Even experienced teachers sometimes face fragmented classrooms. We've all almost certainly found ourselves dealing with a class that feels more like a collection of individual teacher-student relationships than a genuine academic community. What strategies bring students and teacher together into just such a community? How do you get everyone invested in a common goal? Is there a way to get students to form academic relationships both inside and outside the classroom?
With the help of the Writing Program, we've developed a group project with such goals in mind. Working in small groups, students in some first- and second-year English writing courses form editorial boards of academic journals. Each board defines its own journal topic, then solicits, selects, edits, and publishes essays written by other students in the class. Each group's project grade depends on both the quality of the papers it publishes and the quality of the editorial feedback it offers. Each student then has a powerful incentive to learn the course material and meaningful occasions to share that learning. The project encourages students to listen closely to each other, to question each other, and to learn from each other, even when-in fact, especially when-they disagree.
This semester-long group project requires each student to play two related roles: editor and author. As editors, students work on boards of four or five people to manage, edit, and produce issues of academic journals. Each editorial board calls for papers on a topic of its choice related to the course theme. Other students write on the journal's topic and submit their papers to the board, which then selects the most promising essays, advises the authors on how to improve them, and binds all the finalized drafts into a journal issue to be distributed to the entire class. As authors, students write essays for the other groups in the class and must get one essay published in each of the class's journals (except their own). Students may not publish the same essay more than once, and they may not submit the same essay to more than one journal at a time.
To get full credit for the project, each editorial board must produce these documents:
Samples and detailed descriptions of each of these elements appear in the Project Manual.
In general, this project fosters independence and interdependence, and every student becomes a creator of and a contributor to a unique community of scholars. More specifically, each of the above assignments tackles a specific skill related to these aims:
CFPP: Students must identify and agree on a topic that they find interesting and worth exploring in greater depth. This task fosters greater independence, a sense of responsibility, and a spirit of active inquiry, since they can no longer passively accept what the teacher directs them to study. Of course, they'll stay within reasonable limits since they must work within the course material and have their CFPPs approved by the teacher.
Annotated bibliography: By looking at journals published in the field, students become familiar with writing within their discourse community, and they become aware of a world beyond Time and Newsweek. They also see a real academic community at work.
Editorial exercises: Communication is, of course, at the heart of an intellectual community. In addition to teaching students communication strategies, these responses to sample student essays give students practice at articulating what they know, a skill that will be reinforced when they critique their classmates' essays later in the semester.
Progress reports: Here's where supervision actively kicks in: The reports tell you what each group has done and what they plan to do. They also make students reflect on how they will distribute the work among the group members and what they will do in the weeks to come. Students benefit from the better communication and organization these reports ask them to cultivate.
Archive: Along with the journal issue, the archive gives students a real sense of accomplishment and mastery, since it contains all the paperwork that went into producing the journals. We've found that students often take a certain amount of pride in collecting their correspondence into a huge volume, and they almost get competitive, sizing up the thickness of other groups' archives on the day they're due. Obviously, this activity also demands a high level of organization and provides another occasion for teacher supervision.
Journal issue: Nothing can compare to the last day of class when the groups hand out their finished projects. Everyone excitedly flips through the journals, eager to see their own names in print and to see how others chose to present the material. No matter how much time and energy they've already devoted to editing, in the final hours each group always manages to go all-out with fancy graphics and bold covers, injecting a little fun into a real scholastic endeavor. The journals also make wonderful records-for students and teachers alike-of the learning and labor that made the course a success.