It's a Tuesday morning. Eighth graders file in with typed papers without their names on them and hand them to me. Excitement hums in the air. I shuffle the papers and number them 1-16. "Are you ready?" I ask them. They stand with clipboards and excitement, and nod at me.
Today is their Nonfiction Showdown. We've been working on implementing narrative elements into their expository writing for over a week, and they are ready to prove that they can write nonfiction that sings off the page as well as Marc Aronson or Jim Murphy.
The 16 pieces of anonymous writing are spread around the classroom on separate desks. Students stop at each piece, analyzing it, re-looking at the criteria they agreed upon as a whole, and then scratching out all the positive things they can say about it on their paper. They spend the entire period in utter silence, reading. The only murmurs I hear are whispers like, "Have you read this one? It's SO good." Once in a while I stop and exclaim, "Oh my goodness, you guys. These are too good. We're never going to find a winner!" In the end, the students turn in their notes, highlighting the number that they think was the best one--the one that should represent their class. I sort through the papers and choose the four that receive the top scores.
Later in the week, we combine the papers with the other section of 8th grade's papers, and we do a finalist showdown. The same process is worked through, but this time they know they are choosing a final winner. And the Nonfiction Showdown Winner receives 4 things: 1. A pass to not have to write a book review for a month of their choice. 2. A bag of Swedish fish. 3. A crown. and 4. A bulletin board that showcases their (and all the finalists') work. This is a serious job.
Sometimes when I think a piece was overlooked, I add it to the finalist pile. Sometimes when the tallies are too close, we pull two pieces together and everybody revotes on just those two. The only steadfast rule is that only positive comments can be made.
And so...what are the results of this?
Every time we do a showdown in our classroom, I am handed such astounding work that I want to run into the hallway and read it aloud to every passerby. Suddenly, knowing it will be evaluated by their peers, students pour themselves into the process and deliver exquisitely stunning writing. I have the experience of walking through and reading and commenting on each piece so that when I sit down to grade them, it takes less time. Students have the experience of reading real samples of writing and become more cognitive about what elements are used in high quality prose. When faced with two excellent pieces, I watch them independently start breaking it down into word choice, sentence structure, voice, ideas, and organization. And finally, each and every time we do this, somebody unexpected rises to the top. Students are stunned when they hear the names. New luminaries get patted on the back while they blush. I have students stay after and say, "Wow. I didn't know So&So was such a good writer!"
Too many times we avoid competition in the classroom--we worry feelings will be hurt if not everything is "fair." But kids love to compete--it's why they love gym class and spirit week. And while life is not always fair, it is important for kids to know that when we work hard, we all have a fair chance. And when we don't encourage and model healthy competition, we don't teach our students how to celebrate the successes of others. I want my students to be the kind of people who openly congratulate a classmate for doing quality work and not focus on their jealousy.
Next week, the 7th grade has challenged the 8th grade to a Sonnet Showdown, and we have extended the challenge to another school in our district. The excitement is building, and I am convinced that my students' drafts could already rival Shakespeare himself.