The Restorative Power of Writing in Community

A MiddleWeb Blog

Working_Draft-final-logoWriting at an educational space like Middleweb on a regular basis often means putting your best foot forward. My fellow bloggers and I spend a lot of time writing about what is working for us, detailing what successes we are having, and seeking to provide some insights and recommendations for others to consider.

The reality of the teaching life is of course more complex and nuanced than one makes it out to be in an educational column. Not every day in the classroom is a good day. Not every lesson ends positively. Not every objective is reached. Not every step leads to success.

The other day at my personal blog, Kevin’s Meandering Mind, I was preparing myself to write as part of a regular Tuesday feature called Slice of Life, facilitated by the Two Writing Teachers blog (although the name is sort of misleading these days, as the number of talented bloggers there is now a solid handful of supportive and informative educator/writers).

The Slice of Life activity is simple in its concept, but powerful in its execution. Teachers are encouraged to reflect on their lives as educators (or their lives outside of the classroom) by viewing the world through a small slice, or tiny moment, which then opens up a larger view for reflection. We then peruse other Slice of Life posts, comment when we can, and make connections.

Reaching out

I was all prepared to write my Slice of Life the other day about engaging my students in the Hour of Code, a week-long initiative to introduce and nurture programming in young people. As I sat down to compose my piece, though, I had this nagging sense that I really needed to write about something else completely. Something that has been bothering me. Something that I just can’t get a handle on. Something that is impacting my classroom.

And I needed to not just write it out to understand it, I needed to do this writing within a community of other teachers. I needed to reach out. The Hour of Code could wait.

My slice of life reflection

This, then, became the Slice of Life I ended up publishing:

Slice-of-Life-orange-logoSomething strange has happened in the dynamics of my classroom in the past two weeks or so. I’m not sure exactly where or what it springs from, and I’m struggling right now with how to right the ship, too.

There are always pivot points each year in a classroom culture where the mood of a group of kids can suddenly turn from what you thought it was to something you were not expecting it to be at all.

I am at one of the pivots, and I don’t like it at all.

Sometimes, the pivot a good thing. Maturity kicks in. Friendships blossom. A cohesiveness emerges. You hope that, as the teacher, your work around community building has paid off, that the small things can make a big difference in the way kids see themselves, and the world — the small world of the classroom as well as the large world of the World.

Right now, my class is sort of in opposite mode, and I obviously won’t go into specifics, but there’s a small clique of students who are making negative ripples as part of social posturing, and I am worried about the tide. I’m not turning a blind eye to it. I’m addressing what I see, and what I hear, and what I hear about, as quickly and as judiciously as I can.

I’m using positive reinforcement and negative consequences. Parents are involved. The administration is involved. And I am reaching into the teaching bag for all I have, in hopes I can change what needs to be changed so we can move forward with positive energy — all of us.

Still, youthful social dynamics can be a powerful force. On their own, each student in this clique is a nice kid. As a group, they become something I barely recognize at times when I hear some of the stories of how they treat others in the hallways, on the playground, on the bus. And online, too. Never in the classroom, though.

I’m struggling to make it right, and it makes me sad and frustrated to know this, too, is part of teaching, when so many of my students just want a safe and fun place to learn each day.

I felt much better after writing it and sharing it. I even began to see some possible solutions I had not considered. Writing about the dilemma vexing me made some possibilities more visible.

And then, not unexpectedly given the strength of the Slice of Life network, other teachers began to read what I wrote and came to my blog to chime in. Some suggested read-aloud books that would help us make that pivot into the positive. Others voiced compassion. Some expressed solidarity.

To say I felt supported and encouraged would be an understatement. Their words were like lifelines to me.

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Here is some of what my visitors shared:

✻  I’m always stunned when kids come together in ways that are hurtful. Sending lots of positive thoughts and wisdom. Hang in there! – Carol

✻  Oh, Kevin, this makes me sad. I’m sorry this is something you’re dealing with right now. I am grateful that you wrote about it though. I have had years where this has happened. I’ve felt alone and responsible…like I am the only one who has gone through this. Know you aren’t alone. We’ve been there. Some are there with you now. I have faith that you will handle this with grace and wisdom and kindness. Believe that the students will see this…even if they can’t articulate it now. – Michelle

✻  Oh my, as much as I hate hearing that this is happening in your classroom, I can definitely identify with it. It’s happened in mine over the years, and it’s not fun. I wish you the best of luck – noticing it and addressing it is a good start! – Holly

✻  Thanks for the post and sharing something that is real. Your heartbreak shines through in your writing and because you’re aware and care, you will make an impact on the lives of your students. – Vanessa

✻  Sometimes it’s just about the chemistry, the interaction of souls in the moment. I know your influence is big. Even if you don’t see it immediately. Hang in there. – Julieanne

✻  Ah, yes, middle school life. And you are right, it is hard to re-pivot when this sort of thing happens – but pivot we must. – Tara

✻  Thanks, Kevin, for sharing your challenges with us. Like everyone else I’m remembering that group that can work to undermine the community. I think it’s so helpful to have outside resources to help support your work and keep the issue beyond your classroom. Hope things turn around as you get close to vacation and the holidays. – Bonnie

✻  Kevin, I wonder why when I read your piece. Why are they doing this? What is making them work this way when together? I wonder if they even know why. Your struggle is so important and it is critical that you have showed them that this matters to you. It sounds like you are constructing solutions with them which is also so important. They are so fortunate to have you as a teacher. You will find the way to re-pivot! – Clare

✻  Yikes! Negative peer pressure. Herd behavior. Mob spirit. Not the good sides of our nature. Sorry you’re in the middle of this. Writing the truth  – everyone involved – as you have done could make a difference. – Laura

Writing in community

writing-powerWhen we talk about the power of a writing community, this is what we mean. Their words, and suggestions, have given me buoyancy in a turbulent time. I am grateful for each and everyone of them for taking the time to write, and I invite you to join the Slice of Life each Tuesday (as well as the Slice of Life Challenge for the entire month of March) at Two Writing Teachers.

A few words have the potential to turn things around. Find your slice, and write your way into reflection.

PS: If you’re interested in the Slice of Life activities for students, visit this page.

Kevin Hodgson

Kevin Hodgson is a sixth grade teacher in Southampton MA and outreach coordinator for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. An aspiring writer and former newspaper journalist, Kevin believes that all students are writers and that writing is one of the most fundamental means of understanding the world. His views around literacy include interaction within the digital world, meeting students on common ground, and helping them make the shift from passive consumers to active creators and collaborators. He is a co-editor of Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change and Assessment in the 21st Century and blogs regularly at Kevin’s Meandering Mind. He can also be found on Twitter as @dogtrax.

7 Responses

  1. dogtrax says:

    Perhaps an update is in order: Things have turned a corner, or so it seems. I worked hard to reconnect individually with each of the students involved, one on one, and used that time for positive interactions. I also increased my visual vigilance of them. These two strategies seem to be making a difference. Or so I hope.
    Kevin

  2. Kevin, thanks for putting into words what I’m sure many of us struggle with…I know I do at times!…Glad it’s turning around…solutions are good ripples!…And writing about it helps me too, so thanks also for the link to Slice of Life…sounds like a great forum…May need to check it out in all my free time! hehehe…Best, Mary

    • dogtrax says:

      The Slice of Life community is amazing, both from the writing and sharing and also from the connections and comments. You should consider joining in.
      Thanks for taking the time to write here, too, Mary.
      Sincerely,
      Kevin

  3. Nicole S. says:

    Kevin, great to hear that you are experiencing a turning point in this challenging slice. One of my classes is on the tail end of a similar scenario created, in part, by the swinging door of school transfers, This causes a significant impact on classroom and school dynamics. Most likely, this is not as much of an issue in your community.

    • dogtrax says:

      That’s true … less of a swinging door, but it’s interesting how there are times when a single student can completely change the dynamics of the classroom (we have had that with new students in the past), and how those dynamics impact the learning environment for everyone.
      Good luck to you, Nicole.
      Kevin

  4. margaretsmn says:

    The Slice of Life community sustains for sure. I am so glad that you are being proactive. This is so important, but it is also important to do this while respecting each student as an individual which is exactly what you are doing. How often do we see administrators take on such a challenge negatively? Writing in community keeps us positive, supported, and loved in this very challenging vocation.

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