In my interactions with students, I continually seek opportunities to help them develop and improve their skills in oral and written communication. I view critical inquiry, intellectual engagement, and creative innovation, shaped by civic concern, to be crucial features of the type of learning community I foster in my classroom. For, as Erika Lindeman and Daniel Anderson have long established, “The teacher’s role is to build a community of writers who encourage one another to use writing to make meaning and effect change.” To encourage a sense of community, fellowship, and shared responsibility in the classroom, I design collaborative learning activities for my students, to be implemented alongside individual writing activities and assignments. The collaborative model offers a way to teach students mutual respect and trust, to listen to each other, and to appreciate their individual differences and abilities. As an instructor, I imagine myself as an advocate for my students, a role that parallels my work as a patient advocate in nursing over the past thirteen years, where I have directly experienced the benefits of collaboration in team-nursing and its correlation with better patient outcomes.
Students present diverse styles of engagement in the classroom. While some students embrace tense discussions with peers, other students may be tepid in their initial interactions. I find that low stakes collaborative writing assignments nurture student-led discussions and level the hierarchical structure of the classroom that often inhibits student interaction. For example, in a composition course that I taught completely online, I had students collaborate in groups on a Synthesis Description Assignment where they had to co-write a 300-word description of a U. S. National Park or Monument on a web page designed for the class in Wix. The web page simulated a wiki board in that it allowed multiple students to engage in this digital activity at the same time. I also assigned students to “rooms” in Google Chat according to their groups so that they could coordinate and plan their project. I find that these types of co-writing activities help students become more independent in their analysis of texts and more comfortable with writing and sharing their writing with peers. But more important, still, they become more comfortable with listening to each other and “listening” to texts.
Active listening enriches understanding and promotes an appreciation for diversity and inclusivity. Through a series of individual and collaborative close reading activities, students learn to “listen” to texts, formally diverse in form, genre, and style and diverse in perspective. They first read and annotate assigned readings individually, then in groups in the classroom, they review with each other their annotations, and share their combined insights with the class. During this process of discussing and reflecting on the readings in groups, the students take turns listening to one another and speaking, thereby transferring the work of “listening” to texts to the work of listening to each other. As the students learn to trust each other through these group discussions, they build the foundation of community that they need to be successful. For example, in an advanced composition course, one of the major assignments involved students collaborating on a group research and presentation project. After being assigned to groups based on a survey of student career interests, students elected a group leader and pursued a research question together. By working within a group, the students benefited by the combination of their abilities as they worked through the process of invention, research, and composition. In the last part of this assignment, each student selected a narrowed topic inspired by their group’s research, and then independently wrote an essay. Students repeatedly told me that composing this essay made them realize how much the group research and discussions prepared them for writing about their topic. Thus, interdependent research activities provided a segue that facilitated confidence in independent writing. Further, by engaging in interdisciplinary collaboration, students witnessed how different communities within academia interrelate and are interdependent.
Students are not the only ones who have to practice listening. As an advocate of the writing community, I listen to their concerns and assist them to navigate the challenges they face in groupwork. For example, in co-writing activities, I have communicated with student groups through email, wiki-boards, and Google Chat rooms to help them to resolve schedule conflicts with peers and address interpersonal conflicts. I see these interactions as opportunities for growth in conflict resolution and leadership skills. Through careful interventions, I teach students to come together by using digital documents such as Google docs and online presentation programs to collaborate on projects. I address issues in accountability by teaching students to elect a chairperson for their group and keep work schedules that identify individuals’ roles and assigned contributions to the group. Further, I encourage students to reflect on their diverse strengths and to see differences as potential assets. In addition to these methods, I strive for fairness in grading collaborative assignments. My grading of groupwork is informed by confidential peer evaluations and based on the individual merit of their work.
Students gain tremendous experiences through the incorporation of collaborative learning in the classroom. Each student brings a wealth of diverse experiences to the classroom, and collaborative learning provides pathways that facilitate student engagement with each other and critical knowledge transfer. For instance, one of my students told me that he enjoyed the Synthesis Description Assignment because it provided an innovative opportunity for him to connect with other students. Another of my advanced composition students applauded the collaborative research assignment because he said he had so few other opportunities to work with peers. These responses echo those less eloquently expressed by other students in my classes, such as one who stated that the group work made her revise her habits of procrastination. Collaborative learning demonstrates the vital role that community plays in skills acquisition. Because they share their writing process with each other, students are more willing to take risks in their writing. Taking risks in writing is vital to improvement because the process of writing is a process in self-development. We learn through our failures and our successes.
When the students learn to view each other as a community, they are better equipped to understand that academic writing is about joining in a written conversation. In this, I agree with Kenneth Bruffee when he argues that “in understanding writing as a collaborative, conversational process, we understand that” rather than seeking to “distinguish ourselves” by writing, we are actually “trying to do the opposite” (55). By listening to each other, and closely reading texts, students begin to see academic writing as a conversation that interests them, and one in which they could also participate.
 Lindemann, Erika and Daniel Anderson. A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers. 4th edition. (Oxford UP, 2001): 260-261.
 Bogaert, Peter Van, Olaf Timmermans, Susan Mace Weeks, et al. “Nursing Unit Teams Matter: Impact of Unit-Level Nurse Practice Environment, Nurse Work Characteristics, and Burnout on Nurse Reported Job Outcomes, and Quality of Care, and Patient Adverse Events—a Cross-sectional Survey.” International Journal of Nursing Studies, vol. 51, 2014, pp. 1123-1134.
 Bruffee, Kenneth. Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence, and the Authority of Knowledge. 2nd edition. John Hopkins UP, 1999.