Michele Davis, Lauren Gaffney, and I were interested in approaching our senior college essay unit differently this year focusing on more collaboration work done outside of class. Typically, we have our students compose a series of essays of which the teacher responds and provides feedback to the student. For my class, my students write three essays dealing with either a crossroads in their life, how have their parents impacted them, and a who am I essay.
Over the years, I have changed the focus of the essays to meet the needs of the colleges they are applying to, but for the most part in the past, it has been an out of class, teacher to student assignment. To give myself some credit, I do have them use Word’s reviewing toolbar to peer edit one final paper in class. Also, I have them conference with me about their final essay before they turn it in so we can discuss changes one on one.
However, even with all this work, Michele, Lauren, and I wanted something more this year from our seniors. We wanted them to connect with one another and see what their peers were saying. Last year, Michele had used Google Groups with her seniors to submit their essays online so that their classmates would be able to provide valuable feedback to the posted work. After discussing how to do this, we came up with the following criteria so that our combined 5 sections of seniors could upload, comment, and read their peers work. We had some basic criteria in completing this assignment:
Post one final essay
Students can choose to post anonymously. We actually came up with a coding system of the teacher’s last name followed by a number (Smith 4).
Students could choose to use their names to post, but no last names. (Anne S)
All students needed to post their essay by the same date.
Students need to give constructive criticism and valuable feedback to at least 5 other essays. (These essays need to be students in other classes)
Constructive criticism needs to be memorable and helpful.
I will have my students blog about their feelings on this assignment, but most really felt the process was helpful. Some suggestions that we need to think about next time we do this:
· What does constructive criticism look like? Some kids received valuable feedback while others had no comments.
· Clearer identification of who is in what class.
· Do we want to open up the essays to a larger audience?
Overall, I think we are on the first steps to a really valuable and interactive assignment. I really feel that in order for the seniors to become the best writers they need to read what other students/ writers are producing- as well as the great writers of literature (We don’t want to forget Oedipus’ memorable crossroads or was it a fork in the road). This assignment enabled them to do so. In fact, when I asked them if they would want to put their essay out their for the whole world, many said yes, but only if they could go back and make the changes that their peers had suggested as well as what we talked about in our teacher student conference.
Michele’s comments on set-up and process…
Building this site was quite simple. Google groups make it easy and user-friendly. Google groups also provide pages to help users navigate their way through the site. One such link is the Google Groups Quick Start Guide. Google groups has 3 easy steps to follow to start: 1) set up the group (name it and decide who can view the site), 2) add members (if you like), and 3) add information to your page (add additional pages, upload information, change the logo, change the access, etc.).
We decided to set our College Essays site up so that we did not have to invite students; they just needed a Google account to sign in. If students did not have an account, we had them register for one. (One somewhat annoying aspect was that every time a student puts their paper (adds a page as Google groups calls it) on the site, it emails the managers.) This was a little bothersome, but it did show us who was responding by the deadline.
Overall, I love how this site provides an opportunity for students to place essays and get feedback from multiple readers. And, for this assignment, students go feedback from students in other teachers’ classes. The benefit, we feel, is that we all teach the college essay a little differently, so students from other classes will notice different things, find different areas to improve, etc. Since this was the students’ first drafts, we did not prompt them on what to respond to; however, next year, I would like to have 3-4 things for the students to critique in particular: voice, narrative, word choice, and getting to know the student. Students, for the most part, were specific with their comments, but I think it could be more focused.
For next year, I will have students comment on three essays instead of five so the feedback is more authentic; several students felt like five comments were too many and that peer readers started getting lazy with their feedback. In addition, I would spend a class period talking about how to give good, specific constructive criticism based on the final rubric on which their essays were graded. Another student suggested that teachers comment on the essays of students who are not in their classes so writers not only receive feedback of students outside of their class, but also receive the opinion of another teacher.