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Bringing "Traditional" Essay Writing into the Digital World

The question of how to use technology in the classroom can often divide a school. Some teachers will embrace what's available to them, designing innovative multimedia projects which use all the gadgets at hand. Others, perhaps as a reaction to the first group, will resolve to do things the way they've always done, at best sending students to the computer lab to type up a final paper. Technology is present, but it's tokenized. The digital divide continues to thrive, not just across geographic and socio-economic boundaries, but from one classroom to the next.

At the school where I work, however, this divide has never had a chance to develop. Science Leadership Academy has had a 1-1 laptop program from its founding, and, as our principal Chris Lehmann would say, the computers have been "like oxygen" -- ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible. As a result, we were not just using the computers for banner projects that relied heavily on the technology, but designing ways to facilitate and enhance all of our curriculum with the powerful tools that our students have at their fingertips 24/7. 

As an English teacher, a big part of this meant re-thinking how students would approach the writing process. We knew that they would engage with all kinds of digital writing and composition, but we did not want to ignore more "old-fashioned" writing formats. A part of this came out of the knowledge that, upon entering college, our students would likely land in more traditional learning environments than they had enjoyed at SLA. Being able to write a research essay would be a crucial skill, and doing the assignment in the media format of their choosing probably wouldn't be an option.

So formal essay writing was a given. But how could we hack it for maximum learning? As the school was still expanding, SLA teacher Zac Chase hatched the brilliant idea of a writing assignment for juniors that he dubbed the "2Fer" -- a (roughly) 2-page analytical essay on any topic the student chose.

The catch? They would be doing this every two weeks for the entire year. This was not a one-off assignment, to be written and forgotten. It was process designed to help students identify their own strengths and weaknesses, learn that "becoming a better writer" is a lifelong journal, and ultimately become masters of their own improvement. 

The first year, students completed this assignment on their computers, but still went "analog" for peer editing and submission. The second year, our entire school signed up for Google Accounts, and it was clear that the process could be deeply enriched by having the 2Fer essays live in Google Docs. 

Before the next school year started, I set out on a year-long process to move our process completely online. Shared here are the basics of what that process entailed, as well as some comments on challenges and successes, both expected and unexpected, and thoughts on the many variations that this model could take. 

Overall, the project has been an affirmation that digital literacy is not just about what's new and different  -- it can also transform more traditional formats while still preserving their intent. Also importantly, this kind of work can also happen at schools with limited access to technology -- and many of the main ideas and functions can even be replicated on paper. I hope that this resource helps teachers imagine all of the ways that the many quality assignments that they have created off-line could be brought into the digital world. In the following pages, I will show you how we set up our project.