Okay, So I Was Wrong

I’ve been slow to embrace the idea of group essays. Several teachers I know use group essays, replacing one of the big writing assignments of the year with a group assignment where they place three or four students together and task them to collaborate on a single paper. This always feels like a cheat to me, especially when those colleagues brag in the teachers’ lounge they have only 11 essays to grade per class as opposed to the standard 34 or so.

I roll my eyes, and then they try to justify their action with talk about the value of teaching teamwork. In the end, we go to our separate classrooms and do what we have to do. For me, it’s always been assigning individual essays.

And then last week happened.

A week of snow days upended by lesson plans, causing me to nip and tuck my calendar. After the changes, I had two awkward class periods where I didn’t want to start our next big unit right before final exams. What to do?

“You could slide in a little extra SAT writing practice,” the angel on my shoulder whispered.

Uh, no. There’s no way we’re grading another 34 essays this weekend. No. Way. Not gonna happen,” the devil countered.

This fall, my sophomores have been in the baby steps of learning to write an SAT essay. We’ve discussed the specific SAT format and they now see that deconstructing an argument is very different than summarizing or agreeing/disagreeing with an argument. We’ve covered a wide variety of rhetorical devices they’re likely to encounter in the essay prompts. We’ve even picked apart released sample essays from the CollegeBoard website. But they haven’t yet written one on their own; that’s a task I usually save for the spring semester.

But what if… I thought, the faces of my smirking colleagues appearing before me. What if I had to grade only 11 essays?

The angel and devil were willing to compromise, so I launched my plan this week. I gave my sophomores an article by a Duke University professor who’s in favor of using intestinal worms as medical treatment. My kids were completely grossed out (bonus!) and then went to work digging into the article to answer the text-based questions. For homework, they each wrote their own first draft of an SAT-style essay. But instead of collecting those drafts on our next class meeting and miserably scoring all 34 this weekend, I added another layer to the process – the group essay. In their Quarter Trio teams, I had students meet yesterday and share their drafts with their teammates. The trios then had 45 minutes to weave their work together into a fresh final draft.

Wondrously, my often-squirrelly sophomores were focused and finished on time. I heard several teams debating the merits of different body paragraph topic ideas and one boy said to me as he handed in his team’s paper, “I hope my real SAT essay is as good as this one,” which caused a lightning bolt to crack my brain. Group essays have incredible value, especially for my reluctant writers who need a little more modeling of the process behind the final product. Group essays don’t have to be used as a replacement for individual assignments; instead, they can be an addition to the overall writing program. Duh. Why didn’t I ever think of this before?

GroupEssays.jpgI was able to grade the teeny, tiny set of essays before my family woke this morning and I already have my talking points ready for when I see my kids next week. We’ll cover some common issues I noticed in the stack (they did a good job identifying specific rhetorical devices, but they’re still too reliant on second-person pronouns and need more variety in their sentence structures) and then the teams will come back together to read my feedback and complete their essay corrections. (Students are required to complete specific corrections for each of 10 major grammar and content errors they may have committed. More info about this system can be found here.) In the spring, just as I’d already planned, I’ll still use my Crazy Essay Week approach to have students work individually through a different set of SAT-style prompts.

The lesson I learned this week is that I’ve been a fool to dismiss a valuable technique simply because of my assumptions. Almost every tool, whether it’s an idea shared by a crafty colleague across the lunch table or some academic eye-candy spotted on Pinterest, can likely be morphed to fit my classroom and my style. Shame on me for being so quick to judge.

Teach on, everyone.

40 thoughts on “Okay, So I Was Wrong

  1. Julie McCullough says:

    I love all three of your SAT argument sets. I may have to give in to the idea of group essays sometime as well. I have 30 essays waiting to be graded. Good thing I have your rubrics to help me. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks, Julie! Yeah, it felt a little wild to surrender to the idea, but it really is helping my students and it’s not as though I’m using it in place of a full, individual assignment. Anything we can do to keep them writing without breaking our own spines has to be a good thing, right? 🙂

  3. Diana Douglas says:

    I love your work. You rock!

    I am most intrigued by this technique and have never heard of this in my district. How do you assess each student?

    We are required to have two grades per week in our gradebook. Unfortunately, it always come back to this piece of the puzzle.

    Thank you for such great tools.

  4. Great question, Diana! To avoid conflicts and keep things simple as we head into the end of the semester, I just gave 10 homework completion points for the draft they wrote overnight and 10 in-class writing completion points for every student who participated in the group re-write/final draft. No one was absent on Friday, but I would’ve just put “excused” in the gradebook for any student who missed the opportunity. The final drafts were marked and scored just as if they were going to be entered into the gradebook so the kids can see how they did, but those grades won’t actually be entered.

    I know some of my colleagues do grade the essay/project and everyone in the group receives the same grade, but that often becomes a real hornet’s nest of conflict. The only time I do a shared grade assignment is when students are given a choice as to which partner they want to work with and I always allow students to work solo, if they’d prefer. That way, if there’s a conflict within a team of two kids, I can say, “Well, you chose your partner. Perhaps next time you’ll want to align with someone else?”

    The real assessment of these skills will come in a month or so when each student writes his own essay. For this week, my aim was just to reinforce the process and I think the group essay helped do this. If your kids need extra writing practice, you might want to give this a try! 🙂

  5. Katie Miller says:

    So I’ve never thought about doing group essays in high school, but I definitely want to work them in (not just for the grading ease). In college, I had a class where the final project was a group research paper. I had no idea how to work with a group to research and write a paper. My group ended up getting a less than stellar grade. It would have been nice to have some practice high school. Also, if students ever end up writing papers professionally it will probably be written with a group.

  6. Good point, Katie! And with the availability of platforms like Google Docs, group collaboration on text-based items is definitely going to be expected in college and the workplace.

  7. Thanks for this! One of my principals one year told me I should give more collaborative work to build student confidence but I haven’t done it much yet. Good to see another teacher experimenting and finding something of value!

  8. Absolutely, swtspontaneous! I’m thinking this procedure will be a boon for you and them. 🙂

  9. Okay…I need to come and be your student teacher, just for a semester. Never mind that I’m in my 13th year in the classroom. I would really learn a lot from you. I work in an all girls detention facility (a juvenile jail). My kids are nowhere near as motivated and driven as yours seem to be, but my goodness! What I could do with them if I could glean some of your techniques! Teach me your ways…oh wise one!

  10. Ah, shucks, pinkroses912, now you’re making me blush. I’m in awe of you, though. Teaching within the juvenile justice system brings a whole different set of challenges to our work, something I know I’m not built for. So, thank you, for working with your girls and continuing to try new things to reach them. Your work matters – a lot!

  11. Hi Laura. Could you please share the article about intestinal worms, along with the essay prompt you created for it? I think my students would really like the topic. 😀

  12. Sure, Lexi! The article, text-based questions with answer key, essay prompt, and SAT-style rubric for the worms work is here:

    This one’s also included in my larger packet of SAT essay materials here:

    Hope this is helpful! 🙂

  13. Mary OConnell says:

    Laura and other colleagues of this crazy profession: I have always steered clear of “group” projects, mainly because there is inevitably the one kid who sits back and lets the others do all the work and still get the shared grade. But, after reading your experience, I am going to look into letting students work initially on a narrative (short story) and see if collaboration will work. As always, thanks for your wisdom and for taking the time to share.

  14. Oh yeah, Mary, we shouldn’t reward the drifter kid with a grade earned by the other, harder-working students. I had that happen too many times in my own experience as a student, and (yes, I was the over-achiever) I always silently hated group work because of it. That’s one of the reasons I offer the solo option when the project points count big. With completion points for the practice round, you can mitigate some of that and, I’ve found, the drifter kid’s grade isn’t impacted very much by the completion points anyway. He’ll still need to do his own for the big show on the “real” essay. Hope this is another tool to add to your teacher’s bag of tricks. 🙂

  15. Argument writing has always been a challenge for my students (your material helps, though!). I usually build my own text sets (each contains three articles on a topic – a pro, con, and an overview) to mimic the test that they will have to take for the state in the spring. For whatever reason, these essays are so much harder to read (tracking freshmen logic isn’t easy) and I usually feel unhappy with the end product. I came to the conclusion that they could write an argument essay easier if they didn’t have to use my text sets because those text sets could be limiting. Freshmen don’t want to argue what’s in front of them, they want to argue what they want! I didn’t want to scrap the text sets because they are the reality of the state test. Therefore, I had them work in groups to build an argument using the text sets. Then, after more feedback and more instruction, they wrote their own argument essay on whatever topic that they wanted. Of course, research skills had to be a factor in the individual assignment, and at the end of the quarter I had graded more essays than I would have if we had just done one round, but the end result was worth it. I felt like the kids that usually fell between the cracks got a chance to see and contribute to all of the stages of good writing. So, I think group essays can be used as a “cheat” for some teachers, but there is benefit with strategic use!

  16. I agree, Megan. Student choice of topics and buy-in to the process are huge in terms of the end product’s quality. I figured other folks were also wisely using group essays as part of the process of getting good writing out of our students. Just don’t know what took me so long to get on board!

  17. I have just finished this with a literature–poetry–analysis. I had groups of three. I gave all students the same prompt on the same poem. One class period was group work and whole class refining of the first sentence, then the second evidence based group of sentences. Then, day two was two more groups (example/elaboration of evidence) of sentences. Then the last day, the groups looked at the evidence and drew a conclusion that went beyond the first statement. To say this was difficult would be generous. But, with a rough draft of 8 -10 sentences or so, each student was then responsible for their own final draft. One more trick, before submitting for a grade, students performed a peer evaluation for 1/2 class, then the students edited/revised for 1/2 class based on eval. Without a doubt, the essays are stronger than ever. And I felt like I had given each student more feedback than before because I was able to give 3 kids the same feedback all at once, then they could trouble shoot. So, I am now grading them, and for the most part they are far above expectations. (8th graders) So—Even though I am still grading 130 or so, they are easier to grade.

  18. Absolutely, Debra! And a higher-quality end product makes for a much happier teacher. Glad you’re finding value in the group process, too! 🙂

  19. Hi, Laura! I’d just like to ask, how exactly do you go about picking apart released sample SAT essays from the College Board website?

    Also, how many different prompts do you have your students read/analyze the sample essays for before having them write their own SAT essays?

    Thanks! 🙂

  20. Addendum: One of my colleagues has her students annotate the sample essays with two colors – one for “positives” and one for “negatives.” Then, she has them assign the essays a score.

  21. Addendum: Another one of my colleagues has his students discuss the essay samples one by one in groups, then has them collectively assign each sample a score. They then have a full class discussion on one sample before moving onto the next.

    Sorry for adding so many comments… :/

  22. Funny, Kelsi! Never apologize for commenting on my blog. I love it! Okay, so I use three released sample essays that earned various levels of scores and then I have students sit in groups of three as they silently read and annotate each essay and individually assign it a score based on the College Board’s rubric. Then, the group discusses their scores and adjusts/modifies their scores until they reach consensus. Hearing them argue about the qualities of what makes one essay better than another is one of my favorite things! Finally, I reveal the actual score the essay earned and lead a class debrief of why and discuss what we’ve learned. We’ll do two of those “read-arounds” before they’re given their own to write. I also do all of this AFTER I’ve taught them the basics of strong SAT Essay writing/how to deconstruct argument with these materials: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/SAT-Essay-Prep-BUNDLE-Deconstruct-the-Argument-Rhetorical-Tools-SAT-Essay-492316

    It sounds like blind grading and reflection is a wise and common approach. Hope this helps!

  23. Hi, Laura! Thanks for replying. I’d still like to ask a few questions.

    How do you enter in SAT essay grades in the grade book, if you do?

    For when you had them write group essays, did you have to make them type or handwrite their final drafts? I imagine it’d be easier for them to work on a Google Doc by typing what they want to put in themselves than have to tell someone what to write.

    Finally, moving on to the Crazy Essay Week approach – since kids these days are very… “resourceful,” some might be tempted to look up sample responses to the prompts for “inspiration” or just do research on the prompt at home right after school so they can write better essays on Thursday. How do you deal with this? Do you just try to use prompts that don’t have sample responses online?

    Thank you! 🙂

  24. Hi Kelsi,
    For this batch, the group essays were handwritten (no access to 1:1 devices around here, though Google Docs would be a great tool to use here) and I scored the papers for feedback to student teams but not for points in the grade book. I think we focus too much on grading student writing when what they need more of is feedback to help them grow. It’s like a football team that practices five times before the big Friday night game. The five workouts don’t get scored because they’re just practice. The Big Game, or actual SAT Essay in this analogy, is the one that counts.

    As for Crazy Essay Week, I suppose an “enterprising” student could work that angle, but I don’t worry about that and there are a lot of released questions that aren’t on the current College Board website. Students aren’t allowed to have any notes or pre-written material when we begin and I’m thinking that kid would need some sort of mega-brain memory bank to make this worthwhile. Also, grammar is always half the points, so content alone doesn’t secure an “A” in my class. I guess I just have other things to worry about, you know.

    As always, hope this helps!

  25. Thank you! By the way, how many class periods (on a traditional “meet every day” schedule) does it take you to discuss all 3 sample SAT essays? Also, when you DO grade SAT essays, how do you put them in the grade book? Do you just add up all the scores (Reading, Analysis, Writing) to total up to 12 points?

  26. Of course, Kelsi. For a read-through and discussion of three essays, we can get that done in about 40 minutes of one class period. No need to drag it across multiple days. If I were to grade SAT-style essays for the grade book, I’d take the 4-4-4 rubric numbers and add them together to a score where “12” would be the maximum for a perfect A+ paper and then create a conversion chart that seems fair where 12 = 100 points, 9 = 85 points, etc. I figure the 4 is the A, 3 is the B, 2 is the C, 1 is the D. Also, all of this depends on where we are in the semester. Early on, essays aren’t worth as many points in my class as they are late in the term after students have learned and practiced the skills I expect to see. Really, I’m guessing there are lots of ways to crunch these numbers. I just always try to think about how I would want my own kid’s teacher to figure grades and then move in that direction. 🙂

  27. I see. By the way, what codes do you use for these SAT rhetorical analysis essay corrections? Do you use the exact same codes you use for literary analysis? Also, when you had your students write their initial drafts for this assignment, did you have them type it or handwrite it? Thanks 🙂

  28. For the codes, I adapted the ones I use for argument writing, since those were more closely aligned than any of the others. The literary analysis ones focus on different content points, not all of which were a good match for the SAT’s prompts. Finally, all of the group essay assignments and Crazy Essay Week essays are handwritten. I wish I taught at a 1:1 school, but tech is limited in my world so students handwrite their essays. Until the SAT essay becomes computer-based (we’re not there yet up here in Idaho), I figure the handwriting is also good because it closely mimics students’ actual testing experience on the Big Day. Thanks! 🙂

  29. Oh, alright. What about for comments for if:
    • their analysis that isn’t deep enough (which is not in the Argumentative/Expository code sheet)?
    • they’re on the right track with their analysis, but just need to explain more?
    • they misidentify the rhetorical devices in the text?
    • they fail to use quotes to illustrate the rhetorical devices
    • they fail to include the purpose of the rhetorical device they identified and its effect on the reader? (REALLY important)

    Do you have separate codes for those, or do you just handwrite those comments? Thanks! 🙂

  30. Either way would be fine. You can alter the code sheet to include those or just write notes in the margins. I prefer the codes because I like the speed/efficiency of them. Once you’ve graded one stack of those essays, you’ll know pretty quickly what codes you’ll want to add to the editable form. 🙂

  31. Oh, okay. I’m guessing you don’t have a separate code sheet for the rhetorical analysis feedback comments I posted, but that’s alright. If you do make a code sheet for SAT rhetorical analysis essays in the future, though, would you be willing to share it?

  32. Hi Laura, do you EXPECT/REQUIRE students to show different handwriting on group essays, or are you okay with having just one person write and the other three just give their ideas? Thanks! 🙂

  33. Hi Kelsi,
    I’ve used the group essay only sparingly over the years (I do see the value, but it’s always just an extra writing practice session when the calendar allows), and I’m fine with one person working as the scribe while the others condense/combine. When I do this again, I’ll book the computer lab (if possible, it’s usually pretty tightly packed with reservations) and have kids work together on a shared Google Doc. Lots of ways to manage this, I’m sure. Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

  34. Hi! So how do you handle students who might just rely on their group members and not write their own individual essay the night before for homework? Do you have your students turn in their individual essays?

  35. Good question, Heather. I have every student hoist his/her essay high in the air at the beginning of class so I can visually confirm that the assignment was completed. Only those with completed papers are allowed to participate in the group essay. Anyone without the assignment must work solo during that class period to write the essay. No HW = No group work

  36. I see. That’s good! How do you have those students make up the group essay if they forget to do the individual essay for HW? Also, do you have students work on group essays on Google Docs? If so, how do you keep students from searching up sample essays or evidence online?

  37. Oh no, Heather, that group essay opportunity window closes that day in class (it’d be nearly impossible to recreate that experience on a different day for those who didn’t bring their ticket to the party/their HW) and I mark their individual essay in place of everyone else’s group assignment. Also, none of my schools has ever been a 1:1 campus, so these in-class essays are all handwritten. I suppose I could book the computer lab, but those days are rarely available and I tend to reserve my lab time for research days. Cheating is a constant battle (more on that here: https://laurarandazzo.com/2018/07/31/wait-kids-will-try-to-cheat/), so in-class tech-free writing has become a mainstay in my classroom.

  38. Hi Laura! I read your conversation up there with Kelsi about how you do two essay sample “read arounds” before your students are to write essays on their own. Does that mean that they read multiple samples from two separate prompts or that they read two essays from one prompt? And just to be clear, how many sample essays do you have your students read before they’re ready to write an essay in groups and/or on their own? Thanks!

  39. Hi Heather,
    Yes, we do a read-around and grading of three essays all written on the same topic. The kids score the sample essays according to the rubric and then I reveal the marks/grades The College Board actually gave to those three essays and we discuss the elements that likely led to those scores. For example, eight samples are posted here, but I just choose three of these to print and use class: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sample-questions/essay/1
    Unfortunately, I’ve had time to do only one round of this before assigning the group essay, though it’s been so valuable I’m going to try to make the read-arounds a once-per-semester experience for future classes. Hope this helps and that you’re having a great summer! Laura

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: