Education Opinion

Alone Together

By Emmet Rosenfeld — December 15, 2007 2 min read
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Last post I talked about two current group writing assignments, each using a different online writing tool. In brief, tenth graders are creating research papers using google docs, and ninth graders are writing literature reviews using a wiki-builder on our district’s online learning system.

This post is about the sophomores. First some context on the assignment, and then we’ll talk tech turkey.

Forty six students are in the thick of a unit called “Changing the World” designed with Jen the history teacher, my partner in a team-taught Humanities class. Our destination is a research paper on a key historical figure, but we’re taking an alternate route in the hopes of avoiding the typical competent but uninspired recitations that TJ kids can so effortlessly produce.

To get to interesting, students are developing and workshopping their papers in chunks— context, biography, effects-- while simultaneously preparing for debates which will occur next week (the papers themselves aren’t due until after winter break).

Charles DeGaulle vs Karl Marx, Mandela vs Gandhi… which team will be able to convince a jury of their peers that their chosen figure had a greater impact on a slice of history? Through a Sweet 16 of debates, we hope kids will arrive at more argumentative and rhetorically convincing essays than if they’d just sat down to tousle with thesis statements and notes from the library.

For example, today teams were anticipating arguments that their opponent might use against them, and preparing talking points to attack the other guy. I predict these counterarguments will make it into the papers’ final drafts.

Now, how does the online writing piece fit into this?

First, here’s a paragraph for beginners. Google docs is part of the increasingly wonderful world of google, which some people still just use for a search engine. Open a browser and find documents under “more” at the top of the screen. (Register for a free gmail account to use these tools).

The interface is a no-frills word processor, like a stripped down version of word. To use it, start typing. The program is pretty smart; it saves your work every few seconds, so you no longer have to worry about losing stuff or even carrying around a memory stick. And, if you want to, you can look back at or revert to any draft along the way.

Google docs is good for group writing because someone using it can “invite” other people to the document. The guest receives an email with a clickable link to join the writing party. If both host and guest(s) are on line at the same time, they can literally write together. Or, if the document is visited at different times, each writer just adds in turn. Collaboration can occur in real-time or asynchronously.

With this flexibility, there are hiccoughs. When a whole class is on google docs at the same time in a computer lab at school, it goes slowly, although one kid gave us directions to create a “secure server” and that seems to speed things up.

A more fundamental problem is that writing, by definition, is a solitary endeavor. As I sit and type these lines, for example, there is a fairly constant process of pausing, moving text, lurching forward a couple lines and then back. If an unseen hand were also moving lines around, my head might explode like a grape.

Asking students to meld minds, then, is the basic challenge inherent in group writing. Stop by next week to see if home-made web pages are a better tool for the job.

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