Using Writing Workshop to Build Community and Celebrate Family
In writing workshop, young students can learn about their classmates’ identities and share what makes their own backgrounds special.
One of my first graders’ favorite activities is when we do writing workshop. It allows them to express themselves creatively through personal writing.
Following a brief lesson, my students rush off to find a quiet place to write a true story about something important to them. It could be about a pet who snuggles up to them at home or a soccer game where they try hard to make a goal. They jot down all the details and then create colorful illustrations to go along with their words.
Then comes the exciting part. The kids return to our meeting rug, gathering in a circle. We show a few stories on the document camera for the entire class to see and then read them aloud. The writer responds to their classmates’ questions, comments, and compliments. In those moments of giving and receiving feedback, each child feels heard. They learn that what is important to them matters to others.
A New Twist
Writing workshops appeal to me because they allow children to create new writing pieces and exchange feedback with their peers while also helping them build relationships. This time, I tasked students with creating books about their families. But I did something a little different.
I added two anti-bias education goals: establishing positive identities and respect for diversity. I included these objectives because I want my students to learn about their classmates’ identities while also affirming what makes their own backgrounds and experiences special.
Reading to See Ourselves and the World We Share
Every day during our mini-lesson, we did a read-aloud about various family structures and values, which inspired the children to write about their own families.
For one lesson, we read Same, Same, but Different, by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw. We discussed how we all come from different places, have different beliefs, celebrate different holidays, have different cultural traditions, and have different family structures.
Reading carefully chosen books that represent various family structures teaches children about the unique experiences others around them have. I work hard to ensure that every child sees themselves reflected in these stories in order to promote self-esteem, acceptance of others, and positive identities. Here are a few books you and your students might enjoy:
- Night Job, by Karen Hesse (family jobs)
- Mommy’s Khimar, by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow (special clothing)
- Tuesday Is Daddy’s Day, by Elliot Kreloff (people we live with)
- Kitchen Dance, by Maurie J. Manning (languages we speak at home)
- Families in Many Cultures, by Heather Adamson (family activities)
- May Your Life Be Deliciosa, by Michael Genhart (food traditions)
Students write a response to each book after reading it, based on what they learned in the story. Children might write, “My family gathers and celebrates _____,” after reading Our Favorite Day of the Year, by A.E. Ali. Children may also write about their own unique physical characteristics after reading Shades of People, by Shelley Rotner. It’s a chance for us to express ourselves through writing, drawing, sharing, and celebrating who we are.
My students learned that not all people and families are the same and that there are many ways to make up a family. Some children, for example, have two mothers; others have parents who live in separate houses; others live in temporary shelters; and still others do not live with their parents but with people who care for them. Also, we talked about shared experiences, such as the fact that our families all love us and help us get to school.
Next, student volunteers shared their stories about their experiences, which I wanted them to do in recognition and celebration of our community. Finally, we created an anchor chart as a class in which we recorded what we had learned about each other and how we are similar and different.
In trying this lesson, you may find that some children may not want to write about their families or be ready to tell stories about certain aspects of their home lives for a variety of reasons. In my case, those wishes are respected, and I change the assignment accordingly.
As an alternative, I told my students to write a book about what was most important to them. “What is most important to you?” I inquired. “What are your hopes and dreams for the future? What is it about yourself that you are most proud of?” For this assignment, I encouraged them to recognize their own abilities and strengths.
Sharing Ourselves With Others
Students had several options for sharing their work. Some students were confident in telling their stories in front of the entire class. Others preferred sharing with a single partner or with the teacher. Some children preferred to express themselves visually rather than verbally. Allowing students choice in how they share their stories reinforces the value that our differences make us each unique, and we all have different ways of sharing ourselves with others.
Students completed their books and gave each a title, such as All About Me and My Family. Then, we created a one-of-a-kind cover for their book, which we sent home as a gift.
We got together to share our “published books” as a way of celebrating. The kids sat in small groups and read aloud from their books. Then they discussed what they learned about each other and compared ways they were similar and different.
Finally, we raised a glass of apple juice to toast all of our writers, smiling behind their masks, proud of who they were and what they brought to our classroom community.
Our writing workshop has become a way for my students to express who they are and give voice to the challenges they face, even if their families are suffering because of the pandemic or other factors. My students learn that writing allows them to acknowledge the highs and lows of their lives while also expressing the aspects of their identity that they are most proud of.