new year, student choice, Student Engagement, talking, writing, Writing Identity

Setting Up Writing Circles in Middle School

This summer, I read the amazing book, Comprehension and Collaboration, 2nd Edition by Stephanie Harvey and Smokey Daniels as I knew I wanted to focus more on building true inquiry into our classroom.

One of the ideas mentioned in the book briefly was the idea of using writing circles, think lit circles but for writing, with students in order for them to gain a more long-term writing community, as well as a more developed relationship to their own role as writers. I loved the idea immediately and wanted to make it work for our kids., as having my own writing circle of trusted peers has helped me tremendously whenever I write books.

To start us off for the year, we discussed positive and negative aspects of writing by brainstorming. The question was based off of the work we have done with reading and followed the same format, rather than post-its, though, they did it in their writer’s notebook on a t-chart and then created a group response at their table. We then discussed as a class and created our writing rights together. These now hang in our room as a reminder of the type of writing experiences we would like to have.

Image result for pernille ripp writing rights
This year’s writing rights, the yellow post-its are my notes from their group discussion.

Then I wanted to introduce the concept of writing circles to students using something I knew they were familiar with; lit cirlces. How are writing circles like literature circles? I showed my students this side-by-side comparison to help them get thinking about the potential process and benefits waiting for them.

So first, what are the components of our writing circles?

  • Students choose peers to be in their writing circle – 3 to 4 people through an interview.
  • They write together, physically, as well as at times, actually in the same project.
  • They can write on the same topic but in different formats.
  • They share their work, discuss and encourage each other.
  • They serve as editors for each other providing critical and constructive feedback.
  • They serve as long-term writing partners and will, hopefully, develop further skills from each other, as well as develop a more natural writing relationship.
  • They build accountability toward the group and the group is an immediate circle to turn to for help.

The first step toward establishing their writing circles was to reflect on their own writing identity once more – see the screenshot below. This was a continuation of the discussions we have had where they have reflected on how writing intersect with them as human beings, that started with their writing survey for the year.

After they had reflected, they then interviewed seven other people in order to hear more about their writing identity. This was on the same sheet and looked like this – very similar on purpose. To see the full survey, go here.

Why seven? I wanted them go beyond their friend zone and knew that for some that would take a few people. Once they had interviewed seven people, I then asked them to reflect on the following questions.

  • Looking at other people’s habits, who may strengthen your skills as a writer? Note, these are people who have DIFFERENT strengths than you.
  • Looking at other people’s habits, who may not be a good fit for you because you share the same areas of growth or skills.
  • Looking at other people’s habits, who may you help grow as a writer? Compare your marked areas of strength to theirs.
  • Choose only three peers who you think may be a good fit and who will help you grow as a writer. Go outside of your comfort zone if it will help you grow.
  • If you want, you can add peers who you do not think will be a good fit, this is only for strong reasons, not to list all of the people you don’t want to be with.

Once they had reflected, they handed the surveys in to me and the puzzle began. I told them I would try my best to have at least one “wished for” peer in their group but also knew that some kids may benefit from other peers than the ones they selected.

The following day, their writing circles were revealed. We told them it would be a test run to see how they did with each other and that we would reassess as needed. While almost all groups worked out beautifully right away, a few needed minor tweaks which we handled within a day or two.

After the reveal, we asked them to find a designated spot that would always be their meeting spot. While many chose great spots, a few didn’t, and after a few days we did create new spots for some groups that allowed them to work better together. The main culprit was having space to speak to one another and space to have their materials and with 29 sudents it can get a bit tricky. Then inspired by Tricia Ebarvia’s Jenga games to start off the year, we had them play Jenga with each other in order to get to know each other. Here are her original questions, here are the questions we ended up using, some new, many of them hers. I had bought 5 Jenga games and split them into 9 games with 30 tiles each and it worked out perfectly. not only did it allow us to see how the circles would function as a group, but they also got a chance to get to know each other more. Thank you so much, Tricia for sharing all of your work around this!

Then, it was time to actually write something. And so we have been. We have been doing small prompts that they have shared with each other, they have read personal essays and memoirs and discussed them, they have written 6 word memoir, and most importantly they have shared their beginning writing with each other. As the students just submitted their first draft of a memoir or a personal essay, upcoming usage of their writing circle will be:

  • Navigate the feedback we have left – what does it really mean? Where do they need to start?
  • Be peer editors – we will be working on specific revision skills in order to help them edit each other’s work better as this is not a skill they are ready to just take on. As I model my own revisions, they will be doing the revision work on each other’s.
  • Search for “simple” mistakes such as conventions of writing that their own eyes may miss because it is too familiar with the writing.
  • Challenge them in their writing, hold them accountable to create better writing than what they started with.
  • Assess each other’s writing using the rubric and comparing it to their own self-assessment.

On Monday, as we start a wonky week where the only academic day we have together is Monday, they will write a group story as we have been discussing components of great stories. They will then act it out. So far, having this built in writing community has benefitted us in a few way:

  • They already know who to be with when they are writing and since they are mostly peers they have chosen there is a more natural collaboration happening.
  • They have each other to ask when they are stuck, when they are fleshing out ideas, as well as when they think they are done but need someone else to look at it.
  • They don’t have to wait for the teachers to look at their writing, they can go to each other first and then when their time is for a conference with me, they can come right up rather than waste time.
  • The students really seem to like it, no groans or moans when we ask them to get with their writing circles.
  • There is a lot more talk surrounding their writing, which was the main goal. We wanted to work on the social aspect of writing and to offer the kids a way to know that they are not alone when they feel burdened by writing.

I will continue to share the work of these writing circles as they will be a year-long endeavor, but wanted to share this for now. If you have any questions, please ask, I am just learning myself.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

13 thoughts on “Setting Up Writing Circles in Middle School”

  1. What a fantastic inquiry approach to writing Pernille, thank you for outlining it so clearly so we can give it a go! What ages were the students? Your approach reminded me of a fabulous co-created continuum for a self assessment process for students to moderate their own writing and understand the next steps. It is found in the researcher Dr. Lyn Sharratt’s book, Clarity. Here is a link if you are interested:
    https://www.lynsharratt.com/post/clarity-what-matters-most-in-learning-teaching-and-leading

  2. Hello Pernille,

    Will you be presenting at the ILA Conference in New Orleans this week?

    Kind regards Yvonne Lovelock Resource Teacher: Literacy New Zealand

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. I was wondering how best I could get my students talking to each other about their writing…this method seems perfect. I have two kiddos whom everyone always seem to go to for help, but if the love was spread around it would allow everyone to be more successful overall. Thank you for your mindful approach!

  4. Do you have the writing and peer editing rubrics? I would love to see what you use for these. Love this concept. Thanks for sharing

  5. This article came to me at the perfect time! I teach on a two-person integrated team – other than math, we blend content areas around themes based on student questions. My goal is to offer students more choice in our first unit on narrative writing, so these writing groups provide the framework to support students focusing on different writing pieces and topics. I will share this post with my colleagues as we continually seek ways to evolve writing practices in our middle school.

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