How I “Hacked” Google Docs To Facilitate Planning, Collaboration, & Communication

Becky Searls, Spanish Teacher, Upper Arlington City Schools

I’ve been using Google Docs (renamed Google Drive in recent years) for quite some time now and have gotten to the point where it has 99% replaced any other word processing or presentational software I use in my classroom. While it is true that you cannot format things as “prettily” or precisely in Google Drive as you can in Word or Pages, the other uses that it enables and that other programs lack more than make up for it. Most of these uses – e.g. the ability to share a document with other people and collaboratively author and/or edit it together – are well known so I won’t go into them. You can find out for yourself the advantages of Google Docs through a simple web search. I want to tell you about a very distinct way that I’ve begun to use it to streamline the way in which I lesson plan, communicate and collaborate with colleagues, and share information with students. While what I’m about to share is not a typical use of Google Docs, it is a highly efficient one that makes me more productive on a daily basis and helps me continue to grow as a teacher.

First, a little history to contextualize what I’m going to share: as a novice teacher, I was lucky enough to have a colleague take me beneath his wing and show me how he planned for instruction. The key to his workflow was something he called a “weekly plan”. While this document was a weekly syllabus and list of homework for kids, ultimately it was also a planning tool for him. He would begin by pencilling in assessments and work backwards to fill in necessary experiences to build towards those assessments. There was always a “looking ahead” section to the weekly plan, too, to see what was coming up.

I began to plan in a similar fashion, always creating a weekly plan for students and using it to keep my own pacing in line with where I wanted to be at certain times of the year. As technology became more accessible to my students and I, however, I began to think there was more I could do to facilitate the process of communicating what we were learning in class and what the homework was.

My first attempt at a digital weekly plan was simply a digital version of my paper plan. I would post it on my Moodle course and that was that – no more paper and things were still clear for kids! After a couple of years of fighting with Moodle’s sometimes-less-than-user-friendly interface, however (and while I was simultaneously beginning to use Google Docs more for general documents I was creating), I realized I could outsource my weekly plan to Google Docs & simply link it to Moodle.This was a revelation! Whenever I update a Google Doc, the link that accompanies it will also update, so that I no longer needed to fight with Moodle; I simply posted the link once and never needed to visit Moodle again, not even to re-post the link, as it would automatically update each week as I made changes to the document.  Things were getting simpler and better already!

It was after realizing how easily posting a link one time versus multiple times was that I began to wonder how else I could leverage Google Docs to make my teacher life more organized, while also making learning and accessing materials outside of class more transparent and straight-forward for my students. I began to play around with linking documents (a presentation used in class, a worksheet given for homework, etc.) to my weekly plan. By this time, all new documents I was creating were Google Docs, so it was simply a matter of linking various google docs to the weekly plan.

Over time, I added some little extras at the top: links to the learning targets we were working on, links to our online textbook, and links to yet another Google Doc titled “past weekly plans”. This way the current weekly plan, which I now store not on Moodle but on another website for students, can serve as a homebase for everything: accessing what we are doing that week, what the homework is, and what we are learning over the long-term plus any resources needed to carry those out (e.g. online textbook, link to Quizlet flashcards, etc.) Plus I eliminated students coming to me on Monday (or any day) and asking “I was gone last Friday, what did we do?” After modeling for students how to access the weekly plan and all of the helpful links on it, students learned (with many reminders) that it was now their responsibility to go and visit the weekly plan (or last week’s plan) and figure out what they had missed and turn their makeup work in accordingly. I have even had students use my past weekly plans feature to teach themselves an entire level of content in order to test out of a year of language study!

Perhaps the most valuable part of my digital weekly planning, however, is the ease with which I can now communicate and collaborate with my colleagues. Through the weekly plan, we are easily able to co-plan and share documents that we may need for class. It is easier to stay on the same page, keep each other accountable for pacing, and share ideas when we have a home base online for doing so. I have used other tools in the past for this: pbwiki, Wikispaces, and Dropbox. Wikis are valuable but require endless uploading and downloading of documents. Dropbox is a step in the right direction through shared space that is hosted in the cloud. Google Docs, however, combines the collaboration available through wikis with the document housing available through Dropbox, plus it adds the ability to eliminate multiple copies of a document living in multiple spaces (i.e. when you update a google doc, it will be updated for all members with access to it and all links to that doc will be updated as well).

So far, I see no downside to the way I’ve decided to “hack” Google Docs to meet my needs and seemingly, innumerable upsides! I now have  streamlined my planning process so that I have more time to do what matters – connect with kids, assess their needs and remediate where necessary, and build lasting relationships. I do not consider myself a Google Docs expert, because I think I use it differently from a lot of people; however, I have found something that works great for me and hope it may be useful to you, too! Please e-mail me with any questions or comments; I’d love to hear how you use Google Docs or other online resources to make your teacher life easier and more enjoyable! e-mail: srasearls@gmail.com or bsearls@uaschools.org

 

This entry was posted in OFLA News: Association, Vol. 52, No. 2 - Winter 2014. Bookmark the permalink.

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