Many of my colleagues still don’t get me. They don’t understand the degree to which I find writing essential. They don’t realize how much I love my students to write. They think I’m talking about some fairytale land where if I had the time, the right students, the curriculum, then and only then is when I would be taking my students through an inquiry cycle and a writing process as a community.
I was eager to include “This I Believe” in my classroom. It had been so powerful with English teachers in my district. As department co-chair, I wanted to include this in our beginning of the year staff development, but writing was set in the back burner. “That’s a good idea, but…” “I don’t think we will have time for your writing activity.” This is more than an activity. It’s more than busy work. This allows teachers to delve into the hearts of one another, to understand what makes each other tick, to grasp a sense of priorities in their teaching. Unfortunately, I did not succeed on that level. No writing for the department this time.
It’s the first day of class. Antonio, Sergio, and Jehu walk in. It’s so good to see them. We exchange hugs and talk about our summers. I note that Sergio’s English has improved. Jehu notices that his speaking has not. We offer explanations of possible whys. Andres, a boy who wants to please and succeed, listens to our frenzied, excited exchange. He feels like a bit of an outsider, but that does not last long. I look at my returning students from last year and my new ones, and I am more determined than ever to get this year off to the right start.
Day 2 of school: Viridiana, Fernando, and Jose rush in, trying their best to escape the crowds. I ask them to take out paper to take notes. I have prepared a Powerpoint entitled, “This I Believe: Understanding Each Other’s Values”.
My first question for them to consider as a quick-write is, “Why might it be important to understand what others value or believe in?” We examine the importance of creeds, and our discussion culminates to “What do you believe in?”
Many of them asked me, “You mean like in God?”
I replied, “What do you believe in? What is important to you?”
“Do I tell you a story?”
“Maybe, “ I replied.
“Do I just tell you all the things I believe in?”
“Try to focus on your most important belief. What defines you? Write about that.”
“But, it can be anything?”
“If it’s what you believe, yes, it can be anything.”
It took a while to consider all the options. They jotted down 3-5 belief sentences. I then inquired, “Which is the one you can say most about? Which is the one that you feel the strongest about? Which is the one you feel most passionate about?”
They reluctantly chose one. I told them that we would share our sentences. “I am going to read my belief sentence to you. I would like another person to read after me. Then, another person will read theirs after that. I won’t pick who will read. Once someone has finished. It is up to another person to participate. Do you understand?”
I began, “I believe one person can make a difference.”
A couple of silent moments later, “I believe I can do whatever I would like to do.” The pace begins to pick up.
“I believe the immigration policy should be changed.”
“I believe my town is important.”
“I believe in my future.”
“I believe in karma.”
“I believe you shouldn’t waste time.”
“I believe in my mother.”
Powerful. We were a group of voices coming together to share what we found to be important. We were becoming a community of writers.
From that one sentence, I invited my students to write their own creeds. I challenged them to write at least 350 words but no more than 500, meaningful words.
Days 3-5 of school: We spent a couple more days revising. We split up in pairs to have our response time. I asked my students to pose questions to one another and also tell the author what he or she liked about the other person’s writing. “Be specific.”
“Why?” Andres asked. “Shouldn’t we try to tell them what’s wrong so they can fix it?”
“Oh, no. That will come in time. I want students to know what they do well so they can continue to feel confident and include that as part of their own style or voice.”
“So nothing negative?”
When our final pieces were finished. We did a group Author’s Chair. I asked my students to share their final responses both orally and on post-Its. We sat in a circle. It’s always the first reaction for kids to be too separated. “Closer. Closer,” I reminded them.
Comments like “I liked how you gave so many details of what your mother does for you.”
“I like how you believe in yourself.”
“I like how you repeated ‘freedom’”.
“I like how you talk both about the research and your own life experience.”
We were giving each other feedback. We were supporting each other as writers. We were listening to one another. We were highlighting their writing strengths.
I sat back. I said, “I love you guys. I don’t know what we’re going to do when new kids arrive. This is great.”
And so begins our writing community, our learning community, our community.