Posts Tagged writing

4 More Reasons I’ll Always Use GoogleDocs for Essays

It’s taken a few years and several relapses into pen-and-paper, but now there’s no going back for me. For every tangible, tactile sensation that is lost, the digital process makes up for it with a practical benefit. And besides, why do we English teachers get so weepy about saying goodbye to grading papers with a pen? It’s grading papers – the bane of our existence. Why do we romanticize the things that drive us crazy?

Anyway, here are some things that went well with this last round of 9th grade essays.

1. Real time support for a larger number of students

Armed with detailed outlines (or at least that was the plan), I brought my students to the computer lab for a full session of typing. Once they were all going, I opened up a few papers at a time to take a look and see if I could give a quick tip to redirect a student who was veering off course. I’ve written about this before, but I’m still amazed by how this lets me help so many students in one class session. Using the chat sidebar feels comfortable for a lot of students, so I find that more of them are willing to ask for help, which is often the biggest hangup for kids when it comes to writing.

Instead of using the chat sidebar, sometimes I’ll just add a few comments. I’ll do this if I want to point the student to a specific  sentence – or a part of a sentence. I’ll also use a specific color highlighter so show them where there is a punctuation problem, then give more details on how to fix it in the sidebar if I think they need it.

That first comment in the above screenshot also speaks to the fact that some students think this kind of communication is actually fun. Which could be a second subheading here.

2. It’s kind of fun

Here’s another exchange with that same student.

3. Students adding comments on their own papers

I hadn’t realized the potential here, but it’s interesting. For starters, several of my students added comments to something they had written or revised when they weren’t sure they were doing it right. Like this example below, which she wrote from home. I didn’t see the comment until later when I actually graded it, but it was nice for me to have a sense that she wasn’t confident about that sentence, that she was thinking about it, and that she just didn’t know how to write it any differently.

I feel bad about my harsh (and late) response. But this did get me thinking that I could require some sort of reflective work like this from my students when they turn things in. One of the hardest parts of writing instruction is trying to distinguish ability from effort, and I think this could help.

This student also added a lengthy comment in the margin of her conclusion, explaining why she started talking about Freedom Writers. I think she knows that this is not something I recommend doing in a conclusion to an essay, but she felt strongly about it, so she took the opportunity to explain herself.

That made me think about asking students to annotate their own essays. I could have them identify their strongest sections, their weakest sections, and I could have them explain what they’re thinking by writing without the mental freeze that worrying about “essay writing” often brings.

4. Thanks!

I couldn’t find screenshots of them because I think they were all in chat windows, but several times in class that day, after helping students get back on track, they’d type something like “ok, thanks – that helps a lot.” Or, “ahhh, that makes sense now – thank you!” I wish I had the proof because I know how unbelievable it sounds that a 9th grader would say that, but it happened. Not only that, I actually had a student come up to me the next day and say to my face: “I saw those comments you wrote on my essay and I wanted to thank you because they really helped me revise it.” I could hardly respond since my jaw was on the floor.

But don’t worry, you sentimental traditionalists. Even if you use GoogleDocs, it’s still grading papers, so you’ll still want to tear your hair out at the end of the day.

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NoRedInk might actually make grammar fun

Teaching grammar is kind of the worst. I’ve never come up with an engaging way to teach comma placement. I’m not quite sure how I learned it myself. I feel like I learned most of my grammar in 6th grade, when I had a charismatic teacher (Ellen Friedman) and an eagerness to learn anything.

NoRedInk is a new site that gives me some hope for my own students. It’s brand new, and I think there’s more to come with regard to writing instruction, but here are two things about it that I like:

1. The interface for changing punctuation and capitalization is super-intuitive. It makes so much sense that it’s surprising we haven’t seen more programs like this. Here’s a screencast of me playing with it.

2. As soon as you sign up, you get to choose some of your interests, and NoRedInk then uses your choices to generate the names for people in the sentences it gives you for quizzes. So, having clicked on things like hip hop and Harry Potter, you’ll see Jay-Z and Lucius Malfoy on your quiz. You can even enter in names of your friends or have the site pull names from your Facebook friends. To me, this is an ingenious little way to keep kids engaged in an otherwise dreadful affair.

Best part? It’s free right now.

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The good kind of chatting in class

More on how I used GoogleDocs last week:

I’m afraid that what I’m about to share sounds like the worst idea ever, but I actually think it worked pretty well for some students.

They were all working on laptops in my classroom (I had reserved a mobile lab for the day), and they were finishing their research papers. Some were putting on finishing touches, some were still drafting, some, somehow, were still researching.

Here’s what I did: I opened three or four student papers on my own computer (they had all shared them with me). I announced to the class whose papers I had open at any given time so that they could chat me in the sidebar that GoogleDocs has.

Those students would then chat me a few questions, asking me to look at their conclusion or a specific quote they used, asking for help on how to start a particular sentence or if their formatting was right. I could answer them in the chat sidebar or type directly into their document in a different color if that seemed like an easier way to explain something.

Sometimes, when I’d type some complicated feedback, I’d see a kid reading it, struggling to make sense of it. Then I’d call out from my desk, “Hey Katie, does that make sense?” And they’d assure me that they did, or, after a few minutes, they’d chat me a follow-up question. Or they’d make some edits, then ask me – via chat – to take a look at it again and see if it’s better.

On one level, this sounds absurd to me. It’s like the stories you hear of parents texting their kids to come down to dinner (apparently, this happens a lot). I definitely value face-to-face interaction. If a student wants me to show me an early draft of a paper, I always insist they come sit down with me so we could talk about it.

But there were a few things that made this experiment seem worthwhile to me.

1. I could help more students.

I think I was able to look at more papers this way than if I had been sitting down at various students’ desks with them. When I do that, I think I tend to spend too much time at that one desk. I get drawn into reading the whole paper, and I end up ignoring much of the rest of the class. Most importantly, I usually end up only bouncing around the desks of the students who ask for help. In my experiment, I systematically opened a few documents at a time, working my way “around” the entire classroom. And we all know that the kids who don’t ask for help are often the ones who need the most.

2. I was less intimdating.

I don’t consider myself an intimidating person. Most of my freshmen are taller than me. But still, I’m a teacher, so plenty of kids will freeze up and not ask the questions on their minds when I’m crouched down at their desk or reading over their shoulders. Through chat, I think a lot of kids are more comfortable. They might be more willing to admit what they don’t understand. They even seemed more willing to say things like “thank you.” Which was nice.

3. They had more time to process

When working one-on-one with a student, I often find myself talking a lot, giving tons of writing advice to a silently nodding person. I ask for reassurance that they understand, which is often greeted with a hesitant “…yeah, I think I get it…” When those students go home to revise their work, they might forget what I had said or realize that they really didn’t get it. During these chat sessions, since I was leaving each document open for 5-10 minutes while looking at the other two or three, that first student then had time to look over my comments, process them, think about what they didn’t understand, and ask a question to help cement their own understanding. This seemed valuable, and it seemed like something that couldn’t happen in a face-to-face interaction, especially with a student who processes information at a slower speed.

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2 things I did with GoogleDocs this week

My students will sometimes complain about it, and so will my colleagues. Sometimes GoogleDocs just works really slowly at school, and no one likes the wait-a-minute-to-see-what-letter-you-just-typed game. Some students have told me that they can’t type on GoogleDocs from their home computers. I’m not really sure what’s going on there.

But, all things considered, it’s still awesome. (Here are 10 reasons why, from Jeff Utecht at The Thinking Stick.)

I “collected” final drafts from my seniors yesterday, and I loved not having to deal with all the printing sob stories. A couple of students who have listening problems (not hearing problems, mind you) brought their printed papers. When they confusedly handed them to me, noticing that no one else was doing the same, they said things like, “Wait, did we not have to print it out? When we ‘shared’ it with you, was that turning it in?” They then went on to tell me the printing sob story anyway, to ensure I knew how hard it was for them to print it out. I can’t win, sometimes.

So here are two things:

1. Super-commenting on a draft

I was doing some evening edtech reading, like I do, and I came across an Audrey Waters piece on the issue of banning cell phones. (She linked to it in the text messaging installment of her “top ed-tech trends of 2011 series” on Hack Education.)

Anyway, I have a freshman doing his research paper on that issue, and I know he’s been struggling to find good articles in the library databases. So I pulled up his draft in GoogleDocs and typed a note to him at the top of his paper, with the link. (Don’t worry, I changed his name in the picture below).

When he decides to work on his draft later tonight (ha! sorry, too cynical?), he’ll see that note, click the link, then delete that from his paper, hopefully.

2. Public In-Class Editing Session

I’ve done this a few times, and students have told me it was very helpful for them. I make a speech kind of like this.

Okay, I’d like to make a proposition to you all and ask for a volunteer. I want to pull up one of your drafts right now on my computer, project it in front of all of you, and edit it. I’m going to tear it apart, so you have to be okay with that. I’ll point out what’s good, but I’ll also point out everything you need to revise, and I’ll write comments in the margins explaining all this. I want to do this to show you how closely I’m going to read your papers. I want you to see the things I’m going to be looking for when I’m reading them. If I end up using your essay, you’re basically getting a free one-on-one editing session without having to come in on your own time, after school or during lunch.

That’s usually when a couple of hands shoot up, if they haven’t already. If I have a few volunteers, I pick one whose essay I can guess will be slightly above average. A superstar’s draft won’t give me enough to comment on in terms of revisions, and part of the goal here is to jolt them awake to how much work they have left to do. In other words, I want to scare them. And a below-average paper just isn’t a model I want to show them, plus it could be too embarrassing for the author.

When we have a volunteer, I ask for a round of applause. I then do just what I promised – pick it apart, write tons of comments in the margins (using the “add comment” feature, whose keyboard shortcut, ctrl-alt-M, is a must-learn), both positive and constructive. I highlight all the typos and spelling mistakes in bright green or blue, which usually does a good job of helping them visualize how crappy a non-proofread essay will read.

While I’m doing this, I ask students to take notes on the kinds of things I’m writing down in the comments. I tell them not to write down everything I say, of course, but to watch and listen for some comment that they know I might end up making on their draft. Basically, make notes to yourself on what you need to fix. I think this kind of task makes students feel respected in that they’re not being asked to merely copy down everything I say even if it doesn’t apply to them.

They’ve also told me that the “behind-the-scenes” view of how their paper is going to get graded is especially helpful. I do give them rubrics, but, you know, they don’t all look at them. I think the public viewing of something that is normally very private and hidden is part of what makes this work.

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