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Google Docs + Kaizena = Digital Writer’s Notebook

March 21, 2015

Guest post by: Gerard Dawson

When it comes to teaching writing teachers usually either spend hours responding to individual papers by hand or find common errors and address those through mini-lessons. Both options work, but make sacrifices.  The first former sacrifices time and energy, the latter sacrifices individual attention.


Lately a third option has worked best to improve my students’ writing. I call it “the digital writer’s notebook.”

It’s a two-tool system:
  • Students write several drafts of similar writing in a Google Doc 
  • The teacher uses Kaizena to give short feedback until students eventually create a final draft
In my freshmen class students meet weekly word count goals in a specific genre (expository, persuasive, descriptive etc.). They write several different drafts in the same genre of writing, or complete parts of one larger piece, step-by-step.

Again, all of the writing for the unit goes in one Google Doc. This way, the student can  easily use past feedback for the upcoming writing.  Doug Fischer and Nancy Frey have referred to this use of formative assessment for future learning as “feed forward.”  Using these process students develop stamina and confidence, and I can provide them feedback, but still leave them in control of their own improvements.

The Fine Print

For full disclosure, here are the issues that may arise using this approach:

1. Students fall behind quickly if they don’t meet their word count goals.  The cumulative effect of receiving and using feedback is lost if students don’t provide anything for the teacher to give feedback on.
2. There is a learning curve with Kaizena, the Google Doc add-on used to provide feedback. It takes a few demonstrations before students get it.
3. Some students ignore certain drafts, knowing that they’ll only choose on to revise.

Start with “easy wins”

In the beginning of the year, the writing requirements were smal: students were asked to write 250 words per week in their Google Doc, and they could include anything that they’d written in their paper writer’s notebooks.  This made meeting the 250 word goal easy.

By starting with “easy wins,” students developed confidence.  As the word count requirements gradually increase, the students rise to the challenge because they’re used to meeting the requirements.

Why Word Counts?

Establishing word count goals has been crucial for scaffolding growth in student writing. Word counts eliminate any “gaming” possible with writing assignments.  No finagling font sizes, no altering margins, and no changing the periods to a larger font size (the last technique is clever, but still dishonest).

Word counts get students elaborating on their ideas even when it’s difficult.  At 450 words but shooting for 500?  Figure out how to fully explain that idea from paragraph three. First drafts are about addition, second drafts are about subtraction.

Following this maxim, students are provided with word counts for the first drafts, but on final drafts I leave with them with the words of Kelly Gallagher’s rhetorical question that he asks students when they ask him, “how long should this essay be?”

It goes something like, 

KG: “How long is a piece of string?”
Student: “As long as you decide to cut it?”
KG: “Exactly.”

So, word counts place a sort of maturity and authenticity to the students writing assignments.

Support along the Way

As students write, I use Kaizena to give focused, actionable feedback.

The resources feature of Kaizena acts as a force multiplier of my time and student learning. I am can share a website or video with students that they check out and apply independently.  When this works well, students gain control of their own learning instead of relying on me to make revisions.

Overall, this practice allows me to:
  • Identify trends to address in mini-lessons without relying on it as the only means of instruction
  • Hand over the revision process for students to take charge of
  • Make revision manageable for students, and make providing feedback manageable for me
The digital writer’s notebook is a paperless way to have students develop writing stamina, receive lots of feedback, and become self-directed learners.