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The Read-Around: Raising Writers

Linda Christensen

The read-around is the classroom equivalent to quilt making or barn raising. It is the public space -- the zocolo or town square -- of my room. During our read-arounds, 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 written 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.

The Read-Around as Writing Text

During the read-around, students provide each other accessible models of writing. I encourage them to listen for what "works" in their peers' pieces, to take notes on what they like, and then to use those techniques in their own writing. During the read-around I point out particular writing strategies. I might note how Aaron used a list in his poem or how Brandon opened his essay with an anecdotal introduction. I might ask Alisha to re-read a section of her essay so that we can notice her transitions. 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.

Because students learn to listen closely to each other's papers 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.

Starting with What Works

At the beginning of the year, I ask students to write a compliment to each student in the class about their piece. I make it clear that no one is allowed to make critical comments about a paper. We focus on the positive -- on what works. As each person reads, classmates 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.

I request that all students read some assignments like the "Where I'm From" poem. I also offer to read pieces anonymously for shy or reluctant students. Some students are eager; their hands are always in the air. Other students are too cool; this is why I give them points for sharing. They can maintain their smooth facade, and act like they are just reading for the extra 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?"

For most personal assignments, I allow students to pass, but I encourage them to share at least a paragraph. We also share informally along the way to a finished piece -- openings and evidence in essays; figurative language in poetry; dialogue, blocking, or characterization in narratives. My willingness to share my life opens the doors for student to share theirs. I write stories about my father's alcoholism, my poor test scores, my sister's wayward ways, and my first marriage to an abusive man.

Students respond to the content of the piece -- what they like about the arguments, the ideas. They respond to its style. I ask them to be specific. What line, what phrase did they like? Did they 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 it? 

Pulling in Reluctant Writers

Not all students in an untracked class 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 send 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. Also, during the second part of the year, the class begins to offer critique: Where isn't the piece working?

The Town Square

The read-around is also the place we share our lives. As students listen to each other's stories they try to feel what it's like to be in someone else's skin.

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, my colleague 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 stories said about ourselves and our society. For example, when students in my sophomore class read pieces about times when they were either the victims or the perpetrators of acts of unkindness, we stepped back and examined the stories for common threads. Students discovered that they didn't "act for justice" when they felt they might be the victim of the next attack. This reading of the "collective text" allowed us to talk about how we might become allies for people in the future.

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.

Teaching Strategy

  • Seat the students in a circle -- or the nearest approximation. Students should not have their backs to each other. This way they can see each other and be seen as they read. The attention will be focused on the reader.
  • Distribute as many blank strips of papers as there are students in the class. Students write a compliment to each classmate as he/she reads.
  • Students 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).
  • Tell students they must respond with a positive comment to each writer. Emphasize that by listening and "stealing" what works in their classmates' writing, they will improve their own. 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 you are focusing on a specific skill -- like introductions, transitions, evident, and imagery.)

Respond to the writer's content. What did the writer say that you like? 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.

1. As students write each compliment, tell them to sign their slip so the writer knows who praised them.

2. Ask for a few volunteers to share their praise with the writer. This is slow at first, so try modeling it. This is an opportunity to teach writing: Point out dialogue, description, attention to detail.

3. Tell students to look at the writer and give that person the compliment. Usually, students will look at the teacher and say what they like about the student's piece. I tell the writer to call on students who have raised their hands. Establish early on that all dialogue in the class does not funnel through the teacher.

4. If the class does not immediately respond, offering extra credit can elicit positive oral comments. In my classes where defiance is a badge of honor, I give points. This allows some people a "cover" for giving positive feedback: "I just do it for the points." Whether they actually do it for the extra credit or not, their compliments contribute to a positive classroom climate.

5. After everyone has read, 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 is the class and to connect with each other.

6. After the first few read-arounds, I drop the strips of paper and rely on oral feedback. But I find that in some classes I need to have them take notes for the collective text as a way of keeping them 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 takes 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 class we nicknamed "the class from hell." 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 bribed students with points. 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. Some days we resorted to sending the offenders to the library or the dean's office during our read-around.

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.

From Reading, Writing, and Rising Up by Linda Christensen (Rethinking Schools, 1996). Reprinted by permission of the author and Rethinking Schools. All rights reserved. May not be shared without permission of Rethinking Schools.

Linda Christensen

Linda Christensen is the Director of the Oregon Writing Project (OWP), located in the Graduate School of Education at Lewis & Clark College.