In a perfect world, class sizes would be capped at 12 kids. Teachers would lead two or three classes a day and ample time would be given to reflect on students’ work, tailor individualized paths of improvement, and prep exciting lessons for the next school day.

In the real world? My classes are packed with 34 students (love ‘em all!) and I run a high-octane show five times a day. Grading and prep are squeezed into tight pockets of time and all of the teachers in my hallway are doing the best we can.

I want to give my students more attention and feedback on their writing, but the idea of grading another stack of 170 essays on top of my district-required essay load is daunting. The solution? Once a year, usually late in the fall semester, I host a writing competition.

Students enter their assignments into a series of peer-reviewed competitions during this week-long activity and I oversee the process, but don’t actually grade any of the papers. Instead, the students do all of the work and all of the learning – from each other. With step-by-step modeling, students learn to give lots of meaningful feedback to each other, all with the excitement of some friendly competition.

While I love that my grading load is lightened for one of the novel units I teach each year, my favorite part of this inventive assignment comes near the end of Round #1, when the students debate with each other in small groups the merits of one paper over another. The students work together to identify the qualities of strong writing and I always hear echoes of my previous lectures in their rationales. It makes a teacher’s heart soar.

Click here to see how I run a writing competition.

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