Building Classroom Community Through Writing by Erica Johnson
This year I started school with an invitation.
I invited students to discuss what they think a community is and how it applies to the classroom. They quickly touched on the idea that community is about people who usually hold common beliefs and values and come together for a common goal or purpose.
I experienced the power of community this summer. It was not a physical community, but an online community of teachers and writers: Teach Write.
The purpose of the Teach Write community is to support and grow together as writers and educators. However, we also serve as supports beyond writing and the classroom. In this community, I feel seen and heard.
I want to build my class as a community like that. I want the connection, routines, and trust established in Teach Write’s Time to Write Workshop to come along with me into my classroom.
On August 24, I was able to make that happen. Within the first week my classroom had established blogs, daily writing practices, and engaged in routines just as I had experienced in the Time to Write workshop.
I heard the usual dread from students about the work ahead (so much writing), but as we created routines, celebrated words, and chose topics to write and share, that dread melted into excitement. And most of that excitement was tied into the task of blogging.
This was not my first year to use a blogging platform as a means to build community. However, when I introduced blogs to my classroom last year I did not realize that the side effect would be community building.
Last year, students regularly blogged and commented on each other’s blog entries. They made connections and discussed topics that otherwise might not find their way to longer, more academic pieces. I had one student check a book out from the library to learn more about the practice of blogging and several students confess that they felt blogging served as a stress reliever and way to connect with their peers.
What I couldn’t know at the time was that after my first bloggers graduated, they would want to look at these blogs again. However, that’s exactly what happened, and not for reasons you might expect. They came back because one of their own, a student I’ll refer to as “Dee”, tragically lost their life shortly after graduation.
Dee was a member of the baseball team. It was definitely a common topic in Dee’s writing and blog posts. At Dee’s funeral, some of Dee’s teammates served as pallbearers. One of those pallbearers would go on to join my College English class because Dee had spoken so highly of it.
Students from their class began asking how to get back to the blogs they had maintained during the school year. They wanted to read Dee’s words again, to remember and celebrate the things Dee had written while they were still here. I was already ahead of my students’ desires.
As soon as I had heard the news, I gathered up Dee’s posts to share with his parents. I wasn’t close to Dee, but even I could recognize that those who were might find some comfort in reading some of the last things Dee would ever write.
Through this experience, my students and I discovered the power of writing to draw people together into a strong, close-knit community. This is especially true if you invite writers (whether students or teachers) to write about their passions and give them the chance to interact with other writers about those passions.
We need community now more than ever. I invite you to use writing to build community in your classroom this year.
Erica Johnson teaches high school students in the rural community of Vilonia, located 50 miles outside of Arkansas’s capital. Predominantly working with AP and concurrent credit students, Erica enjoys helping students recognize their own voice and identity as writers. She is still working on her own writer’s voice on her blog Teacher Captain’s (B)log and searches for more ideas to bring to her students on Twitter @teachercap_e.