Technology in the Upper Elementary Writing Workshop

Archive from The Teacher Triathlete, July 26, 2015

Imagine this: Mark’s fourth grade students just finished a unit of study in writing workshop.  They have produced pages and pages of opinion writing.  Five weeks was spent thinking, drafting, revising, rethinking, researching, revising again, and even editing along the way.  All of his students have finished pieces ranging from one to six hand-written pages in length.  Many of them produced page after page of beautifully crafted words, informative drawn diagrams, and glued-on original photographs with hand-written captions.  His students even paid close attention to making the size of their captions smaller than the main text and darkening bold key words by hand.  It truly was a great amount of work. Mark was so incredibly proud.  

However, when thinking about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Mark realized that his students need to produce and publish digital writing.  CCSS Writing standard 4.6 states

“With some guidance and support from adults, use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others; demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of one page in a single sitting.”

Mark thought long and hard about this.  His students worked for so long on these hand written pieces.  Five weeks is a long time in the life of a nine year-old.  Was their use of a camera or smart phone to include the original photographs enough to meet this standard that revolves around technology.  Mark knew that it wasn’t enough.  He also knew that his students would not want to type out all of the work they just produced over five long weeks.  He knew that typing finished work was just like asking his students to recopy their work to make it neater.  There was no real purpose or benefit to this, and it would not be a good use of precious instructional time.

Yet, Mark felt pressure to meet the standard.  So, the next day at school, he walked over to his building’s technology closet, pulled out the shared lap top cart that held 30 student lap tops, and wheeled it into his classroom.  

Immediately after Mark took attendance for the day, students ordered lunch, and the brief morning meeting came to a close, Mark announced that they’d be using the computers that morning. His students erupted in cheers, high fives, and anticipation as all eyes fell on the big metal cart taking up space in a far corner of the room.  Mark’s students were so excited to finally use the 4th grade lap tops.  Then, Mark announced that they’d be typing out the writing work they just completed.  Suddenly, the class fell silent and slumped in their seats as looks of desperation all fell on Mark at the same time.  Mark knew he made a mistake.  But, he didn’t know any other way to go about it.  He had to meet this standard one way or another.  He had to give his students the opportunity to digitally publish their writing.  This was the only way he knew how.  His students would spend the next 90 minutes typing their already beautifully handwritten opinion pieces.


Mark’s story is a familiar one. Teachers in schools around the country are now expected to use technology- it is no longer optional.  For many, this is no problem at all.  For others, like Mark, it is quite scary.  By the way, Mark is a fictional character I created based on many conversations I’ve had with teachers and principals around the use of technology.

In talking with teachers about the best ways to incorporate technology into their classrooms, many just don’t know where to start. For some, it’s due to lack of resources.  Others cite lack of time as an issue. Many of these teachers were in Mark’s exact position- they wanted to incorporate technology into their writing workshop, but just didn’t know a meaningful way to do so.  When the CCSS were written, a good amount of technology use was included.  Starting in kindergarten, students are now expected to use technology for various purposes.  Many of these purposes revolve around writing.  This is the way it should be!  I truly believe we need more appropriate use of technology in schools (notice my use of the word appropriate- I’m not a fan of using technology just because “there’s an app for that”).  My fictional character Mark’s use of technology, while well intended, was not appropriate.   

In the upper elementary classroom (grades 3-6), there are many things, big and small, teachers can do to meet the CCSS technology standards.  Every teacher has to figure out how to implement technology in a way that makes sense in each of their own classrooms.  Since I don’t know the situation of every teacher in every classroom, I can’t give a how-to (plus, I’m not qualified to do that!).  However, I can give basic tips from my own trial and error, successes, lessons learned from colleagues, and my work in many different classrooms this past school year.

Tip 1

While including technology is extremely important- especially in today’s rapidly changing world, always put pedagogy before the shiny new tool. Like I said earlier, just because there’s an app for that, it doesn’t mean it’s the best way to go about teaching a skill or strategy.  Be thoughtful and reflective about technology use.  Take a look at this piece by Mary Beth Hertz: 3 EdTech Myths.  She does a nice job discussing this notion. 

Tip 2

Know where your students are coming from and where they will be going with technology and the CCSS.  Cindy Murphy and Tanya Dynda put together a fabulous slide share that lists all the CCSS tech-infused standards from kindergarten through twelfth grade:  Common Core and Technology- Where Do We Start?  I highly recommend checking it out! 

Tip 3

Try not to think of “publishing” student writing as the time to bring out the technology.  Use of technology can start with research, viewing mentor texts, planning, drafting, and really anytime when the tool fits the need.  It should definitely not be used for recopying or typing out already completed writing pieces.  My very talented former 5th grade teaching partner, Jennifer Aza Allan, came up with the following diagram for using technology in the writing workshop process:

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This is the first iteration of the diagram.  I know Jenn has since modified it as she has been using this and similar processes for a few years now.  I’m offering this diagram in my tips not to be copied as is, but to show that teachers have the power to think about and change their thinking when it comes to incorporating technology into the classroom.  Tech use in the classroom certainly does not and should not replace writing notebooks, paper, and pencils.  Rather, teachers now have the freedom to think about how to use all of these tools together to best help students with writing. 

Tip 4

If you’re an upper elementary teacher, and haven’t tried using Google Docs yet with your students- give it a shot!  If you don’t know how to use it, ask a student, a colleague, or watch a quick tutorial (some tutorials are linked below).  

Why Google Docs?  Students can easily confer with each other and you, revision becomes less cumbersome, all revision history is saved- students and teachers can go back and review earlier drafts, and much much more.  Allow me to offer a few slides from a presentation I gave on incorporating tech into the reading and writing workshop (the complete slide share can be found here).

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I recommend a few of these sites if you’re interested in learning more about how to use Google Docs in the classroom:

Google Docs in the Classroom from The Teaching Channel

Google Apps for Education–  it’s free to use! 

Google Drive Tips for Teachers from Kevin Brookhouser

Tip 5

Learn from others.  Over the years, I’ve been so fortunate to work with many talented teachers.  Perhaps the teacher down the hall or a teacher on Twitter can be a resource to you (if you are not on Twitter yet, please read this).  Teachers love to help and share with each other.  All you have to do is ask.

Also, I do recommend a few teacher blogs to follow to learn about relevant technology use in the classroom, and especially in the writing workshop:

Click Here Next 

Edutopia’s Tech Integration page 

Two Writing Teachers (more writing focused with some tech infused)

Tip 6

Don’t be afraid to experiment and fail! Failing and making mistakes is a good thing!  It means you’re trying.  Years ago, one of my biggest successes in the classroom was born from one of my biggest mistakes.  I’ll spare you the details of the big mistake, but lets just say it involved Power Point, second graders, and not enough coffee- bad idea at the time! 

Much of my knowledge about use of technology in the classroom came from my own experimentation.  If you want to try Google Docs with your kiddos, play with it a little bit before you bring it into the workshop.  If you want to use ibooks Author with your class to make books, try making one of your own first at home or over a few lunch hours.  Trial and error with technology is one of the best ways to learn about it yourself.  Just try one new thing this year.  Look at the CCSS for your grade level, and just try one new thing in technology.  If it fails, try again or try something different! 


I cannot emphasize Tip 6 enough.  Using technology is all about experimentation. I made so many mistakes in the classroom from which I was fortunate to learn a great deal.  Also, I fully expect to make more mistakes in the future.  Much of using technology is tossing out the fear of the unknown and the fear of making mistakes.  

To meet the CCSS, we have to use technology in the classroom.  To use technology, we really have to be willing to try new things.  What’s the worst thing than can happen? Rest assured, it probably already happened to someone else!  

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