Tools of the Trade: Google Docs – A Tool for Taking the Writing Conference Beyond the Confines of the Classroom
By Kelly Virgin
“By truly listening to students when we confer, we let them know that the work they’re doing as ‘writers’ matters.” -Carl Anderson
For years I have struggled with finding the time to truly listen to each and every writer I teach and as a result I know I have failed in letting many of them know how much their writing matters. As a high school teacher, the confines of a 42 minute class period and the average class size of 25 or more students made it logistically impossible for me to engage in meaningful writing conferences with every student regularly. That is until I took our writing conferences beyond the confines of the classroom through the use of Google Docs.
Over the past few years, my students and I have come to rely on Google Docs for all parts of the writing process: we brainstorm, draft, and craft there; we collaborate, confer, and revise there; we polish and sometimes we even publish there. By simply clicking the share button, I can let my students in on what I am doing as a writer throughout my entire process and I can eavesdrop and comment on what they are doing as writers throughout their entire process. But most of all, it enables us to talk about our writing virtually and outside the restrictions of the limited school day. While we use the drive for almost all aspects of our writing, the opportunity it has afforded me to truly “listen” to them as writers has been the biggest benefit in our classroom.
Early in the school year I introduce the concept of virtual conferencing by holding one with my own writing on the SmartBoard as students work individually on their writing. While I sit and rework parts of my draft, I pause to jot comments with questions or concerns in the margin and I invite students to take breaks from their writing to reply to my comments when they can. At the end of the class period we all take a look at the comments and replies together to discuss what we notice about the conversation. Students observe the types of comments I post, notice the replies, and make speculations about how the discussion influenced my writing (we can use the revision history feature for this). That night for homework, they add their own comments to the margins of their writing and over the next days these comments guide the conversations I have with students. In these conversations we discuss their writing as well as their comments in an effort to guide more thoughtful questions in the future. We repeat this activity several more times and at various parts of the writing process until I notice students starting to initiate the virtual conversations on their own.
As the school year progresses, we also start to use Google Docs for virtual peer conferences. Again, I model this for students first by displaying a copy of a paper I peer conferenced with a colleague. Together, we notice the comment discussion in the margin and note the types of comments the peer and writer made throughout. One of the biggest observations students make is that my peer asked me questions about my writing and that my replies to these questions often showed up directly in my revisions. Students also notice that I ignored a few suggestions and replied with follow-up questions of my own for several others. With this in mind, students share their work with a partner and begin to read and comment on each other’s writing in class. The conversations continue at home and I eavesdrop on a few in order to identify some model discussions to display for a follow-up class conversation. While I continue to assign this type of peer discussion for all of our major writing assignments, I have noticed that some students start to share their work with each other and engage in their own discussions before I require it. Since I have students share their writing with me at the inception, I am able to peek in on these conversations throughout the school year to provide guidance when needed, display as models for the class when appropriate, and add my own thoughts if warranted.
Finally, I also use Google Docs to hold “live chat writing conferences” outside of the classroom. For these discussions, I simply tell students when I will be online working on my writing or looking at theirs. I invite them to eavesdrop on my writing for a model if they are stuck on their own or to chat with me about theirs if they have any questions or concerns. When a student opens my document, their icon pops up on the top toolbar along with the option to chat. Sometimes they choose to just watch for a few moments as I work through my process and bounce back and forth to their own writing. However, several students often butt into my writing and ask me to look at or help them with something they are doing in theirs. The chat conversations are available for any student who is virtually present to read, so even the quiet observers can benefit from the questions of others. Sometimes, when we’ve had a particularly productive chat, I screenshot the discussion and make it available to any student who wasn’t virtually present.
By the end of the year, students regularly and independently post comments in the margins of their writing during all the phases of the process. While these virtual discussions never fully replace our in-class conversations, they help make our short five minute discourses more productive. They also give me the opportunity to spend time beyond the five minutes here and there to truly listen to and get to know my students as writers. This continuous virtual back and forth communicates how much their writing matters and engages everyone in a writing community and conversation that reaches beyond the confines of the classroom.
Kelly Virgin is in her eleventh year teaching English for the Kennett Consolidated School District and has been a PAWLP fellow since 2010. She is a proud bookworm and loves sharing her passion for reading and writing with her students. This spring she will facilitate the Strategies for Teaching Literature course on Tuesday evenings.