The sense of camaraderie and fellowship in our workshop classroom has ebbed and flowed this year. Some days, I watch with pride as the readers and writers in the room help guide each other to a higher level of understanding, appreciation, or excitement. Other days, I see disengaged students annoyed with one another’s antics.
Getting this community established at the beginning of the year takes time, but once the foundation is laid, it’s easy to keep it in place.
…Until you have 15 snow days in a row.
Or a student teacher.
Or a six-day block of testing.
Or 75-degree weather with sunshine, just out the window.
All of those common interruptions can derail a classroom community. This year, though, I feel as close to my students as ever, and they are as tight-knit a group as can be. Here are four reasons why.
Passion. I’ve written before about how fangirling helps create a community of readers. But it’s not just being excited about books that helps a classroom community develop–it’s passion about the work we do here as a whole.
Jordan, a student who joined our class in September, told me yesterday, “I still remember the first time I came to this school. Yours was the first class I came into. You were yelling and all excited and stuff. I thought, ‘Wow, is this how this school is?’ Then I went to the rest of my classes and I was like, awww, where’s the excitement at?”
The passion I brought to teaching stuck with Jordan for nine months, especially when he contrasted it to his other teachers’. Communicating our genuine excitement to our students models for them the lasting value of our content. Without that enthusiasm, a classroom community may not seem worth building. With it, students come to class ready to learn, which creates the first condition for a strong community.
Vulnerability. Around my birthday in early September of each year, I share with my students a song my friend Joey wrote and recorded for me. About a month after he gave it to me, he passed away. I play the song for the students and we write, then, the soundtrack of our lives–which song it would be and why. I write about Joey, my guilt and sadness over his suicide, how I slept with the lights on for months after his death.
Chelsea recently told me that at first, she wasn’t quite sure about me. “Then you wrote that piece with us about your friend Joey, and that’s when I started to think differently about you.” Modeling my vulnerability with my students encouraged them to do the same–they began to write about topics they once considered very private, and to share their writing in small groups, which I rotate monthly.
Sharing this story with my students, crafting and refining it alongside them, modeled for them not just vulnerability, but the writing process when it relates to a difficult subject. I became, in their eyes, not just a model writer–but a model thinker, with emotions and difficult memories just like them. Shifting from not just an English geek to a real human is the second condition for a strong community.
Guts. This spring, I had a student teacher for eight weeks. When she left, state testing began almost immediately. After those two lengthy periods of disruption to our established routine, my students were sluggish and disinterested–frequently unprepared for class, slacking off on their reading, unenthused about their final multigenre projects.
Then, I shared with them my own multigenre piece for this year, about the miscarriage I suffered on Mother’s Day. As I showed them my writing, the classroom became eerily quiet. The stillness and silence was deafening. After lots of hugging and passing around of tissues, the students worked with energy and reverence on their own writing once again. Their enthusiasm was back.
“I thought it was cool that you would put that out there for the students to know,” Madison told me the next morning. “I was shocked that you wrote about it.” The fact that I not only shared such a tough subject with them, but had the guts to write about it, was powerful. This gave many students the boost of confidence they needed to confront a difficult issue and create beautiful writing about it–the third condition for keeping that sense of community strong right up to June.
Two of my funniest students, Troy and Logan, smirk at me over lunch.
Humor. We’re not morose all the time–we have lots of fun. Whether it’s a humorous booktalk, a funny poem, or just a celebration of a student’s silliness, there is lots of laughter in our classroom.
A small whiteboard on one wall of our classroom is full of quotes that have made us laugh. A word like “clementime” can crack us all up, remembering when Troy bemoaned the book Columbine‘s length but accidentally said, “Oh boy, Clementine, here we go.” Or “overalls,” which calls to mind Kristen’s claim that “I woke up, put on my overalls, and everything just got really weird.” These simple one-word phrases memorialized on the whiteboard can bring a smile to our faces when we need a lift, and remind me that my students aren’t just learners–they’re people, and pretty darn cool ones, too.
Talk. Talk is such a foundation of workshop, but it’s important to talk outside of conferences, small groups, or minilessons. Isaac, a student who has struggled with academic success in the past, has been sitting in my room during his lunch period all this month, working on his multigenre paper. He chats at me as he writes, asking whatever questions come to mind, writing-related or not. As a result, he is soaring.
“This is probably the first project in school I’ve ever worked this hard on,” Isaac keeps telling me. “This project is so awesome.” I told our principal how hard he’d been working lately, and he complimented Isaac when he saw him in the hall.
“Oh my god, I can’t believe teachers talk about students outside of class!” Isaac exclaimed later. I could tell by his little smile that he was secretly pleased that we had said nice things about him. Talk has an impact far beyond its transient initial utterance.
Passion, vulnerability, guts, humor, and talk–all year long–make for a beautiful classroom community I’ll enjoy ending this year with. What do you do to keep your learners unified?