The objective was simple. Read something. Think and talk about it. Write. Nothing earth-shattering in that plan. However, one small wrinkle framed the exercise--writing partners. In pairs or threes, talk out your questions and ideas, and write something together.
I don't care what you write about or what it evolves into, I just want it to come from a collaborative effort floating on conversation.
When I sat down with two 8th graders and asked them how this experiment in collaborative writing went, Sebastian shared "at first it was a one-sided conversation..." Classmates asked for his opinion about Cuba, Communism, and Socialism. They knew that Sebastian liked to read history and current events. Our shared article about Castro and Cuba sparked different questions from many pairs and groups of students.
However, Sebastian noted that the learning process turned around for him personally the more he spoke. He discovered that the act of speaking his prior knowledge, current curiosity, and evolving thinking gave him something back--clarity. Talking helping Sebastian refine his ideas:
"...the act of you responding to questions was helpful...I had that information in my head, and I was trying to put it down on my own paper...I was just having problems [writing], but once I started talking I started explaining it and [writing] became easier..."
The other young man in the conversation, Ansh, explained that three pairs of writing partners sat together in a larger group of six. So, as three different essays were in development each partner pairing leaned on other partner pairings for ideas. They shared ideas with their direct writing partners and they cross referenced ideas with others. Ansh said, "we kind of merged our ideas together and yet we still wrote very different papers."
Ansh added, "having [writing] partner makes your views different...you see things from a different perspective...and that helps...working with peers, it really made my writing better..."
Collaborative writing isn't new. And it certainly isn't a stretch to ask people to do it. As a matter of fact, writers rely on the act of collaboration every day in order to develop their thinking. Perhaps one does not always co-write an article or a novel, but a writer will talk and share ideas with writers as his thinking evolves. We learn that writers collaborate using many methods, many strategies, and many sets of eyes and ears.
I love that these boys made a large group of six, some wrote and talked with one partner exclusively and continuously, while some others in the classroom worked in a partner pairing that only touched base in increments (after the individuals wrote privately, away from others). Even more rewarding was the discovery that Ansh and Sebastian discovered that because of the things they do naturally as writers that they were "on the path" of not only becoming better writers, but "on the path" of writing for themselves as observers of the world.
Together, we learned that the collaborative writing process was as varied as penmanship and that fact is ok.
With space for agency, any human being (of any age) will collaborate how they need it, when they it, according to their strengths and comfort level.
All of our students can learn to collaborate effectively to become better writers. Yet, collaborative writing is not a move that teachers instinctively add to their classrooms since collaborative writing is not part of the process when students are assessed by the state or how one has traditionally evaluated writers. Collaboration has been relegated to "edit my work"...and it can be much much more than that.
Someone may want to inform the state that if they want to see kids write well then we may want to start by rethinking the model found on all of our state tests and increasingly inside of classrooms: writing bound and gagged inside a silo.