Digital Writing: Starting from Zero

Image Credit: Holy Chaffin, PublicDomainPictures.net

Image Credit: Holy Chaffin, PublicDomainPictures.net

Since I teach grade 7, students come to me with a WIDE variety of experience when it comes to digital writing. One or two–ok, maybe three–of my students know a lot about blogging, Google apps, and html code. These students are the techies. Another small minority of my students don’t have access to the internet at home and they are very new to any kind of online work. The majority of my students have smart phones and obsessively post to  Instagram and Facebook–even though they are technically too young. For whatever reason, many students don’t have email and they have never used Google Docs. They are somewhat familiar with standard word processing software like Microsoft Word, but in general, they don’t know how to format an academic paper.

My school district has Google Apps for Education, but the apps are limited to Google Drive, Contacts, and Calendar. Students do not have access  Gmail, Sites, Blogger, etc. I harbored big dreams of using Google Sites to create writing portfolios, but I am happy students at least have access to Google Drive. That is at least a place to begin.

Now, for the dose of reality. It feels like I’m going into battle when I bring 36 seventh graders to the computer lab, a lab which may or may not be fully functional. As the only teacher in the room, I often spend the whole class period walking up and down the aisles troubleshooting internet and computer problems. This is exasperating because what I want to be doing is helping students craft their writing. That complaint aside, it’s worth it because students need to be doing this kind of work.

Why do I face the migraine headache which is the school computer lab? Ultimately, my students need to learn how to write for the digital age. Here are the key concepts I want my students to learn about digital writing, specifically with the use of Google Drive and Docs:

  1. Google Docs saves in real time. There is no “losing” the document when Word or Pages (or the computer) crashes. Also, it doesn’t matter if their home computer has the same software as my school computer. They can access their Docs anywhere, anytime.
  2. Digital writing is collaborative. I love when I see students hovering over the same computer before realizing they can “share” the document. I find that my students take to collaborating this way very quickly. They don’t seem to feel awkward or confused the way I’ve seen adults who are new Google Docs.
  3. Each Google Doc has a URL and exists as a web page. This web page can be shared and used as a link.
  4. Sharing settings allow students to “turn in” the document without using the printer. They don’t have to “share” more than once. Every year, students try to “re-share” with me and it takes awhile for them to understand that I already can see the changes they’ve made.
  5. The commenting function is much easier for to read than the teacher’s chicken scratch writing. It is also much easier for students to ask questions about the comments.
  6. Students can create hyperlinks, bringing a contemporary, 3-dimensional feel to their writing. Being free from the limitations of paper is liberating!
  7. Recently, Google Docs began providing a a fairly simple way for students to find public domain images to include with their writing. This is a good first step to teach students about copyright infringement. Images are an important component of digital writing and it is obvious that students are used to just taking whatever they want from the Internet. I want them to start thinking about who owns the rights to that intellectual property.
  8. Google Docs has an easy-to-use research function helps students check spelling, define words, and find synonyms.

One issue I am trying to solve is that my school district is transitioning away from computer labs towards iPads. Currently, the Google Drive options for the iPad are limited. Students have basic formatting options, but no spell check. They can share the documents, but they can’t change the sharing settings from “private” to “anyone with the link.” Right now, I still need the computer lab, at least initially, so students can truly comprehend what digital writing means.

Onward and upward! We’ll see what else this year has in store for me and my students. I am sure this is one area that I’ll constantly be revising and expanding.

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