When it comes to teaching writing, there is one thing I could not survive without: Google Classroom. Early on in my teaching career, I even went rogue and used Google Classroom when I was supposed to be religiously using my school’s other LMS. (Whoops! Anyone else who hated My Big Campus?) I used Classroom before my students had Chromebooks, back in the old computer lab days. I would jokingly tell my teacher friends that “Google was taking over the world” and that we would eventually go Google. Maybe I was a little obsessed, but we did go Google! And once you go Google, you can’t go back. (Trust me…I tried. And I resigned.)
But seriously, Google Classroom makes it ridiculously easy to streamline your writing instruction. And with the new normal of remote learning, Classroom is more important now than ever. Admittedly, I don’t have much experience with other platforms, and I am biased, but Google Classroom will help you make the most of distance learning, especially when it comes to teaching writing. Not only will Classroom improve your writing instruction, but it will help you stay connected to students throughout the entire writing process.
Google Classroom is intuitive enough that you figure out the basics on your own (assigning work, posting materials, grading, etc), but you can really maximize the platform with a few tips and tricks. Teaching writing will never be easy, but it can be much more manageable with the help of good old Google. Whether you’re brand new to Google Classroom or a techie teacher who is figuring out how the heck to teach during this time, here are 10 practical tips for teaching writing remotely:
1. MONITOR STUDENT PROGRESS WITH GOOGLE CLASSROOM & GOOGLE DOCS
Instead of assigning an essay and hoping for the best when it’s deadline time, you can use Google Classroom & Docs to monitor students’ progress throughout the entire writing process. The next time you want to assign an essay, create a template for the assignment in Google docs. It can be as simple as instructions and text that says “Type here.” You can even set it up with the right formatting (font size, double-spacing, MLA header) if you’re feeling generous. Then, assign that doc on Google Classroom and select the “Make a copy for each student” option. Selecting this option is crucial because it will create individual copies for every single student.
This way, you will be able to see students’ writing progress in real time. If a student is writing, you can simply open up their doc and watch them type. Students’ docs live in their Google drives and your drive, so you can’t lose anything. Everything is already organized in Google drive folders for you, which is a blessing for Type-B teachers like me. You can leave comments and even use the Chat feature to instantly message students as they write. While it’s not as ideal as communicating with students face-to-face in a classroom, it’s definitely the next best thing.
2. PROVIDE FEEDBACK VIA GOOGLE DOC COMMENTS
THIS is the real reason I went rogue back in the day. THIS is why once you go Google, you can’t go back. Once you have the ability to give students instantaneous feedback at every step of the writing process, you’ll never be able to teach writing the same way again. The more feedback you can give students during the writing process, the more they will grow as writers. More feedback also means less time writing comments on final drafts. Win-win! To give feedback via comments on Google docs, simply select (highlight) the text you want to comment on, and then select the plus sign speech bubble icon that should appear in the right margin. As students view your comments and make the necessary revisions, they can “resolve” your comments and effectively check each edit off their list.
I always try to give as much feedback as I can, especially in the earlier phases of the writing process. So I have students brainstorm and submit topic proposal docs, draft different versions of their thesis statements, and send in their topic sentences to make sure they support their thesis.
Feedback is my number #1 priority in the earliest stages of teaching writing, because I want my students to have a successful foundation for the rest of the process. Before I “release” my students to really, really write (as in draft their entire essay), they have already received lots of feedback from me. The best part? It’s all documented…so if weeks later, I’m grading an essay and thinking, “I know I told this student to revise their thesis,” I can quickly check the comment history.
3. SCAFFOLD THE WRITING PROCESS WITH MINILESSONS, GRAPHIC ORGANIZERS, AND OTHER RESOURCES
The writing process is already daunting for students, so it’s even more intimidating in the virtual setting. To make writing more manageable, scaffold the process by breaking it down into smaller chunks/steps. Here’s how I support my students when I’m teaching writing:
- Giving students an outline to help them structure their writing. This helps me give students feedback before they really dig into the rest of the writing process.
- Posting mini-lessons for each step/element of the writing process. I usually provide these in slideshow form AND screencast video form. (Loom is my favorite tool for creating screencast videos.) I provide students with writing workshop minilessons on everything from crafting a thesis statement to selecting strong & thorough textual evidence.
- Offering students additional graphic organizers and resources to use if they need them. These resources, like the thesis statement “fill in the blank” organizer pictured below, help scaffold the writing process for students.
- Familiarizing students with the rubric I will use to assess their final drafts. This means posting it on Classroom, explaining it, referring to it during minilessons, providing feedback that gives students an idea of where they are on the rubric, asking students to self-evaluate throughout the writing process, and making sure all expectations are 100% clear.
4. CURATE & ORGANIZE RESOURCES WITH HYPERDOCS
It’s easy for students to become overwhelmed with all of the resources you are offering them. Even though students have the entire internet at their fingertips, they don’t always know how to use it. That’s where hyperdocs come in. Like its name suggests, a hyperdoc is a document of hyperlinks to other documents, resources, videos, websites, etc. Depending on how you use it, a hyperdoc can function as a self-paced lesson module or a resource hub. When it comes to writing workshop, I use hyperdocs for the latter, linking up all of the minilessons, videos, graphic organizers, and outside resources students might need throughout the writing process. I carefully curate resources to help every type of learner at every step of the writing process.
In this way, hyperdocs help me scaffold and differentiate for students. Not to mention, they answer students’ questions and free up more of my time to provide valuable feedback. I love hyperdocs because everything is in one place, and anytime students have questions, you can direct them to the hyperdoc. (Eventually, you’ll train them to head straight to the hyperdoc when they need some help.) A hyperdoc is a great way to accommodate all of your learners and support them as they work through the writing process. To learn more about how to create your own hyperdocs, check out this blog post.
5. USE DAILY “CHECK INS” TO SUPPORT EVERY STUDENT, EVERY DAY
Checking in with every student is challenging enough in the traditional classroom, but it can feel even more overwhelming in the virtual setting. But there’s an easy solution that will allow you to check in with every student, every day of writing workshop: A daily check-in. You can do this via Google forms OR Google Classroom questions. (I prefer the latter.) I assign these as exit tickets at the end of each writing workshop day, and the check-in reads the same almost every day: What did you accomplish today? What questions do you have, and how can I help you?
If students want specific feedback on their writing, I encourage them to give me specific instructions. It takes some time and practice to move students away from the “Can you check my writing and see if it’s good?” questions to the “Can you check my thesis to see if it clearly previews my claims?” questions. But within a few days, you’ll see students asking specific, purposeful questions. These simple check-ins will give you a chance to help the student who need it the most. They’ll help you provide more precise, helpful, and efficient feedback for students.
While you can easily create a check-in Google form, I prefer using Google Classroom questions because I can easily reply to students, whether it’s with a general “I left a comment on your doc!” or “It looks great; keep up the good work.” Helping students is even easier when you have a hyperdoc of resources, because you can direct students to the appropriate minilesson and post the link in the comments on Classroom.
6. ASSIGN CHECKPOINTS TO BREAK UP THE WRITING PROCESS
In addition to daily check-ins, I also like to assign formative checkpoints for essential parts of the writing process. Once again, I do this to a) scaffold the writing process and b) provide meaningful formative feedback along the way. Here are examples of various checkpoints I use:
- Topic Proposal: Students submit a topic proposal via a Google Classroom question. I provide feedback and approve their topics by replying to their submissions.
- Thesis Statement Checkpoint: After rounds of drafting and revising a thesis statement, students submit their thesis through a Google Classroom question. Once again, I offer comments in the replies. After reviewing my feedback, I ask students to revise their thesis and post it as a reply. This way, I can visually see how they have taken my feedback into account and revised their thesis.
- Outline Checkpoint: After completing an outline on a Google doc, I ask students to copy/paste the “bare bones” of their outline (thesis, claims, and one piece of evidence per claim) in a Google Classroom question. I usually use a rubric to assess the outline and provide formative feedback. Students do not begin the rest of the essay until I have approved their outlines in this way.
7. ADD IN OPPORTUNITIES FOR PEER FEEDBACK
Writing can feel like a lonely, tedious process, especially in the online setting. Give your students the opportunity to connect with peers and offer feedback. Yes, it can be done online! Here are a few different ways to incorporate meaningful peer feedback remotely:
- For focused peer feedback on a specific part of an essay (such as a thesis, topic sentence, even an entire paragraph), I love using a Google Classroom question. For example, I will ask students to submit their thesis statement via a question, and then I will have them give feedback to 2 of their peers. Sometimes, I will give students the option to pick a specific part of their paper and ask for feedback on that. For example, a student could post their introduction and ask their peers if it’s engaging and clear. Or they could post a claim, piece of evidence, and commentary, and ask their peers if their evidence and commentary is strong enough to defend the claim.
- For peer feedback on an entire essay, I often ask students to share their Google doc with a peer and require that they provide feedback via the comments or even the rubric. To structure this, I give students a checklist, the rubric, or other guidelines.
No matter how you facilitate peer feedback, the most important part is giving students some structure and guidelines. Instead of just asking them to give comments, tell them what to look for. Give them your rubric and allow them to familiarize themselves with the language of instruction/assessment as they peer-edit.
8. SCHEDULE VIRTUAL OFFICE HOURS OR CONFERENCES
In my opinion, one of the most rewarding parts of teaching writing is simply talking to students about their writing. While there is a certain magic in face-to-face writing conferences, you can still find a way to “meet” with students in the online setting. Depending on your district’s guidelines, video conferencing through Zoom or Google Hangouts may be an option. If it’s not, you can still arrange virtual meetings by scheduling times to “meet” on a student’s document at the same time. This way, you can communicate in real time through comments or the Chat feature (if your district has this enabled; some may not). It’s certainly not as good as the real thing, but at least you’ll be in the same doc at the same time, looking at the same piece of student writing.
To create a virtual sign-up sheet like the one pictured below, create a Google form with your time slots in check-boxes. Then, use the add-on Choice Eliminator so that slots are removed from the form when students claim them. For a slightly easier option, simply create an editable Google doc and allow students to sign up directly on the document.
9. ENCOURAGE THE USE OF OTHER TECH TOOLS
Even with all of the wonderful technology at your disposal, you can only do so much for students. Foster some independence by encouraging students to utilize the various other tech tools that exist outside of Google Classroom and your arsenal of resources. Learning to maximize the internet’s resources is a skill that will serve students well when they attend college, join the workforce, and enter the “real world.” While there are countless options out there, here are my favorites:
- Grammarly is a Google Chrome “writing assistant” that will help students understand and correct their grammar and spelling mistakes. Once Grammarly is activated, students will see suggestions and explanations as they type in docs.
- Diigo is a convenient bookmarking website and extension that allows users to curate, organize, and annotate various sources. It’s especially helpful for research writing or projects where students need to keep track of a body of articles.
- Kami is a helpful tool that allows students to annotate PDFs right in their browser. It integrates with Google Classroom, and the premium subscription is currently free due to COVID-19.
- Read&Write is a Google Chrome extension that can help scaffold the writing process with its text-to-speech and speech-to-text tools. While it is a paid extension, students can access it free for 30 days. (FYI: Teachers can receive a free premium subscription, but obviously that doesn’t help students at home.)
10. ASK STUDENTS TO REFLECT & SELF-EVALUATE
Don’t let the writing process abruptly end when students attach their doc and click submit on Google Classroom! Instead, facilitate thoughtful reflection and connect with your students one more time by asking them to self-evaluate. In my experience, this works well with a Google form or a rubric copied/pasted at the end of the essay document. If you feel disconnected from your students, this exercise will help you stay connected AND it will give you meaningful data that goes beyond what any rubric or grade could tell you.
When I ask students to reflect, I keep it simple by giving them a copy of the rubric I use to assess them. I ask them to give themselves scores in the different categories, justify those ratings, and then reflect on the writing process. I also give them a chance to tell me what I could have done to better support them and express any other concerns about the writing unit. My students’ reflections always teach me more than any other kind of data I could collect and analyze.
BONUS TIP: SHARE OR “PUBLISH” STUDENT WRITING
The act of writing can feel isolating, and even more so in the online setting. Don’t forget to find a way to publish student writing and celebrate the last (but often forgotten) phase of the writing process. Publishing doesn’t have to be as formal as it sounds; even the simple act of sharing one’s work and connecting with fellow writers will go a long way in the virtual environment. Thankfully, technology gives us plenty of options for sharing & publishing student writing. Here are just a few ideas:
- Share student writing on a class blog or Google Site. (Or better yet, have students create their own sites and update them throughout the process).
- Invite students to share their work via a Padet or Flipgrid (video responses).
- Create a virtual gallery walk, or compilation of student work, via Google docs, slides, or forms.
- Combine student submissions into an e-book, and post it on your LMS. (It’s as simple as combining all docs, adding a nice cover, and converting the file to a PDF).
Whatever you do to share, celebrate, or publish student writing, I guarantee it will help you and your students stay connected and feel rewarded for your hard work!
I hope these tips help you navigate the uncertain world of teaching writing remotely. Please let me know if you have any questions or if there are any other blog posts I can write to help you during this time. Best of luck, and stay healthy!
If you’re interested in digital writing resources, you may find the following materials helpful:
- Writing Workshop Minilessons
- How to Write an Essay Brochure
- Synthesis Writing Unit: Has society taken science, technology, or social media too far?
- Literary Analysis Writing Rubrics
If you liked this post, check out these other blog posts on virtual teaching, technology, and writing: