Bringing "Traditional" Essay Writing into the Digital World
The question of how to use technology in the classroom can often divide a school. Some teachers will embrace what’s available to them, designing innovative multimedia projects which use all the gadgets at hand. Others, perhaps as a reaction to the first group, will resolve to do things the way they’ve always done, at best sending students to the computer lab to type up a final paper. Technology is present, but it’s tokenized. The digital divide continues to thrive, not just across geographic and socio-economic boundaries, but from one classroom to the next.
At the school where I work, however, this divide has never had a chance to develop. Science Leadership Academy has had a 1-1 laptop program from its founding, and, as our principal Chris Lehmann would say, the computers have been “like oxygen” — ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible. As a result, we were not just using the computers for banner projects that relied heavily on the technology, but designing ways to facilitate and enhance all of our curriculum with the powerful tools that our students have at their fingertips 24/7.
As an English teacher, a big part of this meant re-thinking how students would approach the writing process. We knew that they would engage with all kinds of digital writing and composition, but we did not want to ignore more “old-fashioned” writing formats. A part of this came out of the knowledge that, upon entering college, our students would likely land in more traditional learning environments than they had enjoyed at SLA. Being able to write a research essay would be a crucial skill, and doing the assignment in the media format of their choosing probably wouldn’t be an option.
So formal essay writing was a given. But how could we hack it for maximum learning? As the school was still expanding, SLA teacher Zac Chase hatched the brilliant idea of a writing assignment for juniors that he dubbed the “2Fer” — a (roughly) 2-page analytical essay on any topic the student chose.
The catch? They would be doing this every two weeks for the entire year. This was not a one-off assignment, to be written and forgotten. It was process designed to help students identify their own strengths and weaknesses, learn that “becoming a better writer” is a lifelong journal, and ultimately become masters of their own improvement.
The first year, students completed this assignment on their computers, but still went “analog” for peer editing and submission. The second year, our entire school signed up for Google Accounts, and it was clear that the process could be deeply enriched by having the 2Fer essays live in Google Docs.
Before the next school year started, I set out on a year-long process to move our process completely online. Shared here are the basics of what that process entailed, as well as some comments on challenges and successes, both expected and unexpected, and thoughts on the many variations that this model could take.
Overall, the project has been an affirmation that digital literacy is not just about what’s new and different — it can also transform more traditional formats while still preserving their intent. Also importantly, this kind of work can also happen at schools with limited access to technology — and many of the main ideas and functions can even be replicated on paper. I hope that this resource helps teachers imagine all of the ways that the many quality assignments that they have created off-line could be brought into the digital world. In the following pages, I will show you how we set up our project.
Setting It All Up
Going digital was not as simple as just telling students to start writing online. Our school already had plenty of experience using Google Docs for planning and administrative purposes; we also knew how the open-ended format could lead to general disorganization. Below are some screen shots of how I set up the original Writing Doc Template for our students. The complete template, plus a more thorough presentation on how I designed it, is linked at the bottom of this page and elsewhere in this resource.
One of the obvious advantages to using Google Docs was that the year-long assignment could live in one place. With printed papers, I was frustrated with how students could literally toss out the work after it had been returned, along with all the edits and feedback they had received along the way. By keeping multiple assignments in one doc, every part of the writing process could be preserved, and students would be naturally encouraged to revisit past work — they would literally have to scroll past it before composing something new. The basic guidelines for the assignment would live at the top.
The next issue was what to include in the template that students would use week to week. I wanted a system that would both show more traditional “rough draft” and “final drafts,” while still using the dynamic commenting and editing functions in Google Docs — more on that in the section of this resource about peer editing. The rough draft was a space where student peer editing would take place, and then my comments would go on the final. This choice flat-out ignored the beauty of the real time editing that Google Doc allows — but I felt that having snapshots of different drafts would be more valuable to students when it was time to reflect on their process.
The rubric made it onto the template with only one key change from the old version: I removed a place for a “final grade” and instead gave a number grade for each category, slipped in after my typed feedback. With this change, students took more notice of what I had written (and if they really wanted to know what the total was, they had to do a little math and add up the points earned in each section.)
The last section was a long-held wish of mine that Google Docs helped make possible. After the rubric came space for a follow-up assignment and also a place for students to reflect on successes and goals for next time. This is the last thing students would type in this essay cycle, and the first thing they would be looking at when it was time to paste in a new template and start all over again.
I also carefully planned how these assignments would be managed from my end. At the start of the year, students created google docs with a specific title that included their name, and I immediately created folders for each class in my own Google Docs account. Feedback and grades went out in real time; if students were late turning in work, I would star their doc for later reference. Google Docs made it easy to know when the assignments had been updated, because the document title would switch to bold type.
While I tweaked this system throughout the year, the core template and organizational system stayed the same, and students quickly became comfortable with the process. Having some previous experience with Google Docs made this possible for us — spending some time playing with different docs and organization methods will help you find the system that works best for you and your students.
Transforming Peer Editing
Because of the skill-building nature of the assignment, we knew from the start essays were not going to be published straight to the web, but they were definitely meant for more just the teacher. Linda Christensen writes that “students need to feel that their work is important, relevant, and meaningful. If not, why should they spend time working on it?” Google Docs made it easy for students share their work at will, and we counted on this system to improve our peer editing process.
Before 2Fer essays went online, peer editing was often the least authentic part of this assignment. This was due in part not to the absence of technology, but to the fact that I expected students to arrange for editing out of class. The editing was typically superficial, and I realized that for an assignment this central to the class, students deserved more in-class time to work.
I knew that in-class time would improve the overall quality of editing. Would the use of online commenting tools in Google Docs also have a positive effect? My students took quickly to the steps of sharing their doc with a peer and reminding each other of the the command for inserting a comment (“Option – Command – M!”)
On the whole, I feel that both the number and quality of edits improved using Google Docs, and also continued to improve class-wide as the year went on. One influence was certainly the fun of computerized sticky notes — Students typed much more than they would have ever written by hand, and got deeper into their feedback than ever before. This was true for myself as well. Below is a clip of a student draft with comments from a peer, catching small errors and asking big questions in the same paragraph. (To see larger versions of these images, click on the thumbnails at the top of this page.)
After this peer editing had taken place, students would have a moment to debrief, and then begin to sift through the feedback and compose their final draft. Because the rough draft lived on with all the peer comments in tact, when it came time for me to comment on the final, I could observe their process closely (without killing the many trees it takes to do this on paper). Below are my comments on final draft of the same essay as above — and here I actually catch a peer comment that the student never addressed on the final, and ditto them.
This valuing of peer edits enriched our class in a number of ways. Even though the activity was not for a separate grade, students took pride in their work as editors, and I made a point of giving examples of quality edits throughout the year. Their edits lived alongside mine, and were arguably more important in shaping student writing as students went from draft to final. Students often referred to peer edits when listing their own strengths and weaknesses, and when it came time to write their “Reflective 2Fers” they quoted their peers. (More on Reflective 2Fers in the next section of this resource.)
The ease of sharing also encouraged student to seek multiple editors and share their work with friends. As the year went on, “I read that 2Fer!” was not an uncommon exclamation among the grade. If your site has signed up for google apps en masse, it is also possible to make documents public to everyone within that domain — a great middle ground between selective sharing and public to the web.
One potential drawback to this process is that, while the comment system made it easier to type up big ideas, it made small edits less effective. While I don’t believe in the tyranny of the red pen, quick fixes like an apostrophe or a missing letter couldn’t just be slipped in where they belonged. Until a commenting system exists that more closely mimics handwritten edits, these fixes are more easily done on paper. Some of our more gramatically-challenged students picked up on this, and would make a point to do a paper edit in addition to the online round. As the year progressed, I gave more specific prompts during peer editing sessions that pushed students to make both “big” and “small” edits.
The Portfolio in Progress
When designing the template for this year-long assignment, I was certain that the process would be an additive one for students, and not just in terms of length. In fact, using Google Docs took away the question of page length entirely — another way that students had to grapple with the actual content of their writing, instead of just trying to meet the minimum requirements. In what other ways would the format influence the assignment?
As the months passed and their documents grew, I realized that we were creating a more dynamic version of portfolio-based writing. I remembered the green portfolios from my own middle school, how students would select their best pieces of writing and fill out quick questionnaires on why they had selected that item. Eventually the portfolio was a show piece that you could bring home to your parents.
Our experiment with Google Docs asked the question: What if you put everything in your writing portfolio? What if you were required to do that kind of thinking and reflection on every piece of writing, to accept and defend it even if it wasn’t “your best work?”
As my students contribute to these “portfolios in progress,” I watched them slowly but surely get their minds around their own abilities, and then start to improve their craft, first with strong support from myself, then primarily from their peers, and eventually on their own.
Below are a few illustrative examples from one student’s Writing Doc. The first is a snapshot of their reflection after their very first essay.
Things were developing even by the second essay reflection.
When we reached the middle of the year, students wrote a “Reflective 2Fer,” where the thesis had to analyze their own composition skills. Below are a few paragraphs this student composed about their own work.
At this juncture, I decided it was time to tweak the template a bit, and that included re-booting with a new Google Doc — Writing Doc 2.0. Instead of having the reflections at the end of each assignment, students would set their own goals at the TOP of the document, and edit and add to that list at will. They were given the five feedback categories as a guide.
One student started out with three goals, the suggested number.
By the end of the year, they had posted multiple revisions to their goals, including noting places where they felt proficient.
I feel conflicted about moments where students used a good score as evidence that their writing didn’t have any room for improvement. Using Google Docs definitely helped put the emphasis on feedback over grades, but it has yet to be the silver bullet I sometimes wish for. On the whole, however, their meta-cognition about writing has improved by leaps and bounds. The flexibility of writing and revising their own goals gave them ownership in the way that pre-written “Focus Correction Areas” do not.
Applications and Implications
On the whole, we have been more than pleased with our first year of online essay writing. We took advantage of the digital tools available to us to prepare students for college-level writing. The process also showed students how they could use these tools on their own, even if they were applying them towards a more “traditional” endeavor. Since we started our process, teachers in the science department have created their own model on Google Docs for reviewing lab reports. Other potential uses for individual student docs include, but are not limited to:
- Keeping daily journals, and using the commenting function to write replies
- Collecting “do now” or “exit slip” activities, giving students a place to track their own progress and reflect
- Creating anthologies of poetry, fiction, or other creative work, which could culminate with students publishing to the web
- Any assignment which would benefit from collection and feedback over time (and what wouldn’t, really?)
This assignment was implemented with the junior class, by which time our students already years of experience collaborating and reflecting — two of the core values of our school. I was reminded of this when, during our first peer editing session, a transfer student froze up at her desk. When I checked in with her, she looked at me like a deer in headlights. “I’ve never looked at another student’s paper before,” she whispered.
Her situation is not unusual, but it’s not insurmountable, either. I pulled her away from her own computer and gave her a quick tour of the room, showing her the kinds of comments that her peers were typing up on every possible essay topic. When she returned to her desk, I gave her few prompts, which I would repeat to many thoughout the year: Identify the thesis. Re-write it in your own words. Find the support. Does it fit? Does the context satisfy? How about that conclusion?
These questions should should familiar to any English teacher. Moving essay writing online did not revolutionize the process — it just enhanced what we already wanted students to be doing. Like any good tool, after a while it blended into the background. Students no longer thought about the way it was shaping and influencing their practice — they just did it, with more thought and clarity than they had before.