By Linda Christensen
The read-around is the classroom equivalent to quilt making or barn raising. It is the public space—the zócalo or town square—of my room. During our read-around, we socialize together and create community, but we also teach and learn from each other. If I had to choose one strategy as the centerpiece of my teaching, it would be the read-around. It provides both the writing text for my classroom and the social text where our lives intersect and we deepen our connections and understandings across lines of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and age.
Starting with What Works
At the beginning of the year, from the first day of class, I require that all students read their poetry out loud to the class. Some students are eager; their hands are always in the air. Other students are too cool; this is why I count sharing work as part of the grade. They can maintain their smooth façade and act like they are just reading for the credit. Sometimes students want to share, but they need to be coaxed. I use National Writing Project teacher Keith Caldwell’s technique of teasing students into reading: “Who’s dying to share, but doesn’t want to raise their hand?”
Before we start our read-around, I distribute stacks of “compliment sheets”—paper strips—to each student. I initiate the read-around by saying: “I am always a little bit worried when I share my writing. What if I don’t sound smart? What if my piece isn’t as good as other people’s? In order to keep me writing and the rest of the class writing, we have to focus on what is good in a piece. Your piece will not sound like someone else’s. It will sound like you. And that’s great. You won’t recognize your brilliance because it just sounds like you. We will recognize it for you.”
I tell students: “You are going to write a compliment to each student in the class about that student’s piece. No one is allowed to make critical comments about a poem or paper. We focus on the positive—on what works. As each person reads, you will take notes and give positive feedback to the writer. We also applaud each writer for having the courage to read in front of the class.”
In order for this to work, I discuss how generic comments like “Good poem” or “I like your imagery” aren’t specific enough to help anyone know what s/he did right. Instead, I say, “List the words or phrases, images, or verbs that make the poem come alive. That’s what we mean by ‘tell the writer what is working.’” Students respond to the content of the piece—what they like about the topic of the poem. They also respond to the style, the way the poem is written. “What line, what phrase did you like? Do you like the imagery, the repetition?” Instead of working on a deficit model—what’s wrong with this piece—we work on a positive model: What’s right? What can we learn from this poem? This writer? As Pete noted in his class evaluation:
The way you have us make comments (what did you like about the piece of writing) has helped me deal with people. My skin is thick enough to take a lot of abuse just because I’ve always had a fairly high opinion of some of the things I can do. I didn’t realize a lot of other people don’t have that advantage. After a while I found out positive criticism helped me more than negative, too.
The Read-Around as Writing Text
During the read-around, students provide accessible models of writing for each other. When I encourage them to listen for what “works” in their peers’ pieces, to take notes on what they like, I am also encouraging them to use those techniques in their own writing. After students have shared their observations, I might point out particular writing strategies that I want them to incorporate into their writing. I might note how Aaron used a list in his poem or how Brandon opened his poem with a repeating, but changing line. I might ask Alisha to re-read a stanza of her poem so that we can notice her powerful verbs. I do this consistently in each read-around to bring students’ attention to the writers’ tools. In her portfolio evaluation Heather wrote about what she learned from her classmates:
When I listen to other people’s writing, I hear things I love or wish I’d written myself. Most of the time that’s where I get my inspiration. Sometimes I catch myself saying, “I wish I could write like so-and-so.” Then I think, “What was it about his/her piece that I liked?” When I figure that out, I’m that much closer to being a better writer. I use their papers as examples. I steal their kernels of ideas and try to incorporate them into my own writing. For example, I love how Ki uses her personal history in her writing, so I try that out for myself. I like Lisa’s use of unusual metaphors, so I try as hard as I can to steer clear of the generic type I’ve been known to use in the past.
Because students learn to listen closely to each other’s poems for both ideas and literary tools, they can identify those strategies and use them in their own writing.
Students in every class I’ve taught have made it clear that the read-around was the best part of my teaching. Adam wrote:
There is so much to learn about good writing. I know that a lot of what shaped my writing was not the diagramming sentences or finding the subject and verb that we learned in grade school, but the desire to learn more about what I’m hearing around me. Just hearing the work of good writers makes an incredible difference. When I find something I really like, I ask myself, “What was it about that piece that made me get all goose-bumpy?” That’s why I think it is really important to have those read-arounds in class. Not only does the author get to hear comments about his/her work, but the rest of the class gets a chance to hear some pretty amazing stuff. Like when we heard Nicole’s home language paper, I don’t think there was anyone who wasn’t touched by it. At some point everyone had felt like that, and her paper was able to capture those feelings and describe them perfectly. At the same time, everyone thought, “How can I write like that?” We all learned from the paper. Now, this is only one example, but almost every day we share, something like this happens.
Pulling in Reluctant Writers
Not all students arrive on the due date with a paper in hand. To be sure, some students haven’t taken the time to do the work, but others can’t find a way to enter the work; they either don’t know where to start or they feel incapable of beginning. Even my pep talks about “bending the assignment to find your passion” or “just write for 30 minutes; I’ll accept whatever you come up with as a first draft” don’t entice these students. That’s why I’m not a stickler about deadlines.
During read-arounds the students who wrote papers will spawn ideas for those who either couldn’t write or who haven’t learned homework patterns yet. Listening to how Amanda, Alyss, or Deanna approached the assignment helps teach reluctant writers a way to enter the writing. Sometimes students write a weak “just get it done” paper, then hear a student piece that sends them back home to write with more passion.
There are advantages for both the strong and the weak writer in this process. While the struggling writer gets an opportunity to hear drafts and figure out a writing strategy, the strong writer gets feedback: What worked? Was there a spot where listeners got confused? In reading their papers aloud, writers often notice the places where the language limps and needs tightening. They notice repetitions that need to be deleted.
The Town Square
The read-around is also the place we share our lives. As students listen to each other’s poems they try to feel what it’s like to be in someone else’s skin. Jessica Rawlins wrote:
Never before have I sat in a circle and expressed my opinion about rape, internment, and injustice with my peers and listened while they agreed or disagreed. Never has the teacher said, ‘I didn’t know that. . . . Tell me how you feel.’ Talking about our lives was a rare treat in most classes and it only happened on holidays and special free days. In here it was part of the lesson. We educated each other through our writing. We brought the beauty out of our skin and onto plain paper.
While the read-around provides the writing text and it helps us share crucial stories from our lives, it can also miss some important teachable moments. For this reason, Bill Bigelow and I developed what we called the “collective text,” so we could step back from the writing and figure out what our individual poems/stories said about ourselves and our society (see p. TK).
For example, when students in my junior class at Grant High School wrote their “Raised by Women” poems, we stepped back and examined the poetry for common threads. I said, “Look back over your notes from our read-around. What do the poems have in common? What can we learn about our class from listening to these poems? Write a paragraph about what you learned.” Students discovered that most of them were raised by their mothers, that their fathers were absent.
We don’t write a collective text after every poem, but when we do, the poems help students understand some fundamental truths about contemporary society.
Creating a Safe Space for Sharing
Some students love to share their writing. Reading aloud in class is a conversation, gossip session, a chance to socialize in a teacher-approved way. Unfortunately, too many students arrive with bruises from the red pen, so when we begin the year, it’s necessary to build their confidence:
1. I seat the students in a circle—or the nearest approximation. This way they can see each other and be seen as they read. The attention is focused on the reader.
2. I distribute as many blank strips of papers as there are students in the class. I ask students to write a compliment to each classmate as s/he reads, again we focus on the positive and the specific.
3. I ask students to write each reader’s name on the paper. So if Vonda volunteers to read her paper first, everyone in the class writes Vonda’s name on their strip. (This is also a way for students to learn their classmates’ names.)
4. I tell students they must respond with a positive comment to each writer. I emphasize that when they listen and “steal” what works in their classmates’ writing, they will improve their own. I write a list of ways to respond on the board:
Respond to the writer’s style of writing. What do you like about how the piece was written? Do you like the rhyme? The repeating lines? The humor? (Later, these points can change, particularly if I am focusing on a specific skill—verbs, lists, repeating lines, etc.)
Respond to the writer’s content. What did the writer say that you liked? Did you like the way Ayanna used a story about her mother to point out how gender roles have changed?
Respond by sharing a memory that surfaced for you. Did you have a similar experience? Did this remind you of something from your life?
As the writer reads, write down lines, ideas, words, or phrases that you like. Remember: You must compliment the writer.
5. As students write each compliment, I tell them to sign their slips so the writer knows who praised them.
6. I ask for a few volunteers to share their praise with the writer. This is slow at first, so I also model it. This is an opportunity to teach the craft of writing poetry.
7. I tell students to look at the writer and give that person the compliment. Usually, students look at me as they talk about what they liked about their classmate’s piece. I tell the writer to call on students who have raised their hands. I establish early on that all dialogue in the class does not funnel through the teacher.
8. After everyone has read, I ask students to hand out their compliment strips to each other. (This is usually chaotic, but it’s another way for students to identify who’s who in the class and to connect with each other.)
9. After the first few read-arounds, I drop the strips of paper and rely on oral feedback. But I find that some classes need to take notes for the collective text as a way of keeping on task—so they don’t write love letters or complete a math assignment during the read-around.
When It Doesn’t Work
Some classes move into read-arounds like my black Lab to water. Others are more reluctant. There are awkward silences after I say, “What do you like about that piece?” Sometimes students come in carrying past histories with each other that make them fearful about sharing. One year Bill and I taught a very difficult class. They not only had a history; they had a present. A few students made fun of classmates and held us all hostages to their anger. We read more pieces anonymously that year. We brought in graduates from previous years to model appropriate behavior. Bill and I sat next to the troublemakers and attempted to “control” their negative comments by placing our bodies in their path.
Classes usually warm up during the first quarter. The strategy takes time, persistence, and energy, but it’s worth it. As Jenni Brock wrote in her class evaluation, “The read-arounds are totally awesome stud vicious. They really helped the class to become closer. They teach us so much about each other.” And I would add—about writing.
Linda Christensen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She is a Rethinking Schools editor and author of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up and Teaching for Joy and Justice.