On Wednesday mornings, my usual spot used to be at a little table sequestered in the back of the library. I hid there because I meant business – the business of getting through stacks of sticky, half-soggy, kid journals. There I would sit, surrounded by the teetering piles, furiously racing to read, grade, and correct my students’ writing. One morning, a colleague found me in my grading fort as I was nearing the end of the marathon. As we chatted, I noticed that I was missing a few journals, which sparked the inevitable, “there has to be a better way” conversation. Well, as we would discover, there is in fact a better way: digital journals.
In my second year at a new school, I made an abrupt about-face and ditched the paper journals. Since making the switch, I have had the time to actually enjoy my students’ writing, taking pleasure in reading about an elderly character with hair only on the “east and west sides of his head,” or about the joys of a vacation on the “sky blue planet” of Uranus. It beats rummaging through sticky backpacks during recesses, searching for long-lost journals.
Here is what I did to create digital journals:
1. I made a post on Google Classroom entitled “Digital Journals,” and clicked the button, “Make a copy for each student.”
2. Students were then able to simply view the post (on any computer in the world!) and write in their very own Google Doc journal.
3. On journal due-date, I simply had to sit at my desk (not race the halls with an overflowing clunky bin and my two class checklists) and click on the post to scan each student’s document.
For the first few weeks, some students continued to write in their paper journals. I went old-school and graded theirs by hand during the transition.
Once we solved the most basic (but mind-bendingly stressful) issue of getting students’ work submitted, the unexpected magic happened. Gone are the days when the students simply scan their paper for a grade and maybe a sideways glance at the shiny R2D2 sticker they are gifted, disregarding my painstakingly specific suggestions for improvement. When reading journals, I simply highlight a section and make a “Comment” on their work. Before my students write a new journal entry they have to “Resolve” all comments made by me (as well as comments by their peers, if you are the kind of teacher who has figured out the elaborate dance that is meaningful peer feedback). They are accountable to correct all of their journal entries, and as a result, they are learning from their mistakes – and the proof is on the page!
My comments include basic grammar and punctuation corrections, vocabulary alternatives (tailored to their ability level), rephrasing suggestions and (here’s the kicker) links to grammar lessons. For example, I sent one of the boys a lesson on the difference between their, there and they’re and to another student, a Youtube link about how and when to use brackets (he has an aside for everything). I have also made comments as enrichment, explaining that the word “octogenarian” is another way to say “83 years old.”
Do my students delete four weeks of work in one haphazard keystroke? Yup. You will undoubtedly become well-versed in the “See Revision History” feature (and may get relieved hugs from 11-year-old boys when you magically make their work reappear with one mouse click!).
Do all parents love new-age digital journals? Nope, not all. But over time I won them over. For me the biggest payoff was during portfolio conferences. The students sat one-on-one with their parents and their iPads. First, they taught their parents how digital journals work and reviewed comments from the whole year. Then they took the time to read one piece aloud. Parents did not flip through their phones absent-mindedly while their children read; rather they were actively engaged in their child’s year-long writing journey.
This year, paper journals are not on my supply list. On Parent-Teacher Information Night, I will teach parents the wonders of digital journals right out of the gate. I plan to have last year’s parents give testimonials on the ease of using digital journals, so that this year’s parents will be ready to nix the excuse of, “I can’t do my homework, I left my journal at school.” Nice try, but not this year!
Year 1 Digital Journal Tips
• Use the quick keys to create “Comments” (Ctrl + / for Windows/Chrome OS or Option + ⌘ + M for Mac).
• Use the “Topic” feature to tag your post as “English Journal” so it is easily searched by students.
• “File” / “See Revision History” restores all previous drafts of the text (including revealing the time the work was completed, perhaps 15 minutes before class started!).
• “Resolve” comments allows students to read your suggestions and to then fix the errors themselves.
• The “Comments Thread” reveals all comments made on a document so you can review all of your hard work throughout the year with one mouse click, even if comments have been “Resolved” by students.
First published in Education Canada, December 2017