At the start of the second semester this year, I declared my classes free of paper. I vowed to stop the paper onslaught that has long cast a shadow over my otherwise sunny career as Mrs. Tricia Buck, English Teacher Extraordinaire. I had thought often about going the paperless route, I was just waiting for the right time to make it happen. As the second semester approached, bringing with it an entirely new set of classes, students and opportunities, I finally decided the time was as right as it was ever going to be and all I had to do was say the word. When the kids came to class on the first day they were greeted with one of the only sheets of paper they would get all semester–my trademark invitation to class–and I said the word: “paperless!”
When I share the fact of my newly declared paperlessness with other teachers, they usually ask how I am facilitating the exchange of handouts and how I am grading student work. Teachers in my twitter network want to know if I am using Google docs for the paper shuffle. While these paper management questions are logical, legitimate questions to ask, I will suggest that as teachers we should be asking instead, must we continue to think of our role as paper creators, paper controllers, paper graders? I say without a doubt, no! If, however, paper is removed from the list of roles just stated, the teacher remains as creator, controller, and grader; in order for true innovation to occur these long-standing teacher titles must, like the paper piles, be banished from the classroom.
Does this jettisoning of time-honored titles mean that the paperless classroom is also lacking a creator, controller and grader? Is the paperless classroom also a teacherless paradigm? The answer is in some regards, yes. I have removed myself from center stage. I have relinquished the need to control every class. I have stopped seeing work as stagnant…completed and submitted by students and then graded by me. I have let go of my need to pre-plan months at a time, in favor of following the path that unfolds as we learn together. My classes are not, however, teacherless, just less about the teaching and more about the learning. The students know that I am ready and willing to be student to their insights, that they can teach, create, control and even evaluate their own learning. This shift has inspired a true spirit of collaboration, critical thinking, and communication in B304–it has been an amazing semester and has changed the course of my career for good!
So how does an English teacher, of all people, go paperless? How can other teachers do it? It is simple. Just change everything you know and believe about how class is run and then the paper doesn’t seem like such a big deal. My class has two significant virtual extensions, buckenglish wiki (public) and buckenglish ning (private). We are able to be in a classroom without walls through these awesome Web 2.0 tools and class is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week! On the wiki, my students and I build visual classes and lectures, link to external educational sites, partake in book clubs, share author information, and hold lively discussions about everything from culpability in Frankenstein to song lyrics as poetry. On the ning–an edusocial network in the spirit of facebook—we communicate the daily class news and assignments, watch relevant videos, have focused discussions on class topics, students post blogs and comment on the blogs of their peers, and they read my blog as well through rss feed. Students can easily message me through the wiki and the ning and they know I will promptly respond. My heart still skips a beat when I see students engaging in insightful virtual discussion about a novel at 10 p.m. on Saturday, or in the case of my Honors British Literature juniors, chatting about John Gardner’s spectacular Grendel in August before they ever set foot in my “real” classroom! Awesome!
The wiki and ning absolutely facilitate the move away from paper dependence. Much of the old, write your predictions, thoughts, reflections paper-eating business is easily shared in these forums. The essay piece is a bit more complicated, and in my rethinking of all aspects of class I have experimented a great deal with essay submission. For well over a year I have been requiring students to email their completed essays to me, which I would then grade with my tablet pc, make pen marks, print to a pdf maker and send back to students. This semester the kids are submitting their essays to a network folder on the “z drive” at school. The folder is read only, so once submitted the kids cannot alter their work though I can easily provide editing and feedback with my tablet pen. Marked essays are placed in a view folder for students to review, refine and resubmit as finished products. Though I encourage students to look at other students’ marked work, letter grades are only revealed on Progress Book where privacy is maintained.
Cutting the paper has not cut the emphasis on paper writing. Essay writing skill is one of the greatest gifts I can help my students to achieve. I am not willing to change that belief but I have become quite willing to embrace changes in the way the process looks. Writing workshops in my class are frequent, with kids typing away on laptops furnished by one of our school COWs (Computers on Wheels carts). I want the kids to love composing and writing–the look, the feel of it–as I do. Therefore, I encourage them to listen to their IPods (I listen to my James Taylor, Joshua Radin, Norah Jones while I write….), to take bathroom and drink breaks as needed (I mean, really…). While admittedly no-tech, comfort in class is another change that my giving up of control has enabled. Because the kids are comfortable with their tech gadgets and willing to use them for learning, I have checked essay drafts on IPods and cell phones a number of times lately, and how cool is that?
In the absence of my control, the students have many choices to make. Rather than mandating the use of Google docs, I offered it as a choice after extolling its benefits. About half of my kids are choosing to use Google docs and the numbers are growing as the users sing its praises. In Expository Writing the other day two sets of kids were raving about being able to instantly share their essays with each other via Google doc share, and one absent student edited a present student’s essay in real time through the same forum. It is music and magic to the ears to hear students saying, “That is so cool!” in regards to their class work! I believe that having some choice in the matter adds to the magic.
My students have had other choices to make this semester in the new and improved Buck English classes. They could choose novel or graphic novel in a recent World Literature look at tolerance; they could choose which day and which discussions to engage in on ning as we explored Athol Fugard’s compelling play “Master Harold”…and the boys. They can choose to attend class via Skype if absent. Twice now I have had a student take me up on this offer, once watching a lecture on my Essay Boot Camp while looking at my notes through document transfer, and once literally sitting on the floor in a book club discussion circle (we turned the webcam left and right so he could see his neighbors). It sends a powerful message when an absent student chooses to come to class anyway, and word of the virtual attendance sent little ripples of excitement through the gossip lines of Turpin High School! Tongues wagging about attending class? I’ll take it!
With or without paper much of the educational tried and true may have become tired and false over time. Teachers often say that modern students are lazy. I have long felt that as the shifting winds of technology began to gain force, we teachers were the ones who were unwilling to do the work of rethinking our roles and meeting the students where they were learning already. Rethinking paper as the primary tool of class is a step in the right direction because it forces a rethinking of the how and why of teaching and learning. If we want our classes to be great, our lessons to truly transform, we must be willing to constantly question our effectiveness. At this pivotal moment in education–the onset of the 21st century–the time has come for us to choose collaboration or isolation, innovation or routine. We must choose carefully, because we may be choosing our own destiny, our own relevance or irrelevance.
I think you know my choice. I choose collaboration, innovation and relevance and I don’t have the papers to prove it. I choose to say goodbye to the tried so that I can see if it is true, so that I may have room in B304 to welcome the new. I choose to rethink the how and why of what I do so that I do not unwittingly play into a system that will become a paper tiger sooner rather than later without serious reflection by its members. And so that is it, I am officially paperless! It may be more interesting to be a paperless tiger after all…