Building a Strong (Virtual) Writing Community – Get ’em to love writing!

If you’ve been following this series, you know that we are exploring how to build a strong writing community whether you have face to face instruction time or virtual instruction or some blend of both. The first post in the series outlined four principles that I’m focusing on as I work to build a virtual community for my students this year:

  1. A strong writing community helps students love writing.
  2. A strong writing community reinforces the idea that we write to learn (about ourselves and our world) and to communicate ideas and feelings.
  3. A strong writing community reads – a lot!
  4. A strong writing community trusts each other.

We started with building trust because, without that, we will never achieve a strong writing community. Today I’d like to focus on how to help students love writing. In my physical classroom, I have generally worked to achieve this by:

  1. Modeling enthusiasm for writing.
  2. Giving students choices within the writing workshop.
  3. Giving students plenty of time to write.

Let’s explore each of those ideas to see how to make it work in a physical classroom or a virtual one.

  1. Model enthusiasm for writing. – OK. I hear you. You don’t like to write. It’s painful, it’s arduous, it’s just no fun! Got it! It turns out, I do like to write. I have always liked to write. A blank page feels full of possibility to me, and I can’t wait to see what will emerge. I like the struggle to find the right word or turn of phrase….. You get the picture. But here’s the secret. Fake it until you make it! Here’s an example. I have never liked math. In fact, I have spent many hours openly loathing it. But I know I can’t show that to my students because they will borrow that hatred from me and make it their own. So, when I’m introducing a deep, thought-provoking rich task, I rub my hands together, smile with glee, and say, “Oh man. This is a great one! We are going to have so much fun with this!” Perhaps I overdo it a bit because in their end of the year reflections, most of my students told next year’s class that I love math as much as coffee (clearly, not true!) But, a strange thing happened as I pretended. I actually grew to like math. In fact, it’s become one of my favorite things to teach. All through pretending…..
  • In a physical classroom, this is easy to do. When we decorate our writing notebooks, I flip through and exclaim in excitement over the blank pages. And then I stop, dramatically, and say, “Wait, I’ve got an idea. I have to get it down right now. Can you guys go do some writing and give me some quiet time to get this figured out?” The kids always say yes, and then I start writing, apparently so involved in my writing that I don’t notice them sitting there on the rug, then slowly trickling back to their seats and getting to work. They think they are working quietly so I can write, which is hilarious! And it doesn’t matter if I don’t have an idea. I fake it!
  • In a virtual classroom, I think it will be more difficult, but still possible. Certainly I can model enthusiasm, but how to show them that excitement? Well, I actually think I could do the same thing with some modifications. This year my students will create a digital writer’s notebook (check out these posts on how we will do that using Google or PowerPoint). So, as we get that pulled together, I will stop, dramatically, and then say, “Wait, I totally have to write something down. Can you guys do some writing too? Don’t leave the Zoom Room. Let’s just write for a few minutes, and then we’ll finish this up. I just can’t let this idea get away!” The difference is, I will have to have an idea because my digital notebook will be right on the screen for them to see. I think I will keep it short – maybe 5 minutes – and I might play some music. And to hold them accountable, I will send them to a break out room after 5 minutes to share what they wrote. I don’t usually do that in a physical classroom because I can see whether they are writing or not and hold them accountable that way. But, I think this modification will do the same thing.

2. Give students choices. – This is key, and I don’t see many changes whether I have a physical classroom or a virtual one. Teachers always want to know how to accomplish this when you have standards and report cards and other requirements to meet. Very simply, I give kids choices on what they work on each day and on what they turn in for a final grade. For example, I usually begin the year teaching lessons on strong narrative writing. Over and over I remind the students that they must turn in at least one narrative piece for a grade this trimester, and I remind them that the lessons I’m teaching will help them make their narratives stronger. 95% of the class will choose to work on narrative writing while I’m teaching about it. In fact, as we workshop, most students will write a couple of narratives before settling on one to really refine. I set up periodic check points where they turn their work in for feedback, but not a grade and I also give them feedback during conferences. I actually think that will be easier with digital notebooks (although I won’t be doing one-on-one conferences with students virtually). No more hauling notebooks home every night to give feedback – all I need is my computer. Yeah! As I close the unit on narratives, we talk about presentation and publishing. Most students have a narrative that they feel is good enough to turn in and get graded, but it is their choice. If they feel like they wrote an amazing poem, they can turn that in for a grade, as long as they remember that they must turn in one narrative before the end of the trimester. Then I choose another mode and we move on. I also do on-demand “assessments” in the mode that I need for the report card, so I usually have plenty of grades by the time the trimester ends. I think all of this will be streamlined in a virtual classroom. Finally, something that is easier to do virtually!

3. Give students plenty of time to write. – This is usually no problem in a physical classroom. We have time carved into every day for writing. Usually my mini-lesson lasts 15 minutes, and students have 30 minutes to write. How to make that work virtually… Hm. This is my best thought, based on experimenting last spring during distance learning. Flipping the writing workshop. I use a lot of mentor texts in my mini lessons. I have started to video tape myself reading the mentor texts and scanned in the text so students can follow along. I’m making narrated slideshows for the kids to watch BEFORE our Zoom Room. Then, during the Zoom Room, we can talk briefly about the mentor text and I can stress the teaching point again. Then, I’m going to play some nice music and ask the kids to write during the Zoom Room, and I will write too. After 15 minutes of writing, I will send them to a breakout room where, as a group, they will complete a short Google doc reflection about how each student did with accomplishing the goal of the lesson. Again, we have to build in accountability for the work, and I’m hoping this strategy gets everyone started on the writing, and that many of them will continue writing after the Zoom Room. The goal should be 30 – 45 minutes of writing a day, and we will hopefully build up to that.

So, will all of this result in students loving to write? Well, I think so, but I don’t know so. I know that it has worked in a physical classroom. But starting with virtual is going to be a whole, grand experiment! As always, I will put these ideas into practice, and tweak them and throw out the things that don’t work and try new things until I get it right. That’s what we teachers do!

I hope that you will leave comments about things that you try so we can all learn from each other. Be sure to follow me to get the rest of the posts in this series, and I will also update this post as I refine and get better at this. Stay tuned!

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