This One Thing I Know: Cultivating Communities of Writers

I have shared extensively about my myriad failures and falling shorts with my senior English class.  This is because I am honest to a fault, and I am that peculiar brand of person that both hates not being perfect and learns a lot when I make space for my imperfection. 

But let me act out of character and brag a minute about a thing I think I know, something I do decently:  Classrooms function best as communities of practice.  So in my English classroom, we better darn well be sharing our writing with each other all the time.

I attempted this the first day of class (let’s write a poem inspired by a mentor text) and the discomfort was visceral.  I may be a fool, but I wasn’t born yesterday, so I expected this to happen. We pushed through the discomfort.  “We are going around the circle and you can talk ABOUT what you wrote if you aren’t ready to share a sentence, phrase, or the whole piece.”  Everyone talked about their poem.  No one read aloud the actual text.

I built in daily ways that their writing would be showcased.  If we were working on thesis statements, I’d feature anonymous excellent thesis statements folks submitted and we’d talk about why. If they had submitted journal freewrites about why homecoming is important to SA, I featured anonymous snippets of those.  

Every class this is my goal. We may fail in a million ways but we are going to write together.  And then we are going to have the opportunity share that writing with at least one other person.

This includes me and my own sharing.  Last week I nearly started crying reading aloud a piece conveying how much I longed to make my dad proud by loving the things he loved, but how rarely I actually found a shared interest with him. The poem wasn’t great. But their support in the moment was. 

Right now I’m in the midst of mining their first essay drafts for mentor sentences that show off things some students are struggling with: powerful introductory sentences, thoughtful commentary following up evidence, a properly constructed paragraph, a correctly cited quote. 

I never use anonymous student work to show mistakes, only to show moments of success. The amazing thing is it is quite easy to showcase everyone at different times. One kid has an incredibly creative voice, but not thoughtful commentary.  Another senior can mine quotes from a text like no one’s business.  Another student is killer academic in his big ideas but lacks specificity of evidence. 

If I put all of these writer’s strengths together, I’d have some magic.

That’s what classrooms can be.


Last week we were in a hurry, had lots to do, and I was thinking we might skip doing an original poem inspired by the poem of the day. 

Beginning Again

“If I could stop talking, completely

cease talking for a year, I might begin

to get well,” he muttered.

Off alone again performing

brain surgery on himself

in a small badly lit

room with no mirror. A room

whose floor ceiling and walls

are all mirrors, what a mess

oh my God—

And still

it stands,

the question

not how begin

again, but rather


So we sit there


the mountain

and me, Li Po

said, until only the mountain


—Franz Wright

The students seemed into it though so we had a short freewrite.  “Maybe we’ll skip the open share out,” I thought to myself.  But the writing time felt so intense, I felt the urge to ask if anyone wanted to share.  Four hands went into the air.  Four very different creatives read excerpts for their piece.  There was no vestige of the discomfort I sensed on the first day when no one wanted to share. Students snapped and smiled in appreciation of the brilliance within their ranks. 

As I walked out of the room that day three students stuffed their poems in my hand. “We know you aren’t collecting these for a grade or anything,” they said, “but we just thought you might want to read them.” 

I did.  

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