Collaborative Writing in Real Time

Writing is HARD. It’s hard for everyone.

Of the four strands of language – listening, speaking, reading, and writing – it is the hardest to master, whether you’re working in your mother tongue or trying to acquire a new language. It doesn’t come naturally, like speaking. Writing skills, even basic ones, require intentional work, active teaching, and a lot of practice.

In my classes, I use Google Docs to create writing lessons that are social, collaborative, and that offer models and feedback in real time. These lessons are easily differentiated, allowing students to get individualized feedback and targeted suggestions, even within the context of a small group or class.

Typical Writing Lesson

A writing lesson typically has some direct instruction at the beginning, and some examples of good work. It often has some workshopping of a rough draft, either between students or with a teacher, and it has feedback at the end.

There are two big problems with the typical lesson:

Isolation

During the actual writing of the piece, no matter how much scaffolding or examples they have, the student is on their own. They’ve got to take the advice, the examples, and the instructions and create the product on their own. It’s isolated work.

Delayed Feedback

Worse, the feedback is delayed. How often have you seen a student put a graded essay, full of corrections, feedback, and suggestions, into their backpack, never to be seen again? By the time they see the feedback on their writing, they have disengaged from the work. Teachers can end up writing the exact same feedback on assignment after assignment with no real improvement. It’s painful, frustrating, and ineffective.

Social Learning

We know that learning is a social process. We’ve known that at least since Lev Vgotsky figured it out in the 1920s. Human beings learn through interaction with each other, with real-time, ongoing models, discussion, collaboration, and correction. When we learn ideas and skills socially, we understand them with more complexity, we have greater command of the skill, and we retain the information or skill better.

Essentially, we’re teaching our most difficult skill without the social element that makes learning easier. Of course writing is going to remain the hardest skill to teach and learn. Of course our results are going to reflect that.

Writing Lesson With Google Docs

It is possible to make writing a social learning experience, writing with the student in a shared document for conversation, collaboration, and instant feedback and improvement.

One On One

The easiest way to do this is in a one on one lesson. You hop right into the document with them as they are writing. You can see them typing, you can see where they hesitate and which sentences are causing them trouble, and you can talk them through those tough spots as they go. They don’t have to muddle through a difficult piece, hoping and crossing their fingers that it will be ok – you can help them in the minute, as they’re writing. I’ve used some great interventions as students write – typing in a leading question to get them over a hump or to guide them into the kind of thinking you’re hoping for int heir paragraph, or modelling a good sentence to correct a sloppy or incorrect one they’ve written.

We know that unlearning mistakes takes much more time and effort than learning something the first time. When you can jump in and make corrections immediately, students leave the lesson having learned, and retained, the improved work and the models you gave them. No unlearning necessary.

Small Group – One On One

Ok, but we don’t always get to work with students one on one. In fact, that’s a rare and lucky occurrence for a lot of us. So how do we make this work with larger groups of students?

I can have several assignments open on my desktop all at once, and I can be jumping back and forth between the pieces. For a group of 2 to about 10, this is really effective, and it works well for differentiation as well – you can be typing specific, targeted advice and questions to each student. If you’re pairing this with video conferencing, you can call everybody’s attention to a problem or example in one person’s work.

This could also work with larger classes by using separate zoom rooms.

Small Group Collaborative

If you’ve got a class of students with a good relationship with each other, or if you’re trying to build a writing community that trusts each other, you can put all of your writers together into one document to increase the amount of workshopping and social learning you have going on. Have them work collaboratively on a single project, or give them the opportunity to read and give feedback on each other’s writing. Either way, the results of being able to work together, collaborate, and give feedback to each other as they write in real time will show faster improvement and results either in their writing itself or in their ability to work together on group projects and pieces. 

The Results Speak For Themselves

Take a look at the following paragraphs, written by a student who is 10 years old over the course of a one hour lesson. The top box is the paragraph he wrote by himself, with no intervention. The second paragraph is what we worked on together, with intervention during the writing.

In a typical lesson, he would have handed in the top paragraph and waited for me to hand it back with some suggestions and corrections. Even if he had had the time and motivation to re-write it, he would have been disengaged from the piece before he got them, would have had to re-engage and remember everything, interpret the suggestions and implement them by himself, and hope that he got it right the second time around.

Instead, in just one hour, he was able to make all the improvements, develop his ideas, correct his mistakes, and walk away knowing that the work, corrections, and improvement had already been done. It’s not perfect, of course not. This isn’t magic. But that improved work will be what he remembers, and when we write again, we’ll be working from a step up, instead of going back to fix mistakes.

Not bad for an hour’s work.

Benefits for the Teacher

I’m not going to lie, this is great for teachers too. I have often had to make a difficult choice in classes – do I use a precious hour of class time, having them write by themselves, but with me available for questions, or do I send them home to do their writing at their desk, using class time for the examples and discussion? And then, of course, I have always had to take the stack home to grade – another hour or two of my time.

This is not only better and more effective learning, it also drastically cuts down on my grading time, and makes the time I use for feedback more effective and efficient. Win, win, win.

Students will still need to write in isolation, or with only their student groups, for work that is being evaluated for grades, of course. But this makes direct instruction, modelling, qualitative feedback, workshopping, and formative assessment more social, more collaborative, more effective, more easily retained – frankly, just easier all around. The results, both in terms of the pieces produced and in the confidence and feelings of success for the students, speak for themselves.

All that and it is a more efficient use of teacher time,  which is a precious resource.

I’m never going back to a traditional writing lesson.

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