Google Classroom, Part 2: The Digital Writer’s Notebook
Note: In “Google Classroom, Part 1: Going Paperless,” I wrote about the change to a (mostly) paperless classroom once my district went 1:1 with Chromebooks and I started using Google Classroom. In this entry, I discuss how I am grappling with no longer using a traditional, paper writer’s notebook.
The writer’s notebook is almost a sacred, mythical element of the writer’s workshop. It is where students’ writing lives take shape and are documented over the course of a year. In my classroom, the writer’s notebook held everything, and I mean EVERYTHING. Any paper I handed out was immediately taped or glued into the notebook, even if it had to be turned on its side or folded over two times. The writer’s notebook was our textbook. So when I heard each one of my students would be getting a Chromebook, I was excited about the possibilities and what that could mean for student writing. But what nagged at me was the loss of the traditional, tangible writer’s notebook.
I spent the summer asking other ELA teachers how they planned to use Chromebooks in conjunction with their traditional notebooks and searching the web to see what other teachers of reading and writing were doing. Nothing that I found was exactly what I was hoping to find. I wanted to see or read about someone who fully transitioned their students to a digital writer’s notebook, but I just couldn’t find what I thought would suit my and my students’ needs. I really didn’t want to start the year having kids split between the traditional notebook and their Chromebooks, but I wasn’t sure what else to do.
But we did start the year just like that: split between the two worlds. I was afraid kids would feel really disorganized (maybe I was afraid I would be the one to feel disorganized!), but they seemed to take it in stride. As I started using Google Classroom daily to assign work and give students copies of documents, I found myself thinking less and less about the traditional writer’s notebook, and not because I was actively trying to stop using it. It was almost an unconscious decision to stop using the hard copy notebook. I didn’t intentionally mean for it to happen; it just kind of did, and everything was OK. Kids didn’t stop brainstorming or drafting or collaborating. They were still doing those things, but in a different way, maybe a better way, and in a way that possibly felt more natural to them.
Instead of kids bringing their notebooks to one another and reluctantly allowing a partner to write on their prized draft, kids are sharing documents with one another and setting the editing level based on their comfort, with many choosing to only allow their partners to comment on a document. They no longer have to worry that someone is going to “mess up” their paper. They can simply focus on the comments, and especially relish hitting the “Resolve” button when they have revised something. I think it’s more than just reading the comments and making changes, though; kids are having conversations via their comments about writing as well as having conversations about their writing out loud. The conversations about writing are multilayered. If you’ve ever seen a teen text and talk to someone at the same time, you know that holding multiple conversations on various platforms is a way of life. And students also seem to be more responsive to my suggestions because my comments don’t physically change their writing; they are seen as just that: comments and suggestions.
We recently held a parent workshop about using the Chromebooks, and the parents commented about how writing and taking notes electronically felt unnatural to them, but to our students it feels natural because this is how they have grown up. Despite the successes we’ve had in moving much of our work to Google Classroom, I still worry sometimes if I will suddenly feel the loss of the traditional writer’s notebook in a way that I can’t fathom right now. I wonder if there will be some intangible loss in not being able to turn the pages of a notebook and see the progression of a writer. I wonder if students’ thinking will become too discrete and disjointed because the flow from idea to idea and unit to unit is lost.
I had toyed with the idea of having students use a single, running Google Doc to keep a notebook, but that doesn’t work as easily as a traditional notebook does, especially when using Google Classroom, because some of the documents would be in Classroom and some would be in the running Google Doc. I thought toggling between the two would be difficult. Obviously, no single platform seems to be perfect (it’s unlikely that anything will ever meet every need/want). Despite the misgivings I may have, my students do not seem to be having the same internal struggles that I am having. Using their Chromebooks has quickly become second nature, with the biggest complaint being that the WiFi isn’t working quickly enough!
Jianna Taylor is an ELA and Title 1 teacher at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield. She is a member of the AVID Site Team and Continuous School Improvement Team at her school, among other things. She is also a MiELA Network Summer Institute facilitator and member of the OWP Core Leadership Team. Jianna earned her bachelor’s degree from Oakland University and her master’s degree from the University of Michigan. She also writes reviews of children’s books and young adult novels for the magazine Library Media Connection.