Keywords: English Language Arts, Writing, Cooperative Learning, Assessment, Literary Analysis
Introduction and Context
After graduating with my masters degree, I bounced around a few supply and short-term teaching jobs in my home state of Georgia before landing a long-term engagement. The school was in an affluent Georgia suburb. The student body was mostly white, there are relatively few students on free and reduced lunch, and most students and their families have college aspirations. The community praises the school, its students, and its teachers when they are asked to talk about it, so it was a pleasant and rewarding place to work. During my 10 years there, I taught 9th grade literature, 11th grade American Literature, 12th Grade British Literature, and Yearbook.
Most of the time I spent teaching, I had a concept of learning based on individual achievement, products, and grades. In my seventh year of teaching I entered into a graduate program that encouraged me to try some new stuff. For one, I designed a summative writing assessment connected to reading Ayn Rand’s Anthem for my ninth-graders that was a co-constructed product. They shared the writing, the editing, the learning, and the grade with their partners, and it is now a regular part of my teaching.
Events, Actions, and Outcomes
I assigned this co-constructed literary analysis essay to two sections of honors ninth grade language arts students. Using shared interests of the students, I grouped the students into pairs or triads. I thought more than three might put too many cooks in the kitchen.
I taught and wanted to assess the students for their ability to know and use the elements of an expository essay (e.g. introduction, body, conclusion, thesis, claim, evidence, warrant) to construct a literary analysis argument. Another wrinkle that I added was to have the students choose a lens through which to analyze the book (e.g. feminist, marxist). That lens adoption approach may have been a little much, but I thought that working in pairs or groups of three might give them support in doing that kind of difficult thinking. I also had goals that were less capturable on a rubric, so I had to rely on informal formative assessment. These learning objectives included making meaning with peers about literature, developing a cohesive conceptual argument with others, and sharing the tasks related to constructing a polished manuscript with others.
We spent multiple instructional days in the writing groups developing understanding of the lenses, brainstorming arguments, constructing thesis statements, identifying textual evidence, writing, and proofreading. As an honors course, these students were used to individual success, and a few students asked to complete the assignment on their own. I didn’t allow it. I instead tried to understand the anxieties of the students that made the request and facilitated conversations with their partners about how to move forward together. These same anxieties of shared responsibilities and consequences surfaced again about grades.
Since they were co-constructing the manuscript, I didn’t attempt or couldn’t conceive of how to assign individual, separate grades. That goes against heavily socialized schooling beliefs and norms that grades are individually awarded. Those beliefs made it hard for me and my students to work through this assessment. Formally, I used the rubric on each manuscript, and I assigned each pair or triad the same grade.
Along with the stress of combining efforts on a major assignment, there were some positives. I also observed that some students had some of the most productive developmental conversations of the semester. I also witnessed them struggle with how to integrate another’s interpretation of literature with their own, often letting go of arguments about which they were passionate in the pursuit of working with others. The proofreading phase was also good. I had done peer review before, but never had the students have so much stake in proofreading others’ work since it was their own too.
There were some confusions and patchworked ideas and language produced as well. For instance, one thesis statement was, “Through its’ inequality and lack of respect for women, the novel Anthem creates an exaggerated androcentric community of today’s societies.” This statement shows an emerging understanding of how to operationalize feminism in literary criticism and the choppy phrasing and inconsistent syntax speaks of compromise of multiple authoring voices. That word “androcentric” is almost definitely a word that I suggested. I mostly view these disjointments as positive because it suggests that the students were working to integrate multiple perspectives and taking writing and reading risks. In that way, I felt confident that this summative assessment was also formative. Also, recognizing my own direct influence in their writing makes me a proud silent partner in their writing construction. Previously, I would have felt embarrassed to see such a direct influence on a students writing because it felt like I was doing the work for them, but I now feel more like I am working with them.
Cooperative board gaming is my new favorite game type. These games pit the players against the villains in the game rather than against each other. Players make individual decisions that affect the group, talk to other players to help them, and the consequences and victories are shared. Sociocultural theorists like Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner argue that all meaning is socially constructed, even when the thinking occurs internally. The American values often focus on individual achievement, but there is great value in learning to struggle and succeed with others. There is a good amount of research showing cooperative learning to be more effective than competitive and individualistic learning (Ahmad & Mahmood, 2010; Herman, 2013; Johnson et al., 2014; Ning & Hornby, 2014; Sears & Pai, 2012). Cooperative learning has been shown to be good for students in specific English skills such as reading comprehension (Khan & Ahmad, 2014; Zuo, 2011) and writing (AbdelWahab Mahmoud, 2014). This co-constructed assessment embraced the social nature of learning, asked students to use each other as assets in their learning, and challenged current assumptions and norms about the focus on the individual in American schooling.
AbdelWahab Mahmoud, M. M. (2014). The effectiveness of using the cooperative language learning approach to enhance EFL writing skills among Saudi university students. Journal Of Language Teaching & Research, 5(3), 616-625. doi:10.4304/jltr.5.3.616-625
Ahmad, Z., & Mahmood, N. (2010). Effects of cooperative learning vs. traditional instruction on prospective teachers’ learning experience and achievement. Journal of Faculty of Educational Sciences, 43(1), 151-164.
Herman, K. (2013). The impact of cooperative learning on student engagement: Results from an intervention. Active Learning Higher Education, 14(3), 175-185. doi:10.1177/1469787413498035
Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (2014). Cooperative learning: Improving university instruction by basing practice on validated theory. Journal On Excellence In College Teaching, 25(3/4), 85-118.
Khan, S. A., & Ahmad, R. N. (2014). Evaluation of the effectiveness of cooperative learning method versus traditional learning method on the reading comprehension of the students. Journal Of Research & Reflections In Education (JRRE), 8(1), 55-64.
Ning, H., & Hornby, G. (2014). The impact of cooperative learning on tertiary EFL learners’ motivation. Educational Review, 66(1), 108-124. doi:10.1080/00131911.2013.853169
Sears, D., & Pai, H. (2012). Effects of cooperative versus individual study on learning and motivation after reward-removal. Journal of Experimental Education, 80(3), 246-262.
Zuo, W. (2011). The effects of cooperative learning on improving college student’s reading comprehension. Theory and Practice in Language Studies 1(8), 986-989. doi:10.4304/tpls.1.8.986-989