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Write in the Middle: A Workshop for Middle School Teachers

Creating a Community of Writers

In this session, participants explore practical strategies — from desk arrangements to classroom organization to writing routines — that allow young adolescents to share their writing in an atmosphere of trust and safety and to recognize their identities as lifelong writers and readers.

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Workshop 1 Overview

Workshop 1 explores the components of a community of writers and what teachers can do to create and foster such a community. After a brief introduction to the goals of all eight workshop sessions, middle school teacher and writing expert Linda Rief and several of the teachers whose classrooms are featured in Write in the Middle share strategies they use to build a safe writing environment for their students starting at the beginning of the school year.

In separate extended classroom segments, Velvet McReynolds, a seventh-grade teacher from Hoover, Alabama, demonstrates two community-building strategies: the Monday Meeting and teacher as writer. The Monday Meeting, a frequent activity in Velvet’s classroom, allows students to share personal information with their classmates in a non-threatening setting, while the teacher-as-writer strategy provides students with a model for participation in the writing community.

During a third extended classroom segment, fifth-grade teacher Jack Wilde demonstrates one of his daily routines: the read-aloud. In a related interview, Jack explains how reading books aloud to his class helps to build a successful writing community by giving the students shared experiences with reading and responding to writing.

Through additional classroom examples, teacher discussions, and interviews, Workshop 1 also examines how room arrangements can encourage written and spoken communication and how sharing their writing helps students become part of the writing community.

“Creating a Community of Writers” closes with an exploration of some of the psychological and emotional needs specific to young adolescents and their learning. After National Middle School Association Executive Director Sue Swaim offers insight into the unique changes middle school students are undergoing, three of the teachers discuss how these developmental issues affect their instructional choices.

Key Practices To Observe in Workshop 1

In this workshop, you will see a number of effective practices for creating a community of writers. They include the following:

  • Teachers recognize that middle school students are experiencing many changes. During this emotional time, they are trying to make sense of themselves, other people, and the world around them. They need to experience their own voices and to have an opportunity to think and communicate about the views of others. Participation in a community of writers will help these students not merely as writers and readers but as people.
  • Providing students an opportunity to write for meaningful purposes and to share their work with their peers is an important way to create a community of writers. The experience of expressing something that matters to them in writing and then being able to share their ideas and feelings with classmates is especially helpful for young adolescents.
  • When students write and when they talk with others, they are expected to offer their own ideas. Promoting student ownership does not isolate individuals; rather it fosters a sense of occupying a responsible position in the community of writers. For students to consider themselves members of a community and gain from this experience, they must feel that they have a place, a position, an identity, a voice. They also must feel that they are contributing members of the group.
  • Teachers write with students, provide students copies of their own works in progress, and display their writing by overhead projector. They talk about the challenges they face as writers. They convey their satisfaction in expressing themselves. After reading their work, teachers listen carefully to students’ responses. They make notes on their drafts and talk about their plans. Not only does this modeling help students learn more about the craft of writing, but it also helps students feel less threatened sharing their own writing.
  • The physical environment of the classroom contributes to a sense of community. Desks are arranged so that students face each other and can easily talk about their work and so that the teacher can easily sit or kneel beside the student in a non-domineering position. The room contains books, posted examples of students’ work, quotes about writing, resources for writers, and other artifacts of a literate environment. An overhead projector and screen enable the teacher and students to share and discuss their work. One teacher includes a large rug in her classroom, a risk-free meeting ground for writers to read their work aloud and applaud their classmates’ accomplishments.
  • Teachers establish orderly, meaningful routines that give students a place in the community and foster their growth as writers. Core parts of the routine include writing, sharing writing, and talking about writing in a non-threatening atmosphere. The routine establishes that the students’ feelings and ideas are important. This experience is especially important for young adolescents and for students who are new to the language and culture.
  • Teachers organize so that students regularly gain response to their writing and provide response to classmates. Teachers also model respect in conversations about their own writing, as well as in conversations about the writing of students. Students are not just asked to respond, they are taught how to respond effectively. Diversity in opinions and backgrounds is acknowledged and embraced. Students realize that response does not have to be threatening, that members of the community are helped and protected.
  • Through reading, especially reading aloud, teachers promote a sense of community. Community develops as the teacher and students recognize the meaning and value of the shared text and study the author’s writing techniques. Reading aloud also provides a group experience with literacy that draws the class together and demonstrates the importance of developing as a writer and reader.
  • Teachers provide opportunities for their students to celebrate each other’s writing accomplishments.

Related Reading

  • “Developing the Craft of Writing in the Sixth-Grade Classroom” by Judith K. Eggemeier in Primary Voices K-6, Vol. 7, No. 4, April 1999, pp. 23-32. Copyright 1999 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted with permission. (pdf)
  • “Minimizing Writing Apprehension in the Learner-Centered Classroom” by LaVona L. Reeves, English Journal, October 1997, pp. 38-45. Copyright 1997 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted with permission. (pdf)
  • “Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle and the Ongoing Transformation of the Writing Workshop” by Marcy M. Taylor in English Journal, September 2000, pp. 46-52. Copyright 2000 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted with permission. (pdf)
  • “The Young Adolescent Reader” by Fran Salyers and Carol McKee. (A summary of the developmental characteristics of middle-level students commissioned for the workshop.) (pdf)

For more information and resources, visit the NCTE Web site at:

Teachers' Reflections

Vivian Johnson

Vivian Johnson

On the reading-writing connection:
“In a typical lesson, I will direct the students back to whatever they’re reading.”

Listen to Vivian.

Vivian’s overall approach to teaching writing:
“So as it’s evolved in writing workshop, typically now I will teach a particular genre….”

Listen to Vivian.

On creating a safe community:
“I think the most important thing, the first thing, is to un-intimidate the process… .”

Listen to Vivian.

Read Vivian’s transcript.


Velvet McReynolds

Velvet McReynolds

Her community-building strategy:
“The Monday meeting for me does two things.”

Listen to Velvet.

On the importance of allowing time to write and talk about writing:
“I don’t think any of us are going to do our best if we don’t feel valued and respected wherever we are… .”

Listen to Velvet.

Read Velvet’s transcript.

Jack Wilde

Jack Wilde

On helping students see themselves as writers:
“I think, in part, if I name them as a writer and have them feel that they are writers, that you take on—then you take on that persona.”

Listen to Jack.

On valuing the variety of talents in a community of writers:
“I think, in general, part of my responsibility as a teacher is to highlight everyone.”

Listen to Jack.

On strategies to build a safe writing community from the first day:
“From day one, I want my kids to know that they’re writers and that they are in a community of writers.”

Listen to Jack.

On the importance of celebration in a community of writers:
“One of the other ways that the community gets, I think, gets extended and reinforced is celebration.”

Listen to Jack.

On setting guidelines as a community:
“In building community, I don’t tend to give a lot of rules.”

Listen to Jack.

Read Jack’s transcript.

Additional Resources

Atwell, Nancie. “Cultivating Our Garden.” Voices From the Middle 3.4 (November 1996): 47-51.

Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle: New Understanding About Writing, Reading, and Learning. 2nd Edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998. ISBN: 0867093749.

Augsburger, Deborah J. “Teacher as Writer: Remembering the Agony, Sharing the Ecstasy.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 41.7 (April 1998): 548-552.

Barbieri, Maureen and Linda Rief, eds. Workshop 6: The Teacher as Writer. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1994. ISBN: 0435088165.

Browlie, Faye and Judith King. Learning in Safe Schools: Creating Classrooms Where All Students Belong. Portland, ME: Stenhouse, 2000. ISBN: 1551381206.

Brunce-Crim, Marna. “What Is a Writing Classroom?” Instructor 101.2 (September 1991): 36-39.

Calkins, Lucy McCormick and Shelley Harwayne. The Writing Workshop: A World of Difference. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987. ISBN: 043508450X.

Eggemeier, Judith K. “Developing the Craft of Writing in the Sixth-Grade Classroom.” Primary Voices 7.4 (April 1999): 23-32.

Elementary Section Steering Committee of the National Council of Teachers of English. The Literate Life: Exploring Language Arts Within a Cycle of Learning. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997. ISBN: 0814129765

Finders, Margaret. Just Girls: Hidden Literacies and Life in Junior High. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997. ISBN: 0807735604

Fletcher, Ralph. Breathing In, Breathing Out: Keeping a Writer’s Notebook. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996. ISBN: 0435072277.

Fletcher, Ralph and JoAnn Portalupi. Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001. ISBN: 0325003629.

Fountas, Irene C. and Gay Su Purnell. Guiding Readers and Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001. ISBN: 0325003106.

Freeman, Marcia. Building a Writing Community: A Practical Guide. 2nd Edition. Gainesville, FL: Maupin House Publishers, 1995. ISBN: 0929895134.

Frost, Helen. When I Whisper, Nobody Listens: Helping Young People Write About Difficult Issues. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001. ISBN: 0325003521.

Gleeson, Anne and Vaughn Prain. “Should Teachers of Writing Write Themselves?: An Australian Contribution to the Debate.” English Journal 85.6 (October 1996): 42-50.

Harwayne, Shelley. Lasting Impressions: Weaving Literature Into the Writing Workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992. ISBN: 0435087320.

Knowles, Trudy and Dave Brown. What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000. ISBN: 0325002665.

Langer, Judith A. Effective Literacy Instruction: Building Successful Reading and Writing Programs. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002. ISBN: 0814112943.

Manion, Betty Byrne. “Writing Workshop in Junior High School: It’s Worth the Time.” Journal of Reading 32.2 (November 1988): 154-157.

McIntyre, Ellen, Ann Rosebery, and Norma Gonzalez, eds. Classroom Diversity: Connecting Curriculum to Students’ Lives. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001. ISBN: 0325003327.

Moore, David, Thomas W. Bean, Deanna Birdyshaw, and James A. Rycik. Adolescent Literacy: A Position Statement. Newark, DE: IRA, 1999. Product: 1036-553.

National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association. Standards for the English Language Arts. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1996. ISBN: 0814146767.

National Council of Teachers of English. Motivating Writing in the Middle School. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1996. ISBN: 081415287.

Olafson, Lori and Margaret M. Latta. “Expecting, Accepting, and Respecting Difference in Middle School.” Middle School Journal 34.1 (September 2002): 43-47.

Phelan, Patricia. “A Classroom Community.” English Journal 80.7 (November 1991): 19-31.

Ramsey, Katherine D. “Middle Talk.” English Journal 90.5 (May 2001): 127-134.

Ray, Katie Wood with Lester L. Laminack. The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts). Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2001. ISBN: 0814113176.

Reeves, La Vonda L. “Minimizing Writing Apprehension in the Learner-Centered Classroom.” English Journal 86.6 (October 1997): 38-45.

Rief, Linda. Vision & Voice: Extending the Literacy Spectrum. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998. ISBN: 0325000972.

Rief, Linda. Seeking Diversity: Language Arts With Adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992. ISBN: 0435085980.

Rubenstein, Susanne. Go Public: Encouraging Student Writers To Publish. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1998. ISBN: 0814118623.

Samway, Katharine D. and Denise McKeon. Myths and Realities: Best Practices for Language Minority Students. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1999. ISBN: 0325000573.

Serafini, Frank. The Reading Workshop: Creating Space for Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001. ISBN: 0325003300.

Strahan, David, Tracy W. Smith, Mike McElrath, and Cecelia M. Toole. “Profiles in Caring: Teachers Who Create Learning Communities in Their Classrooms.” Middle School Journal33.1 (September 2001): 41-47.

Van Horn, Leigh. Creating Literacy Communities in the Middle School. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 2001. ISBN: 1929024428.

Whatley, April and Janda Canalis. “Creating Learning Communities Through Literacy.” Language Arts 79.6 (July 2002): 478-487.

Wolfe, Pat and Ron Brandt. “What Do We Know From Brain Research?” Educational Leadership 56.3 (1998): 8-13.

Wolk, Steven. A Democratic Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998.
ISBN: 0325000581.