About three years ago, we were coming up on the end of the semester. There was so much to do between finishing up Romeo and Juliet with my 9th graders and grading. I wanted to finish the unit with something meaningful, but I also needed to be practical in terms of evaluating and inputting grades and closing out the semester. On my drive home, it occurred to me that I could have the students work in groups to write an essay in response to Shakespeare’s play. I went home and thought very carefully about how to structure the assignment so the students would be successful and so the essays would hang together and make some kind of sense.
As I walked around the next day listening to the student conversation around the play, themes, characters, and how to put their ideas all together, I realized that I had accidentally stumbled upon something very powerful.
How it Works
Over the course of the last three years, I have tried this with 9th graders and with students in both AP Literature and AP Language. I have also shared this with some of my Writing Project colleagues, many of whom have also found the process to be beneficial.
Here’s how it works … I tend to group students in groups of three and four. Occasionally, I allow groups of five. Tinker with it until you find what works.
The assignment sheet that I give has all of the directions and I go over this with students first. I ask students to go over the directions again as a group when they begin and to use the directions as a guide. My goal here is to slow the students down (I learned this after the first time because while the conversations were very good, the essays didn’t flow very well).
Typically I include a choice of three or four prompts in the directions. The first step for the group is to explore the prompt and to decide as a group which one that they are most interested in responding to and which prompt they are able to cite textual evidence for support.
In the next step, I ask students to brainstorm as a group how they will respond to the prompt. Essentially, this is the prewriting stage. I recommend that they do this collaboratively and on paper. Students often want to skip this stage and go straight to writing (“I’ll write the intro, you write the next paragraph, you write the conclusion”), but skipping this stage makes the whole process harder and the essays are generally not as strong.
Once the students have brainstormed and organized the ideas, then the students decide who is responsible for writing different paragraphs of the essay. By brainstorming first, everyone can usually write at the same time because they have a good idea of what they will be saying. Without the brainstorming part, the person responsible for the conclusion has to wait for everyone else to write in order to see how to conclude the essay.
After everyone has drafted their piece of the essay, students read the essay in the order that the paragraphs should go in. Brainstorming helps, but invariably ideas come during the actual drafting so reading the essay together helps students to figure out if it makes sense and to make revisions as necessary.
The conversations that the groups have are interesting to me on two levels. The students engage again with the text, often refining their understanding of the text and building that understanding collaboratively with their group members. On another level, however, students also have conversations around writing that are often quite deep.
There are a couple of ways of assembling the essays that I have used. One way is for each student to cut out their paragraph(s) and then tape the essay onto a master sheet of paper in the order that it should be read. When we do this, I have students sign next to each of their paragraphs. When we have the opportunity for submitting paragraphs digitally, then students usually email their paragraphs to one person in the group who assembles the final draft in order. I usually suggest that students find a way to indicate who wrote which part and that often looks like a textbox with each student’s name next to the paragraph.
In the beginning, I used to rush students through the process. For good writing to happen, however, students need some time to plan, draft, and revise. I have learned to slow it down.