I value writing as a learning tool, perhaps one of the most important learning tools. Whether short reflective assignments or responses to prompts or papers that carry an argument, my goal is to help students write their way through understandings of texts. However, having students do a lot of formal writing in non-writing intensive courses can be challenging, depending on the varying class sizes and course loads of different institutions. And, of course it is not assigning the writing or having students complete it or even grading it that is challenging, but giving substantive feedback on each assignment.
My literature classes, as is the case with many literature classes, spend quite a bit of time close reading texts. I work with my students to make them better close readers, but students struggle with the transition from verbal close reading discussions to the close reading that takes place in literary analysis papers. These practices are not different regarding the development of ideas or the ways we use the text. It is the linear organization, clear articulation of ideas and an argument, and how to reference the text while avoiding excessive summary that becomes the real challenge as students move from the verbal to the written.
In literature classes, if the purpose of the writing assignment is to make sure students are reading and/or thinking about the reading, then brief feedback is completely adequate. When I ask my students to write a paper, on the other hand, my personal expectations are that I will spend time responding to their writing and help them become better writers. This is where group papers come in handy.
In my Introduction to American literature course, we devote an entire week twice during the semester to in class group papers, once for writing about verse and once for writing about prose. These papers are short, two-page close readings. It took me a while to work out the specifics of this process—some trial and error in a few different settings, including group papers in writing classes—and I now have something I am very confident with.
While the novel changes from semester to semester, I continue to use Philip Freneau’s poem “Occasioned by General Washington’s Arrival in Philadelphia, On His Way to His Residence in Virginia.” This specific poem seems to be more easily accessible to students for their first formal close reading paper. In my experience, students’ knowledge of history is uneven, but they share a solid knowledge base when it comes to the American Revolution and George Washington. This enables students to move more quickly past the “what’s happening in the poem” into the “how’s it being described.”
Before we start the group papers, I like to give students some context for understanding the poem because we do not discuss it as a class before they write about it. I choose not to discuss it beforehand because I don’t want to lead students to forced readings of the poem and I do not want them all trying to fit every stanza of the poem into some agreed upon class interpretation. I
do, however, want them to understand Freneau as a poet. So, we read and briefly discuss another of his poems, “A Political Litany.” I set the two poems up as pre-Revolutionary War and post-Revolutionary War. I find that this initial introduction to Freneau, through his satirical poem that targets the British Monarchy, prepares students to better interpret the way the British are framed in “Occasioned by General Washington’s Arrival in Philadelphia, On His Way to His Residence in Virginia.” At this point in the semester, students have already been introduced to occasional poetry, but I also provide them with a brief reminder of its purposes.
After our short intro to Freneau and discussion, I break the students up into groups of three or four students, depending on the size of the class. For the prose paper, I give each group a different page to choose a passage from the novel we are reading; for the verse paper, I assign each group one or two stanzas from Freneau’s poem.
Although the groups have their individual piece of text to focus on, we move as a class through this process.
- First, I have them annotate the text. Out come laptops and smart phones as students start looking up words and debating which meaning best applies to the context. My students aren’t magical; more often than not, they do not look words up when doing the assigned readings at home, but give them some class time and watch the magic.
- Second, I ask them to identify the pieces of their annotations that stand out the most to them, whether it is patterns or ideas. From this, they decide which elements they want to focus on in their papers and start writing. If someone in the group has a laptop, then she/he is the typist; if not, one will student will write it out for the group and another will take it home and type it up.
While students are annotating, discussing, and writing these group papers, I move from group to group, checking in with them. I ask them questions about their stanzas and then about their annotations and eventually about the direction of their writing. For instance, students tend to be comfortable identifying the personification of “Freedom” (ln 8) and “Fame” (ln 14), so I really push them to explore what that does to the poem from its delivery to the content associated with them. Or, in stanza 5, I ask that group to identify who the speaker’s “their,” “thy,” and “thine” are referring to, the British or George Washington. Having the time and ability to work with students as they are in the wonderful throes of writing allows me to explain elements of writing about literature much more directly and within the context of that writing taking place.
I have students email me their group papers before class. I pull the papers up on the projector, turn on Word’s track changes, and we work on feedback together. In a class of 30, I have roughly 7-8 papers. So, we spend 7-8 minutes on each paper. Students get to see and participate in this feedback on their own and their classmates papers, which helps them in several ways. First, the repetition of giving similar types of feedback across the papers reinforces certain writing expectations. Next, the moments where each group did something distinct opens up possibilities or different ways of approaching the poem that they had not thought about in their groups. Finally, they are able to add to the other groups’ interpretations, continuing the collaborative process from the previous class period and showing how much further the close readings can be taken.
We, ultimately, have more time for this piece in a MWF class, than in the TR classes because we can spend the entire class period going over their papers. However, I typically scale back or cut day 3 from my TR version of the course, instead of day 2. If we do not make it through all the papers during the class period, I will finish them afterwards and add some additional comments to the ones we did discuss before emailing them back to their groups.
These first two days in the group paper writing process provide the one-on-one conference experience with the workshop writing model. Students have support from each other as they work through how to write about literature in the group setting. I am able to keep them on track with their writing and help them avoid the pitfall of too much summary. I give extensive feedback on 8 drafts, instead of 30, and I do much of it with the students themselves. And, by the end of it all, we have still discussed and worked our way through the poem.
Day 3 (aka bonus day for MWF sections)
Once we have shared the papers, we look for overlapping or related concepts. As a class, we develop possible thesis statements for longer literary analysis papers that might include a few of those close reading papers as evidence, and we consider the best organization of that evidence. For example, some group papers supported a larger argument about the poem foreshadowing George Washington’s future, others focused on the response to the British in the poem, and still others discussed an emerging critique of slavery.
We also spend time talking about the group papers that appear to be in direct contrast with one another. This is also very valuable for students in terms of developing ideas through writing and in showing why there isn’t necessarily a right answer. We also critique which paper appears to be better supported and what it would other sections of the poem might strengthen the weaker argument.
I do find this piece to be valuable, and in the TR version, I try to save 10-20 minutes for it just to get students’ minds headed in this direction. I would like to reiterate that the activities from the first two days are the most important for students in the group paper process, even though day 3 is probably the most interesting for us as teachers and lovers of arguments.
This collaborative process enables me to coach students on their writing, while working with the class to model how students might develop their own individual papers for the class and future assignments that ask them to write about literature. If we are going to expect a specific type of writing out of our students, then we need to make the time to help them succeed with that writing.