Gazing tiredly at a pile of unimpressive mini-essays after school one day, I had an idea. Instead of writing comments on every paper, I hid each student’s name and photocopied the whole stack. Then—I went home!
The next day in class, I presented my students with my collection of their work. We were going to hold debates, I explained, but there was one catch. Instead of crafting an opening statement on the spot, each speaker would choose a mini-essay from the packet to read aloud.
The writing assignment had concerned Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Early in the book, ten-year-old Marguerite lands a job as a maid to Mrs. Cullinan, a White woman. Mrs. Cullinan finds it convenient to shorten her (Black) servants’ names: Marguerite quickly becomes Mary, while a cook named Hallelujah has long since been reduced to Glory. Though Glory accepts the situation, even deciding that she prefers her nickname to the original, Marguerite is indignant. In a dramatic scene full of tears and broken dishes, she purposely gets herself fired, and old Glory is left shaking her head at the destructive impulsivity of the young.
The question of how best to handle racially motivated disrespect was all too relevant for most of my students. Many had voiced strong opinions when I introduced the mini-essay prompt in class: Who deals with Mrs. Cullinan more effectively—Glory or Marguerite? Their writing had not done justice to their thoughts, however, and the responses I’d photocopied were uniformly unconvincing.
The prospective debaters soon realized that they were in trouble. “How am I supposed to win with this stuff?” they asked as they flipped through the packet of mini-essays. “None of these prove anything, and half of them don’t even make sense! Can I please, please make my own speech?”
Their misgivings were justified. No matter which essay they chose to read, no matter whether it was Glory or Marguerite they were defending, their arguments were farcical. Opponents struggled to keep straight faces as they asked, “Sorry, can you explain how that fact relates to your main point? I don’t quite understand.” They were impeccably, hilariously polite: “What page did you say your evidence was on? Oh, you have no evidence for your thesis? Okay, let me just make a note of that.”
The debates soon dissolved into laughter. But when I told the class that their next task was to revise their mini-essays, they knew exactly what to do: write something that could win a debate.
Consolidating students’ knowledge means helping them make connections—between a whole and its parts, between what they are doing and why, and between where they have been and where they are going. Feedback on student work plays a central role in Consolidation, but giving good feedback is difficult. I could have spent all night commenting on those mini-essays—highlighting non-sequiturs and circular arguments, marking grammatical and mechanical errors, asking for more and better textual evidence, and so on—but I suspect that nothing I wrote would have compared to the feedback my students gave one another in cross-examinations.
We held rematches using the new mini-essays the next day, and arguments were vastly stronger: tighter, better supported, more eloquent, and even better proofread. We may not have solved the problem of casual racism, but we certainly figured out one way of improving persuasive writing.