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NYC Helpline: How To: Get Started
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NYC Helpline: Manage Your Classroom
NYC Helpline: How To Get Started

How To Build Community In Your Classroom Through Writing
Judi Fenton

It’s the first day of school. You walk into your classroom and see the new faces in front of you. You know that eventually you will recognize each and every one of your students as individual learners. In time, you will have a relationship with each of them and they will form relationships with each other. But what should you do with them right now? How will you get there?

Here are a few ideas for writing at the beginning of the year that will help you to build a strong learning community with your students:

  • Writing autobiographies: When students write autobiographies it can serve two important purposes. First, students will get to know themselves better; second, they will have the chance to learn about each other. The students will research their families and they will have the opportunity to examine what is important to them, what they value. This leads to community building in that when we know ourselves better, we create a place for ourselves in the community to which we belong.
    By sharing our autobiographies with others, this sense of place within the community is solidified, others hear and understand who we are and they interact with us in ways that support our views of ourselves. Use the autobiographies to help students get to know each other. Extend this writing by having students pose questions to each other (in writing or verbally). They’ll make connections by noticing similarities and want to get to know each other better based on their autobiographies. 
  • Writing a letter to you on how students feel about school: Students share with you what they believe they are good at and what challenges them at school. Doing this at the beginning of the year gives students the message that they are not expected to be great at everything. It’s helpful for you to share with them some of the things you may struggle with so that they know that even their teacher isn’t good at everything. It acknowledges that we all have strengths and things with which we struggle.
    Knowing your students strengths and weaknesses early on can help you devise an appropriate and effective teaching strategy. You’ll have a peek into their feelings about different subjects, as well as a glimpse into their self-awareness and confidence of their academic abilities. This activity also enables students to get to know themselves better.
  • Writing about their goals for the year: I ask students to write about a personal/social goal (like being a better friend, overcoming shyness, finding positive ways to solve problems instead of fighting, creating a friendship with someone very different from you, etc.) and an academic goal (like getting more organized, focusing more on school work, getting homework done without an argument with teacher or parents—as a parent I love this one!). You will definitely have to model with a goal of your own, as students usually are not asked to goal set. It will help them get to know themselves, and give them a benchmark to refer back to several times throughout the year. At these times, ask them to write about their progress toward reaching their goals. This kind of writing helps build community by teaching students that they are responsible for their own growth and learning. The social goals they set, if you keep reminding them to strive for them, will absolutely change how students interact with one another for the better. I think you’ll find the students supporting each other. 
  • Writing persuasively about what they want to study this year and why they want to study it. Wouldn’t you love it if a teacher asked you to think about what you really wanted to learn? When I do this with students, I give them the basic curricular plan for the year and then ask them to tell me what they want to learn about within that structure. Students always contribute wonderful ideas to this effort. After they do this writing, we post our study wishes on a chart that stays up throughout the year.
    We can check in with the chart and ensure that we are hitting all the ideas on it. Doing this gives students a sense of ownership of their classroom. They have a say in what goes on so they are more likely to participate in productive ways. This list is a fabulous jumping off point for independent student research projects and non-fiction writing too. At the end of the year, we branch out into some of the wilder study suggestions that are inevitably offered. Again, this writing also helps us to learn about our students’ interests and structure the classroom around them.

These forms of writing all provide particularly good material for parent-teacher conferences. Of course, it’s important to ask students if you can share their more personal writings with their families. At first meetings it acts as acommon ground for discussing their child and shows parents that you value their child’s individual needs. Near the end of the year (particularly when you have the children reflect on their earlier writing), you and the student can present to parents what was accomplished.

It is incredibly enjoyable helping students to get to know themselves better through writing. Reading their contributions and figuring out ways to use them in the class is exciting and helps me learn so much about students. Please e-mail me with any ideas that you have!

Do you have a comment or question about this article? E-mail Judi.


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