Google’s online word processor has transformed the way teachers support students through the writing process. (alamosbasement/flickr)

Any experienced English teacher knows the drill: on the dreaded due date, students bring printed copies of their essays to class, where we collect them, take them home, jot inscrutable comments in the margins, bring them back to class, return them, and then watch students promptly toss them in the recycling bin on the way out of the room. The whole cycle borders on farce. Students pretend to spend many hours writing their papers, teachers pretend to spend many hours grading them, and we all pretend like repeating this process over and over again leads to something we in education like to call “student growth.” But teachers can finally put an end to this exercise in futility, thanks to an unlikely hero sometimes condemned for its unrelenting pursuit of profit at the expense of the public good…Google.

Ever since I made my students aware that I could easily spot cursory revisions, I’ve noticed substantial improvement in the quality of their writing.

Google’s online word processor, Google Docs, has entirely transformed the way teachers can support students through the writing process, from the very first brainstorming activity to the feedback provided to students on their final drafts.

To illustrate, I’ll use my experience helping students write essays about the most beloved and/or despised staple of high school American literature courses, “The Great Gatsby.” Let’s start with a brainstorming session. At the beginning of a class, I ask my students to enter a response to the following prompt into a shared Google Doc: “When I think of ‘The Great Gatsby,’ one word that comes to mind is….” Five minutes later, the Google Doc projected on a large screen at the front of the room is filled with origins of essay topics:  “disillusionment,” “American Dream,” “obsession,” and “self-deception,” to name a consistent few. Especially for weaker students, the collaborative nature of this exercise exposes them to ideas in a manner that the old practice of independent journaling cannot. This method also gives a voice to the introverted students in class whose often brilliant ideas now receive the attention they deserve.

Onto the composition process, where Google Doc’s sharing function changes the nature of communication between teacher and student. Because each of my students writes a draft of their essay using a Google Doc that is shared with me, I can immediately reply to questions that students pose in the margins of their document, rather than waiting until students bring a printed copy to class a few days later. I can also intervene if I notice that a student begins an essay with something like, “In ‘The Great Gatsby,’ the plot is crucial to the novel, as it both impacts the beginning of the story and leads to its denooment[sic].” No need to make this poor kid spend hours writing a draft that will read like a Harvard Lampoon spoof. Sharing documents also increases student accountability for meeting deadlines, an advantage not to be dismissed, especially for younger students still learning time management skills.

The sharing function of Google Docs enables teachers and students to communicate in the margins of a document during the composition process. (Courtesy of the author)

The sharing function of Google Docs enables teachers and students to communicate in the margins of a document during the composition process. Students can also share their essays with other classmates in order to receive immediate peer feedback. (Courtesy of the author)

Perhaps most dramatically transformed by the use of Google Docs is the revision process. An often unknown feature is something called a “revision history.” With one click of a button, the revision history allows me to bring up a literally minute-by-minute account of all of the changes that were made to an essay. Because most students’ perceptions of the revision process entail changing a few appearances of the word “but” to “however” and substituting “pestiferous” for “bad,” this feature is invaluable as a way to help students self-reflect upon the evolution of their essay. Ever since I made my students aware that I could easily spot cursory revisions, I’ve noticed substantial improvement in the quality of their writing.

At the end of the writing cycle is the part when teachers do their best to provide feedback that will resonate with students and here again, Google Docs is a game changer. A Google Doc app called Kaizena allows me to provide oral commentary with my laptop’s built-in microphone that students can listen to the very instant that I am done recording. Each one of my spoken comments corresponds with a highlighted phrase or section of the essay on the Google Doc, conveying feedback in a manner that makes my former method of scribbling opaque phrases like “needs more work here!” in the margins look totally antiquated. Using the recorder enables me to increase both the quantity and quality of my comments, and most importantly, my students report that they find this technique much more beneficial. They explain that hearing the respectful tone of a teacher’s voice makes them less threatened when delivered constructive criticism. One student remarked that it felt like I was sitting right next to him in his room as he listened to me explain the strengths and weaknesses of his essay. A little creepy, yes, but the culmination of this process, quite revolutionary in my mind, sure beats a crumpled-up essay on its way to the recycling center.


Tags: Innovation, Writing

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • SanSha

    Great article with detailed description as how to use the Google doc features.
    Kudos Mike..

  • A techie

    Thank you for this article. It explains how to put this technology into practice, to improve how children learn. Much more helpful than reading feature descriptions from technology enthusiasts.

  • FlamingWheelofDestruction

    Great article!

    Though I disagree with the author’s implicit contention that farces aren’t useful teaching tools, this is an excellent, if sadly unique, way that google can actually not be evil. I wonder if the NSA keeps track of the best high-school essay editors!

  • Patty Martin

    As an older teacher, I am a bit skeptical of new technology but I do realize that it can be helpful in improving teacher feedback especially during the writing process. For most of us , though, this level of feedback is unfortunately unsustainable. How do I provide such a constant level of commentary especially with 31 students in each of my 5 English classes? How many students is the author dealing with here on a consistent basis?

    Furthermore, the brainstorming activity is one that can be accomplished just as well on a whiteboard with markers!

    • Catherine Civello

      The author left out the drafting and editing steps that I’m sure most of us do. I’m open to google docs and use them in my classroom, but I also adhere to the very valuable steps in the writing process. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.

    • Vandermeer

      It’s like the movies where the teacher has one class that he or she can get personally involved with… teaching writing is difficult when you have 125 or more students. And that’s the way it was with me.

    • Brett Heaton

      Patty Martin-How do you give feedback to your students now? I’m confused on how you can provide feedback to over 150 students by using paper and pencil or conferencing with them individually, but you wouldn’t have time to do that on a computer? Also, I disagree with your notion about accomplishing the same task using a whiteboard and markers. I teach kindergarten through fifth grade and have over 385 students and I can tell you my students would prefer to use computers instead of a whiteboard.

    • James Blodgett

      Actually the brainstorming activity would be much less effective with a whiteboard. Whole group discussions tend to be dominated by the same students each time and many students often have a very difficult time contributing in a large group exercise. This method lets all students put forth their ideas without competing for time and attention and allows quiet students equal footing with loud or assertive ones.

  • Teach

    While it shouldn’t be the only method, I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t utilize technology like this in their classroom. Regardless of number of students, classes, etc. it’s simply more information to help writers; and, it’s presented in a system that translates to the way the world works a lot more than a dry erase board does. When we teach writing and critical thinking, it helps to actually adapt the methods these students are presented with in real-world work environments.

    • Brett Heaton

      I completely agree with you! Well stated. We as educators need to move beyond using overhead projectors, whiteboards, and paper and pencils. We need to keep up with the times.

  • Anne Lowry Pharr

    A concern for me is the assertion that intervening more often in student writing is a method which benefits students. In the short run, perhaps, students appreciate their teachers giving guidance as they write (and it certainly is more convenient for the teacher, in terms of avoiding the challenges of marking a less effective paper). But if our goal as writing teachers is to cultivate our students’ ability to be independent and autonomous writers and thinkers, then our practices need to also consider the long-term. And I’m a bit leery of teaching approaches which cause students to grow increasingly dependent on teachers for such immediate feedback. At first glance, such practices look engaging. But to me, they only feed the student’s need for more frequent guidance, which doesn’t really sound like effective student engagement but does, perhaps, look a bit like nurturing entitlement.

    • Vandermeer

      Maybe the intervention could be used for struggling students more than those who are articulate and don’t need the help.

    • melissa

      I do not mean to be disrespectful but I completely disagree with the above post. How can students be independent writers if we do not TEACH them to be writers by giving them guidance. When I hear teacher say they want students to be able to do the majority of the work independently – without feedback – it sounds to me that teachers just want to grade – not teach. If we are just grading papers, then we are graders – not teachers. I am shocked that teachers believe that immediate feedback is wrong. Why in the world would we want students to practice incorrect skills? Yes – technology and immediate feedback IS engaging and engaging students in learning is not a bad thing. Students needing teacher support is not an entitlement, it is our job.

  • BUC Ron

    I think there’s a general concern in motion that argues that technology means there is less of a need for teachers in a classroom or that it makes teachers lazy in the classroom. However, writing is one of the most human art forms there is, and technology could never replace the need for human interaction to exist between students and teachers when involved in the writing and thinking process (social media has more than proven how vague and boring techno-jargon can be). Having worked outside of academics before teaching, I can tell you it’s not the writing of an essay that matters, but the steps involved in writing the essay that matter to employers, so I think this is a great tool to help establish community learning that is up to date with the types of interactions most students will face in a working environment. And, why not embrace something that allows the students to actually understand the instructor’s notes and/or comments as much as possible? The instructor is still involved. Nothing is sacrificed or nurtured anymore than with other methods of teaching (if you’re going to simply edit a student’s idea, you’re going to do that in any shape or form); the information is just presented in a different manner. This tool is simply about discussing, and that’s what teaching is: discussing ideas in all of their forms for others to question and respond to with more ideas… in fact, this comment section is one small example of this type of tool in use.

    • melissa

      YES! Agree!

  • Michelle Armstrong

    As a Google Apps Certified Trainer, I preach about the benefits of Google Docs daily. It means so much more coming from classroom teachers like you! Thank you so much for sharing!

  • melissa

    Great article. Thank you for wanting to support your students through out the writing process. Some missed your excellent reasons of brainstorming on the computer. It is not always “cool” to be the smart kid who has great ideas and this allows that student to share his/her ideas without the recognition (not all students want that) and it allows those who struggle to see how others are thinking. This is a form of “modeling” which struggling students need, but so do ALL students.

    I could not agree more about providing feedback along the way in the writing process. Teachers who do not provide feedback to the very end – rarely get the results with a second or third re-write because what young person wants to know the hours of work put forth is completely not acceptable. Many struggling students really are doing their best but their best may not be very good. It is still our job as teachers – until they graduate – to TEACH them.

    Way to Mike!! You are TEACHING and providing an engaging and effective way to do your teaching!!!

  • Sprague

    I’d love to know what the work flow is for all involved. My classes are paperless right now, using an LMS, but I’d like to incorporate Google Apps more as we are an Apps for Education school. Do you have to go through your Drive searching for new files? How do you handle the process of grade recording?

    • Mr. Kalin’s Student

      We created folders on Google Drive with our names on it, then we shared the folder with our teacher. He can just look up folders titled under our name.