REDWOOD CITY -- With its broad focus on literacy and critical thinking, the Common Core seeks to bolster American students' writing skills.

It has seen a steep decline in California. Writing has been among the many casualties of K-12's ballooning class sizes and its focus on multiple-choice tests.

In high school, English teachers shied away from assigning compositions, because of the burden of grading them. For teachers who see 150 to 190 students a day, one assigned essay for all classes translates into dozens of hours, over several weeks, of grading.

On a fall morning, Redwood City teachers Jen Buchanan and Jen Petroelje, both teachers at the Sequoia Union High School District's Middle College, began a training session with a jaw-dropping statement: During seven weeks focused on writing, their students were each assigned 15 essays.

English teachers from the Sequoia District's four comprehensive and two continuation schools attending the training wondered how it could be humanly possible to grade those.

The answer: Not every assignment ended up in a full-blown, edited essay. And peer reviews helped.

The pair, who each teach nearly 90 juniors or seniors in an alternative program housed on the Cañada College campus, harness technology to help manage the workload.

One assignment, after reading Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," was to choose a side: "To whom do we owe a large duty, ourselves or society?" Students had to cite evidence, acknowledge counterclaims and incorporate citations from the play.

For every assignment, students type outlines on Google Form, an online document that can be shared with the teacher. Buchanan and Petroelje use an editing program called AutoCrit, and return compositions with suggestions -- noting, for instance, that the student needs a transition here, or shorter paragraphs there. The students write their pieces and resubmit to their teacher, and sometimes to classmates for peer editing.

The teachers use one online program to keep track of the progression of student work and another program to grade and mark compositions based on 30 measures.

Buchanan said she doesn't edit every version of each student's essay. She randomly selects some to read and grade.

She and Petroelje turn to open-source lessons so they don't have to write all their own material. They draw from "Write Like This," lessons shared by Anaheim teacher Kelly Gallagher, and also from "Teaching the Core," Michigan teacher Dave Stuart's "Non-freaked out approach to the Common Core State Standards."

"You have to use the resources that are out there, or you will really get burnt out quickly," Petroelje said.

As English teachers, they're happy Common Core shares responsibility for teaching literacy beyond the English Department.

It's appropriate, they believe, because writing isn't simply about literature. "You have to know how to write in order to communicate your ideas effectively," Petroelje said.

Right now, teachers can't assign enough writing. Grading essays, Buchanan said, "is what really sucks up the life of an English teacher."

Intense writing lessons aren't a Common Core mandate, and it's uncertain whether other English teachers will be able to adopt a similar plan.

But Petroelje and Buchanan have found that their colleagues are more receptive to training because fellow teachers, not administrators or outsiders, are offering the lessons. "It's a lot easier," Petroelje said, "to get buy-in."

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.