Building Better, Stronger Classroom Communities in 2023

Editor’s Note: This post was first published on Matthew Johnson’s blog and is republished here with the author’s permission. The ERWC community is excited to announce that Matt will be the featured speaker for our February 16th webinar at 4:30 p.m. PST. Registration is free!

By Matthew Johnson

Regular readers of my blog know that Matt Kay, one of my co-authors of Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Middle and High School ELA, is on my pantheon of great writing teachers. I’m not sure there is a more remarkable and inspirational educator anywhere, and, if given the choice, he is probably the first teacher in the country whose class I would put my own children in.

At NCTE 2022 Matt Kay once again proved why he is one of the all-time greats when he made an argument for writing teachers to approach community building as thoughtfully as they approach designing a lesson or crafting a writing prompt. His reasoning went like this: The primary audience for students–especially in a modern classroom that is full of group work, discussion, projects, and choice–is not the teacher; it is each other. As adolescents, they are constantly and somewhat obsessively watching, comparing and contrasting with, and performing for each other. If they have strong community and relationships, or in other words, their relationship with their primary classroom audience is strong, everything done in the classroom will benefit.

I have a hunch that most teachers reading this will likely know this already at some level. They will know how smoothly discussions and peer response and projects go in that section that has truly gelled and how difficult those things can be in the class that hasn’t quite come together yet. What makes Kay’s point different and important from the general argument that community is important is that he points out that even when we know that community is important, we also tend to quietly and often unconsciously downgrade it as a second tier concern. It is something to focus on during the first few weeks of the year or after the lessons are planned, email is cleared, and all papers have responses.

At NCTE Kay sought to remind us that community building is a top-tier concern, one that we should loudly proclaim as important and keep our eye on, not just during the first week, but throughout the whole school year.

Kay also gave a simple, effective recipe for how to build a strong, supportive community all year long:

  1. First, explain directly why community building matters. Don’t assume that students know why sharing good news or engaging in a silly competition or having a cookie contest before winter break will help them.
  2. Then systematize it. Community-building is often the first thing to get bumped and it can be scattershot. Kay argues that when community building is dropped in favor of content or done haphazardly, the message is clear to students: it doesn’t matter as much as other aspects of the classroom, which can cause them to disinvest from it. Kay’s suggestion to avoid this is to ritualize it: “[When building community], make sure there is an every Monday we do this. Every Tuesday we do this. Every Wednesday we do this…” By systematizing it and pinning specific community building elements to specific days we can show its value and protect against dropping it when things get busy.
  3. Then keep it up all year. Community building in the first few weeks is expected, but continuing it once the crush of our class’s content comes upon us is not always easy. If we want community to run deep though our classes, we need to have the same commitment in week 34 that we have in week 1.

I have written a lot about community over the years because I feel that it is the secret sauce for what makes a learning community–and especially a writing learning community–truly great. And yet, truth be told, I’m not sure I explain its value enough after the first week, have it as organized as it could be, or am as dogged as I could be about ensuring it doesn’t get bumped as the year pushes forward.

Kay’s reminder was just what I needed, as I have a feeling that community will be critically important when we face the challenges of 2023, ranging from making it through this tripledemic winter of illness to the rise of AIs like ChatGPT.

Yours in Teaching,


If you liked this…

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Matthew M. Johnson is a teacher, author, and literacy leader whose books include Flash Feedback and Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Middle and High School ELA with Matthew R. Kay and Dave Stuart Jr. You can follow Matt @a2matthew and chat with him live during the ERWC webinar on February 16th at 4:30 PST.


Watch the recording of the ERWC webinar with Matt Kay here.

SAVE THE DATE! The annual ERWC Literacy Conference will be June 20th in Sacramento and June 26th in Pomona. Registration opens in March. Watch for a Call for Presenters to be issued soon!

Our Shells – Or What Happened When the Octopus Left Its Shell

By Jonathon Medeiros

I can already hear the responses: Be more engaging. Control your students. You can’t let them act that way. Work on your classroom management!

Sure, but let me think about my school day, one single day. I welcome each student out in the hall, hello, aloha, good morning, yes I’m well, you? The students enter a calm and uncluttered space, the rainbow on the whiteboard declaring that “if you are kind, your day will be like a bright rainbow,” courtesy of my 9 year old. They see the ever present note that “being understood feels like love” and they know exactly how class will go. 

We will talk, share our kind attention, we will read, and write, and listen, and have time to quietly reflect, time to take a public academic risk, if we are ready. They always know I am there pushing them to think, to change, to struggle with difficult ideas that matter but that I am always there with them as a partner in the learning. This is not to imply that other classes do not do this, only that this classroom, the one I share with my students, is purpose built to be engaging, challenging, safe, and honest.

And who walks into this class each morning? Five students buried deep beneath hats, hoodies, and shades, earbuds in, screens in palms. Some others without the hoodies but still the devices. Some with no ability to talk on a given day. Some in surf shorts and cowboy boots. Some on time, many five, ten, twenty minutes late, but consistently so that one might say they are punctual. Some show up with smiles, some genuine, some in defense against the world of school, or the world in general. Some arrive at 8:05 with a full plate of fried chicken.

We aren’t reading irrelevant, dead pieces of the canon and completing worksheets or meaningless essays. We investigate our places, the stories that are here, the ones erased and the reasons for the erasure of those stories. We learn about people’s beliefs and investigate our own; we think about and talk about how people in power try to keep that power. We grapple with the unkindess of the world and our kuleana, our reciprocal responsibility, in the face of that. And when one student is talking about how they feel marginalzed because they are queer, or because they have an accent, or they are from the Marshall Islands, another is numbing themselves with the videos on their phone. 

And my “please stop watching videos” is met with “f– you fag bitch!” And “please join the circle and learn with us” is met with lying across three chairs or hiding on the floor under a desk.

And I think about how the octopus used to have a shell. 

Adults sometimes use this metaphor to talk about hard to reach students, asking questions about getting them out of their shells. Early in its evolution, the shelled mollusk that became the octopus let its shell go, abandoning its most effective safety mechanism. Naked, the world became dangerous. 

Without a shell, the octopus heightened its attention to danger, sending its nervous development into overdrive, creating a creature that has more neurons in its limbs and body and skin than it has in its entire relatively large brain. The octopus is now a master of disguise, able to taste and see danger with its skin, a shapeshifting living movie screen that projects all the colors we can and can’t imagine. All of these adaptations are defenses; its speed, its disguise, its jets, its sensing seeing skin, its clouds of ink, all of it developed to be the shell it abandoned. 

Now, hyper aware of danger, this being that puts so much energy, so much of its intelligence and creative ability, into defense spends it all in a blur and is dead by the time two years is up. 

And when I look across my school day, I do not think these students are building walls or hiding inside of shells. As they enter the classroom, they are on high alert, everything is potentially dangerous, sus. I think about the shells that the students have abandoned or have had stolen from them and the defenses they have developed to cope. 

I am the teacher in my classroom; I am a swimmer in the ocean, an interloper, and I am trying to be still so that the shell-less among us can somehow find a way to not see every moment at school as a potential danger or threat.

Jonathon Medeiros has been teaching and learning about Language Arts and rhetoric for sixteen years with students on Kauaʻi. He frequently writes poetry, memoir, and essays about education. He is the former director of the Kauaʻi Teacher Fellowship. Jonathon enjoys building things, surfing, and spending time with his wife and daughters. He believes in teaching his students that if you change all of your mistakes and regrets, you’d erase yourself. Follow Jonathon on Twitter – @jonmedeiros or at

Editors’ Note: Jonathon’s post beautifully exemplifies the earnest reflection and relational teaching that characterize effective implementation of the ERWC curriculum. For more information on the ERWC and its theoretical foundations, please visit the ERWC Online Community.