Monday, March 5, 2012

Opening New Spaces in the Digital Writing Workshop with Google Docs

 Writing workshop is, and always has been, where some of the most powerful learning has taken place in my classroom.  Last year, I made the move towards a more digital writing workshop, mainly though the incorporation of blogs as a space to compose and publish.  I noticed that this move drastically changed writing instruction as I knew it.  Technology provided a new space and a new way for students to create, share, and develop ideas.
Three weeks ago I added another layer to our digital writing workshop:  I introduced students to Google Docs, and with it learned the power and potential of yet another space that again is changing writing instruction as I know it.

Getting students started with their first Google Doc was easy.  My students already have Google account as they maintain blogs on Blogger, so having them begin their first Google Doc was as simple as directing them to log into Google, click a couple tabs, and begin a new document (if you've never done it before, create an account on Google, visit, and hit the "create" button).

To be honest, my main purpose for getting my students to begin using Google Docs wasn't composing; rather, it was the possibilities presented for collaborative writing and conferencing.  But even so, after a couple days most of my students expressed to me that they preferred typing in docs over the text editor in Blogger. They cited the larger screen and more familiar format, as well as the ability to access previous revisions.  Others mentioned that they liked being able to access their drafts on their phone through the Docs app for Android. I also noticed that I had fewer students coming to me with the problem of loosing work they had previously thought was saved, like would happen on occasion with Blogger.

Getting Collaborative

The transition to using Docs as a drafting space went pretty smooth, and after all of my students seemed to have drafts underway, I introduced them to the Google Doc conference. Google Docs provides users the option of sharing documents, so others can have the ability to edit and add comments to a document in real-time. It is an option that, I've felt for some time, had potential to change the way conferencing is done in writing workshop.  I was pretty excited today to take my first real step into it with my students.

In order to invite collaborators to a document, the user simply clicks the blue "share" button in the top right corner of their document and enters the email addresses of intended collaborators.  Before my students could do this they needed access to each other's email addresses, which we accomplished in about two minutes with a Google Form and a link to resulting spreadsheet posted on my home page (Google Forms is yet another handy feature of Google Docs).

After students had time to fill out and submit the form, I introduced them to the conference they would soon be having.  Students in my class have an established writing group they have been working and sharing with since the beginning of the year, so the idea of a writing conference was not unfamiliar to them.  Actually, the way I framed this conference using Google Docs was with the exact same instructions that we had been following the past two weeks:
  1. Students would meet sit together with their group
  2. One student would read aloud his or her writing
  3. Other students would listen, ask questions in response
  4. The group would have a conversation about the piece
  5. The author would get any help he or she felt they need
  6. Repeat 
Before meeting in their groups, I gave students time to refer to our list of student emails and invite their group members to their document. When the invites were sent, students got with their groups and began their conference, just the same as they usually did, but this time instead of just listening, they would open that author's draft and read along; and in addition to just responding and asking the author questions, students used the insert function to type their comments onto each student's draft. 

Responding to each other's writing in a Google Doc enabled group members to attach comments to specific places in the text, while also leaving the author the option of accessing the feedback on the draft at a later time. These two posibilities alone made writing conferences more engaging and worth while, like I expected they would.  But there were also some things that happened that I didn't expect.    Things that began after the initial conferences had ended.

Opening New Spaces
Well, maybe "ended" isn't the right word to use.  Because, what I noticed was that after students moved back to their seats and continued their writing quietly, many of the conferences didn't end.
A student collaborates with several others on a Google Doc

Rather, I saw right away that many students took it upon themselves to continue to post comments on each others drafts, reply to those comments, and in some cases, carry on conversations about their writing using the chat feature on Google Docs.  This, I didn't expect (especially since I didn't mention anything to students  about the chat feature).  Yes, I planned on later giving students the option of having Google Doc conferences during workshop time, but I had not figured it was something they would just begin doing on their own.  Clearly, they were ahead of me.  So, I decided to just get out of the way, watch, and learn.

In the writing workshop sessions that followed it became clear that Google Docs was opening spaces for writing in my classroom that I didn't know existed. Spaces, that I wasn't aware of until I saw students carve them out before me:
  • Jacob, Luis, and Cody shared a common interest in wanting to write science fiction.  While in different  writing groups, each invited the other to their Doc where they were drafting the next piece.  During class workshop time, each had three documents open.  Each spent the majority of the time working on his own writing, but would also pop in and out of the chat side bar of the others' Docs asking for help or a response to part of their writing.  The three would chat briefly about the part under consideration, then move back to work in their own Doc, every so often checking in on each other to see how their stories were progressing. 
  • After it was received well by the class at our Friday Open Mic, David decided to create a sequel to the first part of his sci-fi piece.  Josh, inspired by David's piece, decided to write the sequel as well, but from the perspective of a different character. Each invited the other to their drafts, and collaborated
  • Isaac, wanting to get new ideas for his writing, whispered to Jhonny, asking him to send an invite to his draft.  Jhonny did, and while Jhonny continued to revise his writing, Isaac chatted with him about parts of it that he liked and ideas it was giving him for his next piece. 

Above are highlighted a few specific examples of how students adapted the features of Google Docs to meet their needs as writers. In each case, I didn't instruct students to confer or collaborate.  They just did.  They recognized the need, were aware of the value that collaboration had on their writing, and used the tools and space afforded to them to carry it out.

I feel it's important for me to point out the the examples I shared above were not the exception to how writing was being done in my classroom.  After having now used Google Docs in my classroom writing workshop for three weeks, frequent collaboration while writing has become the norm.  It has become increasingly difficult to draw the line between writing time and collaboration time.  And this collaboration, which seemed to be taking place at any given time between pairs and groups of writers, looked different in each case, dependant upon on the needs of the writer.
In just this short period of time, with Docs in the mix, I've seen a significant change in my students writing and identities as writers.  Not only are they coming to see themselves as writers on an extent to which I had never before seen, but they are also developing an appreciation and understand of the writing process and  the nature of writing that I had not considered possible with 8th graders.

This is the most engaged and creative group of writers that has ever been inside my classroom walls.
I say this every year, and I always mean it.
Writing is going well, and there are a number of variables that explain why. The workshop model is part of it, my students are part of it, my teaching is part of it, and the technology is part of it.  I'm sure that there is a really interesting explanation in the intersection of it all.   But with respect to the technology,  specifically Docs, I'm pretty sure that the difference is being made in the space the technology creates.

Google Docs creates a space where writers can move seamlessly and more effectively through the steps of writing.  Regardless of how it often gets taught, as straight-forward and rigid, the process that real writers use is anything but linear.  With Docs being cloud based, students can write whenever they are inspired on whatever device they have with them.  With the collaborative features, students can give and receive feedback quickly and quietly (which is pretty important when 30 students are writing in a classroom) at any given time, as well as write collaboratively.  And with the ability to access past revisions, it's easier to try out different approaches and take risks in writing without fear of irreversible damage.

The space of Docs is also highly conducive to the development of new and better ideas for writers. It is a space where ideas can move as quickly (or slowly) as they need to, collide with other ideas, and give rise to new ones.  It is a space that is a catalyst for creativity and innovation. It's one that affords opportunities not possible in physical space alone, and one that fits in pretty well with the digital and physical elements present in our workshop already: daybooks and blogs, conversations with me and between students, and mini-lessons and mentor texts. 

Adding this new layer to our workshop has redefined the act of writing for my students.  It's changed me, too.  I've noticed that I've developed a new awareness of and appreciation for my both the workshop model and my role as a teacher of writing.  I'm pretty sure that I haven't seen all of what is possible through Google Docs in the few weeks we have been using it, but I've seen enough to know that it's a place significant enough to be permanent.  And I also know that my students, so long as they are allowed to take the lead, will gladly continue to carve out new possibilities for composing and collaborating within the space of our Digital Writing Workshop.