I’m a birder. Late last spring, while observing a flock of Canada geese overhead, I learned that geese share the leading responsibilities in their V formation. Ornithologists have determined that the V formation creates a lift (reducing energy expenditure) and assists communication within the flock. As I watched, I wondered what educators might learn from these birds.
By now, you’ve probably heard of literature circles, where small groups of students discuss a text and discussions are guided by their experience, understandings, and queries. Similarly, according to James Vopat, writing circles involve a small group of students “meeting regularly to share drafts, choose common writing topics, practice… and in general, help each other become better writers.” The authoring takes place in a safe community, where students share ideas, give feedback, and grow as authors.
In the fall of 2020, amid the pandemic, I held weekly virtual writers workshops with two small groups of young authors (6- to 8-year-olds and 9- to 12-year-olds) from all over the United States and across Canada. Participating students spoke English, Spanish, and French in the home, presented neurotypically and with neurodiversities, and varied in their motivation to write. The time we spent together was not about teaching any prescriptive form of writing or preparing for standardized writing assessments. Instead, I hoped to cultivate authoring joy while connecting virtually across country and state lines.
Hopes for this work included that children would:
- feel empowered to select writing topics (in any genre or form),
- feel safe to contribute to and collaborate on authoring together,
- use mini lessons to focus on the 6+1 writing traits,
- have time to reflect on and respond to writing choices, and
- share their group and solo writing.
For our fall online writers workshops, we spent 75 minutes together each week for six weeks. Our lessons loosely followed a schedule that, more than anything else, valued group and solo authoring:
- Welcome & mini lesson (10 minutes)
- Writers circles (20 minutes)
- Solo authoring (30 minutes)
- Author’s chair (10 minutes)
- Next steps (5 minutes)
With these essential elements and a schedule that prioritized shared leading, created lift, and provided opportunities for authentic communication, we embarked on a virtual authoring journey. Herein, I’ll share examples from the 9- to 12-year-old writers circle.
Selecting What to Write About
To begin, I surveyed the students about their interests. I then searched for and compiled a few videos that were safe to watch, were under 3 minutes, and connected to students’ interest areas. As a small group, we watched the YouTube videos and students voted on which one they would most like to use as the basis for our writing. When they had selected a video about a dog and a deer, we viewed it twice with the goal of noticing, wondering, and questioning.
Justine: What did you notice or wonder? What questions do you have?
Student 1: I wonder where the deer’s family is at.
Student 2: I notice, well actually, I wonder if they are in the dog’s yard?
Without rushing, students shaped stories about the animals from the video. Like the Canada geese flying in a V, these small groups quickly became communities in which each of the students led at different times. Leading the group provided needed practice for their solo authoring time, a time when students authored a story unrelated to our writing circle piece.
Building the Story
In the next sessions, we watched the video again and students reviewed what they knew about the video. They began acting out (within Zoom) inner monologues of the two animals. Knowing who the characters were was important to our story development.
Student 3: Who are you?
Student 4: I’m Albert. Who are you?
Student 3: I’m Stacey. Want to play?
Student 4: Yes, you run fast!
Student 3: I like your yard.
Authoring through drama offered students the chance to imagine, try out, and share the development of the story. We know, as adults, that writing is an often difficult process, and yet teachers frequently direct students to sit quietly and write. In some classroom settings, speed is prioritized over ideas, voice, and presentation. Like the geese’s V formation, the writers circles afforded a lift, a boost, that students needed to work on their own.
Revising the Story
As we approached our final sessions, students looked for ways to add, subtract, and revise both the co-created story and their solo writing. Our remote settings emerged as a way for students to learn about people from different places, speaking different languages, and with different experiences. As most learners resided in different regions of North America (Nashville, the Canadian Prairies, and California), students seemed relieved to know that other kids also found aspects of writing difficult. During our writing circle time, they included personal details as they put forward ideas.
Student 1: Sometimes when I write, I realize it doesn’t make sense when I read it out loud...
Student 4: Me too!
Student 3: Or I change my mind about the story and forget to go back.
Students modeled openness by admitting when writing wasn’t easy. Connections like these helped to normalize the process of writing. Just as the V formation improves communication for the geese, this writing circle improved communication for students.
At the beginning the writing circles required lots of modeling and comfort building (especially with the younger group). As the weeks progressed, though, my role lessened and students more willingly engaged in conversing, imagining, deciding, and writing. This remote learning workshop shone a light on the need for writing circles. Time spent in writing circles facilitates strong communities, gives students a lift, and reinforces the need for authentic communication.