Creating a Community of Academic Writers
When we developed the Hive, the social and interactive heart of the essaypop platform, we knew we were on to something. The interactivity of the Hive was, of course, by design. We knew that our platform had to include something that provided an opportunity for meaningful connection among teachers, students, and peers, and we knew we needed an environment where substantive and varied feedback from different stakeholders could occur in real-time. Now that essaypop and the Hive have been “out in the wild” for just over a year, we are gratified to report that our collaboration piece is functioning as intended for tens of thousands of teachers and hundreds of thousands of students across the country.
In designing the Hive, we began with the notion that kids will become more engaged in academic writing if they receive support and feedback from their peers as well as from their teachers, and it turns out our notion was a correct one; students do become much more invested in the process when organic, person-to-person communication exists.
Students we interviewed told us that connecting with peers is compelling, fun, and keeps them actively writing, even on more difficult papers, for longer periods of time. What’s more, students admit interactions are not just taking place during class, but are continuing after class and even into the evenings. Imagine, kids at night discussing Walt Whitman’s, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” when they could be checking their Tik Tok feed! And this beyond-the-classroom interaction has proven to be taking place regardless of whether the students are in traditional-classroom, hybrid, or distance learning settings.
Teachers using essaypop and the Hive are reporting that increased student engagement is resulting in more completed papers, better classroom discussions, and an overall higher quality of writing. Ninth-grade ELA teacher, April Henney, from Wisconsin says, “The engagement level is infectious. This feels like what I had imagined classes would look like when I was getting my credential. They’re talking to each other the way they relate on social media, only they’re talking about literature; they’re talking about rhetoric, and they’re having fun doing it!”
A fortuitous by-product of the social engagement that happens in the Hive has been a sort of crowdsourcing phenomenon that has significantly lightened the assessment and feedback burden for teachers, especially teachers who have taken the time to show their students how to provide substantive feedback to one another. If the teacher is the only one giving feedback to 100 or more students, kids are lucky to get a single useful comment about their writing, but if those same students are trained and empowered to give feedback to one another, then each student ends up with dozens of comments on a single paper. What we’ve learned is when teachers train their own students to provide commentary and advice in a way that reinforces best practices and is informed by rubric-based criteria, they are able to create “volunteer armies” of mentors and coaches, recruited from their own ranks.
And while this crowdsourcing phenomenon was not entirely by design, it is something that our product designers are intrigued by, and we’re taking deliberate steps to explore and bolster platform capabilities that are designed to create what we call “substantive social”. We recently added one such capability to our popular assessment tool which makes it possible for teachers to allow students to assess one another based on the same rubric elements used by the instructor, and we’re already finding the feature is changing the way students talk to each other in the Hive. They are using the language of the rubrics more often when providing feedback which shows that they are internalizing the criteria in ways they had not previously done. What’s more, it’s happening organically.
We are also developing a comprehensive series of in-app, feedback starters and sentence stems that allow developing peer coaches to construct academic and rubric-based commentary with ease and looking at ways to gamify and otherwise incentivize these interactions. If we can make peer-to-peer review and mentoring more systematic, engaging, and fun then we can create a crowdsourced feedback machine that will take a ton of pressure off of the teacher.
Pushing it Forward / Creating Mentorship Communities With the Hive
Another capability of the Hive that we discovered by getting it out into the real world, is the ability for schools and districts to create strong and lasting mentorship relationships between different stakeholders within school and district communities. This is possible via a seemingly innocuous feature we have included even in early versions of essaypop called the guest feature. This function was designed so that teachers could invite a colleague or a teachers’ assistants into their essays to observe and participate as co-teachers, and it has functioned extremely well in that capacity.
But what soon began happening was teachers began “packing their Hives” and inviting other students into their essays to act as mentors to their enrolled students. After all, there is no limit to how many guests can be invited into the Hive. Often these kids were a teacher’s former students, older kids brought in to assist the younger kids. Sometimes it was the librarian who was invited or an administrator or even trusted parents. And we realized through user outreach that this was happening organically across the country. Teachers were using our Hive to build large mentorship networks that were reaching across grade-levels, schools, and districts. Again this wasn’t the original intention of the platform, but it is another way the Hive facilitates meaningful connections.
We recently conducted a case study at a grade seven through 12 span school in the Los Angeles area that used the Hive as a way of connecting its middle school and high school students.
The school’s seventh-grade ELA team team have developed a scope-and-sequence plan for getting their students from basic-paragraph writing, through short-form essay writing, and finally into the mastery of multiple-paragraph papers.
The school is an International Baccalaureate school, and the high-school students are required to log a significant amount of community service hours in order to satisfy their graduation requirements. One of the prescribed ways to meet this requirement is for older students to assist younger students with their studies. The team determined that they would recruit their former students, now in high school to assist their current seventh graders with their multiple-paragraph essays. After all, who better to provide guidance than students who had already wrestled with the essays and methods used by these teachers.
They reached out to the high school students via the school’s LMS, and the results were instantly promising; they were able to attract over 100 interested students from 9th through 12th grade. Using the essaypop guest feature, the teachers were able to invite these mentor students into specific writing assignments. They were then assigned to designated classes and clusters of four within the Hive.
In a Zoom session, the mentors were given an overview of the expectations and requirements needed to earn community service credit. They were coached on how to interact with the younger students, and presented with the “do’s and don’ts”. They were advised on how often they should jump in and give feedback, and they were given reference documents that included concepts to focus on and sample phrasing to use when providing commentary. They were essentially coached to become coaches. “They were so excited to share their expertise”, noted one of the teachers on the team. We certainly didn’t expect this many mentores to sign up and for them to be this gung-ho.”
It was also explained to the mentors that their current English teachers had been informed of their community service commitment and that they would be receiving extra credit in their English classes for their efforts if they followed through. The teachers reported that this orientation session not only set clear expectations but also created a sense of camaraderie and anticipation for the task at hand. Some admitted that they were surprised by some of the kids who had signed up. One teacher explained, “There was a boy who I had in my class two years earlier who never completed a single assignment. He failed both semesters in seventh grade. So I was actually a little concerned when I saw his name on the mentor list. Of course, he turned out to be one of my best and most active coaches; the kids loved him. It’s as though he wanted to come back and prove something, and, boy, did he!”
As soon as the older students were assigned and trained, they immediately began digging into the seventh graders’ multiple-paragraph essays — a week was given for the whole endeavor. As the days passed, teachers gave frequent reminders and encouragement to the mentors through the school’s LMS, keeping them on track and on task. The seventh graders also were given frequent reminders to respond to their coaches in kind to keep the discussion lively and interactive. It should be noted that one part of the rubric assessment for the essay-writers included how well the writers gave, received, and responded to feedback.
One wrinkle the team added to the mix was the implementation of an “honoring system” whereby the seventh graders were allowed to honor one classmate and one older coach who they felt were particularly helpful and consistent with their feedback. Students didn’t have to honor anyone but could do so if they felt someone deserved it. Classmates that were honored received a bump on their overall assignment grade, while coaches were rewarded with additional community service credit. It turned out to be a very motivating incentive, so much so that our product engineers are working to build this capacity into the platform. Honoring one another — What a great way to integrate a spirit of soulful encouragement into the platform!
What We Learned
Once the essays were completed and assessed, all the participants were interviewed, and the results were quite encouraging. Most of the seventh graders suggested that the mentor/mentee relationship was fun and engaging; many admitted that they went back to their essays often to see if they had any new feedback and that this usually caused them to write and revise more. When they were asked if they thought that the coaching helped them write better papers, most agreed that it did. One young lady suggested that, “I thought having older students read my writing would be embarrassing, but it wasn’t. It was actually fun. I would do it again for sure”
The upperclassman mentors indicated that not only did they appreciate receiving their community service credit and extra credit in their English classes, but that they truly felt that they were performing a valuable service. They seemed to take pride in their ability to help their younger peers. Many indicated that they thought the experience was fun, and asked if they would like to participate again, 96% said that they would. Many also indicated that the exercise helped them reflect on their own abilities as writers. According to one 10th grade mentor, “This experience really helped me to relive my own seventh-grade experience, which seems so long ago now. It reminded me of how vulnerable I was and how inexperienced, but it also forced me to really think about some of my own tendencies as a writer. I honestly think this experience has helped me with my own writing. Another mentor put it more simply: “Man, I wish I had this kind of help when I was in seventh grade.”
The team of teachers that engaged in the study also had a lot of positive things to say about the experience. One of the biggest revelations was simply the amount of feedback that the students were receiving from each other and from their coaches. “I could never give that much feedback on a single essay to over a hundred students,” said one teacher. “It would be impossible. Plus, the feedback that was being given was quite impressive. That actually surprised me a little.” Another member of the team said, “This is just a huge relief. I kill myself trying to give everybody feedback, and I still am barely able to provide the help that these kids need. Having a small army of “mini-mes” is a really great feeling, and the coaches did such a good job.”
The teachers also agreed that more students actually finished their multiple-paragraph papers and that the overall quality of writing was much improved compared to past assignments. The whole team agreed that they would like to do this again, having learned so much from the first round. They also are in talks with the teachers from the local elementary schools, who are also using essaypop, and they’re offering to have their seventh-graders mentor the fifth and sixth graders from the feeder schools. The mentoring current travels in both directions it seems.
Now that essaypop is being used widely throughout the nation, we are gratified to learn that the Hive, the social and interactive heart of the system, is helping teachers and students as we had imagined it would. We love that students are learning to become more proficient givers of feedback, and that this, in turn, is taking pressure off of teachers. And, of course, we are enthused by the discovery that essaypop is becoming a conduit for coaching and mentorship relationships all over the country. With essaypop and particularly the Hive, we believe we’ve built an educational software that saves teachers precious time, drives meaningful peer-to-peer interaction, and creates communities based on compassion and service.