Cyber School Literacy Communities: Connecting Writers Across Distances

Posted by Olivia Porter on 12/13/17 10:28 AM
by Ms. Hannah Lewis, Secondary English Teacher

connecting online in alternative learning environment Photo courtesy of @bamagal on Unsplash

This generation of students are more literate than past generations. They engage with writing daily, sometimes hourly, on their smart devices and computers, usually communicating with one another. Yet, they are plagued by record-breaking amounts of depression and anxiety.


In spite of their constant connectedness, they feel lonely.


In this world of hyper-literate, connected-yet-isolated students, being a literacy teacher presents new opportunities and challenges, some of which are exacerbated where I teach, at a cyber school in Pittsburgh, PA.

Our cyber school is called “PA Distance Learning Charter School,” because physical space separates us from many of our students and separates our students from one another. In this alternative learning environment, connection is essential.


As an English teacher, I am blessed with the unique opportunity to capitalize on one of the most essential, important functions of writing--communication and community-building.

I sponsor our cyber school’s literary magazine which last year’s members aptly named Bridging the Distance because the community we create when we write and share our writing does just that. It bridges the physical distance between club members and creates an online, text- and composition-based community.


"The community we create when we write and share our writing bridges the physical distance between club members, and creates an online, text- and composition-based community."


Students are not isolated in the way they often are on social media platforms, which prioritize the presentation of a personae. Instead, they are able to make themselves vulnerable by sharing authentic writing that is personal both in content and in production.

Writing has the potential to create communities across space and time in myriad ways, but I want to focus on just two current examples that I am lucky enough to engage in outside of my cyber school classroom: the literary magazine club’s writing workshops, held in November, and the grant-funded peer tutoring writing center, set to open next semester, which I co-founded with Mrs. Megan Miller, another high school English teacher at our cyber school.

Last month, in honor of National Novel Writing Month, Bridging the Distance staff members in grades 9-12 hosted writing workshops. In these workshops, staff members in grades 9-12 taught their peers about a type of writing. Workshops included topics from writing about animals to writing comic strips. Peers participated in activities where they could be creative, and they had the option to share their writing with others if they chose to.

These activities were special to me because I got to see students serving as teachers, opening up the possibility that their classmates could express themselves freely without the power dynamics of a teacher-student relationship.

More importantly, perhaps, they were able to share their writing if they chose to, meaning that they could feel free to write creatively and personally without fear of what their peers would think--something precluded on social media, which focuses on a finished product rather than engaging in the process of writing with peers.

These types of alternative learning opportunities--where students take the lead--not only build confidence for the students leading the workshops, but also create a sense that writing is a process that requires community engagement.

In January, the grant-funded PA Distance Peer Writing Center will open its virtual doors to the student writers. My hope is that this online space, too, will serve as an alternative learning community much like the ones created in those low-stakes writing workshops.

Tutors are high school students who are specifically trained in the kind of growth-oriented inquiry-based feedback that is essential to collaboration and community-building rather than product-focused judgmental editing.

Allowing struggling writers to share their experiences with seasoned, skilled peers will create a dialogue in which both students can be open and honest about their struggles with writing. Tutors can share with student writers how they also struggled to become the writers they are.

This November, I was lucky enough to attend the International Writing Center Association’s annual conference in Chicago. There, I saw collaboration and community building between disparate groups like I’d never seen before. Panels were hosted by high school writing center peer tutors as well as tenured University faculty.

No one’s name appeared with any title next to. The contributions of all participants, from the high school sophomore to the Ivy League professor,  were elevated and promoted equally, and the focus was on collaboration among all groups present.

I was inspired! I’d attended the National Council of Teachers of English and the Pennsylvania Council for Teachers of English Language Arts conventions in the past, so I knew what a gift it could be to be a part of a community of readers, writers, and educators.

But these experiences brought home to me how essential it is that our classrooms, our clubs, our writing centers, and our schools also become literacy communities that value and celebrate the literacy experiences of all students. In that way, writing can create the connections that will empower and propel rather than isolate and discourage the readers, writers, and future leaders in our classrooms.

community in cyber schools in pittsburgh, PA

Photo courtesy of @firmbee on Unsplash


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