One Google Doc All Year Long: The English Journal

My students each share a Google Doc with me in September and they use that doc all year long. We call it their English Journal and it holds all of the small daily work we do. This is one of the secrets of my 1:1 classroom and it is such an ordinary part of our workflow that I have rarely thought to write about it. Let’s fix that.

The challenge for any educator is knowing what kinds of work and thinking students are actually doing in our classes. The traditional way of gaining this insight was to collect papers: homework, notes, reflections, quick writes, exit slips, graphic organizers, etc. It all happened on paper and we collected it to look at--or at least to make students think we looked at it.

The challenge for teachers switching to digital classrooms is that we still want all of that information and it is natural to assume at first that we just need to collect those things digitally. The result though, is a separate document for every daily bit of work students do. If you thought the piles on your desk were overwhelming, just try opening 150+ new documents every day. And if you had your students turn in two things? Yikes!

My solution is the English Journal. Here are my tips for making it work. (P.S. This works for any subject, not just English.)

  1. I have my students create this document the first day we use Google Drive in class. I could send it to them via Doctopus or Google Classroom, but I prefer to have them create it and share it with me. This helps them learn how to share documents and it makes them the owner of their work. We cover details about how to be sure I have edit access and a naming convention for files (period, last name, first name, English Journal.)
  2. As students share their documents I add them to a folder for the year called English Journals. (Yes one folder for all periods. I want them ALL in one place.) With all of the docs in one folder it is simple to use the preview feature in Google Drive to flip through all of their papers quickly. (More about the preview feature further on.) When I sort the docs in that folder by name they should line up by period and then alpha, pretty close to the way they appear in my gradebook.
  3. I teach students to always put their newest work at the top of the document. This is hard for some of them at first. They are so used to working under their previous work, but after a few days they get the hang of adding new work at the top with the date. Soon they learn to appreciate not having to scroll through their old work to do their new work. This helps me too because when I look at their documents I want to see the most recent work first and I don’t want to have to scroll to get to it.
  4. I keep a chart in the classroom about what should be in their English Journal. I start by adding dates and assignments at the bottom of the chart paper and work my way up, so that it mimics the sequence in their document. It only lists the date and title and my students know they can refer to the class blog for that date for more details.
  5. Every few weeks I ask students to reflect and self assess their work. We use this scoring guide.

Additional Suggestions:
  1. I use the English Journal for daily classwork kinds of things. Longer essays and projects get their own document template and I assess those separately.
  2. I use Google Forms to gather lots of student work that might otherwise have gone into their English Journal. Often gathering their work through a form makes assessment easier and faster. I will also have students put their work into a form when they are working with a partner. Usually,  their English Journal is for more individual work.
  3. Using the preview button I can quickly flip through my student's work daily, faster than a stack of paper even. When I find one who needs a comment I hit the "open" button, but immediately go back to flipping through the preview. When I'm done previewing everyone's work, I go back and add comments to the 5-6 docs I opened.
  4. Because the document is shared I'm never collecting anything from the students. I'm not taking it away from them. My students can continue to access and improve their work even as I am looking at it. Gone are the days when I carted home a trunk full of spiral notebooks and tried to assess them all in one weekend because my students needed them back.
  5. My students with special needs can share their journals with classroom aides and special education teachers. This often facilitates silent support during class work.
  6. By seeing student work daily I can adjust lessons and give immediate feedback.
How to use the Google Docs preview feature:

  1. Find the student work (or any doc) you want to view in your Docs list. It helps if all of the docs you want to preview are in the same folder.
  2. Click on the file name once. The row should turn blue. Make sure only ONE file is checked.
  3. A new set of options will appear right below your Docs search bar. One is a link icon, one is a share button, and one is an eye.
  4. Click the EYE and you should see the document you selected large and in the center of your screen.
  5. Use your down arrow to scroll down on the student paper while in preview.
  6. Use your right arrow to display the NEXT document from your docs list without leaving preview.
  7. I use that right arrow to flip through many student papers in a few minutes and assess who needs more help.
  8. To leave preview use the x in the upper right.
  9. To open the doc for actual editing or commenting use the open button on the lower right. You can also print or share right from the preview page.
  10. Note: Google sometimes changes the steps for accessing preview, so these may change.


  1. I would LOVE to implement this in my grade 8 and 9 ELA classes this coming school year. I'm wondering if you would be able to share with me some exemplars of student writing in their journal. I'm especially curious on the entries that are common core related such as, 'Theme Paragraph' or 'Characterization Paragraph.' Please let me know if you would be willing (or able) to do this.

    Thank you for the awesome ideas!!

    1. I'd be happy to share more about those specific assignments, but your comment came through as unknown, so I don't have a way to get them to you. You can reach me at jrobertsplhs at gmail.

  2. When commenting must you hit the share button or does it return to the student automatically?

    1. If students "turn in" their doc in Google Classroom, then you have to "Return" the doc to them for them to see the comments and continue to edit the document. Because of that, I actually teach my students to NOT click turn in. I can edit and comment on their docs from my folder in Google Drive, and I don't want them to loose edit access, even for a short time.

      If you don't use Google Classroom for distributing these docs, then students are able to see your comments as soon as you leave the comment. Because the doc is always shared between you and your student there is no need to re-share it back to them when you leave comments.

  3. Thank you for the great information. I definitely want to use one Google Doc that students can add to all year. How would I go about posting this in Google Classroom so they easily access it throughout the year. Do you post it as an assignment with a due date that is the end of the year? Thanks so much!

    1. I began using one doc all year long back in 2008, way before we had Google Classroom. I don't like the way that Google Classroom names files with the students first then last name, so I don't often use GC to send out this doc. I like to use Doctopus, but that can be technically challenging for folks used to using GC. You can make it a GC assignment, but just tell students NOT to turn it in. You can look at their work in the folder in Google drive.

  4. Hi, Jen. I missed on Friday and am now watching and enjoying very much the recording of your presentation. I wanted to ask you the easiest way to include Canvas in the “one Google doc” process. I find that for in-class writing, I do still go back to Google Classroom to push out docs I can access as students are writing. Of course, these leaves me needing to go back to Canvas and manually enter that the work has been completed.

    I thought the Google Asst external tool for Canvas with solve all of my issues, but students and parents have been horribly confused with that process. I have yet to try the Google Cloud docs through Canvas. Do you have any recommendations for the best way I can do all of the following:
    1. See and comment on student writing while they are writing.
    2. Provide comments that students can easily see (Canvas is miserable for that.)
    3. Indicate completion of work in Canvas.

    I have fooled around with one continues doc process, and I like it, but I don’t know how to integrate that well with Canvas.

    Thanks so much. Great material!
    Kathleen Coughlin
    Woodside High School, Woodside, CA

    1. Kathleen, thank you for your questions. I set up my students' English Journal docs this year using Doctopus, entirely outside of Canvas. I don't grade individual assignments in the EJ. It's mostly a feedback space. A few times a quarter I ask students to self assess their EJ work. I make that a text submission assignment in Canvas. So in Canvas they write about how they are doing with the work in their EJ. Then I use that assignment to give them a score for their work in the EJ, holistically.

      For larger assignments, or more formal assessment I have been using the Google LTI 1.3 external tool in Canvas. It does take a little practice for students, and I find it helpful at first for a student to share their screen and show other students what it looks like, while we talk through steps. With a Google LTI assignment the student docs show up in my Assignments folder in Google drive, where I can see and comment on them. The students return to the Canvas assignment, with the embedded Google LTI assignment, to submit their work. Scores I give the work, usually rubric based, go straight into the canvas grade book via the Google LTI assignment.

      Getting students to look at feedback has always been a challenge, both in person, and virtually. I made a gif to show my students how to click the tiny box next to their grade in Canvas to see feedback. I show them that repeatedly. You almost have to make it an assignment to go read and respond to feedback once something is graded. That's why I like the EJ; students are opening that doc almost daily and they quickly see formative comments I've left on their work there.

      I hope that helps.


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