Building a Community Through Writing

Building a Community Through Writing

post by Jill Davidson, 2019-2020 The Educator Collaborative Associate

Building a Community Through Writing

In my role as a Literacy Coordinator, I am blessed to work with a team of three wonderful literacy coaches. One of the things I love most about our work together is our shared belief in our responsibility to be stewards of literacy—to care for and nurture literacy within and across the schools where we work. This means that “walking our talk” is essential for us. We are committed to developing robust literacy lives and making them visible to our colleagues. We know that it is crucial for literacy educators to read and to write, so we too must live by those same values.

Last year we developed the ritual of beginning each of our twice-monthly meetings with time to write in response to a short text. Before we discuss any of the items on our agenda, we pull out our writer’s notebooks, glue in the text, and write in silence for several minutes. Depending on the text, we might capture our thinking about the topic, write off a word or line that resonates with us, try out a craft move we notice the author using, or experiment with a similar organizing structure. As Linda Rief describes in The Quickwrite Handbook: 100 Mentor Texts to Jumpstart Your Students’ Thinking and Writing, “This is writing to find writing.” Often, it is also writing to find thinking.

Because one of the goals of our work is to promote an ever-expanding definition of text, we have written in response to poetry, non-fiction, images, political cartoons, and videos. We have also used Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s game The Answers and Taylor Mali’s Metaphor Dice to inspire our writing. We often share the responsibility of finding texts and, as a result, have honed our “reading like a writer” skills, collecting texts that we think will spark interest and that demonstrate powerful craft we can approximate in our own writing. I get excited when I find a text that I know will ignite thinking, writing, and lively discussion.

After writing we share, but we don’t simply read what we have written. In fact, that almost never happens. Just as we would never require students to share by reading their first-draft writing and thinking, we give ourselves lots of different options for sharing. For us, sharing can include describing how or what we wrote, explaining what direction we took in our writing and why, identifying what resonated or inspired us in the original text, discussing our reactions to the text and the experience of writing about it, highlighting what challenged our thinking, making personal connections,  saying something we’re proud of in our writing, etc. 

This regularly-scheduled writing time is an important aspect of my writing life. It allows me to use writing to play on the page, letting my words go down whatever pathways my thinking takes them. It also gives me time to reflect on and respond to a wide range of powerful texts. Most importantly, I cherish this time because of the genuine sense of community that writing alongside one another has brought to our group. Each time I share my writing, I make myself vulnerable and, as a result, I have developed a deep trust in my teammates. Our writing ritual has become a safe space for sharing perspectives and viewpoints. I learn something new about my colleagues every time we share our writing and thinking, and our discussions always stretch my own thinking in new ways. 

We know that building community is a key component of writing workshop, and this writing ritual has let me experience firsthand the benefits of writing with others. When I reflect on this experience, I can make several observations about how writing together has brought us together:

  • Writing elevates the level of discussion. Taking time to explore our thinking individually means that we all have something to bring to the discussion. Writing gives us the freedom to think on the page and try out multiple ideas before we share. Writing helps us grow our thinking.
  • The writing is low stakes. Because we don’t have to worry about the quality of our writing, we can focus on getting our ideas on the page. There is no obligation to read our writing, so we can capture tentative and experimental thinking without having to commit to it. 
  • Writing in response to texts allows us to take our writing in any direction we choose. We can respond, react, approximate, or engage in any combination of the three. It is rare that two of us take the same approach to a single text. Celebrating our unique responses is one of the most community-building aspects of this ritual for me.
  • Writing together before we address the “business items” on our meeting agenda forces us to live in the world as writers (and readers). We prioritize time for our own literacy learning. Beginning every meeting with reading, writing, and talking reminds us to ensure the work that happens after reflects authentic literacy practices. 
  • The more we share, the more we grow as a team. We are in our second year of writing together twice per month, and over this time we have developed a strong sense of trust. Our quickwrites have sparked conversations that allow us to get to know one another and make connections in ways we never would otherwise. 
  • Writing in a community makes writing more joyful. Sharing the experience of writing—the challenges and the celebrations—makes this a time I look forward to as a writer and a colleague.

If you are part of a literacy PLC or a member of a group of literacy educators who meet regularly, I encourage you to build a writing ritual into your agenda and experience the community-building benefits writing together has brought us. This dedicated time for writing and sharing has helped us grow and evolve as a team in ways no icebreaker or team-building activity could.