of having a writing community? At its best, the community will support every writer by providing suggestions for improvement, ideas about new approaches, and even refinement of the topic or specific wording choices. This support can take many forms and can be approached in a variety of ways.

Lead by example

A powerful way for educators to nurture young writers is to provide ample opportunities for writing, but also for them to show themselves as writers. In the 2019 article “Changing how writing is taught,” Steve Graham advocates for teachers to see themselves as writers and to model their own active engagement in the writing process. He notes that this requires a level of vulnerability, but that it is also a tool to show students that it takes practice and thoughtfulness to hone the craft, a craft in which there is always room for more growth.

How can a teacher open the door to allow students the opportunity to understand the teacher’s thinking as the teacher writes? Using a “think aloud” is a great way to do this. Consider a history teacher who needs to explain different types of governments the class will be studying over the course of a year. That teacher may begin by saying something along the lines of, “I listed this type of government first because it is at the center of what we are studying this year, though it is not what we will encounter first chronologically.” This is a way of demystifying a lesson plan and inviting students in.

Remind students that everyone has a writing voice and a writing identity that are worth sharing and developing.

If a teacher is vulnerable and open, it creates a stronger sense of safety for students who may be hesitant to share their own writing. It also makes writing seem a bit less formal and scary. As educators, we likely share our own written words regularly with our class. Why not pull back the curtain? Doing so shows our students that even a sentence or a list on a board is an act of writing worthy of note and examination.

Use peer feedback

When we think of a writing community in the school setting, we likely picture a teacher-organized peer review activity. The teacher pairs students or organizes them into groups, and they take turns reading or listening to each other’s works. Then they share their thoughts, and the more earnest (or perhaps punitive) peers will whip out their metaphorical red pens and share feedback.

Students may need help starting and continuing these dialogues. Consider providing conversation starters for them to use. Even something as simple as, “One part of my writing that seemed to go more slowly than other parts was…” or “I think my opening paragraph could be more….” If an exchange does not flow smoothly, students can turn back to these conversation starters to continue their collaboration.

Be sure to add in prompts that force students to focus on points of pride, for example, “I was so happy when I…” or “I really liked the sentence where I….” This allows them to remember successes and to also illuminate accomplishments that may help their peers consider their own work. Peer feedback has benefits for all involved but has also proven to be particularly valuable for students learning a second language—even more valuable than teacher feedback.

To provide more structure and guidance, a teacher can assign a particular area of focus for any peer review work. “Review each other’s work and provide feedback” is likely far too broad an instruction, particularly if the class is only 45 or 50 minutes. Give students more guidance, or weed out elements that are not going to yield helpful results. If you want student discussion to have greater depth and meaning, ask them to focus on structure or tone, for example. Consider giving them conversation starters such as, “The type of structure I used for this essay was…. I chose this because….”

This is not to say that they cannot give each other feedback on grammar and mechanics, but these young writers will benefit more from feedback about the arguments they are making or the organization of their work. It helps the receiver as well as the provider to think about writing at this level rather than about input that can come from spelling and grammar check tools available in word processing programs.

Another way you can guide peer review sessions is by building student awareness of mentor texts. When students are exposed to clear, effective, and powerful writing, they can start to learn by example. I promise that I am not being paid by the estate of Ray Bradbury when I say that when I attempt to craft figurative language, I think about his stunning writing in Something Wicked This Way Comes. While I will never have his gifts, I have a lofty target at which to aim. I was lucky enough to read this work at a young age and to see how powerfully a writer can manipulate words and pages. If students read the same mentor texts, they start to build a shared vocabulary around writing they can use when “coaching” each other.

It is vital to monitor how students are providing feedback, of course. As I mentioned earlier, sharing your writing is an act of vulnerability. If we want students to become more comfortable doing this, we have to make sure the experience is as positive and productive as we can make it. Especially if the feedback comes early in the writing process, students likely are not sharing Pulitzer Prize–ready work. Remind students to frame feedback in clear but gentle ways, and model this for them consistently. “Your sentences are a hot mess” is likely to damage a young writer; “I’m not sure I quite understand what you mean in your second sentence” is gentler while still guiding the writer to reflect and revise.

Embrace an audience of more than one

When a student thinks about their writing community, the person they probably think of first is their teacher. While teachers can and do provide valuable insight, there is a danger of inadvertently leading students to think that the only audience for their writing is the teacher. This can stifle student voice and growth if the student forgets that generally, when we write, we hope to reach more than one person.

And what if that one person has a narrow idea of what constitutes “good” or “acceptable” writing? In life beyond school, we sometimes write to an audience of just one, but students need coaching about considering broader audiences. If you want them to write particularly to your preferences, establish that via a rubric or a structured document of that nature. Bear in mind, though, that your preferences may not serve them well with future teachers. Not all teachers love humor in writing, or a distinct voice. Help your students think more broadly, which means you will have to think broadly as well.

It is also important to remind students that writing is not only the act of sitting in a classroom writing an essay or responding to a text-dependent analysis question.

Over the course of a year, students should also have opportunities to experiment with different styles of writing and to consider different audiences. Help them think about what this means and brainstorm together (once again, modeling vulnerability) what successful writing might look like for the audience in question. Even better: Find members of that audience and ask them what appeals to them in writing. Those people then become members of the writing community, too, providing insight and guidance that young writers can carry with them as they progress with their craft.

Think creatively about the writing community

While teachers and classmates can provide valuable feedback, a gift we can give young writers is to help them realize that a writing community can take many forms. If I turn and ask a colleague to review an email I wrote to see if it makes sense, I have brought them into my writing community. If I do a “think aloud” about an essay I have to write about character growth in a play, the person listening to me ramble has become a part of my community. If I read aloud to my dog, who is surely just waiting to hear the words “treat” or “walkies,” I could even say I have brought him into my writing community. (Okay, sure, this is really just me talking to myself, but humor me.) Students should be encouraged to engage others in providing feedback to their writing. Siblings, friends, invested adults—these can all become part of our writing communities.

I think something offputting, or at least intimidating, about creating a writing community is the idea that it means you hand over your work, either in physical or electronic form, and you wait for the recipient to read and critique it. While this mode of feedback can be extremely helpful, it requires a level of formality that is not always necessary. Support your students in being creative about when and how they ask for feedback from their writing community. Does one sentence of an essay feel clunky to them? Have them ask someone if it makes sense. Are they struggling to clarify the argument they are trying to make? Encourage them to bounce it off someone else and ask them if they can explain what the writer believes or is postulating. Students don’t have to have every person engage in a thorough analysis of an entire piece of writing.

I also encourage you to support your students in asking others what they think makes them good writers. Perhaps one student has a good ear for dialogue and can help their peers with that at some point. Perhaps citations come easily to someone else who is willing to review those. We all have different strengths and interests in writing; pulling in people with a wide range of skills makes a writing community diverse and flexible.

Shaping a writing identity

A teacher—I would argue almost every teacher—has an opportunity to play a pivotal role in the development of a student’s identity as a writer. Many students may be resistant to this idea, thinking they can only deserve the title of “writer” if they reach the pantheon of famous writers who dominate bookshelves and pedestals within the canon.

We can make the title of “writer” less intimidating and remind students that everyone has a writing voice and a writing identity that are worth sharing and developing. It is also important to remind students that writing is not only the act of sitting in a classroom writing an essay or responding to a text-dependent analysis question. We write more than we think we do: when we send emails, when we post to social media, when we send text messages, or even when we jot down reminders to ourselves. With everything we write, we are expressing something of ourselves. What could be more worthwhile for educators to nurture?

So, forget Hugh Grant. Forget your latent rage toward Alan Rickman and how he treated Emma Thompson’s character in that movie. A writing community is, actually, all around. We all have a voice and identity as a writer, even if we have not yet pinpointed it. Help your students embrace that writing identity, and use their writing community to help them allow it to shine through in all of their work. Model this as an educator and your young writers will, whether they thank you or not, benefit from it.


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