Sunday, January 9, 2011


Brownies were a point of dissension.
Recently I co-led a workshop for The Writer's Center of Bethesda, Maryland, called HOW2 Create (and Maintain!) a Writing Group.  Critique groups can play a major role in nurturing and guiding our writing, whether within or outside of a classroom setting, but setting them up requires some thought.  Among the topics we talked about:
1) Amount of time.  Workshop participants placed themselves on a busy-ness scale from  "I've got 2 full-time jobs, 11 small children, and a couple of pet llamas--but I'd like the group to keep me in touch with my writing goals," to "I have just retired and am hoping the group will help provide structure for my newfound free time."  In most K-12 classrooms--faced with state standards, high-stakes testing, and countless other demands--the amount of time available for writing groups might fall somewhere around caring for the pet llamas.  For these busy students, writing groups provide a consistent and regular checkpoint to make sure that real writing gets done despite the hurried pace of classroom life.
2) Level of writing skill.  I asked participants to say whether they felt most drawn to workshops labeled "beginner," "intermediate," "advanced/expert," or "all levels."  In my experience, students are more willing to open up and take risks in their writing if they perceive that others in the group are facing similar-level challenges.  Mixed-level grouping can work, however, if everyone feels valued and able to contribute.
3) Meeting logistics.  The workshop included time for a simulated writing group session.  Immediately on receiving the sample piece of writing, participants identified logistical questions they'd need to work out: Would the writer read the piece aloud, or would participants read it before the meeting?  Would readers provide written comments in addition to verbal?  Would the writer be permitted to add clarifying information or raise questions?  Each choice offers advantages and disadvantages for the teacher and/or the groups themselves to consider. 
4) Food.  Here was the brownie dissension.  Some groups are strictly business-only, noting food's potential for distraction and crumbs.  At other groups, food is a major reason that people look forward to coming.  My own writing group falls in between.  As my co-presenter, Farrar Williams, noted, food is a bonding opportunity in many cultures, and interacting over food helps to break down barriers and help people feel more comfortable.
As my writing group enters its ninth year and welcomes its third published book among group members (it's called Echoes of Her, by group member Brooke Kenney), I'm grateful for the time we've put into establishing a group routine that works for us.  What has worked well in writing groups for you--personally or in your classroom?  Please let us know with a comment below!

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