I teach writing to upper elementary grade students part-time and when I’m not working with kids, I teach writing in an online degree program. Although there are plenty of drawbacks to digital learning environments, the discussion forum in an online class--if thoughtfully moderated--is not among them. On the contrary, discussion forums help keep my college students on-topic, hold them accountable to their claims and, because the forum posts are in writing, the platform can deepen analysis and reflection.
With this in mind, I added a written component to the traditional face-to-face discussions I facilitate in my elementary level writing classes, and as my classroom collection of Chromebooks grew over recent years, I began exploring ways to adapt the discussion forum to my younger learners. I experimented with a few of the free online tools available like TodaysMeet and Formative, but the tech tool I’ve come to rely on most is the humble Google doc table feature. So quick, versatile and free!
In my previous In the Classroom post, A Concrete Approach to Teaching Revision: “Sensory Mapping” with Google Docs, I discuss using Google tables to help scaffold the revision process. Here, I’ll highlight a couple of ways I use this tool to replicate a discussion forum.
Setting up a Table in Google Docs
I create a Google doc template using a table to create a box for each student to write in and make (digital) copies as needed (File>Make a copy). I number the boxes so I can easily individualize instruction by assigning specific prompts or questions to specific students, i.e., “If your name is in box 1-5, do prompt 1…” I share a link to the doc with students then project the table on to a screen to highlight and point out prompts or passages quickly to the entire class.
The only drawback to a template like this is that there is nothing preventing students from typing in someone else’s box (or deleting the entire table!) either on purpose or accidentally. One work-around is to change share setting to “comment only.” If you go this route, you’ll need to paste a class list onto the bottom of a Google doc in the second column of a two-column table with the borders set to 0. It’s important to set the border to 0 so students can’t see the empty boxes, which can be distracting.