In my middle school language arts classroom, I’ve found it easy to motivate students to engage with texts through activities like speed booking, playwriting, and performances. However, when it has come time for students to craft longer-form writing pieces, there’s been a bit more resistance. For example, I’ve noticed that some students have grown more inclined to delete or ignore digital feedback I leave on their drafts.
To address this, I’ve created an editing community, where students take an active role in building each other up as writers through a communal experience. I’ve found that when students become invested in each other’s success as a class, comments offered become more meaningful, and it has a ripple effect on other stages of the writing process.
What is an Editing Community?
This began when I became inspired by the book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World, by Peter Wohlleben, which shares how trees care for and support one another in the forest. I learned that trees need each other and that isolated trees have far shorter lives than those living connected together in forests. Wohlleben writes, “But the most astonishing thing about trees is how social they are. The trees in a forest care for each other, sometimes even going so far as to nourish the stump of a felled tree for centuries after it was cut down by feeding it sugars and other nutrients, and so keeping it alive.”
It got me thinking about how the forest approach might work in my classroom. If a student is alone with their writing, it’s easy to ignore suggestions. But what if everyone in the class is invested in that student’s work?
Then, further insight came while I was outside one day, observing a flock of geese soar in perfect V-formation. I thought about how I might inspire my students to collectively work together with similar integrity. Geese use teamwork, encouragement, and collaboration to support one another in the sky. In an ideal writing environment, each writer is an integral part of our classroom dynamic, responsible not only for themselves, but also for their classmates’ success.
Daily Classroom Writing Community
To create this community experience, I had an honest conversation with students, explaining how we’d all be working together, just like the trees and the geese. I shared with them that it’s an incredible gift to have a whole classroom full of editors, ready to motivate, inspire, and guide them, and that each student’s work can help everyone grow in different ways.
In terms of location, I’ve found that students become more invested, excited, and energized about the writing process when we’re all analyzing the same student draft together at the classroom carpet. The physicality of us all in the same space is a catalyst for greater student focus and intention around the learning.
I’ll say, “You’ve all been working so diligently on drafting. Who would like to receive feedback from editor friends today on your writing?” Students of varying abilities are all eager to have their work spotlighted and displayed on the TV, as they get a lot of special attention, ideas, and encouragement from their peers.
After selecting a volunteer, the student will read part of their work aloud while students follow along. I’ll then ask the class, “Which lines stood out to you? What did you like best? What did you notice?” Students will turn and talk to a partner and then share out.
As students respond, I’ll scribe what they’re saying on the draft and include their name. When students see their comments being written down, it validates their thinking and propels others in the class to join in. It also shows the writer that we’re all in this together.
I’ll then ask the class, “What questions do you have? What are you wondering about?” This evolves into a full-class discussion. I’ll continue to write down students’ thoughts, since the conversation serves as a catalyst for new ideas to enhance the draft. The discussion might start off like this:
Amelia: “Rylan, you wrote that your mom saw the stranger while she was standing on the deck. I’m wondering what he looked like.”
Rylan: “He was wearing a mask and he was really tall.”
Landon: “Like a Covid mask or a ski mask?”
Rylan: “A ski mask.”
Maria: “Was it winter?”
Rylan: “Yeah, it was freezing. There was a foot of snow, and huge icicles were hanging from the deck, and they kept snapping and breaking onto the snow.”
Taylor: “Wait a second. Was the stranger running through all that snow?”
Rylan: “Yes, it was slowing him down.”
Jordan: “And what about your mom? How was she feeling? Was she scared since she was out on the deck? How far away was the stranger? Why didn’t she go back inside?”
Me: “Let’s pause for a moment and reflect. Where would be some good places to add in these phenomenal ideas?”
Together we will asterisk key areas for enhancements, and I’ll model how to add in a few of the details the author shared. One alternative to a whole-class discussion is to have each student in the class write their comments and questions on sticky notes. There’s always an element of playfulness when a student gets showered with notes from everyone in the class. Once we’re done working together on a shared piece, students will continue to draft their own work or peer edit.
The Impact of Community Writing
Working with student models is now part of the daily routine. Before I founded our editing community, I used to choose work from specific students that illustrated specific teaching points I had in mind. While I haven’t abandoned that practice, I now have a more inclusive mindset. I want as many writers as possible to be spotlighted, and I realize that many teachable moments related to craft happen in a meaningful, organic way.
Now that students are a part of daily, whole-class conversations about writing, it’s transferring into their peer editing work. Students are diving deeper into their partner conversations, taking the time to ask each other thoughtful questions and to provide meaningful feedback. In their independent work, students are less prone to delete comments, perhaps because they know we’re all connected to their writing. The positive energy around long-form writing pieces has increased, and students are linked together to bring out the best in each other.