Feeling the weight of the HSC world on our shoulders, obstacles in the path of innovation – syllabus dot points, exams, misperceptions of incompetence – all too frequently plague our thoughts and stop us from taking risks where it often matters the most. Sometimes I have to stop and take a deep breath before I realise that I’ve been relying on lecturing and note-taking for far too many lessons with my year 12 Standard English class.
Yet – what can we do when we’re simply teaching to the test all the time?! Many a year 12 teacher has succeeded in scoring high marks on old-school brute teaching force. Does that make it ok? Well, if your goal is to simply score the marks (and let’s face it, as far as many schools, teachers, parents and students are concerned, that is the goal), then well and good. But if you’re of the variety that don’t sleep well at night in ordinary circumstances (and I’m an insomniac par excellence), then I don’t think you can have a true sense of integrity as a human being, let alone teacher, if you simply teach kids to mindlessly rote learn in order to succeed in life (because if you define success as a real sense of self-worth, then in reality you can’t succeed on those terms).
Where am I going with this? Well, yesterday, my class took a trip to a new BOS 2006 wikispace I cooked up based on the Board of Studies 2006 English HSC exam. What were my instructions for the lesson? I told my class we’d be doing an HSC paper together, by which I meant literally writing it together – one series of essays, multiply authored and edited to the point where we as a class were happy with what we’d written.
A word of warning to the wiki-novice: as one quickly learns, although wikipedia spaces of all kinds are pushed as collaborative spaces where all can contribute, one flaw is that if two users are editing a page simultaneously, it is easy for one to save a version ‘over the top’ of another, meaning that changes are lost and efforts wasted. With this in mind, I decided to compartmentalise four HSC questions – each into five sections which represent parts of an essay (introduction, paragraphs 1-3 and conclusion). By doing this, I created 20 editable sub-pages, corresponding to the 20 students in my class.
So – the idea in this case is that 20 students are each allocated a section of an essay which they work on for a short period of time, before the whole class is rotated and each student moves onto the next section. The hardest part? Students tend to resist the idea that they should start the process by working on a third paragraph or conclusion and, in the case of my class, failure to see exactly where I was going with this task meant that many students groaned and grumbled their way defiantly through the first 30 minutes of the lesson.
But – persisting in the idea that we were making collaborative pieces of work, telling students they could (and should) talk to each other about where the essay as a whole was going (for example, student A working on a third paragraph asks student B working on an intro “what should the third topic sentence be?”) I rotated my students through the first five edits. Gradually, the students became more involved, the groaning subsided and what emerged was fascinating. As we were writing together (I had allocated myself a part after discovering a student was off sick) a collective sense of ownership began to emerge. Students began arguing about what others had written, saying what had to be “cleared up,” “fixed up,” “changed” and so on, going to great efforts to justify why. The level of the argument overall was much more an intellectual debate, the quality of which I rarely see with this class. I was kicking myself for having left the camera in the library on this occasion!
Testing the water, at one point, I remarked “who was the last person to work on the Billy Elliot conclusion? They did a fantastic job!” to which a student (usually a classic non-participator) replied “it wasn’t just them who came up with it, all of us over here worked on that section too!”
By the end of the lesson, we had come very close to finishing four essays. Each essay had been in the truest sense written by everyone. I find it remarkable to think that an old saying like “let’s do an essay together” really can’t be said to be collective authorship in the way that web 2.0 has defined it.
For my next post, I’d like to publish the final version of one of the essays and document some of the feedback when we read the finished products next week. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from others who have tried collaborative writing at senior English (or other subject) level.