Something went wrong this week in a Fourth grade writing workshop. As writers were beginning a unit on personal essays, they started to criticize each other’s ideas and thesis statements. They completely lost sight of their roles as writers and readers and focused instead on their opinions about one another’s topic choices. Hurt feelings, defensive behaviors and fear bubbled up. There were tears, and sharp comments. By mid week, despite conversations in class, the atmosphere was continuing to erode. The classroom teacher and I chatted, and we decided I would come in to try to help reinforce the culture of trust that she had been working to rebuild with them.
Yesterday I visited that class. When I entered the room, I quietly took a seat and asked writers to close their notebooks for a bit. I took a breath and asked if they knew what feeling safe in a writing community meant. I’m not going to lie, most didn’t, or at least at that moment they seemed to have forgotten. Some thought it had to do with bricks and mortar.
“Well, yes, ” I nodded. “It helps to know we have shelter when we write. But feeling safe, building trust is a little different than that and perhaps the most important thing we can do for each other as writers.” I added.
And then I shared this piece with them. Before I began reading my writing aloud, I told them that this was a hard one for me, but that I wanted them to know that I felt safe sharing it with them, and I trusted that they would sense what I needed from my audience. They stilled and looked up. As I read, my throat tightened. They noticed that. A tear escaped from my left eye and rolled slowly down my cheek. They saw that. More than once I took a deep breath between sentences. They heard that. When I came to the end I looked up, and they smiled. They knew that was what I needed. Slowly, they began raising their hands. They offered comments in respectful tones like, “Was that hard for you to write?” and “Does writing about sad things help or make it harder?” “How long did it take you to write that?” “That was really good.” and “Why did you decide to write about that?” and “I was touched by that. Thank you.”
Then we talked about my original question again. And they could share specifics about what feeling safe in a writing community could look like, sound like and feel like.
“Thank you,” I told them. “I felt safe sharing my writing with you. I hope you always work to help writers in this community feel safe and supported.”