I have a chrome cart this year. 32 shiny new Chromebooks assigned to me and my students. 5 different classes. We have access. At our fingertips. Everyday.
I am admittedly struggling to integrate this resource effectively. I love having computer access whenever it is needed. However, in my mind and frankly in the reality of some of my courses, there are still a lot of things that students need to be able to do with good old pen and paper. For example, my AP students: the exam is pen/pencil and paper. You can’t type the Free Response Question (FRQ) sections. So, we practice physically writing essays under a time demand. This is the first year where I find I am consistently getting students who look at me like I am the craziest teacher they have ever met when I ask them to take out paper and a pen to write an essay. One brave young soul even asked, “You’re kidding right?!? Why would we use paper when you have 32 perfectly good computers right there?”
Point taken. In the fast paced nature of the classroom, I gave some type of unsatisfactory answer along the lines of: “You’re expected to use pen and paper on the exam.” This answer is a cop out and I knew it and the students knew it. The question however stuck with me, as important questions often do, and I have been thinking about it ever since.
I began by observing what was being done in my colleagues classrooms with regard to technology use. I found in our department, a wide range of possibilities that the students might experience: a teacher who uses Chromebooks almost everyday, including most text interactions or discussions, and is really setup to be a Google classroom; a teacher who uses Chromebooks at least 3 days a week for the class activities and interactions, if not more, and all writing and feedback happens on a computer; teachers who use the Chromebooks intermittently but usually at least once or twice a week for some type of activity but again all writing and feedback is happening on a computer. These observations gave me one common thread to help explain why almost every one of my junior students in particular struggles to produce a coherent piece of writing with paper and a pen: they haven’t been asked to do it in at least 2 years, sometimes more depending on their middle school experience.
Why should they need to write with a pen, on a piece of paper? The world we live in calls for technology skills and learning effective management of self and technology. Our pace of life is FAST. Our access to information is INSTANT. Our virtual connections with others are IMMEDIATE and CONSTANT. However, life does also call for people to be able to work in ways that aren’t always convenient or immediate. At times we need to be able to work slowly, to work hard, to struggle, to fail, to try again. We still need to be able to work alone. To think independently rather than interdependently. To have our own clear reasoning that doesn’t rely on validation from others before we proceed and try new ideas. Innovation and creativity are not born from doing what has always been done or what everyone else is doing as well.
With so many great tools out there ranging from the Google classroom platform for sharing documents and interactively discussing, creating, and critiquing, to Kahoot for interactive classroom quizzing, to Kami for annotating PDFs and sharing and interacting with others around a single piece of writing, and on and on, it is so easy to lose sight of the individual struggle. The choices are vast and with engagement being ever on our minds, the possibilities and benefits to be gained from an interactive learning environment are endless. As a teacher, the absence of physical paper in my life is at times too good to be true. Bags (at least two) are what it would take to carry home the piles of work that I would inevitably not get to during the week and need to wade through on the weekends. Now, I need one bag and my computer. I need fewer pens, using instead a headset with microphone for my voice feedback.
Yet, how do we create balance? I still hand my students real books, with real post-it notes, for them to read and annotate with. It is a struggle for many as the books don’t make sounds, flash, or give status rankings or validations. They still need paper and pens for class, all of my students: AP and my younger or non-AP students as well. We physically write with a pen and paper, at least once a week. I ask for drafts, ideas, and for students to record their process in creating their work. The balance is not intended to cause hardship for me or the students (though they may try to argue otherwise) but rather to keep the tools sharpened. The acts of reading and writing are physical and to me, that physical interaction is part of what helps embed the knowledge. So my plea: Balance– teach the technology, use the amazing tools, but make time for the physical interaction of pen, paper, book, and mind.