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3 tips to organize your students’ Google Docs

Google Docs Imagefavicon Google Docs (now Google Drive) is great. But if you’re a teacher, you might feel overwhelmed by the number of documents you receive from students. So much clutter!

Here are three tips to help you.

1. Do not have students share individual documents with you.
They will forget. Even if they remember, it’s not an elegant solution. See Tip #2.

2. Instead, set up shared folders.
When students drag their document into a shared folder that you have set up, two things happen at once: (1) You get the document, (2) The document is automatically organized.

There are three logical ways to create shared folders. They are (1) by student, (2) by assignment, (3) by class. Each option has its pluses and minuses.

If you choose to create folders by student (which I did last year and which was very successful), you’ll have many folders, but you’ll be able to see your student’s entire portfolio at a glance. This also keeps things private.

On the other hand, if you create folders by assignment, it’ll be easier to grade your essays, but you’ll have to create new folders all the time.

Most teachers create a folder for each class. This keeps everything tidy but allows students to view (and modify!) their peers’ work. Some teachers find the openness helpful because students can assist each other.

3. Insist on a common way for students to title their documents.
If you don’t tell students to title their documents, you’ll receive tons of documents titled “Untitled.” Best practice is to find an easy way for students to identify their name, class, and assignment.

Some teachers have crazy naming conventions, which usually involve underscores, first initials, and confusing spacing. Here’s mine:

Period Number Last Name, First Name: Assignment
2 Isero, Mark: Persuasive Essay

The period number comes in handy because Google Docs will group all documents with the same number up front. Then, having a student’s last name come first keeps documents alphabetized and easy for grading purposes. Finally, I prefer a generic assignment name (rather than the student’s original title) so I can search for essays later in case they get lost.

So there you have it — three tips  to organize your students’ Google Docs. Please let me know if you have a better system or if you have questions. favicon

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Tips on using Google Docs in the classroom

 Google Docs is great. It revolutionized my teaching this year and improved my students’ writing. Here’s what I learned — and some tips.

1. All Google Docs, all the way.
Some teachers don’t want to be pushy and therefore allow a hybrid system. They say: “Sure, go ahead, use Microsoft Word if you want to. It’s OK for you to email me your essays.” This is a big mistake. Go big on Google Docs, and don’t let the naysayers get to you.

2. Shared folders, not shared documents.
The typical way that people share on Google Docs is document by document. The better way is to set up a shared folder for each of your students. When the student wants to submit her essay to you, all she needs to do is drag her document into her shared folder, and voilà, you have it.

Why is this better? A few reasons: (1) A shared folder organizes a student’s body of work for the entire class, (2) Students remember to drag their document more often than they remember to share it, (3) It expedites a revision team. This year, my students had an online writing mentor and a peer editor. Share the folder to those people, and they get each essay, too.

3. Insist on naming conventions.
Unless you tell your students how to name their documents, you’ll get a lot of essays titled “Untitled.” Some teachers insist on including period numbers, first and last names, and assignment title. I’m not a stickler for the specific content of a document’s name, but I do make sure my students learn my system, down to the spacing and the colons. Mine was Assignment: FirstName LastName. Even though I thought it was fairly easy, it took nearly five weeks for students to get things perfect, but I never backed down. Precision, after all, is key.

4. Make comments, don’t highlight.
Some teachers use the highlighter tool to identify grammar mistakes and misspellings, or they type directly on the essay using a different font color. I preferred making all my marks by inserting comments. The keyboard shortcut (Ctrl-Alt-M) came in handy, and I found that students liked it when I didn’t physically write on their paper. It was easier for them to manage.

5. The most important part is reflection.
Google Docs is excellent for collaboration and revision, but students don’t improve unless they reflect on how they’ve grown. That’s why it’s crucial to insert into the process time and space for reflection. I had students copy and paste a one-page template at the end of each essay, which served not just as a record of their growth but also as a place for me to grade their final paper. This was helpful but not necessary. After all, you could just have students insert a comment at the end of their paper, to which you could respond.

I hope those tips are helpful. I plan on doing more posts about my experiences using Google Docs this year. More than any other tool, Google Docs transformed teaching and learning in my classroom. 

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Google Docs offline is a big deal for students

favicon Google announced this week that Google Docs would now be accessible offline. In other words, you can now create and modify documents on a computer not connected to the Internet. When your access comes back, your documents are synced and updated.

This is a big deal for students. Here’s why:

1. It solves the problem of intermittent Internet access.
Many of my students have faulty Internet connections. Their service at home is spotty. Now they can keep working on their essays without fearing they’ll lose their work.

2. It really helps students with laptops.
Many of my students have a laptop as their primary computer, but it’s not always easy to find Internet access. Google Docs offline solves this problem. Now my students can just keep on working, wherever they are, and then sync back up once they have access.

Although Google Docs offline is wonderful, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, it is computer-specific. This means that your documents are viewable to others sharing your computer. Second, it doesn’t work yet on spreadsheets and presentations. This capability, I’m sure, will come soon. Third, it works only with the Chrome browser. But that’s not a big deal.

Most important, Google Docs offline doesn’t solve the problem of students who have a desktop computer and no Internet access at all at home. Those students will still have to rely on their phones.

Still, it’s pretty amazing how quickly technology is trying to deal with the digital divide. Just five years ago at my school, we were still dealing with Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, and flash drive viruses. Those were not good times. Then came Google Apps, and since then, my students’ writing skills and confidence with technology have both improved.

Here’s more information about Google Docs offlinefavicon

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The best use of technology in the classroom

 A friend called me a few days ago for help on an upcoming interview. He’s applying to become a social studies teacher, and he wanted tips about how to answer the question, “How would you use technology in your classroom?”

I know the “right” answer, the one the interviewers want to hear. You’re supposed to link technology with large-scale, authentic projects. You’re supposed to talk about video and audio and new, obscure Web 2.0 tools. In this answer, the role of technology is to shock and awe.

That’s fine. I like snazzy tech tools, too. But that’s not the real right answer. Today I came across a tweet by Franki Sibberson, a literacy advocate and blogger at “A Year of Reading.” This is what she thinks about the role of technology:

In other words, rather than saving technology for flashy, end-of-unit projects, teachers should use technology day-in, day-out to advance the core components of learning, like reading.

I totally agree. In my class this year, my students and I used technology, and sure, we had fun projects, like “Tech Danger,” a music video exploring the role of technology in Frankenstein.

But the true power of technology in my classroom was less sexy. Here are three examples:

1. Google Docs. Many teachers see Google Docs as old-hat. Been there and done that. But Google Docs was crucial for my students’ writing. They drafted their essays, received feedback from me, a peer, and an online writing mentor, and reflected each week on their writing growth. Less time was wasted printing, waiting for feedback, and making improvements. Writing gets better with extensive practice, and Google Docs is the reason my students were able to complete 16 essays this year.

2. Mass texting. More and more teachers are using texting to communicate with their students and to build relationships. I used texting this year to extend the learning day. After all, five hours a week of class time is not enough to meet ambitious learning outcomes. Time after school and at home are imperative to accelerate learning. To encourage studying after hours, I used SmashText to send texts to all my students. Texting was a popular and effective intervention for my students, who appreciated the reminders and words of encouragement.

3. Class Blog. Teachers have had websites for years, usually to share information, but few have opened them up to their students as shared learning spaces. (My favorite is “Word Choices.”) Last year, I decided to let my students post to iseroma.com however and whenever they wanted, not just for assignments and projects. This decision built classroom community and gave students an authentic space for their work. It made my students’ work and thinking more real and more public.

I’m pretty happy with how technology in my classroom materialized this year. For technology to be useful, it must take hold; in other words, students must return to the same tools over and over again, rather than just one time.

Next year, I hope to expand my use of technology, this time to improve reading. I’m looking at using ipadio or Evernote to record think-alouds and text-based discussions. Capturing students’ annotations will also be important. If they’re on paper, I can just snap a picture. But I’m also thinking of using Google Docs or Diigo (my favorite, though clunky) or another annotation tool (they aren’t that good, actually) to promote a sense of shared reading and thinking.

Please let me know what you think. How do you use technology in the classroom? 

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My students loved their online writing mentors!

 Each of my students this year received an online writing mentor who helped them every week on Google Docs.

It was a huge commitment for the 23 adults who volunteered. The more I thank them, the more I recognize how much more I should thank them.

Here’s another reason to thank them: My students, in their end-of-year evaluations, had huge praise for their online writing mentors. Not one student reported a negative experience. Here are some quotes:

  • “My mentor helped me with grammar and editing on a college level.”
  • “My mentor was helpful, challenging, knowledgeable, friendly, and supportive.”
  • “It was good to have another adult besides my teacher to edit my work.”
  • “My writing mentor knew my writing style so he could help me even more.”
  • “My mentor knew what he was talking about and helped me my writing make sense.”

* * *

Thank you again, Online Writing Mentors! As a teacher, I can devote maybe 15 minutes per student per week. Without you, my students’ writing would not have grown as much as it did. Thank you again for your dedication.

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My students love Google Docs!

 It’s the end of the year, so I’m doing a series of evaluations with my students to improve my teaching.

This year, my students used Google Docs for all their essays. Here’s how the two-week essay cycle worked:

1. On Monday, students did a timed writing in class, then typed their essays on Google Docs before 11 p.m.

2. On Tuesday, their online writing mentor, their peer editor, and I would read their essays and leave comments on Google Docs.

3. On Wednesday, the students would revise their essays and write a reflective journal that chronicled their writing growth.

4. On Thursday, they’d turn in their essays, and I’d grade them for content.

5. On Friday, I’d return the graded essays, and a week of proofreading would begin — back on Google Docs.

* * *

When I asked my students about their experience using Google Docs, they were unanimously positive. Here are some of the things they said:

1. Google Docs made the revision process faster, easier, and more encouraging. Students preferred comments online rather than on paper.

2. Google Docs made revision more interactive. Students could write comments back to their editors to gain more understanding. We also sometimes had synchronous editing sessions, which were popular.

3. Google Docs saved paper and printing stress. (Most of my students do not have working printers at home and disliked having to run around the school for an open printer.)

4. Google Docs offered an easy way to store and organize their essays. All they had to do was to drag their essays into their shared folder. Instant e-portfolio.

* * *

This was my first year of moving entirely to Google Docs. Now that Google Docs has transformed into Google Drive, I can see myself teaching my students to house all of their materials there.

The only impediment is one of access. Because of the digital divide, it took several weeks for my students to learn the program. It was slow going at first. There were many failed attempts at document dragging, proper titling, and accurate spacing.

I worry that if I do too much too soon, I’ll alienate students. But this year’s Google Docs experiment suggests that if I give my students enough time and practice to master crucial tech skills, they’ll get the handle of it and be appreciative at the end. 

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Live virtual proofreading on Google Docs

favicon Want to see something that is really boring but incredibly powerful?

Take a look at the screencast below. It’s a student and I proofreading an essay together — live, from different places — on Google Docs.

It’s simple: I highlight places on the student’s essay where I see errors, and then the student makes changes. We use the chat box to ask questions, get hints, and reflect on what we’ve learned.

Here’s a five-minute snippet (if you can handle it!):

This virtual proofreading process takes about five to 10 minutes and has been much more popular for my students, who dislike coming after school, than real-life conferences.

Proofreading on Google Docs is not ideal, of course. Much deeper learning could be done in person. But until I figure out a way for more students to stick around school, I’ll make do using a bit of tech. favicon

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My students do their homework on their phones

favicon This is what happens in an urban public high school when I assign homework that involves technology.

Many of my students use their phones to do their homework.

Google is at the center of my writing program. Students draft, collaborate, revise, and proofread using Google Docs. It’s been great.

But as Google Docs gets better and migrates to mobile devices, and as my students remain stuck in poverty, the cell phone has become their de facto computer.

My students hold their phones close and focus on the tiny print. They tap away for hours. They squint their eyes to figure out whether they have one or two spaces between words.

It’s not a pretty sight. But it’s a necessary one when their Internet at home is intermittent and when the library is closed or too far away.

Some teachers would argue that requiring students to do homework using technology is inequitable. After all, it places some students at an unfair disadvantage. But the answer to the digital divide is not to give up on the use of technology in learning. Schools must do better in addressing the needs of students and their families to ensure that all students have access.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, my students — despite my support in providing free computers this year — will continue tapping away on their phones, pretending they’re computers. favicon

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Responding to student work with screencasts

favicon I just finished up an experiment. With the first drafts of my students’ essays, instead of writing comments in Google Docs, I recorded screencasts to offer spoken rather than written feedback.

This is not a new idea. I’ve done it before here and there, and so have others (Shelly Blake-Plock’s post is excellent), but I’ve never done screencasts with an entire class before.

Until today.

So here’s how it went: I used Jing, a free screencasting program that allows you to record your computer’s screen and your voice for up to five minutes. Once you’ve done that, you can save your screencast to your computer or post it (with a URL) to screencast.com. It’s pretty simple.

So instead of reading my students’ essays and then giving written comments in the margins, I talked through the essays like a live AP English reader would. In other works, I did a “think aloud.”

I’m not going to post any examples here yet — until I get my students’ permission and their feedback about this process — but my initial hope is that these screencasts will approximate a virtual (one-way) writing conference. I’m wondering if hearing a person’s voice (instead of reading a person’s comments) will spur more students to deeper revision.

Many time-crunched teachers will ask, “Doesn’t this take forever?” Actually, not really. You can record up to five minutes, but my screencasts averaged about three. Then it takes about a minute to upload to screencast.com, during which time I take a much-needed break to refresh my head and surf the web. Once the uploading is finished, I copy and paste the link to the student’s writing review template on the bottom of the essay. Overall, then, the process takes about five minutes per essay, which isn’t horrific.

No, you can’t offer line-by-line commentary. You can’t get into the nitty-gritty of word choice or syntax. These screencasts are good for the big stuff — overall focus, thesis, organization, quality of evidence. They’re great to give students a holistic assessment of their work in the formative stage.

Please let me know what you think of this experiment. It’s entirely possible that it’ll be a failure, but I’m hopeful that it will give my students more of a “live” version of how readers try to understand their writing.

I’ll be sure to post an update after I get my students’ reactions. favicon

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“I’m still here.”

favicon I don’t believe in teacher movies. You know them: Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Freedom Writers, and Stand and Deliver, to name a few.

Even when they’re accurate (which is almost never), these movies send the wrong message: that if you’re a (usually white) teacher who really cares, you can get your students to do extraordinary things (while being a martyr, too).

We all know things don’t quite work that way.

Progress is slow. Growth takes time. Breakthroughs are few and far between.

Most of the time, we see success only after the fact — at a graduation ceremony, or when students visit us many years after taking our class. Feel-good, movie-worthy moments rarely happen in real time.

That’s why the other day was special. A student texted me for help on her essay. She was stuck on understanding the passage’s syntax and didn’t know how to find solid evidence.

For the first hour, we texted back and forth. Texting, of course, is not the best medium for deep teaching and learning. But I was surprised how horribly we communicated with each other. I didn’t understand what she was trying to say. She thought I was being snarky. At one point, the exchange even got testy.

But I knew that I had to stay in, that I couldn’t let my student go. So I gave up on my frustration and tried a different tack. We agreed to cool off and try again later on Google Docs. (Believe me, at this point, talking on the phone likely would have made things worse.)

Once on Google Docs, we quickly got some momentum. The interface offers three discourse spaces at once: informal conversation in the chat window, academic dialogue in the comments, and student work in the essay window.

We had a good flow going for more than an hour. My student had persevered and gotten past the most challenging parts of her essay. The road looked clear. And then it happened.

She asked me what I thought about a specific piece of evidence she’d selected. Although it wasn’t horrible, it wasn’t too strong, so I told her so. I wasn’t even mean about it.

But my criticism set her off. In the chat window, she wrote that she was giving up, that there was no point to all this work, and that every time she worked hard, I shot her down.

I could have gotten defensive. I could have told her she was acting irrational.

Instead, I took a deep breath. And then I wrote, “I’m still here.”

There was a very long pause. Yes, I felt like I was in my own movie. I half expected Google Docs to tell me my student had signed off.

But instead — luckily, I think — my student responded, “OK, let’s go.”

And then we spent another finishing up her piece.

In her reflection afterward, my student wrote: “In the end, I finally pulled through. I think that I need to fix how I give up so easily when things don’t go my way. I just need to fight through.” favicon