DigiLit Sunday: Pitfalls and Possibilities of Google Docs

slide11Margaret Simon’s DigiLit Sunday link up is a place to find thoughts and ideas on learning and teaching in the digital world.

Today, Margaret called for reflections on balance in our digital spaces.  Technology can present overwhelming and exciting possibilities, but I need to filter my use of all digital tools through a lens of literacy. I try to find balance by asking, How does this tool enhance or build on students’ abilities as readers and writers?  Today’s reflection allowed me to regain balance. Thank you, Margaret. I needed this.

I love using Google Docs in my writing life and was thrilled to get them in the hands of my students.

The first docs came into my email, and the ease of reading was wonderful. I could see teaching points readily: whole group needs to individual ones. I could check histories to see their process.

I started to comment.

And then, I stopped and wondered,

  • Should I comment at all?
  • Will this writer understand?
  • How should I follow up?
  • Am I teaching the writer, not the writing?

That last point is THE one that matters. When I look at student work, I must be vigilant in looking for the gold, the gems that I can build on. And, I must be looking to teach the writer, not THIS piece. IF I comment digitally, I must filter each thought through that lens.

With those thoughts in mind, I started.

Today I looked back at my comments and I did exactly what I feared. I taught the writing. (UGH!) And, when I gave a compliment, I said nothing about how this is something that writers do. It was just specific to the piece of writing. (DOUBLE UGH!)  And, here’s my ugly question to myself:  Have I made Google Doc comments a digital red pen?


But wait. Kids loved the immediacy of the feedback. Can I make this work?

Thinking it through…

A compliment like: “Love your introduction!” is simple and essentially wasted words. It could become: “Your introduction really sets the tone of your piece. Writers use tone to give the reader an emotional connection to the topic. When I read your piece I feel as sense of amazement and wonder.”

A comment like: “I’m wondering what causes a Tsunami? Check out Seymour Simon’s book” could become, “Writers of informational text give readers answers to wonderings to teach readers. Read through your piece with a wondering mind or even better, ask your writing partner to read and wonder. Then ask yourself, can I answer those wonderings? Do I need to do research?”

Hmm.  It’s better.

I am on a learning curve of how to use Google Docs, right alongside my students. At the very least, having their work on Docs lets me keep abreast of where they are and what to teach.

I am playing with it. Trying to be aware of the pitfalls and possibilities. For some students, it may work, for others, it may have no effect.  It’s a balancing act.

Digital comments should never replace one-on-one conferring. But, if done carefully, could they be a bridge to or from conferring? Could they provide that immediate feedback we all want for our students? In middle grade and above classrooms where class sizes are large, is it a viable option?

For those of you using Google Docs with your student writers, how do you approach the work?





Celebrate: Challenging Presumptions

This week I chose the last read aloud of our nonfiction unit. I wanted it to showcase the genre and lead into the next unit on advocacy. I wanted a book with a strong narrative and a supporting expository text. I wanted a book that could foster an understanding of advocacy. Nonfiction reading lends itself to advocacy thinking. It’s natural to read about an issue or an event and react. Thoughts of “that’s not right” are the immediate response to mistreatment or abuse.

Looking through my pile of books I chose this:


Many of my students had The One and Only Ivan as a read aloud in third grade so I thought the “true story” would be an interesting choice. We could look at the narrative portion of the picture book and then compare it with the expository article in the back of the book. A perfect pairing of the ways nonfiction can go.

But an interesting thing happened on the way. During the narrative portion, students who knew The One and Only Ivan story stopped me saying, “Wait, you left something out,” and ” Yeah, that’s not the way it goes.”  Those comments led to an explanation of true versus real versus imagined.

Ok, that’s solved I thought. Nice that we clarified that.

We started reading again. Then we got to the page that showed the two baby gorillas in the dark, damp crate, and they stopped me again.

T: How could the writer know how it looked?

Me: She imagined how it might have looked and felt and then she wrote it, and the illustrator drew it.

S: Wait, I thought this was true.

J: How could the writer say this is the true story?

Ah, what a slippery slope the nonfiction world presents. They are entirely correct. Nonfiction doesn’t always mean “true.”

With that, I handed it back to them asking, “What do you think? Should this be called the true story?” Better them debating than me explaining. They wrote in their notebooks and then turned to their reading group to discuss.

I thought the text would be a good ending to nonfiction. I thought it would be a good segway to advocacy because of the people who protested Ivan’s situation in the mall. Little did I know that it would get us to reexamine the very nature of nonfiction and introduce our argument writing unit.

It’s remarkable. What we don’t see. What we don’t know. The unpredictable outcomes students offer us.

This week I celebrate the power of read aloud, writers like Katherine Applegate, and students who challenge what I presume.

Thank you to Ruth Ayers, who asks us to celebrate each week. Connect with others who celebrate here.

Slice of Life: My First Writing Lesson

When I was ten, I was assigned a state report.

I picked the state of Mississippi because I thought that was where my grandmother grew up. My grandma’s family was legendary, mainly because we didn’t discuss the other side. Family stories were my momma and my grandma’s specialty.  So I chose Mississippi for my state report, thinking it would be exciting. Something that would make them all proud of me.

My research began with the Encyclopedia Britannica that my dad bought at the local used bookstore.  Always useful for those assigned reports, I looked up Mississippi and read. Looking back, I suspect I had a slim grasp of the text,  probably just copied it all onto my 3 x 5 notecards., the way the teacher taught us.

A day or two before the report was due; I sat down to write my paper. I had drawn and colored the state flower, the magnolia, I had a stack of notecards. I had a green plastic cover. I was ready for the finishing touches, the report writing.

I sat on my blue and green shag carpet after school, leaning against my double bed, staring at the white lined paper, sifting through my notecards, thinking, “What next?” I hadn’t a clue.

I must have sat there long enough for my momma to come looking. At some point before dinner, I heard a knock and a, “Can I come in?”

Turning the handle, she shoved the door open just missing me on the floor, spread out in my sorry mess.

“How’s it going?” she asked.

I looked up and confessed. I had no idea of how to even try.

I was found out. I wasn’t very smart.

My momma sat beside me and said, “Don’t worry about what you write. Just get it out on the page. Don’t worry about how or even what you say, just get it on the page. Then we’ll go from there.”

At that moment, I was released and supported. Freed, with a safety net, my mom.

Just get it down on the page.

To have the permission to be imperfect.

To not worry about the spelling (I was and still am a terrible speller, which drove my mom nuts) or “run-on” sentences whatever that was.

To just get it down and know my mom had my back.

Thinking back, this was my first and best writing lesson.

To this day as a teacher of writing, this will always be the best first writing lesson.

Just get it on paper; then we’ll go from there.

Can’t say I remember much about the content of that report, beyond the state flower, and that my family wasn’t from Mississippi. It was Missouri.

To Two Writing Teachers Blog, for the place to get just get it down; to the Slice of Life community for being a present day safety net; to my mom, my first and best writing teacher, thank you.

Happy Slice of Life Tuesday read more slices here.



Celebrate Digital Learning: The Joy of “I’ve got it!”

This week I was reminded of how much I love learning with my students.

When they teach me.

When they teach each other.

When we learn together.

This week I wanted my kiddos to read an article I had found on Newsela. It was a perfect text to compare to another article we had read on Syrian refugees.

Standing at the copier, I realized I didn’t have the last page. Rats! Back to my classroom to print out the last page. And then the bell rang. No text.

Walking to pick up the kids on the playground I think, why not go digital? Seriously. They all have their emails (finally). We could get the devices (amazing).

We can do this.

The only problem was, I didn’t know the nuts and bolts of “how to” sign up as a student. We would have to try together. It could be a total disaster. But, it could work with a “what’s-the-worst-thing-that-could-happen” attitude.

Reader’s workshop.

I asked students to come to the carpet with their devices.

And we started.

Our objective: to sign in as students on Newsela and read an article. The mission was to figure out the steps. I told them, I’d never done it before, and we needed to figure this out together.

With this challenge came the confusion, “What are we doing?,” the questions, “What’s the username?” and squeals, “I’ve got it!”

With every, “I got it!” I’d get the student’s attention and ask, “How did you get it?”

Slowly, we developed a protocol to sign in.

Slowly, experts in how to sign in popped up who then crawled around the carpet helping others sign in.

Soon they were all at their desks reading, finding the writing tool to take notes in the margins, showing others how to, and asking, “Can we take a quiz?” and “Can we do this at home?”

I’m not saying every day should go this way, but there is something wonderful about students doing the work of how to. It’s messy but so empowering to have that moment of “I got it!”

This week I have to sit back and admire my student’s enthusiasm for learning, ability to work together, to rise to challenges, and to want to read more.

This week I celebrate Newsela, my school that has provided access to devices for all students and student emails, moments of  “I’ve got it!” and the fact that I didn’t have the last page of the article to copy.

This post serves double duty this week. One for Ruth Ayers Celebrate This Week link up and one for Margaret Simon’s blog Reflections on the Teche. Check out Margaret’s DigiLit Sunday link up tomorrow for more posts on digital learning. Thank you, ladies, for providing the space to share.

celebrate link up





Being Present

IMG_2236In the spirit of literacy and to ground my thinking in what matters. I join Holly Mueller’s Spiritual Journey Thursday link up.   To reflect on what centers me; on what effects and powers my sense of being.

Holly asked contributors to blog about their one little word. This week it’s  Margaret Simon’s OLW, present,

I find living in the present difficult. I look at what might be, what I want to be, what I’m afraid will be; what I need to do to make sure something does or does not happen. And in all that, I miss out on what’s right in front of me; losing what could be.

I’ve been worried about a possibility. If it happens, and it could happen, it would leave a big hole in my life. With this “maybe”  looming, my mind has been doing a number on my spirit. Thinking about what I could lose, what might be, instead of what is right now.

Stepping on the treadmill this morning, I decided to be “present” in my run. I love running, but I often look at it as a task to be completed. So, as time closed in on the 30-minute mark, I decided to pay attention and appreciate each tenth of a mile.

Each tenth of a mile I ran, I made a decision whether or not to “give myself” another minute of running.  For those of you who hate the whole idea of running,  this may seem crazy, but every extra minute was a tiny gift. Every minute I was in the moment.

Writing this, I realize, that when I enter a classroom, I am in the moment. I am intensely present. I can’t be anywhere else. I am with this child, this group, this class.

100%. Entirely engaged.


Perhaps that’s one reason I love teaching.

Slice of Life: Self Talk

I don’t know; I said when asked where I wanted my daughter to go to college.

Taken aback, my mom said, “I always had an opinion on what I wanted for you kids.”

I know what she meant, she wanted us close and safe and happy. And of course, I want all of that for my daughter.

“Every college is a plane trip and time zones away. So close isn’t possible.”

“So location aside, where do you want her to go?”

I don’t know; I say again. My ideas might be entirely wrong, so I have to go with what and where she feels is best.

My mom looks at me and shakes her head, wondering how in the world I could be her child.  She has adhered to the belief that if a parent sets up expectations and provides consistent support towards those expectations, then the outcome will be the expectation. This philosophy has merit, and I’ve attempted it.

One clear expectation was to become an independent thinker. I’m afraid my daughter took to that idea. She’s reaching to places that are far from home. And that’s good. I keep telling myself.

It’s her life; she needs to make choices and create her expectations and failures. And that’s good. I keep telling myself.

She knows she has support at home if needed. That allows her to reach beyond. I am thankful she can and has the bravery to try. And that’s good. I keep telling myself.

Thank you to Two Writing Teachers Blog for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Find more slices here.





DigiLit Sunday: Digital vs. Non-Digital? It depends…

Margaret Simon put out a call, a proposition for her DigiLit link up: Digital versus Non-Digital?  


Like all things in teaching and most things in life, there is not one answer. Thank you, Margaret, for putting out the call to share our experiences around this ever-changing proposition. From what I can see after four years of teaching, reading and writing in digital environments, I’d have to say, that what works best all depends. 

It depends on the person. There are a fair number of students who process better in a digital environment. A keyboard is a place their fingers move readily. The pen is their enemy. Those students who have difficulty forming letters can show their thinking when given a device. It could be the pure physicality of it, but I suspect it also is an enormous benefit of seeing your words appear in a clear context.   

Some students who process best on paper. I was one of those people for a long time. I could not think on a keyboard. Now, the majority of my writing is done in a digital space. For students with limited access to technology, and relative success with paper and pen, when given a choice, they choose paper.

It depends on the task Digital tools are just that, a tool. They provide an access point for communication. 

To make the best choice, I ask my students (and myself) three questions.

  1. What is my purpose/desired outcome?
  2. Where do I do my best work?
  3. How much time do I have?

Recently, my students had to do a research project on a topic of their choice. How to go about their research and writing depended on the answers to those questions. And it changed throughout their project.

It depends on aesthetics. For myself, I’ve seen aesthetics play a large role. As a teen, I loved paperback books. Hardcover books were not comfortable in my hands. My first Kindle device took some getting used to, and I disliked it for anything that required my full attention; it seemed less satisfying.  I wanted to touch pages, feel the weight of a book in my hands. See how many pages I had gotten through, had to go. But when I did not have a book in my bag, I had my phone. And slowly, electronic reading became a habit of convenience, and I let go of my old ideas of what reading should feel like. This summer I returned to the pleasure in paper bound books. I read blogs and news digitally. The immediacy and visuals often connected to this type of literature seem best fitted for digital consumption. But books and bookmarks are back in my life, and it feels good.

Some students, report digital reading is easier. Their eyes to run down a page at a quicker rate. Students love digital spaces they can access quickly and can understand readily. In these cases, digital reading results in a higher “joy” factor.

Bottom line in my view: It is vital that we provide digital opportunities alongside book-filled libraries, notebooks, stacks of paper and vibrant pens and pencils because it all depends.

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Celebrate: A Sweet Spot

It’s the time of year when my students find a sweet spot. They ‘re a little more mature. They’re solid fifth graders.

Students are comfortable where they are and how they fit in.  This week I saw it. How they move around the room. How they respond to challenges, to each other, to me. They speak up and show who they are, what they feel and how they think without fear. And, with that comfort, there were moments of tension worth celebrating.

D reads and draws and sings and sees the world through a gamer’s eyes. He’s a thinker. He’s emotional. If he doesn’t feel like he’s good enough, he can break down in tears. This week something happened all of a sudden at his desk. Head down. Quiet tears. The students around him signaled me over. I tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he wanted to take a walk. He did. In a few minutes, he was back at his desk writing. Intensely. Doing what got him so upset a few minutes earlier. He was overwhelmed in one moment and then it passed. His classmates got him and supported him at that moment.  It was uncomfortable, but his classmates were gentle and supportive. They get him. That’s just how he rolls.

T and his group were reading a text set on baseball history. There were articles on Jackie Robinson, a play based on the movie A League of Their Own, and the book Teammates, a story of the friendship between Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese. At the end of reading, each group shared a big idea they found.  T reported that “The Negro Leagues had adoring fans.” It was a statement right out or the text. At that moment, S got up and walked over to face T. “NO that is not right. You don’t say that.”  Whoa.  It was confrontational, but at the same time interaction was calm, controlled. We talked about history, words and context, and how powerful words are.  T used the words in the text, but he didn’t have a thought about it. He didn’t understand the impact of it. History stays with us, and we have to talk about it. What it meant and what it means to us now.

L and J  are struggling readers, but for very different reasons. From time to time, because they are outliers, they found themselves together. Not surprisingly, there were problems. Feelings got hurt, so they stayed clear of each other. This week, L and J showed me the Pokemon cards they had traded. They wanted to be sure that I knew the details of the exchange. As we talked, K was listening in. I looked up at K and asked him to be a witness to this transaction. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up sign.

This week my students got through difficult moments, understood each other a little better and got along. It’s a sweet spot.

Read more celebrations here at Ruth Ayers link up

celebrate link up


Slice of Life: Student Made Book Clubs

Back to school, after three weeks off, I figured we’d have a slow start and lots of distracted students. I was right. But, there was also an undercurrent of excitement. It had nothing to do with vacation or whether or not they saw Star Wars.  It was anticipation.

They had spotted new notebooks tucked in the corner bookshelf. Club books were in the bookcases. Kids sat at tables with their hands up in the air.

I walked over to D. “What’s up?”

She whispered, “When are we starting clubs?”

I  smiled and said, “As soon as we can get settled on the carpet.”

As students move I hear, “It’s about time” and  “do you think we’ll be together?” and  “I can’t wait.”

I ask,  “What do you know about being in a book club?”

I hear “you get to share”, and I hear about the sticky parts of the work or as N put it, the ‘cons’ of reading in a club.  As they talked about the troubles, I wrote on the board.

Troubles with book clubs

  • When we can’t agree on a book
  • You can’t do your own thing.
  • When someone doesn’t read or come to talk with ideas.
  • When people goof off during talk time.

“Hmm.” I thought out loud. “So with all that trouble maybe we should forget this whole club idea?”


“Really why?” Talk exploded, and I charted their talk.

Why book clubs are good

  • We get to talk about books
  • We are pushed to do more
  • Other can help figure things out
  • We can make friends

“Ok, this sounds like clubs make reading social. But we have to be careful. The books need to be the center of the social.”

At this point, I handed it over to them. I tell them, it’s their job to find a group of like readers. Readers who would push them to reach their best reading self.

I hear, “We get to pick our club partners?”

In the past, I’ve engineered their clubs. Looked at reading levels, reading habits and jockeyed them into groups.  And even with all of that planning, it was far from perfect. My students know each other well, they know themselves. By taking charge of their choices, would they create working clubs? Are they mature enough to be focused on the reading and not the friendships?

Most find foursomes, there are a few groups of threes. I got their attention and said, “Your first job is to pick your name. When you have it, come down to the carpet.”

In less than five minutes, most clubs are ready. Two groups in the back of the room, are still working out a name. I tell them to take a break, and I put them on a mental list for small group work. If they can’t choose a name, how could they choose a book?

“Next step, you need a set of rules or guidelines that can help you through troubles your club could face. You can call it a constitution or a rule book. Find a meeting spot and start working,”

Off they went. And the talk is intense. With, “what about…” and “what if…”

In the back of the room, I see a group with their right hands in the air. I walk over.

“We’re making a pledge to each other.”

“Yes, and one of the big rules is it has to make reading fun.”

“When do we get to get books?”

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Read more slices here.


DigiLit Sunday: OLW Digging Deeper



This morning I played around with my One Little Word, digitally.  Margaret Simon’s DigiLit Sunday link up inspired an exploration of color and poetry.

I created a Canva design last week and included it here. The dark blue sky drew me in. It felt mysterious and calm. I chose the picture without explaining why I liked it. It just fit.

Today, I looked at that image again, to find words that might explain my choice. The dark blue reminded me of space, of the ocean. Both appear cold and lifeless, yet contain miracles of life and complexity.

Admiring the dark places, expecting that something wonderful, hidden is waiting to be found.  Revisiting this picture with the intent to connect it to words, pulled me towards understanding.


Tomorrow, my students will play with words. Consider others’ choices. Wonder what makes sense, and do some digital discovery with brainy quotes, the visual thesaurus, and online dictionaries. Explore, play a bit, and then explore some more.  Starting with words, working with colors and images, and then, digging deeper with words to find how it all ties together, what it means to them, and perhaps how they might take action towards using that word in their lives.