For 20 years, I have been teaching writing in one form or another. In most cases, my students share a complicated relationship with writing. They understand the need for it, but they still hate it.
Currently, my students are upper elementary to middle school students living with learning differences. To some, my teaching challenges will sound familiar.
At the ground level, they struggle with spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and syntax. Children with focus and attention challenges will oftentimes bypass details in exchange for finishing assignments in the quickest time possible, thus treating my assignments like a pie eating contests.
At the next level, the challenge is remembering the structure of a paragraph — introductory statement, body, and concluding/transition statement. The writing comes out in short bursts and sounds like a list rather than a flowing narrative. Working memory is a struggle for some of my students.
At the highest level, they are practicing how to construct simple informative, analysis, research, and argumentative essays, but the lessons learned or even the assignments themselves seem to be distant memories to them after the submission dates.
The work is done, but the skills are not retained. Instead of the turning to the next page, students are erasing the lessons from their minds.
It’s a daily frustration of mine to see students race through an assignment, not read their own words, and be surprised at the final product. I give them extended time. They turn in multiple revisions. They get outside help. But in the end, when they start a new writing assignment, it is like starting from square one.
As a special education teacher, I am always reexamining the best practices in how to present the material and assess student comprehension. As a writer, I am always observing the different practices of others outside my field.
This year, I toured an elementary Montessori classroom — a student centered and student choice driven pedagogy. The student writing ranged from first to third grade. One student chose to simply write five sentences, but the worksheets he’d written on had cartoon figures, which he meticulously colored. Another student chose to cut out his paragraphs and glued them onto a large poster board, which he decorated. He had even created his own handwritten “creepy” font. There was another student who typed out her sentences and created what looked like an infographic. In many ways, these students were replicating basic magazine layouts combining both written and visual work to convey a message. The works were both aesthetically pleasing, as well as informative.
Why did we stop encouraging students to stop merging writing and art in the latter grades?
I’m completely guilty of this. “12-point font, Times New Roman, double-spaced, nothing more.”
In the last several years, I’ve opened to the idea of alternative student assessments beyond quizzes, tests, and essays. In looking back at my own education, yes, I did have a written component to my master’s degree, but it only served as a guide to my 2-hour oral thesis defense, which was how the panel of professors decided if I had mastered the content. Now, I am not asking my students to sit with me for 2-hours, but I have asked them to submit their responses in the form of Google Slides. In this era, most were already proficient in creating slides, but their works looked like scrapbooks. But what if their works could look professional, like a magazine spread? What if instead of creating a slide, they had a template to work with and manipulate? What if?
The misconception of Google Slides
Some people equate Google Slides to PowerPoint presentations, which acts as a backdrop to a speaker, but what if we re-visited Google Slides as a powerful document generator. In many ways, it reminds me of watered-down QuarkXPress that can create dynamic PDFs, posters, simple website designs, and infographics. But what if the slide didn’t need the speaker, but instead it spoke for itself?
1. Going from landscape to portrait
The most basic difference in a slide versus a document is the layout, moving from a landscape to portrait format.
Under FILE, select “Page setup” to choose “Custom.” Then type in 8.5 x 11 inches to change the layout.
2. Adding an image and table
Most students have access to an iPhone or iPad (some smart device), and I encourage students to upload their own images, but I also present Unsplash as a resource. The aim is to catch the audience’s attention with artwork or photography that helps them understand the topic.
As a novice, I added a textbook and wasted time trying to align these different boxes. Instead, add a table to create clean columns and rows for the text. Learn from my mistakes.
Under INSERT select “Table” to select the number of rows and columns.
3. Adding text and justifying its alignment
After pasting the text into the table, look for ALIGNMENT options to select “justify” creating those clean edges.
In the end, I am not promising that students will magically understand verb agreement or run-ons, but the aim is for students to take some pride in their work. It will be a project that will take time and cannot be rushed through. There will be an audience, not of only their teachers, but also of their peers and parents. “Look what I made. Can I see yours?” It is work that can be combined to tell a collective narrative. Writing assignments don’t produce anything but a grade, but it is my hope that this project will help frame their understanding of the subject matter in a way that stays with them beyond the submission date.
I hope this article has helped you in some small way. In addition, I am including a link to the free template that I built in Google Slides. The template is listed as “View Only” but feel free to make a copy and use it in your own classrooms.