Nearing the end of the year’s third quarter, juniors are faced with the completion of one of the biggest English assignments to meet their grade level: the prominent Epic story project. In place for more than a decade, such a project has been spearheaded by none other than one of the most beloved and feared English Language Arts teachers in the building: Robin Elliott.
As intimidating as the four page minimum story assignment is for many of her students, Elliott’s workload by the end of their process trumps any of their anxiety by far. Hours upon hours of reading, grading, and missing school days is just a rough outline of the toll this assignment takes on Elliott, a teacher commonly dubbed “Hugger of Trees”.
To fully understand The Epic from Elliott’s perspective, it’s important to know where the tale of the near seven month process began.
“Around 2005 is when we started [The Epic]. That would be 14 years,” Elliott said. “What [administration] said was that there needs to be a project for the kids to do. It’s not research because research is not required for 11th graders, it is for 10th and for 12th, but they said you have to teach these skills.”
Immediately, Elliott’s creative juices began flowing and she got to work.
Believe it or not; once upon a time, there was another name for the project in its earliest stage.
“We had more time to do creative writing at the time, so the kids would do this one project earlier and it’s called ‘The Night’s Quest’ and they’d draw four things out of bins and they’d make a story out of it,” she said.
Elliott explains that a few of the students’ options to choose from involved an animal, object, and a certain setting that would later be incorporated, among others.
“Then I was like ‘OK, now we gotta work research skills into it. So how do I take everything we’ve done first marking period and second marking period and turn it into an assignment that teaches research skills?’ Hence, The Epic!,” said Elliott. And it was off from there.
Juniors spend over half the school year collecting current event news articles, planning, and finally putting everything together in a font of twelve points, spaces that are doubled, and pages of no less than a quad. Then, the final product meets Elliott’s grading pile.
“My whole family knows I have no life for two weeks,” Elliott said.
One woman. Hundreds of papers. After 14 years, Elliott has her own unique routine down and knows the statistics of time dedicated from previous years like the back of her hand.
“The most it’s ever taken me is 96 hours. Last year, I think it took me 51,” she said. “I leave here on that Tuesday, I go to the coffee shop, I sit, and I grade until they close down.”
Elliott even strategically chooses which coffee shop she visits. Without disclosing the name, her ideal in-town location is connected to a parking ramp in which she walks up and down its stairs every hour or so to keep her sanity.
“I got to the point where I had to run up every forty-five minutes to keep myself going,” she said.
Students may notice Elliott’s absence from school following The Epic’s due date. According to her, this is absolutely done on purpose.
“I also always take the Wednesday off after [the due date] because one: I’m an emotional wreck because I hate seeing kids fail, two: I hate hearing people come up with excuses as to why they didn’t do it,” she said.
And it isn’t just because of the students.
“I don’t want to see parents coming in the next day saying ‘Well, my kid-’ no. They didn’t turn it in. And I have to be like that and I would want someone to be like that for my kid too.”
Elliott’s expectations when it comes to turning the assignment in on time can be made into a lesson in itself.
“I think what scares everybody the most is that there’s no late papers accepted, and I stick to that,” she said, and continued with an analogy. “Let’s say you were going on a trip. You have to catch a plane. You didn’t make it. How are you gonna make it to your next destination? You’re gonna have to find a different way and you may be charged for missing it. That’s the reality of the world.”
Inching towards the end of this process, Elliott has always preferred to grade Epics from her honors class last as she finds it to be a nice send off.
“[Honors students] tend to have fewer grammatical and syntactical errors and so it makes it a nice way for me to finish up. I can put it down and I can sit and I can read and enjoy the stories. When there’s so many grammar [errors], I have to spend so much time putting the lines through it and otherwise I can’t focus on the story,” she admitted.
As much as Elliott appreciates a good-sized story, she would rather have it be written correctly than anything else.
“Some people want to have so much to say but then they don’t stop and edit and then they don’t follow the rubric, and I grade specifically off the rubric. It has nothing to do whether I like the story or not,” she said
On the other hand, those that do write lengthy stories correctly are praised greatly.
“I’m blown away by it. I say [jokingly] ‘Please don’t do that’ but at the same time I’m like ‘Dang, you feel good about yourself, I know you do.’ That’s dedication. That goes beyond anything we can teach you here at school, and I think that’s impressive.”
Time management, creativity, and researching are all skills that can be gained from The Epic, but Elliott’s biggest takeaway for her students is this:
“Besides the basic skills that we covered, feeling good, feeling accomplished that they did it because some kids make it out to be bigger than what it is. It’s four pages minimum. Over the years when kids are like ‘I can’t do four pages’ and then they realize they’re like ‘Oh my gosh, I did eight pages!” I’m like ‘I told you you could!’.”
And on the seventh day, Elliott rested. After yet another a sleep depriving, mind altering, grueling, annual “Epic” writing season, Elliott remains content with her choice of such a project and always maintains a selfless mindset throughout. The benefits for her students outway any temporary stress load that comes her way.
“It’s not about me. It’s about the students and the skills that they’re learning and it’s about meeting deadlines. It’s more than just an assignment. It’s teaching them responsibility and integrity.”
Although Elliott doesn’t claim a favorite genre of Epic, she enjoys the laughter that comes with a good comedy read. For future writers, she encourages the creation of more western and sci-fi worlds as there have only been a few established in years past.