Thursday, November 16, 2017

Making a Plan for Revising Writing with Autocrat

If you've read some of my earlier blog posts, the topic for this post might confuse you. After all, I've written before about my reluctance towards using long checklists for writing, so you might be wondering if I've changed my tune.

The longer I teach, the more I'm constantly reminded of one truth about writing: there is no one, foolproof method for teaching it. Similarly, there are many different tools writers can use successfully to lift the level of their writing. Taking time for intentional revision is essential to the writing process, and a checklist can be a helpful tool.

However, as with anything, how it's structured and presented to writers matters. In my experience, to be effective, checklists that ask students to reflect on their writing and make a plan for changes must be reflective, accessible and reusable (meaning that students utilize it over multiple writing sessions).

With these criteria in mind, I set out to create a short, purposeful checklist to use with my writers for making a revision plan for their realistic fiction pieces. Since we are a 1:1 school (my students use Chromebooks), I decided to explore whether technology would help increase the effectiveness of the tool. In this case, an electronic version made sense for my students for a few reasons: they could access it at any time, it was impossible to lose, and I could see their plans with just a few clicks.

Google Forms was a natural fit for creating the actual checklist. I used the multiple choice grid to create a quick table with the revision question and different categories that writers could place themselves in (staying away from simple yes or no answers that don't encourage revision). As I was creating the form, I paid attention to how I worded the reflection questions, keeping in mind the mini lessons writers received throughout the unit when selecting what to include. I've found that less is more when targeting revision, so I usually err on the side of fewer questions (5-7 seems to be a good fit for my middle school students).

My next "wish" for the checklist was that writers would have a copy of their answers handy for future revisions. My good friend, Justin Birckbichler, suggested using Autocrat (an Add-on that works with Google Sheets) to generate a Google Doc of each student's response that would be saved automatically in their Drive. Students would receive an email with the attached Doc of their checklist answers, which they could easily pull up during future class periods when they needed ideas for revising their stories.

There's a slight learning curve to Autocrat, but with Justin's help, I was able to get it up and running easily. Here's how I did it:

1. First, I created the Autocrat template for the Doc that I'd like the students to receive in their email. Using the Google Forms revision questions, I made a table with two columns. The left column has the revision question, and the right column will show the student's answer to that question. To make this work with Autocrat, I simply copied the question and surrounded it with the tags << >> so that, when Autocrat is run, it knows to populate that cell with the student's response.
2. Then, I opened the response Sheet for the Google Form I had created and accessed Autocrat (by clicking Add-ons>Autocrat>Open). If you haven't previously added Autocrat, you may need to click the 'Get Add-ons' feature and add it to your computer. 

3. From here, Autocrat prompts you to create a new job and select a template. 
3. Next, check to make sure your tags from your template are mapping to the correct column. This is pretty simple: Autocrat provides a drop-down list for you to use to select the correct tag and will notify you if any of your tags aren't mapped (meaning they won't show up at all on the Doc). 
4. Autocrat will give you the option to send a PDF or a Google Doc. I prefer a Doc, because students can edit it after the fact (and mark off when they've actually made the revisions). I decided to name the Doc with the writer's first and last name (using the tags <<First Name:>> and <<Last Name:>>) to make it easy to find their checklist in my Drive, since Autocrat automatically shares a copy of each student's Doc with you. 

5. The next step asks you to choose a destination folder for all of the Autocrat-generated Docs. I usually make a new folder for each Autocrat job. The next few questions (about dynamic folders and merge conditions) didn't apply, so in this case, I just skipped them.

 6. Autocrat will also send each student an email with their shared Doc attached. Just use the email tag to make sure Autocrat knows where to send it. Make sure your Google Form has a space for students to fill in their email address, or this function won't work. You can also customize the email's subject and body text with information or directions for your students. 

7. The last step is to decide whether you want your Autocrat job to run on a time or form trigger. The former means that it will run every day at a certain time, while the latter means that it will run when someone fills out the Google Form. I always choose the form trigger, because this means that students will be able to receive their Docs shortly after filling out the Form. 

8. Finally, save your job and click the 'play' button to run Autocrat. 

Within a few minutes of filling out the Form (Autocrat does take some time to run, especially when a lot of students are using it at once), students will receive an email that will look similar to the image below. 

This is what students will see in their email.
They can then save the checklist to their Drive and access it any time they need revision ideas. In my classroom, I usually have them fill out the Form one day and make their plan the next day while reviewing their responses on the Autocrat-created Docs. Revisiting the checklist over several class periods shows students revision is way more involved than simply answering questions about their writing; rather, the checklist is a tool to help them plan for the challenging work of making changes to their stories.

The digital revision checklists have been working well for my writers. It's easy to find, impossible to lose and simple to utilize quickly during a one-on-one conference. Feel free to fill out the Form I used with my students to see for yourself how Autocrat works. If you give this a try, please let me know how it works for you and your writers.