Build Community in the Classroom

I used to teach for a program that rotated visiting writers through city schools in order to give students a chance once a week to work with a published author. The idea was to use the visits to supplement learning objectives throughout the academic year, while also helping them discover the joy of creative writing.

Because I was a guest in these classrooms (often 7th grade classrooms), I had to develop teaching practices that could not only inspire my students to write wonderful stories and poems, but also offset the disadvantages I faced as a teacher who had little connection to the learning community of the host school. I believe some of these practices might be useful to other teachers—guest teachers, substitute teachers, or new teachers—as they attempt to create a learning community within their classroom. Some might not be wholly appropriate, though you might be able to modify them for your own needs.

Letter of Introduction

On the first day, I often read to the class a letter of introduction that talked about why I was a writer, what inspired me to write, and why I enjoyed teaching writing to others. The letter had some biographical elements to it as well. My goal was to open myself up to the class. Afterwards, I transitioned to the day’s exercise: the students wrote a letter of introduction to me. I found that this was successful in opening up communication between me and the students, thus allowing me access to their community.

Classroom Discussion as Student-Centered Conversation

When leading class discussion, I found that students habitually directed all of their responses to me, thus making me the focal point of the community. Because I was a guest in the classroom, I wanted rather to focus on the students. I reorganized the desks so that students could face each other as they spoke, and when necessary, I gently nudged them to respond to each other, by name if necessary. When I felt the group had grown comfortable with this method of conversation, I could add my own thoughts without being perceived as an outside authority.

Participate in Exercises

For certain lessons, such as creative brainstorming sessions, I tried to implicitly model what I hoped the students would do. Instead of walking around the classroom to check everyone’s work, I sat down at a desk with them and wrote and talked with my neighbors. Of course, I still walked around during other lessons to give every student attention, but I tried to mix this implicit modeling into my teaching each day when I felt the lesson was appropriate. I liked that the students could see a ‘writer at work.’

Author Chair / Reading Time

I established in my classes an Author Chair or Reading Stool that visually reinforced for the students the importance of sharing our work and respecting the person who sat in that chair for his or her allotted time. We rotated who sat in the chair at the end of the day each session in order to allow everyone a chance at leading the community.

Co-Teach a Lesson

I often invited the host teacher to co-teach a lesson or two. I thought it was helpful to involve my host teacher in my own lessons because it showed my students that writers value collaboration. It was also another way of showing that I understood how important it was to respect my role as a guest teacher as well as my place in the community.


This guest post is contributed by Olivia Coleman, who writes on the topics of online colleges and universities.  She welcomes your comments at her email Id: olivia.coleman33