Tag, You’re It! Using Choice and Surprise to Engage Students in Essay Workshops

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Elizabeth Catanese is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Community College of Philadelphia. Trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction, Elizabeth has enjoyed incorporating mindfulness activities into her college classroom for over ten years. Elizabeth works to deepen her mindful awareness through writing children's books, cartooning and parenting her energetic twin toddlers, Dylan and Escher.

I have found that many of the lessons that students enjoy the most have a healthy blend of choice and surprise. I enjoy the paradox; a core aspect of choice is control and a core aspect of surprise is releasing control. One example of an engaging activity that involves choice and surprise for students is essay-tagging.

Here’s how I came to it. I used to spend a lot of time grouping students for writing workshops. I’d write down observations about individual students’ writing. Then I’d try to create heterogeneous groupings with mixed skill levels and mixed interest levels. I’d also group students based on my perceptions about how they would feel interacting with groupmates at an interpersonal level: Would they like their group mates enough to work with them?

For those of you who teach writing, you know that the writing workshop can be inherently fraught. Even with meticulous scaffolding, outcomes can be uneven, and the experience can be unpleasant for students for a variety of reasons, from students not showing up to students not wanting to talk to their peers about their writing. Add to that a teacher-driven workshop-group makeup, and you can get an exhausted teacher and cynical students before the writing workshop even begins.

For a while, emboldened with the idea that choice matters, I started telling students to pick their own groups. There were some benefits to this, but engagement was still not at its highest, and suddenly I was getting flashbacks about being picked last for every sports game in middle school gym class. I needed another plan. Unfortunately, a plan did not emerge. For years, I just vacillated between doing writing workshops and not doing them and grouping intentionally and randomly. I had no pedagogical consistency—and no good plan in sight.

Then, in 2018, when my twins were born, I started cartooning about parenting and posting my cartoons on Instagram @singlemomtwins. It was my first real foray into Instagram, and I got a bit hashtag happy. I loved how people could find what they were looking for by searching how you’d labeled your work, so I decided to see if I could apply this to my writing workshops.

The idea was simple. Students would write some hashtags at the top of their essays that would identify the themes and examples in their work. I told students that their hashtags could represent big ideas or even small points that came up, and they could be playful. Give an example about your time in Australia in one of your paragraphs? That would be #Australia. Talk about persistence? #dontgiveup. Focus on the gods in ancient Greece? #Greekgoddramallamas. I didn’t limit the number of hashtags. Then, I posted each essay title (without its author) on a LMS page with the hashtags next to it. Each essay title was hyperlinked so that when students clicked on it, it would open the full essay along with its author. The essay they selected is the essay they would critique. Students picked the essay they wanted to workshop based on the hashtags that interested them and put their name next to their selection after they picked it so that everyone was chosen! (In our LMS, all I had to do was give students editing power for the page.) This activity created choice—students could pick an essay with topics that intrigued them. It also created surprise. They had no idea who wrote the essay or what it would actually be about when they clicked on it.

Students loved being able to pick what they were going to read. It helped get them invested in the work. Students also appreciated that they were chosen not by randomness or personality but by what they chose to write about. I assigned students four key questions or prompts to answer about the essay they were workshopping: Usually two prompts would be technical, such as “identify the thesis statement and explain whether it contains the required components” or “select the paragraph that has the clearest sentences and explain why you think so.” The other two questions would be about engagement, such as “did this essay live up to its hashtags?” or “what might make this essay more interesting to you?” Students submitted their feedback to me for credit, and then I gave the feedback to the students whose work they critiqued, along with my comments. And that was it. That constituted the workshop.

Some students talked with each other about their feedback outside of class, and it certainly would work to group students up for a debrief after this activity, but I found that the written feedback was enough to motivate students to write compelling future drafts.

And now … tag, you’re it! I’d love to know what you’ve done to engage students in the essay workshop (or similar pedagogical activity). Share your thoughts by commenting below!