On Finding a Writing Community

Sometimes my lessons are OK, but no great shakes. Sometimes they crash and burn – sometimes sadly and softly, others in a great fiery blaze of glory.

But sometimes.

Sometimes I have an idea for a lesson that’s a GREAT ONE.

And it WORKS.

I’ve been trying to be deliberate this year about writing workshop for my fourth- and fifth-grade students. I want to create a community of writers where we improve our craft. Where we love writing and fiercely protect our time at every turn. Where we take risks in our writing. Where we exist as a group that offers our fellow writers support, feedback and the occasional kick in the proverbial pants.

So far, we’ve got a space where we love writing, where we take risks and fiercely protect our time. I’d like to think it’s because I’m transparent with my students about my own writing. Whatever I ask my students to do, I do along with them. I share my writing, even when I don’t like the results so much. I love what I write sometimes, and I struggle to write sometimes. I think, and I’d like to hope, that it’s validating for kids to know that someone they see as a “real writer” (translate: a grown-up with a blog) shares their hopes and insecurities.

One area that’s been really tough for me? Peer feedback. I’ve tried for years to create routines, rituals and skills that fulfill the vision I have for a student writing community. This year, I really want to make that happen. I want my kids to feel comfortable sharing their work with others. I want them to feel like they are part of a writing community. I want them to feel that other writers SEE them, that other writers READ them, that other writers RESPOND to them.

Kind of like…the community I have in the Slice of Life challenge.
(dim the lights)
Like the fearless writing my blog cohorts put out every week.
(cue soft music)
Like the thoughtful, sincere and thorough feedback in the comments.
(gradual crescendo)
Like the fascinating conversations that occur in the comment section.
(lights and angel music UP)

YES. That’s IT. How did I not see it before, ever?
I can use the posts and comments from other Slice of Life bloggers…as MENTOR TEXT for FEEDBACK!
How. On. EARTH. Did this idea not come to me sooner?

We started with my own blog post from last week. Students read my post and the comments that followed. What did we notice? Encouragement. Quotation from the text. Deep connections. Specific compliments. Questions.

And then? We hopped over to my blogging hero Fran Haley’s site and read her work. The students’ challenge? Work together to write a comment that’s worthy of being in the company of those we saw.

WOW. Did they ever deliver. Don’t believe me? Check out the page for yourself and be the judge!

What’s even more incredible is how excited the kids were to see their posts up on the Internet. We read the kind and sincere comments that Fran wrote back to each and every one of them. I don’t know how much time Fran put into her responses, but it was worth every second to see the smiles on my kids’ faces. I’m utterly overwhelmed by Fran’s generosity. Of course, she might read this, blush and say it was nothing.

But it was everything.

My kids feel seen. They feel proud. They now know their work deserves to be read, to be considered and talked about. And they feel inspired to continue their work.

I can’t fool myself into thinking that our work is done, that we have somehow magically perfected this community of writers. But we have laid the foundation, and I am grateful to the writers and colleagues from my own writing community for helping me make it happen.

Slice of Life bloggers, if you’re out there, and you’ve made it this far, THANK YOU. Thank you for providing me with your support, motivation, friendship and inspiration. It means the world.

Published by Lainie Levin

Mom of two, full-time teacher, wife, daughter, sister, friend, and holder of a very full plate

14 thoughts on “On Finding a Writing Community

  1. I have just joined Slice of Life for the first time, and I am already so encouraged. What a beautiful experience your students had, and what excellent connections you created for them. They are lucky to have you as their teacher!

    1. Welcome! It’s good to have you aboard. I was somewhat reluctant to join at first, mostly because I didn’t trust myself to commit to writing regularly. I’ve since discovered that it’s a great experience for me in countless ways. I hope it will be for you, too!

      1. Thank you for saying that and for your encouragement! I’ve been building up the confidence over a couple of months, peeking at posts every week 🙂 I finally took the plunge today!

  2. What a great way to show your students the power of a writing community. You certainly have a great variety of mentor texts in this community…writing styles…genres…topics. I would say your classroom writing community is formed.

    1. Why thank you! I’d say…we’re *getting there.* Then again, as a teacher, I always have a vision of the “there” that I want. But the closer I get to “there,” to that vision, the farther away I feel because I see more of what’s possible.

      I suppose it might come down to giving myself credit for how far we HAVE come. Which isn’t one of my strong suits. But I’ll give it my best. =)

  3. Ah, Lainie-! Let me begin by saying how fun it is to read your idea unfolding with stage directions, building to angel music – your wit is ever the delight and your energy, palpable, contagious. Let me also say how much JOY it is to read of the way you’re approaching writing workshop with the students (“I want to create a community of writers where we improve our craft. Where we love writing and fiercely protect our time at every turn. Where we take risks in our writing. Where we exist as a group that offers our fellow writers support, feedback and the occasional kick in the proverbial pants. So far, we’ve got a space where we love writing, where we take risks and fiercely protect our time”) – yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes, and your modeling – vital!! I read long ago (per Kelly Gallagher) that the kids seeing us struggle is invaluable to their growth. That’s the real process, is it not – this stuff doesn’t come together in polished form. It’s messy and it’s work…let me also say that writing workshop has fallen out of favor in my district, to my immense dismay, having been replaced by an ELA curriculum with writing built-in. No longer are kids able to explore their OWN ideas and anything in the universe that is meaningful to THEM – although several teachers I know are working around this, of course, as they know the amazing impact of this type of writing. I have been too disheartened to write much about it, honestly. So – your post brings back the electric charge of students discovering their own power as writers, and the thrill of watching them fall in love with the craft, hopefully for life – and if I have played a part in this for your students, then consider it a gift you all have given ME. Focusing on quality feedback is true teaching craftsmanship, Lainie – and I believe, in writing back to your students (how could I not, with all they put into their comments?) – that this is the first time I ever specifically said “Thank you for the gift of your feedback.” For that is what good and true feedback IS. Thank you for the gift of your own writing, Lainie – and for these moments with your students! I treasure every bit. ❤

    1. Thanks, Fran! I agree with you on so many levels. First of all, the struggle. Working with gifted and talented students offers me a front-row seat to the myriad ways perfectionism rears its ugly head. (Perhaps it might be fitting to say “heads,” as in the hydra.) Anything that I can do to bring kids through that growth will make me happy. And, like you, I have seen writing workshop fall out of favor. I would love nothing more than to see these kiddos spend more time…just…WRITING. I’m still trying to figure out how to make that happen within the space of my groups. Last year I tried somewhat of a free-rein approach to letting kids decide what to write and letting instruction follow. I still hold that as my ideal, but it’s hard to give full freedom AND push kids to grow in their writing skill. Always a balance, I suppose…

      Thank you again, Fran, for who you are and what you do. You are a blessing in this world.

  4. Wow!! What an epiphany! You nailed it for your writer’s group. Your post brought me back to my own writer’s circle students (third grade) and how much I loved working with them. As with you, I wrote right alongside them each week. I strove to be vulnerable and courageous in my writing and then, the sharing of my own writing with the group. We were cohesive. It was a joy. Also, like you, we put a high priority on our writing each week. Unfortunately, the school did not and we got shoved around from place to place after the librarian decided she did not want us to work (quietly) in the library. What a blow! Finally, after six years it ended. But, I do miss it and I truly miss the students. I think I learned as much from them as they (hopefully) did from me. Fran’s blog was a great pick for your students to view. She is thoughtful and cares about both her writing and its effect on others. Like you, I am proud to be part of such a wonderfully supportive community. Slice of Life has introduced me to people like you and Fran and several others whom I trust for feedback and encouragement each week. After I read your comment on my blog last night, I had a smile on my face and felt very grateful for your words. I am so happy we can relate to one another’s journey in the worlds of education and writing. Thanks, Lainie! You are an inspiration!

    1. I agree with you in so many directions, and I am immeasurable grateful for you and the whole writing community.

      I completely understand what you mean about trying to find space – figuratively and literally. I’ve been boxed out, shoved from spot to spot, more than I can count. And for me, it’s less about my own power and space, and more about the message it sends to learners when we ask them to learn in spaces that don’t meet their needs. I, too, have shared library spaces. You would THINK that it would be highly symbiotic, but unfortunately that isn’t always the case. Regardless of the space, the kids manage to keep their community if they sense our commitment to it. THAT is what keeps me going. =)

      1. It’s terrible that this is a common experience. Has it always been with your enrichment groups and/or TAG students? My writer’s circle was with above benchmark learners and I think that had something to do with not caring where they were working. We had to work in the hall at one point and the cafeteria (not during lunches, thankfully) at another. Neither were great places to encourage clear thought and productive writing. The library was the best spot for us…until, it wasn’t. Being shoved around does send an awful message, not only to the teacher but the students as well. Unfortunately, the lack of value placed on my group was part of why I stopped volunteering to do it. I give you credit for your persistance. Have a Happy New Year!

    1. Please do! It’s the best thing that an idea can ask for. And…if you do…let me know how it goes, pretty please!

  5. Whoa… I feel so strongly about so many things in this post! 1. I cannot begin to tell you how strongly I feel about us writing alongside our kids. It is so, so powerful! 2. I’m an absolute first-time slicer, first time blogger, and love the idea of using the posts here as mentor texts, and even have students comment!

    1. Yes! The kids really did enjoy seeing their work out there in the world, being used in a real-life context. It was SUPER cool. Now that I’m thinking about it, maybe I’ll let my kids take turns as guest posters on my blog from time to time. Perhaps I’ll have to figure out how to make that happen.

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