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.
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.
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.