Friday, September 23, 2022

What Might Writing & Reading Communities Look Like in Our Classrooms?

One of the signs of a great book is that once it is finished you have a deep desire to tell someone about it, and perhaps even pass the book on to them. I can recall times when I reached the end of a moving novel and I would simply sit quietly, ruminating on the 'journey' I had just completed through the book. And later, there would be a deep urge to tell others about it. After a special book, we might read it again at some later point, or loan it to a friend and revisit the story in conversation with them.

Our classrooms and homes should be places where children read books and want to share their stories with others. This is certainly critical in the primary years of schooling, but so too it is possible and important within high schools. If literature is only read to prepare for exams, it is a sad state of affairs. Our classrooms can and should be 'communities of readers and writers'. But sadly, our students today are more likely to participate in groups in and outside school sharing social media videos like TikTok, talking about or sharing music, fashion, funny photos and so on online. While they are forming or supporting friendships and communities of practice, nonetheless these conversations are often trivial and superficial.

I shared in my book 'Other Worlds: The Endless Possibilities of Literature' stories from three class 'communities'. Classroom communities where literature was part of what bound the students together. One was a kindergarten in the cane fields of Queensland. As their teacher finished 'The Three Little Pigs' (Jacobs, 1969) the children shared their responses. Some repeated words or the details of the story, "the wolf wanted to eat the pigs", "he was a bad wolf", characters were mentioned and so on. Others responded more seriously and thoughtfully. "I've got a big bad wolf and I put him in water", "My big bad wolf got shot with hot rocks". Another said more reflectively, "The wolf got hurt because he tried to hurt the pigs".

I was able to observe a second reading community in a one-teacher school at which I taught many years ago. I had 31 children in a single classroom from Kindergarten (5 year olds) to Grade 6 (12 yr olds). When I arrived at the school I found many reluctant readers, and varied abilities across the grades. I set about flooding the classroom (school!) with books at all levels and with varied content. I was to observe how complex sub groups (or sub communities), developed as children read books and told others about them across grade levels. I also read to them and shared many books that stimulated their interests. 


A third reading community was a Kindergarten class; which in Australia is the first year of formal schooling for 5 year olds. I was part of the classroom for most of a school year as a co-teacher and researcher. During designated reading times, the students could grab a book and scurry off to one of many reading spaces: a secret cave in one corner; a castle made from cardboard boxes; an area created using the existing walls in one corner, as well as a cupboard for the other 'wall', and streamers hanging from the ceiling through which they entered; and as well, a small library surrounded by shelves filled with children's books.

What was common to each of the above three reading communities was that story was an essential part of the classroom life. Books were shared as a class, in groups and in informal settings. The children read together 'independently', in pairs or groups, and many opportunities were given for response and sharing. Each classroom in different ways demonstrated a number of similar things:

First, all were dynamic reading, writing and learning communities. 

Second, each exemplified how reading, while it can be solitary, is often shared with others, and that in the sharing, the desire to read is enriched and strengthened.

Third, they illustrated David Bloome's argument that "reading involves social relationships among people... including social groups and ways of interacting with others...".

If we want our children to experience reading in all of its forms, and to read literature that enriches their lives, extends their knowledge of the world, and helps them to grow as people, then community building must be a priority. The next time you watch a group of students sitting together with phone in hand sharing the latest video, ponder how the enthusiasm and excitement they are showing looking at phones, can be replicated in relation to books that can teach, inspire and enrich their lives.