How This Teacher Used Google Docs to Improve Her Students’ Writing

All teachers are accustomed to receiving feedback. One suggestion I’ve been hearing more lately is to use more technology: try finding uses for the document camera, maybe, or how about skipping chart paper and put a graphic on PowerPoint. I know my fifth graders will be well-served by learning to use current forms of technology, but I’m wary of introducing tools merely to satisfy a checklist. I want technology to be relevant to my students’ lives. Partly to fulfill this goal, my growing familiarity with technology informs what I would like to accomplish in the classroom. Last spring, I wrote articles about public education for several different media outlets. I was writing about standards and assessments, and having worked for the PARCC consortium and other organizations connected to the development of new standards, I didn’t have much experience writing for publication. So I approached the work much the same way I did when I wrote papers in college: I made a quick outline, listed the research I wanted to include, selected points to support my argument, proofread and turned in my work. I assumed that was all there was to it. But I was wrong; I still had a lot to learn.

An Invitation to Edit

Writing for an editor is a whole different story. I sent what I thought was a final draft through Google Docs, only to receive an “invitation to edit“ in a new document full of changes and comments raising new questions. The drafts included remarks about the substance of my articles as well as ideas about how to improve my writing. It took some getting used to: I had to respond to comments like “I don’t see the connection” and deal with criticism for overusing “eduspeak.” I remembered these dialogues when I wrote subsequent articles and felt that since the process was so helpful to me, I could teach writing to my students through Google Docs, too. Previously, I’ve always coached students through the writing process by hand. We gathered as a class for a mini-lesson on a particular component of a story such as text structure or the use of language and literary devices, followed by a look at some examples, before I helped my kids develop a piece of their own. Afterwards, they began writing. Then I called each student to my table to workshop his or her piece, made corrections and suggestions in colored ink, and showed students how to merge the old and new versions of their work. I knew this practice was time consuming, but it was effective and the results justified the effort. When I decided to try digital editing with my class, I made our work the focus. One benefit of the digital model was that my students were saved the trouble of typing up entirely new drafts after workshopping, which helped reinvigorate their interest in writing. It also gave them a seamless method through which to share their work with multiple audiences, including classmates who also read and offered critiques of their work.

Following the Paper Trail

I showed them my own Google Docs account and shared the articles I’d published, complete with the chains of changes and comments. They got a chance to see what the writing process looks like and how this can push them in the direction of better articulating their thoughts. Using technology with my students helped me as well. Since we communicated through tracked changes, I gained insight into how their thinking and writing evolved. I also used the chain of comments and changes as a resource for planning future instruction and for individualized lessons for specific students. The paper trail, or digital trail, gave me material to use in conversations with parents, colleagues and administrators about student performance as well as my own needs for professional development. Our next digital project will be a collective one: We plan to write and submit a grant proposal for the Bee Cause, an organization that brings live beehives to schools for children to observe and learn about preservation. I know some classes are worlds ahead of me when it comes to integrating technology. Simply using Google Docs to comment on student work isn’t particularly innovative, but it was new to our class, and aside from teaching my students to express themselves in writing, it’s also helping me engage them in work that’s relevant to their lives beyond the classroom.  
Jessica is a fifth-grade teacher and professional development facilitator in the Weld RE-1 school district, which serves rural students in Platteville, Gilcrest and LaSalle, Colorado. Jessica develops comprehensive teacher training programs around Common Core State Standards for the National Math and Science Initiative and consults with local districts and teachers on how to effectively implement ...

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