I’d like to tell you my paperless classroom stems from a deep belief in using technology to empower students, or to attempt innovation in my classroom and practice. Those things are true, but it also is rooted in another, perhaps equally essential, motivation: I wanted things to be just a little easier, for me and my students.
My first day of teaching I showed up to school at least 45 minutes before everyone else did. Yes, there were first-day jitters, and the terrifying daydream of students revolting in mass anarchy and attacking me with trashcan-based armor. There was a much bigger concern I was facing though:
I had at least 420 copies I needed to make. Would I get it all done?
My school had two copiers for its 30+ teachers, and the logistics of it all often kept me anxious the night before school. Should I have copied this sooner?! I’d ask myself, frantically and tragically at 11:30PM on a Sunday evening. What will I do if I don’t have these worksheets?
As I progressed as a teacher, my classroom activities moved far beyond worksheets and more towards student-created work. The copier and its woes always loom nearby though– there were texts to get students, sample essays to show, rubrics to share.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have a one-to-one Chromebook program this past year. At first, the additional access was simply an easier way for my students to receive email, turn in essays, and have the ability to research more in class. It also meant constantly monitoring what they were up to online.
Once my students had more digital access, I realized that saying it was “easier” wasn’t true. Having a paperless classroom requires work, it’s just that the work begins to look different, and is ultimately much, much better. Instead of working to have streamlined, teacher-focused lessons, the work began keeping up with my students. After a semester of walking the digital/analog line, I jumped into my paperless classroom with both feet.
Here’s what I ultimately realized: getting rid of the traditional makings of a classroom– worksheets and pencils and board markers– frees up everyone’s mind. Within the first week, I noticed a huge difference: Not only was I able to, but I had to be more flexible in my lesson planning.
As soon as my students were allowed to have even a little ownership of what we learned, they would discover new things quicker than I could have given them. They would ask questions I hadn’t planned, they would completely rethink the assignment I had shown them.
At first, that was terrifying. While I like being student-centered, I also worked hard to become a well-planned teacher. As much as I would try to reign in my classroom, going digital forced me to give up the reigns altogether. They never really existed.
If I kept considering it my job to steer kids in a direction, I was doing it all wrong. Ultimately, going paperless just showed me that imagination is king. All I was trying to do was focus my students’ unbridled imagination in certain directions (and not allow them to run free in a Minecraft-based anarchy).
I faced some tough truths: I had wanted to declutter my classroom, yet I saw the clutter wasn’t necessarily gone, it was just digital.
The lack of physical clutter made my classroom leaps and bounds better, but it was important to realize I couldn’t cop-out of creating clear systems and routines. It’s easy to forget with Google Drive’s ability to search everything you’ve ever done, but in order to work quickly, I had to be thoughtful about naming documents and ordering files. On the recommendation of my department chair, I also drilled my students time and time again on naming conventions– the pattern which they title documents– so that things wouldn’t get lost (mine: Last Name, First Name, Doc Title. Google Classroom does a lot of sorting on its own, but that’s another post!). It seems like a hassle, but students face similar requests when they go to college, and much like physical organization skills, it is a good habit to have.
Finally, yes: I have to be watchful all. the. time. This is a primary concern, not just to ensure students are using their time well, but for student safety. There are quite a few laws in place that all teachers should be following, but it’s also our job to make sure that students are keeping their own identity safe and understand why that’s important. Have the conversation early and often about how to be safe online.
My school sets up multiple evenings to educate students and parents about what safe online behavior looked like, and students had to pass certain tests and online courses to get access to their devices. We also use Hapara to monitor and I use Google Classroom for nearly everything.
While nothing is perfect, I have to say that my experience of doing everything online has created a space for me to completely rethink my practice. Now that I’ve broken away from the mental ties to my own traditional classroom experience, I have come to see that I was using paper– its routines and the rigidity of its simple, tangible existence– often as a way to hold me back. I have moved towards less paper, and for now, a little more play.
Christina Torres currently teaches 7th and 9th grade English and Drama at University Laboratory School in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. She previously taught in Los Angeles, and worked on Teach For America – Hawai‘i staff. Christina holds a Masters in Education with a focus on Digital Education from Loyola Marymount University, and more info can be found at http://christinatorres.org