July 2nd, 2012
Our Blogstitute continues this week with a post by Kristi Latimer and Kimberly Hill Campbell, authors of Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay. They share how using group discussions and a collaborative essay assignment energized class discussions and elevated student essays while teaching the novel The Awakening.
What do you think it was about the group assignment that had such an impact on students’ level of engagement with the novel? Share your thoughts in the comments section.
Success with the Collaborative Essay
In Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay, Kimberly Campbell and I discuss the possibilities offered by collaborative student writing. I decided to experiment with this form recently when teaching The Awakening to a class of International Baccalaureate seniors. In past years, I had always found this book a difficult “sell” for students. Although most students in the room embraced the challenge of analyzing a classic text, they disliked the protagonist and thought that, because the plot was easily understandable, they could dismiss the text and avoid digging below the surface to find meaning. Class discussion stagnated, and writing was shallow.
I had always thought that The Awakening lent itself to analytical writing more than any other novel I taught in that class. I assumed that, because the plot was understandable, students could spend their energy discussing the significance of key events and characters. So, this year, I decided to experiment. I crafted a unit plan ending in a collaborative essay, hoping that the structure of assigning both a motif to track and a group to work with would enable them to connect their comprehension to a specific stylistic aspect and then push their thinking as they discussed their discoveries. I am happy to report that more students than ever “liked” the novel. More important, this essay and their collaboration challenged—and rewarded—them as writers much more than I could have anticipated. In short, this unit felt like the best teaching I have done all year and resulted in the best essays they had yet written.
To set up the unit, I assigned students to groups and gave each group one of the following motifs to track: eyes and hands, music, literal sleep and waking, light/dark, houses and rooms, clothing, and birds and wings. Students received a calendar that outlined approximately thirty pages of reading each night. During reading they would tab passages that contained their motif, and before class they were to write one paragraph explaining how, in that particular section of reading, their motif connected to one of Edna’s “awakenings” (understanding her role as a wife and mother, becoming an artist, becoming a sexual being, becoming an intellectual). I delivered a writing mini-lesson during each class, and students revised other group members’ paragraphs using what they learned. The mini-lessons focused on such topics as varying sentence structure, incorporating strong verbs, and incorporating quotations. By the end of the novel, each student had written five paragraphs; depending on the size of each group, they now had between fifteen and twenty paragraphs from which to draw as they moved toward constructing the final essay. (See assignment sheet.)
During this unit, I took attendance, delivered the mini-lesson, and then wandered from group to group discussing the novel. The vast majority of the time, group members kept each other on task, discussing their findings and analyzing Edna’s plight. They revised enthusiastically. It felt magical: their discussions were not guided by me but by their own reading and writing. I wondered what, ultimately, was the source of the magic in the classroom. Was it the joy of working with a group? The clarity of the writing and reading assignments? The scaffolding? In a class where students often fear being “wrong,” they had enough structure in the reading to find something meaningful but also enough freedom to determine their own arguments. I can say with confidence that it wasn’t the text. Kids have loathed this novel in the past—this year, their discussions were lively, confident, and complex.
The final essays were, by far, the best writing I had read from students all year. Simply transitioning from paragraph to paragraph and making sure the thesis was reflected in the entire essay posed an enormous challenge for them. Yet something about group work and constant revision helped them deepen their arguments. What’s more, the sacred cow of teaching analytical writing appeared: their papers had voice! One group, assigned the motif of birds and wings, wrote about Edna’s need to “molt” societal expectations and about the dangers of Alcee Arobin, her lover, who was nothing but a shallow songbird (a robin). Another group, digging deep into the implications of eyesight, perception, and identity, eventually researched developments in optics in the early twentieth century and connected those scientific discoveries to the novel. I have never smiled so much while reading student analysis.
For those of you wondering if this assignment will apply to other levels of language arts teaching, I answer with an emphatic “yes.” I had great success using a similar approach with Of Mice and Men in a freshman English class. The group structure provided an excellent opportunity for differentiation. Rather than tracking motif, students followed one character throughout the novel. I considered students’ range of abilities and levels of excitement about reading, and assigned characters accordingly. Novice readers tracked Lennie or George; more expert readers tracked Slim or Crooks. They still wrote paragraphs for every day of reading and revised each other’s work in class in response to writing mini-lessons. They shared ideas with a group of students who were assigned the same character, and at times they “taught” kids in different groups about their assigned character.
Ultimately, these unit plans facilitated and supported close reading, group discussion, clear goals for writing revision, and confident, creative voice in analytical student writing.