A Collaborative Approach to Improve Writing

AP Literature students are challenged to read a  fresh passage, determine the task, formulate an insightful argument, and write a thoughtful, coherent first-draft essay in 40 minutes.  This is a daunting proposition for all students, but for those students who struggle with time pressures, AP timed-writing can be overwhelming. One way to help all students develop the requisite skills to be successful on the AP exam is the group timed-writing. My students recently wrote a group timed writing based on Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan, and as you can see, they were pretty excited about the process!

The Plan

  1. I place students in groups of 3-4. I intentionally group students according to their strengths. I never put the highest performing students with lowest performing students. All students are solid in some area, so by grouping purposefully, they learn from each other at a higher level.
  2. I pass out the prompt/passage to each student. Now, as Sherlock Holmes says “the game is afoot.” Students have until the bell rings to complete the essay. My classes are 90 minutes in length.
  3. Students read the prompt and passage silently. After reading and annotating on their own, students start their discussion of the passage and the task they are being asked to complete. The conversations are rich and all students offer their ideas and possible approaches to writing the essay.  I remind them of the time remaining, because they often get lost in their interesting conversations.
  4. Once a clear understanding of the prompt and passage is reached, the group writes a collective opening paragraph and argumentative thesis statement.  Group members must agree on the thesis they will argue for in the response.  The conversations over the introduction and thesis statement are fruitful because each student is required to support the approach.    
  5. Students must now negotiate the body paragraphs. What insights are required to fully explicate a high-level response? What evidence will be used to support the thesis? After this strategy discussion,each student takes responsibility for writing one body paragraph. Kids discuss possible supporting evidence and and how their individual paragraphs will work together.  Students usually take about 15-20 minutes to write their paragraphs.
  6. The next step requires students to read, revise, and edit each other’s paragraphs. The conversations are thoughtful and respectful as they work to improve the overall quality of the developing essay. Paragraph order is also negotiated for effective flow.  Students often revise their paragraphs to facilitate smooth transitions.
  7. The final step is to write a group conclusion. I encourage students to extend the ideas presented in their essay. I don’t want them repeating what they already presented.  Writing the conclusion in groups helps students consider alternate approaches to ending an essay on a high note.  
  8. The finished product is stapled together in the order they want me to read it. Students write their names next to their paragraphs.
  9. I score the final essay as a whole based on the scoring guide, but I also grade each student’s individual paragraph. I average these scores together to arrive at their final score. I count the group timed writing as a major grade.

Final Thoughts

Wayne Dyer always said “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” I want my kids to grow as readers, writers, and thinkers every day. I want my students to see themselves as capable of tackling any task with confidence. The group timed writing creates a unique opportunity to learn and grow from each other. They see the dynamics of a traditional timed writing change into an intellectual collaboration. I encourage kids to think out loud and listen to the brilliance of their thoughts. I want kids to share their insights with each other, and I want kids to see their writing flowing together into a unified whole. The AP Literature group timed-writing is an effective strategy to move our kids another step closer to success in May.

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Roy F. Smith is the English Department Chair at Round Rock High School and teaches AP English Literature and Dual-Credit English. Roy is also an adjunct professor at Austin Community College.  Roy is an AP English Reader for College Board, an AP Advocate, and a consultant for the National Math and Science Institute (NMSI). In 2015, he was named Round Rock High School and the Round Rock ISD Secondary Teacher of the Year.

 Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “A Collaborative Approach to Improve Writing

  1. How do you avoid groups putting too much of the work on one or two students in the group? Some of my students have the tendency to be very passive in group settings and just allow one or two kids to run the show and do the work.

    • While my kids are collaborating, I move from group to group listening to their conversations. If a student is not contributing, I ask questions that help that student join in the group conversation. I really haven’t had a big issue with kids not contributing though. I think they welcomed the chance to think through the process with each other.

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