I have never been much of a technology expert in anything beyond the basics, although I was quite an Atari legend in the 80’s, made a smooth transition from VHS to DVD in the 90’s, and more recently converted from Windows to Mac. With all the talk of twenty-first century learners entering high school, I accepted the opportunity to become the first member of the English department to use a smart-board in my classroom (when Wisconsin’s educational budget was more promising). I learned how to incorporate PowerPoint into my lessons and entertained students with some less-than-artistic illustrations using smart-board tools. After a dozen years of inhaling chalk dust and smearing transparencies, I have grown fond of my new toys.
One of my favorite applications of technology in the classroom is Microsoft Word’s comment feature, which I use to provide quality feedback to my writers. I have designed numerous lessons in which students utilize the comment functions for peer editing while rotating from station to station in the computer lab. I have also crafted assessments based on students’ ability to comment on the revisions they make within the text of their own papers. Students must identify and articulate any changes to their previous draft on which I have typically provided feedback. I gain an accurate understanding of each student’s learning by reading the rationale behind the improvements. This is an excellent practice but it is inconvenient to access student school accounts, save as a new document with comments, or exchange emails with attachments. If only there were a more efficient system…
Last year, our high school’s library media specialist introduced me to the functionality of Google Docs during a freshman orientation session with my class. While many of my freshmen were not paying attention (naturally) to Google’s accessibility and collaborative capabilities, I was intrigued by the potential.
I had already set up a personal Gmail account and was in the process of constructing a classroom Google website, so looking into the rest of the Google Apps made sense. I set a professional goal to learn the system and teach students to utilize the new technology, knowing our district is heading that direction. A collection of new documents soon accumulated in my Drive (impressively organized in folders)–easily accessible from school, home, and my phone when needed. A creative vision of increasing student success and accountability began to form: no more misplaced flash drives or emailing between accounts; no more printer dilemmas; no more forgetting to save; no more “it’s on my home computer;” no more excuses; and not nearly as much paper.
At the outset of this school year, I explored the idea of going paperless in Foundations of College Writing, a semester-long senior composition course stationed in the department computer lab. I experimented with Google Docs for the majority of writing projects throughout first semester and learned with my students. Very few students were even aware they had a Google account already established by our district technology coordinator so I proudly guided them across the threshold. Initially, I relied on several tech-savvy students, who had no problem grasping the system (it cannot be that difficult if I taught myself). They communicated when something was unclear and helped me explain areas of confusion to their peers. By the time I officially assigned the research paper–the required touchstone of the course–my seniors showed no hesitation (how refreshing).
In response to a Google Form consisting of several guiding questions, students generated ideas for their research based on articles (informational texts) independently read throughout the semester. They identified issues worthy of further investigation, narrowed their topics, and composed a preliminary thesis. Student replies were neatly registered on a spreadsheet grid–a highly teachable document–in my Drive, rather than through multiple documents or a stack of papers.
The copy-and-paste generation learned to record and properly document research in a Google Presentation rather than on cumbersome note cards (so 20th Century). Visual learners arranged slides by topic or color–depending on individual preference–and soon sentences formed paragraphs. Bibliography slides were alphabetized and posted to a works cited page. All stages of the research process were organized and digitally recorded without having to save progress. Students shared their work with me, permitting access to monitor each step.
When writers composed ample content, I had them share with at least two other students. I have never witnessed such quality feedback through a peer editing exercise. They offered constructive advice to each other, while verbalizing their knowledge about writing (but is not always reflected in their writing). I learned as much–if not more–by reading peer feedback to check editors’ understanding of writing (see formative assessment), and was most impressed to see a student insert a comment reflecting my teaching.
The seniors appreciated the authentic conversations about the craft of writing, and preferred the immediate and ongoing feedback, “not days or weeks later.” They considered this exchange “educational” and “not as embarrassing” as begging for help from a writing instructor. Ultimately, after years of neglecting feedback scratched in the margins of their work, they were “more willing to pay attention to advice” and “finally understood what [I was] talking about.” My red pen was slightly offended, but technology had impacted my effectiveness in teaching students to write.
I sense the contempt of critics chiding me for selling out to the Cloud–paranoid of Big Brother. What about days when the server is down? Doesn’t reading student work take even longer? What’s the point? Well, Big Brother should be proud of our productivity, efficiency, and human progress (or does that make us a threat?). It is also our nature to adapt to technical difficulties as they occur, hence we store writers’ notebooks in a file cabinet, and occasionally practice our fine motor skills of manipulating a pen. Yes, the process of reading and commenting on student work is time-consuming, but the technology opens new opportunities to multitask; I can even read student work on my iPad while running on the treadmill without worrying about sweating on their papers. At the risk of alarming some, good teaching is time-consuming; the learning process is a journey requiring trust, patience, and commitment from teacher and student alike.
After a successful semester of experimentation, I confidently welcomed a new group of seniors to my first hour, paperless composition class. I will continue to reflect on my experiences, challenges, and improvements, and share the results. I am well on my way to understanding NCTE’s definition of 21st Century Literacies (see http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/21stcentdefinition), but more importantly, so are my students.
Note: no trees were killed nor red pens sacrificed in the 2012-2013 writing process