Summer Learning: Writing Can Build Community During Uncertain Times

NWP programming

By Justin Scholes, Central Arizona Writing Project

As a 6th grade teacher in Gilbert, Arizona, I spent the summer grappling with the reality of living in the time of a global pandemic and preparing for the possibility of teaching under continued pandemic conditions in the fall. Under ever-shifting and unpredictable circumstances, I wanted to be as prepared as possible for online, hybrid, or in-person teaching. 

As a co-director of the Central Arizona Writing Project, however, I realized that the process of revising our summer programming was one of the best lessons I could have received to prepare me for the remote teaching.

Last spring, when we received notice from our university that no summer programs could take place after late March, my co-facilitators and I worked to transform our 2-week in-person summer institute to a two-week online institute. We designed and facilitated this virtual institute for 20 K-12 teachers with the understanding that many were facing a forthcoming academic year with teaching circumstances, both online and in-person, they had never faced before.

A Quick Switch to Virtual Learning

My design and leadership was informed by my own experience as a middle school teacher who had just been thrust into online teaching in the final three months of the school year as our state grappled with the onset of Covid. During that time, I was in touch with teachers from our writing project site in districts across Arizona and from other NWP sites around the country. For many districts, like the one my niece attends in the state, the teaching and practice of writing was largely sidelined during these months to focus on math and reading. Those of us who held live classes online worked to maintain stability and community for our students while they faced new challenges, such isolation, disengagement, financial instability, discouragement, and more.

In thinking about what K-12 teachers, like myself, needed, I knew we needed to address writing in virtual, hybrid, and altered in-person classroom settings as well as the challenges these settings, and the unrest of this time, present. We needed a model experience that could work within and across these circumstances, incorporating 1) a set of technology platforms to facilitate the teaching and sharing of writing, 2) a mixture of (and balance between) synchronous and asynchronous writing activities, and 3) a selection of writing activities to foster community-building and connection to support students’ and teachers’ overall well-being.

Technology Platforms

Because the summer class included a mixture of live and independent writing and sharing activities, we set up a Google Classroom site as an asynchronous space for teachers to access and share resources such as articles about current research in the teaching of writing, daily writing exercises, and professional development opportunities. We also used the Google Classroom space to have class members share and respond to one another’s writing. The features on the site allowed us to organize each class day and each week. The “question” feature worked as a space for teachers to share writing and receive feedback.

We used Zoom for our live meetings, utilizing its features to give us a variety of writing and sharing environments, such as setting microphones to mute during writing, moving into breakout rooms for small group sharing and check-ins, and using the chat feature to ask questions, share favorite lines, and share resources with the whole class.

Since our class was comprised of teachers, we also opened the Central Arizona Writing Project Facebook page as another space for sharing our writing, which proved to be an engaging and meaningful way to interact with a broader network of teachers. Here, teachers engaged with each other with “likes” and comments, which several mentioned as a highlight to their otherwise typical interactions on social media. And while social media may not be possible for most K-12 settings, we talked about other digital platforms teachers may use to have students share their work. For example, Google’s Jamboard allows students to post sticky notes of writing, and Flipgrid allows students to record themselves reading their work. These digital socially connecting spaces are especially motivating. One teacher from our institute wrote, “You get to see what everyone is doing, especially replying to their stuff and it builds the community having those shared conversations.”

Synchronous Writing and Sharing Practices

One of the biggest questions going into the summer institute was how to provide teachers with safe and inviting sharing spaces for their writing and thinking. During our synchronous time, we opted for a mix of formats that worked with the available Zoom features. For example, we often all went into breakout rooms for small group sharing, followed by invitations for a few to share with the whole class when we returned to the main room either aloud or in the chat space. We also frequently invited everyone to share favorite lines in the chat feature, letting us read through one another’s excerpts without necessarily reading aloud. This often felt like a spontaneous class poem with a collection of lines from each writer filling the chat space.

The mix of sharing activites quickly became familiar as a routine in our writing community and proved successful. Teachers commented that the sharing was instrumental in connecting with “the people behind the faces on the screen.” Many also commented that the synchronous sharing formats invited more—and “more vulnerable”—sharing than they felt they would have done in person. One teacher wrote, “A benefit was I could be in my own space writing. There was a comfort to that. Sharing was easier because you weren’t in direct face-to-face contact with the others. It seemed safer and easier to share.” Another noticed that “people were more willing to share out because we are behind a screen or we can type it in.”

The mix of sharing formats we created within this online community gave writers control over what they presented to others, which made many feel a sense of ease and comfort. One teacher shared, “Ironically, I think I’ve been more willing to write, to be more vulnerable in writing because there aren’t other people around. Like even when you share, it’s a lot easier to decide what to share or not to share because there’s nobody here to see it.”

It was a surprising and wonderful discovery to see the way the online community provided a safe and comfortable way for writers to share their work. This reminded me that rather than focus on the limits we expect to find when writing instruction is thrust into a new setting or on what we are missing when we are in online spaces instead of in person, we can find ways to maximize new affordances.

Community and Connection through Narrative Writing

In Teaching for Joy and Justice (Rethinking Schools, 2009), Linda Christensen writes that “anyone who has lived has stories to tell,” and writing these stories “is a transformative act where [students] build their literacy skills at the same time as they build a place for themselves in the world.” We chose to have teachers focus on the writing and teaching of narrative writing as a strong entry point for teachers as they planned the start of a school year with so much change and uncertainty, not only by establishing routines for writing instruction but also by helping them get to know their students, honoring their students’ experiences, and learning what support might be needed.

The writing invitations in our summer institute were based on prompts and model texts ranging from the young elementary grades through high school, reflecting the range of teachers attending (see the end of this post for some example writing activities). We began each day of our institute with an opening writing invitation, such as What does change look like? and we often used digital timers with calming music (available on YouTube) while we all wrote for 7-12 minutes. We then invited class members to share a line or two in the Zoom chat space, and the chat quickly filled up with favorite lines about memories, joys, frustrations, observations, dreams—our lives.

Many class members commented during the institute and on our feedback survey that the narrative writing took our group from being mostly strangers on day one to a group that we could openly share our writing and lived experiences with during an incredibly stressful and isolating time. Teachers wrote about family and home life—making things work and finding moments of joy. Some chose to write about social justice issues and hopes for the future. Community seemed to come easily as we shared, discovering all kinds of connections with one another.

One teacher wrote, “I got to know everyone better than I ever thought possible in an online setting.” Another summed up her experience, sharing, “Even though I don’t know these people, I’ve never met them in person, I feel like we have built, in the last few weeks, just an hour on Zoom a day—we’ve built a community.” Teachers saw the power of this writing and were excited to use it with their upcoming students.

Teachers Envision Writing Success

At the close of our institute, teachers expressed enthusiasm for teaching writing in the coming school year, even in the face of the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The summer institute modeled possibilities for teaching writing while navigating change, and teachers shared that they felt more confident, more able to envision what writing could look like in their classes. I felt blessed to participate in the summer institute and to join in that optimism for this coming year. Teachers, families, and school leaders can learn from and adapt our approach, creating powerful moments for writing in whatever settings and circumstances we find ourselves.

Additional resources:

Example Prompts and Model Texts for Personal Writing

  • “Eating Mexican Food” by Gary Soto – This poem invites writers to consider something they know about and share the unwritten rules of their topic. Click on the link to view an example slideshow with the lesson flow for using this model poem.
  • Neighborhood Map – Draw a map of your neighborhood, or a neighborhood from your past, such as your childhood. What people, places, and stories come to mind? Choose something from the map to write about.
  • “Secret of Life” by Diana Der-Hovanessian – This poem invites writers to consider important life lessons—the “secrets” they have discovered in their journey.
  • Recipe to Be Me – After studying models of recipes, consider the ingredients that make you who you are, and share directions (using recipe vocabulary!) on how to get you “just right!”

Books/Writing Marathons

  • #WriteAcrossAmerica – Resources from this year’s National Writing Project summer virtual writing marathon with stops across the United States
  • Heart Maps by Georgia Heard (Heinemann, 2016)
  • Stirring Up Justice: Writing & Reading to Change the World by Jessica Singer Early (Heinemann, 2006)
  • Crafting Digital Writing: Composing Texts across Media and Genres by Troy Hicks (Heinemann, 2013)
  • Teaching for Joy and Justice by Linda Christensen (Rethinking Schools, 2009)
  • The Quickwrite Handbook: 100 Mentor Texts to Jumpstart Your Students’ Thinking and Writing by Linda Rief (Heinemann, 2018)
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