5 Ways to Build Writing Community

Writing can be highly personal. In our writing, we expose our thought processes, our ideas, our memories and perceptions, even our dreams. In a truly powerful writing community, there must be trust and there must be respect.

In graduate school, I once took a creative nonfiction workshop class. As people shared and critiqued stories of their lives through memoir and essays surrounding issues they cared deeply about, the atmosphere sometimes got quite charged. Our professor seemed at sea. Two friends and I decided to take matters into our own hands. We got behind the professor, chipping in with positive comments whenever we could and trying to build her confidence and the feeling of community in the classroom. We invited the whole group over to our cabin (aaah, summer graduate school is the best) and had a cookout. Soon our workshops became happier and more productive. The atmosphere went from charged and tense to friendly and productive.

Building community in your classroom is not a waste of your instructional time. Doing icebreakers, group stories, and fun writing activities alongside your more serious assignments will help your students help each other in the long run.

Here are five ways you can build writing community in your classroom, right from the get-go.

#1 Photo Montage

Every year on the first day of class I ask my students to wander outside with me and choose a location on campus where we can take a group picture. I invite them to do something silly or serious, posed or natural. I've had students lay on the soccer field and spell out a word, all climb a tree together, pile into the bleachers and grin. It's their first group decision, and I always print the photos right away to put up in our room, a small symbol of the start of our journey. As the year continues, snap photos of your students working together: rehearsing plays, editing each other's writing, showcasing group projects, presenting videos. Build a photo collage of the wonderful things they are doing together somewhere prominent. Keeping a record right in front of their eyes of all the wonderful things they have accomplished will help them remember they are building a community every day. 

#2 Build-A-Story

I love this activity. Sprinkling it in a few times at the beginning of the year will allow students to share their creativity and some laughs too. Have everyone begin a story on a blank piece of paper. Then pass out another piece of blank paper to them as they write. After five minutes have them stop and cover everything they've written except the last two lines, then pass their story to the right. The next person will read those two lines and continue the story. And so on and so forth. When you are almost out of time, invite the final person to bring the story to some kind of an end, then pass the papers back to their original owners. Everyone will laugh over the crazy twists and turns of their story. You can let them share the stories with partners or call on a few volunteers to read their entire stories out loud. 

#3 The Sorting

I recently wrote about this activity in a post over on my blog called Light Up the First Day of School. It's a great bonding activity for the first day, but you can also use it in a more specific writing-focused way as you move through the year. Simply invite students to stand up and move about the room based on your directions. You will read statements and ask them to sort themselves accordingly. For example, "If you love to write creatively, move to this side of the room. If literary analysis is your jam, move to this side." Or "If you'd rather write a text than an e-mail, move to this side. If you'd rather right an e-mail than a text, move to that side." Obviously you can play this game with any kind of statement, but focusing in on some writing skills will help your students see who they share writing passions, tendencies, and traits with. It may make their struggles feel less lonely and strengthen their interests to know they are shared. 

#4 Talk about how to be a Supportive Group Member

Group work is NOT easy. I don't think I really figured it out until I was twenty-three, and up until then I dreaded the words "find a group and..." Talking to your students genuinely about what group work is really like and how to deal with some of the problems that are bound to come up will help them trust each other and work well throughout the year. Check out this free handout you can use to have them consider what to do in sticky group situations. After they fill it out on their own, you can go over it with them and everyone can share their opinions. By the end of this simple exercise, you should have students who are far more prepared for group work throughout the year. 

#5 Model Workshop with your own Writing

Showing students you trust them enough to share some writing of your own and ask for feedback is bound to mean a lot to them. If you are asking students to share poetry, personal reflection, or essays in class for workshop, consider sharing a piece of your own. They will get to know you better, and you will have a chance to show them how to confidently accept revision ideas. You can go first, smoothing the way for potentially anxious students. You'll probably get some great feedback too! Joining your students' journey is good for everyone involved. 

How do you build community in your writing classroom? Share in the comments or join the conversation on our Facebook page

Are you looking for more ideas to make the start of school run smoothly and creatively? I'm about to launch a 5-episode podcast series about just that! Subscribe to The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast on iTunes and have my best ideas delivered straight to your earbuds.  

Further Reading: 

Journals: A Handy Tool and the Ultimate Back-Up Plan

The Ultimate Writing Workshop Routines Guide

A Philosophy for Teaching Writing: Structure, Purpose & Passion

Join the creative teaching journey in my Free Facebook group, Creative High School English. Or meet up with me on Instagram for fun photos of teaching ideas, teacher hair, and teacher food.  

After almost a decade of teaching across all the high school levels and grades, in both the United States and abroad, Betsy now joyfully spends her time helping high school English teachers escape the podium and teach creatively. Betsy runs the blog Spark Creativity and the The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast. Her degrees and a lot of happy memories come from Pomona College (B.A., English) and Middlebury (M.A., English). Betsy loves to travel the world (she'll be back, Morocco!), play playdoh with her little ones, and cook a range of desserts that would make the Hogwarts house elves proud. When it comes to writing instruction, she brings a creative twist. Whether it's teaching her students to use quotation burgers in their formal papers or launching a student-authored one act play festival, Betsy always hopes to help students enjoy writing by keeping it fun and engaging. 

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