Collaborative Learning and Writing: Essays on Using Small Groups in Teaching English and Composition

Article excerpt

Collaborative Learning and Writing: Essays on Using Small Groups in Teaching English and Composition, edited by Kathleen M Hunzer. Jefferson: Mcfarland & Company Inc., 2011. 227 pp.

I scratched my head in confusion as the last students filed out of my classroom, unable to understand what had just taken place. I thought the collaborative learning unit on Rhetorical appeals I developed was pedagogically sound. I asked students, with my assistance, to break down how political advertisements use different rhetorical appeals, asked them in groups to craft their own political platforms and advertisements then present them to the class. Finally, we held a vote to see which new political advertisement was most successful in persuading their audience by discussing the rhetorical appeals used. But my initial enthusiasm and confidence quickly faded, as each class became disengaged, quickly rushing through the activity and moving on to non-related matters despite my continual questioning and engagement in the group process. The presentations, not showing complexity and integration of class material, reflected this non-critical thought process and lack luster performance. I racked my brain to try to figure out what happened. But, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't pin point the possible factor that led to the activity's failure, as other group activities had been successful. I, once again, began to question the effectiveness of collaborative learning.

It was a few days later, sitting on my patio drinking a cup of hot coffee and reading Kathleen M. Hunzer's collection, Collaborative Learning and Writing: Essays on Using Small Groups in Teaching English and Composition, I found many of the same questions I had about my collaborative learning activities being asked. How do I choose groups? How do I setup assignments specifically for collaborative learning? What pedagogical considerations do I need to make? How do I insure labor is fair and equitable between group members? But, unlike books and essays which only provide a very narrow lens through which to view collaborative learning, Hunzer provides us with "a practical sourcebook that answers these questions" and "provides us helpful advice" through an in depth collection of varied and crucial theory on the use of collaborative learning in classrooms (3-4) . To accomplish this task, Hunzer breaks up the collection into five sections, each one based on answering a common question surrounding the use of collaborative learning within classrooms.

The first part, consisting of four essays, tries to answer the question "why [are] collaborative learning and peer review . . . important"? (3). The section begins with Jason Wirtz's article "Writing Courses Live and Die by the Quality of Peer Review," which provides a general overview of why we should peer review in our classrooms by exemplifying the positive benefits associated with successful peer reviewing, from providing students with the support of a writers community to teaching them about audience awareness to showing them there is no "right" answer. To insure successful implementation of peer review, he also addresses the most common reasons peer reviewing "wants to fail" and clearly articulates the instructor's role in the peer reviewing process (9).

What Wirtz's article lacks in peer review classroom implementation, the other three essays of the first section undeniably make up for it, starting with Anthony Edgington's article "Bringing New Perspectives to a Common Practice: A Plan for Peer Review." Edgington provides a thorough outline for implementing a traditional peer review activity from the very first preparation stages to the final instructor responses and includes sample worksheets, activities, and questions for fellow instructors to consider. Catherine Kalish, Heinert, and Pilmaier explain in detail the implementation of the nontraditional peer-tutorial method of peer review in their article, "Reinventing Peer Review Using Writing Center Techniques: Teaching Students to Use Peer-tutorial Methodology. …