#DigiWriMo: The Tensions of Teaching in the Age of Digital Writing

I had the oddest experience in my classroom the other day. My sixth graders are in the midst of writing short stories in their new Google Docs accounts. It’s been a great writing experience. We’ve done collaborative peer reviewing, and I’ve been able to keep track of student progress. Most of my young writers are finishing up the story and now moving into the editing/proofreading stage.

The task of editing is difficult work for them, as it is for me when I write, and probably for you, too. So, I pulled out an activity around editing and proofreading, where we talk about some basic proofreading and editing marks that they can use to mark up a draft before moving into a final draft. I gave them a one-paragraph story that I wrote, and told them it had 18 errors. Who can find them all and use the proofreading strategies?

That’s the lesson and activity, right? Mark up the text to practice improving a text. Talk about technique and put it into action. Then, do the same with your own writing.

Except …

… I was halfway through that explanation to my students when I stopped and realized something rather important. It was one of those “duh” moments.

Here, my students are writing their stories in a digital space. Proofreading symbols? Marking up the text with pencil? Unless they were going to use a Sharpie on the computer screen (please, don’t), the lesson itself seemed out of sync with the ways in which I have them writing and revising with technology.

With computers as their medium for writing, I should be teaching them cyclical revision strategies — revising as you go, and then circling back around to keep an eye on audience. Keep shifting from writer to editor, and back again. Use the tools (spellcheck, etc) at hand, wisely.

Carrots (to insert text), circles (for spelling errors), paragraph indentation symbols … they all seemed rather meaningless when we write for the screen. Unless I want to print out 80 stories (many are now running 5 to 6 pages of text) … and I am not going to do that for this project. (Among other things, including disconnect from the medium of the story itself, it seems a waste of paper).

I forged ahead with the lesson, however, framing what we were doing with editing and proofreading in terms of being able to “see errors” in your writing (which is not easy) and know where changes have to be made. They had fun trying to figure out the errors — they made a game of it.

Me? I have to think about revision, too. Lesson plan revision for writers in a digital age.

Peace (in the think),

  1. The problem of quantity is one which plagued discussions with teachers in my institution when they started using Google Docs. “but they are writing too much, I won’t ever be able to correct it all.”

    The fact that they were writing so much was seen as a threat to teacher practises which had been based on the fact that they wrote so little before. Gradually, things have moved on.
    Students now will use the tools at their disposition – Google translate/dictionaries they will ask their friends and from time to time the teacher for help.
    What we have insisted on is that they will NEVER write better if they don’t read masses more. So we concentrated on longer projects which were self-directed where they had to do real research and then report back. The improvement in the quality of what they are writing is clear. Their motivation is much greater and so their writing is much improved. Adding a real audience for their productions (even limited or imperfect) has been another key factor – they want to improve, to pay attention as soon as they have an identifiable audience that they can identify with. So the message I take from all of that is that the teacher may be an obstacle to effective writing/speaking/communication or may be a means to open the kids to a worldwide audience for the stuff which really counts to them. Then writing/speaking itself becomes something else. It is no longer writing/videomaking/speaking for school.

    • I find it so strange that teachers would be wary of too much student writing. But perhaps that comes from the history of us needing to read every word every student writes, instead of doing what you are doing (which is the center of Connected Learning, by the way) around inquiry projects that tap into student interest for authentic audience.

  2. This is a powerful and interesting piece, Kevin. I applaud your efforts to use digital technology in this way. Bravo.

    I must tell you I have a bias on this — considerable experience, too. In 2008, we began developing a platform for use by teachers in schools that allowed easy and immediate sharing of work among class members. It was designed for youths, but set up for teachers, too. At one point we had 65+ schools and 10,000 students using it.

    We provided various levels of support to teachers — one-time workshops and assistance in class with introduction, to ongoing mentoring to a master’s class. What I told the teachers always was, “You will succeed when it’s out of control.” I meant it.

    Because when that happens, the students have taken ownership, they consider it their space. That means they’ve turned the corner, will work harder, do more and improve more rapidly — peer-to-peer motivation and learning.

    We suggest that teachers should not worry about things being out of control, should pick and choose what they want to formally review and assess and spot check the comments for tone and depth. We also suggest that they focus their guidance on helping the youths develop good commenting skills and help youths do that most difficult idea you are talking about — in-depth feedback.

    So here are my biases:

    Google Docs and Google Classroom do not give the same kind of experience as a platform like ours (I am NOT trying to sell you) or, even, a multi-blog WP site. So I think you lose that ability to get the kids informally seeing each others’ work and reacting — very important for them to gain a sense of ownership on their work and learning.

    I think it is better to have kids give feedback, rather than proofread, as in “What did you notice about what you read and articulate what you noticed to the author in a way that is well-received.” I think that’s an immensely important digital skill that strengthens critical thinking. We suggest the one like, one wonder method — one thing I liked about your piece and one thing I wondered about. All this leads to their ability to look at their own work more objectively and critically for better revision which is, after all, the secret to good writing, as you mention.

    And building on that point, we advocate that kids NOT comment on punctuation, grammar and spelling for several reasons — it breeds “gotchas” and I think the emphasis should be on the overview — the ideas, the degree to which a piece is effective, tangential ideas that might be interesting, etc.

    Finally, advocating again for a platform where youths can readily see each others’ work and spin through it easily, is the idea that in our experience at Young Writers Project we find that youths learn the most by seeing how others carry out an assignment. Far more effective than providing directions almost.

    Hope this helps. And if you do ever want to try our platform, it is free. And we only do it now with teachers we feel can use it and will use it well.



    • I am so appreciative of your comments and thoughts, G, and I don’t want to give the impression that my classroom is “red ink” land … we use Peter Elbow’s work around feedback quite a bit and I am working that ethos into the collaborative spaces we are now writing in. I agree that that is more effective than, put the comma there, kid.
      As for Google, I agree and appreciate that you and others are building more collaborative writing spaces for young writers. I am staying in Google for now, as I have a larger digital portfolio project underway that I hope will extend for the next six years in our school district, even as I recognize the limitations and downsides to it.
      See you on the Web!

  3. Thanks for the reply.

    My only push back would be these questions:

    Why does the portfolio have to be in google?

    Why six years with a software that is clunky and not designed for peer-to-peer interaction?

    (Hope I am not being annoying; it’s the journalist in me: I am curious.)


    • I know … I know ….

      Because our school district is in Google now (raises larger questions) and even if teachers up the path in middle and high school are not attuned to tech (and many are not), the kids can gather up writing from across the years in one space. Maybe they will find a teacher with vision to do something before graduation …

      It all might fall apart and it has not yet felt comfortable … But I need to see how it goes and flows before abandoning it for greener pastures (VT reference?)


  4. Kevin,

    Thanks so much for sharing that. That is what we have faced here as well. I will devote a #digiwrimo day to a mini rant about it. I think it’s a significant issue in many ways.

    I feel passionately that teachers should be allowed, encouraged, helped to use platforms that work best for their students and them for day-to-day writing and learning.

  5. Hi Kevin – your post is a refreshing read, a reality check for teachers today. Have you run across the Google docs extension, Draftback, which provides a video track of each student’s entire writing process? It demonstrates exactly what you were describing in terms of cyclical revising, moving between writer and editor when online. It is a powerful tool to demonstrate the writing process with students, modeling process over product. It also provides a link to analytics -time spent writing, when, etc.

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