How I Finally Figured Out Collaborative Writing
By Amber Rain Chandler
I want to share some of what I’ve learned this year about having students work collaboratively on writing assignments (and how I graded them). But first I need to say this:
When it comes to how we approach students’ learning, I’d like to suggest that the world of school is absolutely archaic compared to the “real world” of our students.
It all fell into place for me when my son and husband were playing Super Mario Brothers on the Wii.
As someone who came of age in the 80’s, my husband was reliving his childhood. But Oliver, my 8-year old, noticed something right away that appalled him: When you “die,” you have to start all over again.
To us, that is just how games work, but he wanted to know:
Why go all the way back to the beginning and re-do the part you already know? Why not go online, find someone who knows how to skip that level, and learn how?
This small moment has given me insight into this generation’s learning process in a way that nothing else has. He had nailed the paradigm shift in teaching that I previously couldn’t put my finger on.
Today’s students need to know how to find and obtain answers that keep them moving forward because they live in a world where information is not the currency, but the ability to use information is.
Knowing what to know
I think we can all agree that in the real world there are few instances where we are not allowed to ask for help or seek out experts – few situations where we absolutely must struggle alone and hope that we’ll suddenly understand. Yet this happens in most schools every day.
Meanwhile, in 21st century workplaces industry and business people complain when an employee doesn’t know how to solve problems with a team. The ability to memorize and “know your stuff” (including a lot of stuff you don’t need to know) isn’t nearly as important as it once was.
When a student can find out the answer to a question in the time it takes to write this paragraph, two things are illustrated: (1) the information doesn’t have to be memorized if it is that easy to locate; and (2) the real skill is knowing where to find the best, right answer.
In The Washington Post’s January 2015 article, “Why are so many college students failing to gain job skills before graduation?”, reporter Jeffery J. Selingo shares part of an important conversation with prominent thought leader John Leutner, head of global learning at Xerox.
“People know how to take a course. But they need to learn how to learn,” Leutner told him. The reason so many new workers take time management courses, he said, is that while they were in college someone else set their priorities for them. “College graduates now move into a contextual job, not a task-based job.”
In my son’s case, he knew that the information was out there (in the form of tips or online tutorials), and he wanted to use it as his own without having to experience the multiple trial and error moments that people of my generation refer to as “the learning curve.”
This is not to say that students don’t have to have perseverance and stamina (along with research skills). But we need to teach them (and sometimes let them teach us) when to exert that stamina, ultimately finding their own best way to solve a problem.
That said, it’s also crucial that we don’t push an agenda that makes all knowledge equal. We must make sure our students know what they need to find out for themselves and what they can relegate to Siri.
The pathway to non-compliance
The message coming from today’s workplace is this: It’s the job of educators to set students upon a path that leads to independence. But so many times we are viewed as a superior teacher if we have created a terrific system of compliance that does just the opposite.
How often do we reward students for the “right” answer? When do we encourage them to seek information, nuance and understanding beyond what we’ve given them to memorize and regurgitate?
How do we motivate students to be their own best selves, even when the teacher isn’t grading the work or looking over their shoulder?
How do we make writing collaborative?
I set out this year to allow a more collaborative approach in an area where I was least comfortable loosening my teacher’s grip: writing. I’ve always been about the group projects, team presentations, and activities that promoted collaboration. However, for whatever reason, I’ve always held back from allowing students to work together on their writing.
Perhaps it’s because the writer in me couldn’t fathom bringing my thoughts together, on paper, with another person. Or, a more honest answer might be that I didn’t really know what “collaborative writing” should look like. How do you grade something that multiple people have worked on?
I asked the people who know best, my students, what they thought. If I were to allow them to collaborate on their essay for the novel we were completing, how would I know who did what part of the work? What kind of grading could I do?
Guess what. They had the answers even before I’d finished rambling about how I wasn’t sure it could work.
“Well, we could do the whole thing as a Google Doc. Each of us could chose a different color ink, so you’d know who did what part,” Amanda explained.
“And,” Dan added, “all we really have to do to see the whole editing process is to write our suggestions in the comments. Then, we’d share you on it to grade.”
“Ok,” I said, “but how do I grade it? What if there is a student who has horrible grammar on his part? Do I dock the whole group points?”
“I think everyone is responsible for the whole thing. You’ll see in the comments if I told someone that they had mistakes. You’ll be able to trace what happened. If someone doesn’t make the corrections, that’s on him. But, I think everyone will listen to their Resource Group,” Megan said, reasonably.
I took a deep breath and jumped in
So I gave it a try, and it was the best writing we had all year. My students were working diligently, having side conversations about each other’s writing. (Mostly. They are still teenagers).
One thing is for sure, if I had asked them to print their papers and then given them each a colored pencil to edit his or her partner, this would not be nearly as effective.
One thing I noticed right away is that they wanted to continue to make progress and keep writing/typing their paper while someone else was looking it over and commenting – reminding me of Oliver’s admonition that he could just learn as he went along. Talk about a 21st century skill.
In addition to the camaraderie that developed around this writing activity, I enjoyed seeing that my students had not only shared me on their final copy, but they’d also shared it with parents, other friends, my special education teachers, and even the librarian. They had recognized immediately one of the best benefits of this collaborative approach – that this writing was a community product.
And this communal attitude toward writing is practical. Just today, I collaborated with two 8th grade ELA teachers in the creation of a rubric. We then shared our department chair and principal on the document. Every single person had something to contribute, and the final draft was better for it.
So what about the grading, you ask?
You might imagine that grading was difficult, but I did not receive a single complaint when I graded the group as a whole and then assigned another separate grade for their individual contributions.
I learned a lot from this first experience, and I plan to continue to expand the collaborative aspect of writing because it really is the expectation of 21st century workplaces that new employees will be able to work both collaboratively and individually, while problem solving and taking risks.
Just as Oliver wants to forge ahead, relying on the collective knowledge of gamers to help propel him forward through the whole Super Mario universe, I’m hoping to see collaborators work together, learn together, and create together – an approach that will increase student engagement, understanding, and quality of work.
I’d love to hear what you’re experiencing as you try to get serious about collaborative student work . . .please share in the comments!
Feature image: Flickr Creative Commons
Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified middle school teacher and the author of The Flexible ELA Classroom. She is an adjunct professor at Canisius College where she teaches “Differentiating Instruction.” Amber blogs regularly for ShareMyLesson and Getting Smart, contributes to AMLE Magazine, and provides NBCT candidate support for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. She is inspired by project-based learning and is the recipient of a Novo Foundation grant to make a documentary about her students’ journey in creating a positive online identity. Follow Amber on Twitter @MsAmberChandler and join her website Do You Differentiate for practical tips and resources.