I like having my students answer essay questions in class that require multiple paragraphs to answer; however, time is a problem since I want everyone to hear as many ideas as possible in the shortest time possible. Thus, I use the small group and randomize my questions.
My classes are all about 28-32 students each year, so I tend to create 7-8 essay questions for a novel section and have the students form groups of 3-5. Then, I have a student from each group come up and draw a question (on an index card) from a hat. The students then work together to answer the question their group member drew.
If time is short (say, 15 minutes or less for the initial activity), I have the students simply outline an answer with a thesis, a minimum of three main ideas, and a quotation with a page number for each idea.
If I have more time (say 20-30 minutes), I have the students compose at least two paragraphs with a thesis beginning their mini-essay. These are generally not shared in their entirety (just main ideas), or I read them after class.
Lastly, I have the students share their answers to the questions one by one after providing everyone with a copy of all of the questions (or post them on the projector). Each group provides the thesis and quickly runs down the main ideas of support, which takes 45 seconds to a minute for a group to share out. Then I have the rest of the class call out additional ideas of support for the thesis. Often, I jot them down quickly on a word processing document projected on the screen for the students to copy, or I have a student recorder for the period and copy off the notes for everyone. For all 7-8 groups to complete the sharing takes about 10-15 minutes.
I like this type of lesson because I can get through multiple in-depth questions in a single period, and the students hear numerous ideas in the same time frame. I sometimes watch group dynamics as well, but that’s another post for another day.