Island Hopping with Huck Finn

A game-changing approach to peer review.

If your classes are anything like mine, far too often, peer editing and review days quickly devolve into an echo chamber of off-task conversation (at best), or time-wasting frustration of students struggling to identify all manner of mistakes. Not to mention the stress and student anxiety at the prospect of having their writing torn apart by underinformed or overzealous peers!

So I cooked up a peer review activity that’s as low-impact as it is self-guided. Annnnd I made it a game. Here’s how it works.

If you’re stuggling far-too-ordinary source of student and teacher frustration, consider taking a trip to the Instructional Islands — a step-by-step guided peer review activity completely adaptable for all reading / English / language arts classes from middle school through grade 12. I’ve used it with tremendous results in classrooms ranging from inner city schools with students reading at a fourth grade level to high school classes working with honors and AP students.

No points, no badges, and no leaderboards. This game is you against YOU. And the goal of this easily re-skinned island-themed peer review activity is to provide students with multiple opportunities to meet with peers and hone in on specific writing techniques in order to troubleshoot common essay mistakes by category.

The twist? The entire activity is color-coded by category, and divided between “islands” accordingly.

For the sake of the sample passport included in this slideshow, the troubleshooting categories we’ve focused on have been divided into six areas of emphasis (color-coded “Islands”) as follows:

  • PURPLE ISLAND = Introductory Paragraphs
  • PINK ISLAND = Using Quotes Effectively
  • BLUE ISLAND = Conclusion Paragraphs
  • ORANGE ISLAND = MLA Formatting Basics
  • GREY ISLAND = Sentence Structure and Grammar

You can certainly add or modify these categories to fit the particular needs of your assignment (example: YELLOW ISLAND = Works Cited Pages, RED ISLAND = Active vs. Passive Voice, etc.). Likewise, you can scaffold this activity up or down by grade level or technique depending on the specific needs of your unit. Keep in mind that for every new island you add, you’ll need to add a new cluster of desks and a new particular “look for” technique unique to that island.

The success of the activity hinges on the concept that each “Instructional Island” is devoted to looking for exactly ONE AND ONLY ONE of the techniques being emphasized – hence the color-coding. Accordingly, students visiting that island will only be making notes in the essays of their classmates that deal with any mistakes and possible opportunities for revision that relate to that particular island’s area of emphasis. The color-coding of the islands (and the comments that students receive therein) helps both teacher and students quickly identify exactly WHERE and WHAT TYPES of mistakes each individual has been making.

In effect, this means that students aren’t ever “reading” their peer’s essays in their entirety – thereby eliminating the scenario where students overwhelm themselves by looking for all things at all times on all papers, and getting lost as arguments from one paper bleed into the next to the point of diminishing returns by the second or third read through. Instead, students at a particular island are scanning one another’s papers: focusing only on the look-for technique that’s unique to that particular island (example: pink islanders are only looking for how quotes are set up and integrated).

Likewise, the “stamping” of each student’s island passport by their peers helps hold students accountable to the type of editing marks that they are making – helping you as the teacher quickly spot which type of feedback (or mistakes) each student is correcting or perpetuating.



  • Divide the desks in your class into four (or five, or six, etc.) clustered “islands.”


  • If you have enough colored pencils, highlighters, or pens for each island’s color, place corresponding writing utensils of that particular color on that particular island. To do this activity on a shoestring budget: use the colors GREY (pencil), BLACK (pen), BLUE (pen), and RED (pen). So as to preserve the color-coded nature of this activity, should be advised that they will be using only the writing utensils provided on each island to mark up the documents of their peers while on that island. Writing utensils should remain ON THE ISLAND when students rotate between islands.


  • Make back-to-back photocopies of this checklist — enough for one handout per student. This will serve as the student’s “island hopping passport,” which they will use to collect “stamps” (peer sign-offs) after having their “travel documents” (essay drafts) reviewed at each island. I also find it helpful to place a laminated version of each island’s “look for” on the corresponding desk cluster where students will need to interact with that skill. (Lamination on a budget tip? Use a clear plastic sleeve protector).


  • As students enter the classroom (and continuing in the background throughout the activity), you might consider having themed music playing to help set the mood of a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. Huck Finn? Play the YouTube soundtrack from Disney’s Tom Sawyer’s Island. Something more generically island themed? Hello, Caribbean steel drums. This will set a relaxed tone for the day, and it will help alleviate a good degree of student stress and frustration when presenting their work to their classmates for the potentially stressful prospect of peer evaluation, revision, and review. I’ve even gone as far as to wear a Hawaiian shirt, bring in some leis, and set up a tiki torch or two the sides of the teacher desk. WRITING IS REWRITING! Students should not be afraid to revise their work!
  • Encourage students to sit at any island they’d like to start the class. To frame the activity, I typically open with some message along the following lines: “Welcome to the islands! Your goal of the day is to make your way to the Isle of the Big Kahuna (that’s the teacher’s desk). But the Big Kahuna is a well-respected leader in this region, and so only the most experienced travelers are welcome on this Isle. To gain admission to the Isle of the Big Kahuna, you’ll need to present a passport that has been stamped at least twice on each of the four other islands!”


  • At this point, distribute the “passports” and explain the island-hopping process of the day’s peer review activity, underscoring that each island has its own “ancient traditions and unique customs,” where the only thing that visitors to that island will need to be looking for while on that island is [skill x]. Anyone on that island can stamp your passport, but in order to earn their stamp, you’ll need to present them your travel documents (essay draft) for closer review.


  • Once students have confirmed that they understand the task they’ll be asked to complete at each island (the slideshow walks students through each island one at a time, mirroring what is likewise printed on their “Island Passports”) – set the overhead clock for a stipulated amount of time (the sample clock runs for repeating rounds of exactly 9 minutes). Start the clock, and have students review the writing of their peers seated beside them in that desk cluster throughout the duration of that time, focusing only on the specific task unique to the island where they are sitting.


  • Should students finish reviewing a peer’s essay before the 9 minutes expires, they are welcome and encouraged to take a look at another peer’s essay on that same island.


  • Once the timed interval has expired, students will rotate between islands and mix up their review groups so that they are always interacting with new people (example: 5 students adjourn from original island group, 2 go to island 2, 2 go to island 3, one goes to island 4, etc.)


  • As students move between groups, this is a fun chance to encourage some kindhearted ecotourism and social skill-building with new groups. I typically say something to the effect of “ok vacationers! Take the next 30 seconds to say goodbye to the people that you’ve met on the first leg of your vacation – and island hop to a new location to meet some new travelers as you continue your trip! But remember: we need to leave the islands just as we found them. So make sure all of the writing utensils belonging to that island remain there for the next group of vacationers as you make your way to another island.”


  • Yes, it’s super cheesy. And students eat it right up, because it doesn’t feel like “work.”


  • Re-set the clock, and rinse and repeat the editing cycle once students have arrived on their second location. You might consider “floating” between islands based on areas where you see particular students struggling, or lurking closer to one particular island where you feel that students may need additional support or instruction based on the first round’s performance.


  • Finally: when students conclude the day’s activity, they will have “island passports” with stamps collected from each of the four (or five, or six, or…) color-coded islands in the classroom. In addition, they will have marked up copies of their “travel documents” (essay drafts) with color coded suggestions for revision from their peers. As the sole resident of the “Isle of the Big Kahuna,” you reserve the right to collect their stamped passports for a quick spot check or to simply sign off on them to make sure that every student has taken part in the day’s activity.


  • Students will then take their marked-up copies of their essays home for further revision, while you hold the completed stamped charts in your possession until the finished drafts are submitted. Remind all students that in order to receive full credit on the finished copy, they MUST staple their rough draft (with student editing marks) to their final submission.


 Happy Island hopping!

Author: John

John Meehan (@MeehanEDU) is an English teacher and school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. He began his teaching career in 2010 as a career switcher through The New Teacher Project, after spending five years working in social media and event marketing. He is a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader, and an alumnus of the 2016-2018 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. In 2016, he was named one of Arlington, Virginia’s “40 Under 40” by the Leadership Center for Excellence. He is a past presenter and regular attendee at educational conferences throughout the United States, including the annual conference for National Catholic Education Association, ASCD Empower19, and the Play Like a Champion Today: Character Education Through Sports summer conference at the University of Notre Dame. He’s an avid runner who’s completed more than three dozen marathons, half marathons, long-distance road relays, mud runs, and obstacle course races. John lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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