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?
I 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.