As a lover of all things digital, I get excited at the idea of having a paperless classroom.  I see it as a sea change from a more wasteful mode of instruction to one that is more efficient and more oriented toward the skills and experiences that modern students need.

But, I also feel pushback from those who see the use of paper in their lessons as vital and unavoidable.  Many of these colleague are thoughtful and responsible practitioners who want what is best for their students.  I sometimes feel guilty pushing them to give up their paper when it might mean being less effective.  This conflict has led me to develop a better system in my own classroom.

I have access to some technological tools in my room, but the most important tool that any students uses in Mr. C’s Science class is her notebook.  In my previous life as a marine scientist, I experienced firsthand the need for a running record of everything I read, saw, designed, and discovered.  Using that understanding, I have developed a system that includes the students actively capturing all necessary information from texts, instructors, and one another on the bound pages of a composition notebook.  Compared to my peers, I use less than 30% of the number of pieces of paper per year, but I don’t think that I will ever be completely paperless.  I like to think that my classes have become papersmart instead.  Here’s how I do it:

  1. My students maintain composition-style notebooks throughout the year.  We spend a lot of time and effort organizing them.  I also constantly reinforce the importance of a journal-type of science notebook for recording students’ ideas, data, and results.  I show students that this is how professional scientists keep their data (in old-school paper notebooks) and I help them understand its value.  For a glimpse of my AVID-inspired notebook system, check out this presentation.
  2. When I need my students to read something and then archive it in their notebooks, I try to make the paper copy (that I distribute to them) small enough that I can fit two copies per page.  Then, students attach it directly to their notebooks.
  3. When I need students to fill in a data table or graphic organizer, or answer questions, I have them draw/write the table/organizer/prompt/questions in their own notebooks.  I model it for them in my Master Notebook under my document camera projected on the screen, which is especially helpful for those who struggle with organization.
  4. I use my Livescribe smartpen to write in my Master Notebook, so that at the end of each day, my website always has a digital version of what students should have in their own notebooks.
  5. When it comes time for students to review what they have learned, all necessary content information, activities, and vocabulary words can be found in their nice, neat, portable, durable, battery-free notebooks.  I simply use an outline of the content to help them locate it in their notebook and teach them study techniques.

These five steps alone have reduced my paper usage from just a few years ago.  Some may argue that the paper is still being used by students in their notebooks, and I would agree to a point.  Students tend to be more efficient in the use of their notebook paper, though, owing largely to the limited amount in a given notebook.  Also, I find that students process more of what is in their notebook if they are actively involved in transcribing it.

Could my system be better?  Absolutely!  In a perfect world, I would have a tablet for each student to use in combination with this system for the purpose of acquiring and reading information.  I think that this would free me from my current role as the frequent source of content knowledge, and allow me to work with individual students more actively.  But, regardless of the amount and sophistication of technology available to me, I think I would still maintain my notebook system because of the benefits it provides for student learning.

How do you reduce your paper use?

One thought on “Paperless or Papersmart?

  1. Hi Paul,
    Congratulations on reducing the amount of paper that you use. Hopefully, this will serve as an example to your colleagues. I think teachers get into a habit of handing paper out to their students–the massive line up for the photocopier every morning would certainly suggest this. I like your idea of becoming Papersmart rather than paperless. There will always be a need for paper…I think, as educators, we need to be aware of how much paper we are wasting.
    I am always alarmed at the amount of paper than hits the dumpster on the last day of school when kids clean out their lockers.
    I also like your idea about the composition books…we did the same thing for a graduate course that I took–it was great to organize all of our materials in one notebook and also have space to write reflection notes. In fact, our instructor had us leave the left side blank to accommodate reflection notes.
    Thanks for the post…I love reading your stuff!


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