Establishing a Writing Community in the College Classroom

When I hear the words “writing community,” my mind conjures up an elementary school classroom. I picture the warm, fuzzy second grade teacher wearing a warm, fuzzy sweater, handing out stickers and cookies as the students prepare for an authors’ tea. At this special event, parents will make the appropriate cooing sounds as their small children enthusiastically share their writing within the classroom.

It paints a pretty picture, and the second grade teacher should be proud. She is at the forefront of the literacy crusade, having successfully infused excitement and positive attention into these children’s early attempts at writing. When these young students think about writing, many will remember the special moment when their parents took time off work to visit their classrooms. They will, of course, fondly recall the stickers and cookies. Any challenges and obstacles encountered during the writing process will have been overshadowed by the positive feelings Mrs. Fuzzy Sweater cultivated at the authors’ tea.

Fast forward a decade or so… many of these same students now view writing as a chore rather than something to celebrate. As the years progressed, writing became harder, and they started viewing it with dread as they struggled with increasingly difficult tasks. As freshmen in college, they are required to take my developmental writing class; they have not elected to take it. When the course begins, many of my students view themselves as bad writers, and most admit that they don’t like writing.

When students enter with such negativity, is there any hope for creating a writing community in the college classroom? Can they trust the instructor and each other to provide a supportive environment as they learn to improve an area of perceived weakness? Absolutely. While I won’t invite parents or hand out stickers and cookies, I follow several practices that encourage my students as writers. Here are four ways to establish a writing community within the college classroom.

Provide choice/ autonomy in writing topics. One of the biggest complaints students have about writing is that they don’t like the topics they are assigned. As teachers, we mandate topics for various reasons, such as to guide students into tasks best suited for their levels of development, thus helping them avoid undertakings that might be unwieldy or overwhelming. However, by providing some more leeway, either by offering several different prompts or allowing students to design their own, we generate opportunities for students to write about areas of interest, automatically creating more buy-in and greater self-efficacy. While the purpose of the assignment can be the same as that of the original, more narrow prompt, a world of possibilities opens up to the student, and he/she is often more motivated and confident in completing the task. Additionally, this often gives the instructor a window to learn more about his/ her students. For example, by allowing my students to pick their own topics for a compare/contrast essay, I learned about favorite celebrities, teams, bands, and authors, as well as various political stances.      

Make yourself part of the community. Students are under the false impression that those of us who teach writing create flawless compositions with every attempt. Let them see the truth—writing is a process, somedays it’s hard, and the first draft is far from perfect. By modeling writing in front of our students, we demystify the process while exhibiting coping mechanisms. Although it might seem embarrassing or counterintuitive to allow students to see us struggle, Spandel (2005) stresses that the strategies and behaviors we demonstrate to get through the task are far more important for our students to observe than an impeccable, already created text. Furthermore, when we admit that we’re not perfect and have room for improvement, students are more open to revising their own writing.

Acknowledge effort as well as achievement. Pajares and Valiente (2006) explain how students’ beliefs in whether or not they can write may predict whether or not they will write; the more they believe they can do it, the more effort they will likely exert. Struggling writers, especially, can become frustrated if writing progress is measured by grades alone. If we take a growth mindset approach and recognize students’ perseverance in a writing task, we can help them realize the importance of personal growth. If the teacher’s feedback is focused on progress and effort, even if the gains are small, students can become more focused on their own progress and less on comparing themselves to other writers. Ultimately, this will help them reach goals and raise achievement.

Build trust and teamwork skills through collaborative writing. Assigning a group writing task may be uncomfortable for students at first. After all, while only one person places the ink onto the paper, every other member of the group is equally responsible for each word written, and it may be difficult to figure out shared ownership. Despite the growing pains and extra coaching associated with such an activity, sharing the writing process from the pre-writing to final draft stages allows students insight into the experiences of other writers. They’re in the struggle together, so they must generate, evaluate, develop, and execute ideas as a team. Using the “two (or three or four) heads are better than one” approach provides students with a real-world writing experience that builds communication. After participating in a successful collaborative writing process, students are more likely to give and accept helpful, honest critique in a peer review situation, thus promoting growth as writers.

By following these guidelines, students are more likely to feel a sense of community as they develop into stronger, more confident writers.

Pajares, F., & Valiente, G. (2006). Self-efficacy beliefs and motivation in writing development. In C.A. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research, (pp. 158-170). New York: Guilford.

Spandel, V. L. (2005). The nine rights of every writer. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Cassandra O’Sullivan Sachar is an assistant professor of writing at Bloomsburg University.