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by Sandy Scragg | November 22, 2012 New York Teacher issue
I used to be surrounded by paper: piles on my desk, reams in my bag, Xeroxes and printouts galore, folders, chart paper, Post-its, index cards ... the list is familiar to every teacher. My life looks much different today, however, after I drastically reduced paper use in my classroom through digital tools.
Replacing paper was easier than I expected, and I do not mourn the loss. These tech tools bring new options to my teaching that would not be possible with pen and paper.
My primary tool is Google Docs, which allows for the collaboration I preach to become practice. Google Docs is a resource for both document keeping and document sharing. A single document can be edited by numerous people, bringing new life to student presentations, peer editing and teacher feedback.
On the first day of class, I collect student Gmail accounts. Then I share handouts, design exit slips, conduct quizzes, monitor student collaboration, grade and give feedback, accept student work and conduct surveys through Google Docs.
I regularly use collaborative documents as a replacement for chart paper for students to demonstrate the results of group work. The document they create is not left hanging on a classroom wall — it travels with them, able to be referenced later for students to build upon their work, deepening their understanding.
My students appreciate the logistical advantages of Google Docs. First of all, there’s no such thing as losing an important paper. For students without reliable home Internet connections, Google Docs allows them to work at any computer — even on cell phones.
Students can continue to collaborate after class on group projects — no need to stay later after school. Absent students don’t have to fall behind with work, since documents are shared with all class members.
I’ve even had a student who was home ill join in and complete an activity with the class.
Wordle (wordle.net) is a terrific tool for brainstorming, tracking ideas, summarizing and arriving at common themes. On the Wordle site, you type in text and a word cloud is formed, with frequently repeated words appearing larger and words mentioned less often appearing smaller.
I use it frequently to gauge students’ prior knowledge and associations, or analyze texts — from literature to famous speeches. Doing similar activities using paper would be time-consuming and the results are not as instantly apparent.
Word clouds can be saved on the Wordle site or you can do a screen capture to save your work. There’s no need to sign in or even create an account, and Wordle is free to use.
Wallwisher (wallwisher.com) allows you to make a digital wall to collect short student responses through virtual sticky notes. No more rolling up chart paper and counting off Post-it notes — now the wall is online and the notes won’t fall off.
I use Wallwisher for quick assessments, to arrive at a consensus, for students to pose questions and to quickly share back ideas after a Do Now writing. Wallwisher is also free and very easy to use.
I haven’t gone totally paperless — I do use paper when it makes sense to do so — but those instances are becoming rare. I like that the collaborative nature of my classroom has met its match in collaborative technology tools that make the lives of my students, and my own life, easier to manage.
Sandy Scragg is an English teacher and instructional technology specialist at Emma Lazarus HS in Manhattan.