Category Archives: paperless classroom

Going Paperless: Guest Blogger, Scott Merrick

It’s a pleasure to be paired with Elaine at her excellent blog for the cleverly designed I Heart EdTech blog swap, a global effort concocted by our friends over at Simple K12. As Elaine did, I should give you a little background about myself. I’m a edublogger on several planes. I blog at in a personal/professional mashup that has become my primary source of personal expression, my very long book, if you will. Oh!VirtualLearning!, the blog that hosts Elaine’s IHeartEdTech post, has been covering news and events relating to Second Life and other Virtual Environments since May, 2007. My classroom blog has been running since August 2005, and it regularly documents the work I do with my Kindergarteners through 4th graders at my primary work, Lower School Technology Coordinator at University School of Nashville (Tennessee).

I’ve been following Elaine’s ongoing efforts to promote paperless teaching and I have to say I’m tremendously impressed with her thoughtfulness and her lucid arguments for the movement away from our profession’s long-established addiction to paper. It has always amazed me how many reams of paper my own school, a K12 independent school in Nashville, Tennessee, pumps into the backpacks, home with the kids, and then inevitably to the trash or recycle bins in a year’s time. As K-4 technology coordinator I often wage the good fight in that arena, opting for saving children’s work and displaying them on my Lower School Technology for Learning blog posts rather than sending them to the printer, the backpacks, and the bins. But it’s not enough. We need the kind of dialog that Elaine is encouraging with her coverage of the issues and we need your opinions and contributions to make any headway. As I type this, there’s a line of teachers at my school’s copier downstairs ( know, I just refilled my coffee mug, the one that says “No I will not fix your computer”). I’m forwarding The Cruel Shoes blog address to all my teachers this afternoon in the hope that a little more awareness can help, at least a little bit.
Our school has green leanings: When our school library was expanded and rebuilt, the architects took a green approach described at EOA Architects’ website in these terms:
White roofs, geothermal heating and cooling, the reuse (for cabinetry) of wood from the four trees that had to be removed for the project, and effective daylighting of over 80% of the spaces are among the many high-quality design elements yielding a building that will be enjoyable and easy to maintain for more than twice the life of a typical new American building.

I have a 10 year service ball point pen made from an oak I used to sit underneath for lunch and we often meet at conference tables crafted from those same trees.

When our 30,000 square foot art building was designed and built, the administration took the opportunity to dig 110 6 inch diameter geothermal cores 300 feet deep into our wide open playground, resulting in our designation as a green school. There’s another great picture of the library and a brief description of the project here. At the time, we were Tennessee’s only urban example of the geothermal initiative, and much was made of it. Over time since then it’s paid off and it continues to do so. Here’s a reprint from a 2002 USN Newsletter article by our Director of Finance, Teresa Standard:

Why are we making such a mess? The geothermal system offers both financial and envronmental advantages. By taking advantage of the naturally constant temperature of our solid foundation of limestone, we can dramatically reduce the electricity required to heat and cool the buildings. Although the cost of installing this type of system is higher than the traditional four-pipe HVAC system in use our existing buildings, we chose the geothermal system because it’s the most energy efficient and environmentally responsible option available to us. It has lower maintenance costs  and longer life than the conventional methods.

Most compelling of all for USN is the money we will save– $1 per square foot per year in operating, utility, and maintenance costs. After the library is built, we will have 47,000 square feet heated and cooled geothermally. These substantial savings will be well worth our present inconvenience. While we wish that we could take advantage of these savings for the rest of our buildings, we do not have enough land for the grid of piping required, and retrofitting the interior of the buildings would be cost-prohibitive.

That said, it’s not enough. Just this past week we bought test models of several ebook readers in an early investigation of what it might mean to go textbook-less. We purchased, by the way, The Sony Reader, the Amazon Kindle, the Entourage Edge, and the iPad‘s on the way. These will be test-driven by administrators and teachers then we’ll get them together to discuss the pros and cons of each before deciding on a platform or platforms upon which to build an e-textbook program on. It’s exciting! What is your school doing to make a difference toward global sustainability? Share here!

Thanks to Elaine and to Simple K12, and we all hope to see you at Edubloggercon in Denver just prior to ISTE 2010! Look for me in the Virtual Environments Playground!!!


A big thank you goes out to the folks at Simple K-12 and to Scott Merrick for this endeavor!


Going Paperless: It’s not just about the assignments

This is the fourth article in a series about making the transition from a traditional to a paperless classroom.

I haven’t seen any official studies on this, but my observations lead me to believe that a good portion of the paper wasted in a classroom is not from worksheets or other paper-based assignments, but from other sources, such as rubrics being printed at least twice per student (once to hand to students and once for grading purposes), attendance sheets being printed daily, grade sheets, progress reports, lesson plans, and the like being printed every time a teacher wants to look at them, and emails being printed.

I could go into a rant about emails and attendance sheets and the like being printed, but I won’t. What I’d like to focus on in this article are the rubrics. Rubrics can be a good thing – they help students to know what is expected of them and they help teachers to grade assignments that don’t have a clearly defined “answer” to grade. As a science teacher, I like the fact that questions are generally either right or wrong. However, in projects, there are areas that I need a guideline to follow when grading.

In a more paperless classroom (remember, I am still making the transition myself), there are some ways to keep from printing rubrics. The first, if your students have access to internet, is to make the rubric available online, rather than printing a paper copy. They can refer to the rubric anytime and don’t have to keep track of a piece of paper. In my experience, most of the rubrics I’ve handed out have either ended up on the floor, in the trash, or jammed into the abyss that is the interior of a student’s backpack. Teachers can use sites such as or to share these small files with their students.

The other side of rubric waste is the grading process. Admittedly, I have been known to make enough copies of a rubric to grade each student’s assignment. Thanks to an idea from a co-worker, I have used a different method this year, and it has worked really well. The method I’ve been using is to use a screen capture program (I use Camtasia, but Jing works just as well), to grade and provide feedback to students electronically.

The process is simple. Open the project and start the screen capture. As you scroll through the project, talk to the student about the things you like and the things that could be improved upon. Have a copy of the rubric open on your computer as well, and after providing feedback on the project, go through the rubric on your screencast and explain the grade that will be assigned. If you have the capabilities, you can even write directly onto the project/rubric (using a tool such as a Graphire pen tablet) to show editing marks, add comments, make smiley faces, and whatever else you would like to add to your feedback.

Once you have finished, you are able to provide students with a feedback video they can watch, and you have not spent any more time than you would have if you had graded the project in a traditional way. At the same time as you view the project for the first time, you are grading and providing feedback.

Extending this to peer review is easy. Students don’t have to have special software to do their own screencasts. They can use online screen capture tools such as ScreenToaster to critique other student’s projects.

Going Paperless: What about the worksheet?

This is the third article in a series about making the transition from a traditional classroom to a paperless classroom.

One of the things that I hear the most (and that came up in the Earth Day podcast with LiveBinders) is this:

What about math classes – they have to do worksheets!

I’m a science teacher, specifically a Chemistry teacher, so I know all to well how much practice it takes to really understand how to “do” math (and work science problems). I get it. I have to admit, this was one thing that I really never thought I would be able to get rid of. Students have to practice with the problems, they need to practice at home, and they need to be able to master the steps in solving science problems.

This used to always translate to worksheets for me, and I’m sure this is the same reasoning for a math teacher. I really thought hard about how to make the transition to paperless on this one, and my initial reaction was “Hey! We’ll use a Wacom tablet for practice in the classroom, instead of a worksheet!”

I quickly created a PowerPoint presentation that had slide after slide with a gas law problem, and my classes had a lot of fun experiencing the cool new gadget. At first, they had troubles coordinating their writing, but eventually, they got the hang of it. We spent the class period passing the tablet from student to student, each one changing the color of their pen so they could be unique, and I went home thinking I had figured this paperless thing out.

However, once I got home, I started reflecting, as I always do, and I started thinking about what I’ve always believed about technology – that we cannot substitute technology for something traditional, we must innovate and find new ways to teach using technology. I realized something.

I had substituted the tablet for the worksheet.

I had just spent my entire day doing the same thing I had always done. It was sufficient to teach the content, but it wasn’t enough to make me feel like I’d come up with something new. My lesson didn’t have paper in it, but that was really all that had changed.

Simultaneously with trying to focus on going paperless and creating more engaging lessons using technology, I’ve been doing a lot of experimenting with assessment. I wondered, “How can I assess what my students learned yesterday without having them solve problems on a worksheet (or in a quiz on Blackboard)?”

Here’s what I did, and I really enjoyed the product: I assigned groups the next day and we did a project that took three 90-minute class periods. There were four to a group (producer, scribe, researcher, creative resources). The product was to be a video (under 3 minutes long) that would present the steps to solving an Ideal Gas Law problem, along with a little of the history behind the law and what each component of the formula is. The target audience was to be middle schoolers – this would make my students have to think about how to make the lesson engaging and fun, while delivering information that would be at the level of a middle schooler’s math capabilities.

For classroom management, and to keep the students focused on their work and not on chatting on their laptops, each day there was to be only one student in each group with their laptop on.

Day One: Researcher was using theirs to research the gas law, problems to solve, and reporting out to the rest of the group. A brief outline of how they planned to deliver the information was agreed to by the group and the benchmark for the day was a report from the scribe showing the outline and the beginnings of a storyboard.

Day Two: Creative Resources had their laptop on. This person was responsible for downloading the pictures that the group was going to use. The others were working on the storyboard and the benchmark for the day was one resource to be emailed to the teacher (including the citation stored in the comments section of the Properties of the file) and the storyboard was to be turned in.

Day Three: The Producer had their computer on, putting the resources together into a finished product. Group members were completing any last-minute videos, recording songs the groups may have written, etc. The project called for some work to be done outside of class, and students were given a weekend to get the video produced to be presented the following Monday.

My students, for the most part, did a pretty good job. Some of them wrote rap songs. One group even recorded a commercial break in the middle of their video, with a group of students sitting on a stairway trying to figure out an easier way to solve the gas problems their teacher had assigned and the spokesperson for the Ideal Gas Law stepping in to save the day.

During the presentation of the videos, the student audience had their laptops on and recorded their critique of the videos (other groups and their own) using a form I had created in Google Docs.

The result of the project was a success, both from the standpoint of an engaging lesson and as an assessment tool. It became clear as I listened in on conversations and watched the final products which students understood the content and which ones didn’t. Asking questions during the presentations furthered my understanding of who knew what.

Instead of sending home a series of practice worksheets and having students take a traditional pencil and paper assessment, I allowed my students’ creativity to shine through the assignment. This made for an enjoyable few teaching days for me and I believe my students enjoyed both the process of creating the videos and watching the other groups’ presentations.

I believe the day spent practicing with the Wacom tablet was needed – I just think it wasn’t enough. If I had sent my students home with worksheets to complete, I would have never known if they had truly done the work on their own. By assigning the video project, and actively monitoring the process, I was able to accurately assess mastery and move on to the next topic.

For some, three days of class time might be a luxury, and it usually is for me. The timing of this project lent itself to that third day. However, I’ve thought of a couple of ways this lesson could be made shorter:

  1. Have students use free software like Jing to record a screencast with narration of how to work a problem. Even with screencasts, there can be engaging components thrown in. This could be done on an individual basis, rather than as a group.
  2. Establish that the entire video is to be made of stills and use PhotoStory as a quick way to produce the video with narration.

What other ways might I change up this lesson so that it is more effective? I want to hear from you!

Going Paperless: for Earth Day!

April 22, 2010, is Earth Day, and there has been a movement afoot this year for teachers to go paperless for the entire day. I signed up to be paperless and have a day of indoor and outdoor activities for my students scheduled. The whole process of becoming paperless has been an adventure for me and I’m excited about the nearly 1,500 teachers worldwide who have also made the pledge to go paperless for one day.

In the spirit of Earth Day, Dean Mantz created a podcast with LiveBinders, Steve Katz, and myself to discuss the concepts behind going paperless and some of the challenges teachers and administrators may face when making the transition. I am very thankful to Dean and the people at LiveBinders for the opportunity to join in the conversation – it was energizing for me and my efforts to make the transition in my classroom complete!

Click to listen to the podcast.

Going Paperless: Take the toolkit . . . out of the box!

This is the second article in a series discussing the journey towards a paperless classroom.

Now that we are in the right frame of mind to start the journey towards becoming more paperless (see previous article), it is important to make sure that we have the right tools in our bag for the tasks that lay ahead.

What does an engaged classroom use for technology?

Tools that are frequently mentioned are laptops, wireless tablets, pulse pens, netbooks, interactive whiteboards and similar high-tech tools. I think that the single most important tool in our teaching toolkit is the creative minds of our students. Without our students taking an idea and running with it, the technology tools are pieces of machinery. The most innovative uses of technology involve uses for which the technology was not originally intended, and it is often our students who find that alternative use.

As educators, we must find ways to create valuable lessons that engage the creative minds of our students. It is entirely possible to have a really well-built high-functioning piece of technology equipment that still serves the same purpose as a piece of paper and a pencil, and students are able to spot a pointless lesson from the moment it is proposed.

When your student discovers a new way of looking at a lesson or a new use for a piece of technology, give them room to get out of the box.

Going Paperless: Packing for the Trip

This is the first in a series of articles discussing the process of making the transition from a traditional to a more paperless classroom.

Making the decision to go paperless can be a difficult one. Depending on how many years a teacher has taught a subject, they may have mountains of paper-based lessons in their teaching arsenal. The idea of losing all of those resources can in itself be enough to keep a teacher from going paperless.

My proposal is to make the move toward paperless by changing one lesson at a time. Making an effort to change one or two lessons per grading period is a step in the right direction. Some classes (including my own) may never be truly paperless, but they can all be closer to paperless than when we start the journey.

The first step is to take stock. Take a look at the lessons you currently do that require the use of paper. Are there things that you can do with the same lesson that do not involve paper? That is a step in the right direction.

But it is not enough to simply replace paper with technology.

Evaluating the value of the lesson is important if we want our paperless classroom to be more engaging, more effective, and more valuable to our students. In my presentation last week, I showed three pictures. One was an old film projector, one was an overhead projector (the transparency variety) and the other was a ceiling-mounted projector (the type that connects to a computer). I asked “what do these three tools have in common?”

All three of them project something on a wall. The film projector converts film to something viewable, the overhead projector converts plastic sheets to something viewable, and the ceiling-mounted projector converts ones and zeroes to something viewable. Making electronic copies of transparencies so they can be shown through the ceiling-mount is not a move toward anything. It is replacing one method of delivery to another.

In order to use technology effectively, we must evaluate our lessons and enhance them with the use of technology. One example of this is assessing whether students “get” a lesson. Making the switch from a paper quiz to a quiz I’ve developed on Blackboard isn’t enough. Opening a CoverItLive session during the lesson so that I can see how engaged my students are, what questions they have, and what the lesson makes them think might be a step in the right direction.

As teachers, we are taught to reflect on our lessons and make them better. This is an absolute necessity when we are transitioning toward technology. Otherwise, we might become satisfied with the same lessons in a prettier box.

Why does it always surprise me?

I’m blogging from TCEA (Texas Computer Educator’s Association) this week. Yesterday, I spent the day at a pre-conference for Discovery Education, learning some great ways to digitize my classroom. The keynote speaker, Hall Davidson, had two interesting videos to show as a comparison of teachers and administration to show us who needs to be convinced about the need to go digital.

The teacher video showed rows of teachers in a session at a conference – all of them with laptops on, some of them with iPhones working, some with both going at the same time. Backchannels, networking, oh my! 

The administrator video showed a room full of well-dressed individuals. In the entire room, there was one netbook and a whole slew of laps with notepads (and I mean the paper and cardboard type), hands gripping pens busily taking notes.

This morning, I sat in a room full of people waiting to hear about Web 2.0 tools. I looked around and realized that there were only about 4 people, in a room of about 100, who had laptops. Unbelievably, the presenter started out talking about handouts. I had to stop and wonder – is this really a technology conference?

A person next to me, when she heard where I teach said “oh, that’s the paperless school!” She was all excited about it – the comment sort of depressed me. Although we were built to be paperless, actually getting every single teacher in the school to go paperless has been daunting and in fact, we do have copiers in our school, which is evidence that we have not gone paperless.

Even a presenter in the afternoon who is supposedly a 21st century leader in education talked about the fact that we would never be able to get rid of books altogether. Really?

What will it take for us to be able to let go of the paper?

What is it about mushed up, watered down, then dried out wood that makes us so dependent upon it? Is it the toasty warm feeling we get when we throw it in the trash after a class of students leaves the handouts lying on the floor? Is it the hefty weight of it in a backpack that we love to condemn our students to? Is it the chuckles we get from reading outdated information and pointing it out to students in the hopes they won’t believe everything they read in their textbook?

Why is it that we feel so compelled to give students something in their hands to read? Why can’t we let them find information on their own on the web?

Are we afraid they’ll read something that isn’t correct and take it to be fact? Then teach them how to discern.

Is it that we are afraid of them not being able to recall the chemical symbols for the first 20 elements on the periodic table on demand? Then teach them how to access the information another way.

Is it that we are convinced that if textbooks are found to be obsolete, so will we? Then learn how to teach without a student in view.

Anthony Robbins once said “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” It’s time for the education world to forget what they’ve always done and strive to do something they’ve never attempted. If I can’t find people who believe this at a technology conference, where can I find them?