I’m going back to paper AND staying digital

Ed Tech

Ed Tech | Monday, April 24, 2017

I’m going back to paper AND staying digital

Our digital stuff is searchable. We can create and collaborate with digital. But paper is a viable option, too. They can both co-exist. (Photo by Matt Miller)

As a teacher, I went all-in on being as digital as possible years ago.

I made the “I’m going totally paperless” statement like so many well-meaning teachers.

I had my best-laid plans ready to go. There were glitches and road bumps, but my class was becoming more and more digital.

But something was missing. A “hole in my soul” teaching-wise, so to speak. (At least that’s how I’d like to think Steven Tyler would describe it.)

(Fun side note: Didn’t realize until just now that the music video for the aforelinked song is set in a high school. Not Aerosmith’s best song or music video, but it all seems to fit together! Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog post …)

I even had a student tell me once, “Mr. Miller, I like being creative. I just don’t always want to be ‘computer creative.'” Whoa. Wake-up call.

What was missing?

For me, it was paper. Tactile learning experiences.

Doing things in real life.

As humans, there’s a lot we can do in the digital space. But when we neglect real life too much, I believe we’re less than we were intended to be.

There’s still value in the touch of a crisp sheet of paper. The smell of a new book when you flip the pages. (Maybe not a textbook, though … let’s not cross that line. 🙂 )

That’s why I’m going back to paper — for some things. But I’m still staying digital.

The benefits of paper

Paper is tangible. You can feel the grain of the paper with your fingers.

You can lay dozens of sticky notes out on a table and read any one of them at once.

Paper won’t crash on you. It doesn’t have good or bad battery life because it has no batteries.

You can see paper in an instant when it’s on the wall or on your computer monitor.

Research shows learning benefits in writing by hand. It creates unique circuits in the brain that can be stronger. Plus, children’s brain activity is more enhanced when they write by hand.

I wrote about some of that research and how it impacted the classroom in this post.

The benefits of digital

I still love using technology for cataloging and archiving my work — mainly because it’s searchable. I love being able to find a document in a moment’s notice with a well-worded Google Drive search.

Google Keep and Google Drive still organize my work much better than I ever have.

The camera.

My technology is better at annotating than I am. If I take a picture or a screenshot of something on the web, I can write, circle and doodle all over it.

Where I’m using the paper/digital blend

My analog thinking space. (Photo by Matt Miller)

My analog thinking space. (Photo by Matt Miller)

I’ve always had a thing for notebooks … especially cool ones. Whenever I do thinking and planning for new projects and ideas, I love to get it all down on paper. It just seems to flow easier that way.

  • The big black notebook is my catch-all. If I have a fleeting thought and I want to capture it, it goes there.
  • The little black notebook is a dedicated notebook for a big project. All of my ideas go in there.
  • The opened cardboard-cover notebook is my attempt at a log book. It’s an idea from Austin Kleon’s “Steal Like an Artist” … just finished it. Short, fun read. And as of publication of this post, the paperback is only $5.99 on Amazon. And Prime shipping. Go get it.)

On each day, he jots short sentences or phrases about his day with little icons or pictures next to them. Here’s a post he did about keeping a log book. 

How I’m making them digital

My tool of choice is Google Keep (keep.google.com). It’s like sticky notes that follow you wherever your Google account goes. You can add them from a mobile device or your computer. Here’s what they call an “epic blog post” about Google Keep and how you can use it.

The mobile device is kind of like a scanner in your pocket. I’m taking photos of my sketches/notes/doodles and adding them to notes in Keep with my phone.

That’s where the power of digital comes in. Here’s how I can make my notes available anywhere and searchable:

  • Labels let me categorize my notes. Labels are like the tab on a traditional file folder … except that you can add as many labels as you want.
  • You can color code your notes, too. (I’m not organizing by color — yet. Holding off to see how I want to add that extra layer of organization.)
  • Google Keep can read the text in your images. This works best when it’s typed text. Keep isn’t great at reading my sloppy handwriting. Maybe if yours is neater than mine, it will have better luck!
  • Keep can also grab text from an image. Try it. Add a photo of some printed text. (Again, it’s pretty spotty with handwritten text.) In the note, click the three dots button and choose “grab image text.” It’s kind of like magic.

google keep toggle acctsOne more idea: I’m keeping my paper notes in a separate Google account. I’ve been using Keep for a while and have a ton of notes. I want to keep these handwritten notes in a different spot than my everyday musings and findings.

An easy way to do that: use a different Google account (or create a brand new one). I have what feels like 14 million Google accounts, so I picked one that didn’t have any Google Keep notes in it and have started putting them there.

What happens when I’ve uploaded a page of notes to Keep and I want to change/add?

Annotate. Keep has a little pen icon that lets you draw right on the image. I can add to notes. I can highlight and underline. I can even cross things out and change — just like with real paper.

Where I’m NOT blending paper and digital

Digital still does some things much better than paper does. A few quick examples off the top of my head:

  • Quick thoughts I want to capture and remember. I’m using Keep for those (have been for a while). It’s so easy to open the app, jot down an idea and see/remember it later.
  • Sharing and collaborating on documents.
  • Anything with photos.

The moral of the story

I did it. Many of us in education have done it.

We made going paperless the goal.

It’s a buzz word. It’s sexy. It can get attention and make us look good.

But going paperless shouldn’t be the goal. Choosing the best way to help kids learn should be the goal.

It should all come back to this: What’s best for the kids? What helps them learn effectively?

Play D’oh might be the best option. A sketchbook. A sketching app on an iPad (like Paper by FiftyThree, my personal favorite).

So I’m trying something different. For some things, I’m headed back to paper.

And so far, I’m really liking it. I’m getting reacquainted with the fine point Sharpie. (It’s a glorious relationship right now.)

Digital is powerful. But it’s one piece of the puzzle. Let’s make sure we’re seeing the whole picture.

For notifications of new Ditch That Textbook content and helpful links:

Interested in having Matt present at your event or school? Contact him by e-mail!

Matt is scheduled to present at the following upcoming events:

[getnoticed-event-table scope=”upcoming” max=”15″ expanding=”false”]

FREE teaching ideas and templates in your inbox every week!
Subscribe to Ditch That Textbook
Love this? Don’t forget to share
  • I did the same thing! I was able to be totally paperless for a few years. My first step back to paper happened when my classroom set of laptops was replaced by Chromebooks. Since the screens were too small to split screen between direction and assignments, such as diagrams in Google Drawings, I needed to print directions for my SpEd students. The printed directions soon evolved to checklists, and my strictly paperless practice was abandoned. Now, I calmly just choose whatever is best for my current students and lesson, instead of stubbornly forcing us to be paperless. Glad I’m not alone!

  • […] much as I love digital, this post by Matt also resonates with […]

  • Annette Lang says:

    Thanks for post. I’ve been using the Rocket wave notebook and app that Vicki Davis suggested at the holiday time as a best gift to self. I like that I can take my notes, select a category at the bottom via an icon and then use an app to scan direct to a specific drive or Dropbox folder. It’s been a great blend of tech and paper for me. The cool part- put in the microwave to erase the ink and use the notebook again! Rocketbook Wave Smart Notebook https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01GU6TINM/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_LEsazb7WH6Z66

  • Karen Tiffin says:

    Have you tried this gem: https://getrocketbook.com

    It’s the best of both worlds… paper and technology!

  • Angie says:

    I agree with many of the previous posts, thank you for this. We feel a lot of pressure to go “all in” with digital and knowing there are other teachers (and students!) who are not a huge fan of this makes me feel relieved. I too believe in the power of Google Docs and Keep, but I also don’t want my students staring at a screen all day. Thank you for the thoughtful post and more ideas on how to utilize Google.

  • Frau Davis says:

    I definitely try to do paperless as much as possible. At one point, I didn’t even give out paper vocabulary lists, just quizlet links or lists on our LMS (Canvas). Some kids did great with it, and I know they have a huge file of vocabulary they can scan through when they want to write in German. However, Organization is a skill whether it is digital or analog! Current HS students usually have paper organization figured out because it was taught to them for years in elementary school. We recently switched from iPads to MacBooks and I’ve seen their digital organizational skills suffer.

    But like you said, use whatever method helps your students. It’d be much easier for me to grade and collect warm-up papers digitally, but research shows for these verb conjugations that writing them out is more likely to help them retain information than just taking a screenshot from a verb conjugation website.

    I also totally know what you mean about being able better to flow when planning on paper. I create most of my agendas and activities online/digitally. When I’m really trying to think abstractly or big-picture, paper is just the way I need to be. 🙂

  • Kari Catanzaro says:

    Fabulous! The title really caught my attention, since I’ve been with you on this digital journey the past 5 years that our school has been 1:1 laptops. Like you, I’m a blend- this is your best quote: “But going paperless shouldn’t be the goal. Choosing the best way to help kids learn should be the goal. It should all come back to this: What’s best for the kids? What helps them learn effectively?” Especially for 6th graders, it seems like technology is more of a toy than a tool; we are teaching them to learn to use it as a tool, but they like to play more than work on their computers. It’s the art of teaching- knowing when they need a hands-on or handwritten experience and when it’s great to tech it up. You captured my mind exactly- and education has to be careful not to swing 100% one way or the other so we can help ALL kids, not just techies, learn the best way for them on that day. Great post!

    • Matt Miller says:

      THANK YOU Kari. You’re right … we’ve been kind of side by side on our evolution through this. I like that you say that it’s important that kids — especially sixth graders — learn how to use tech as a tool, to help them learn, even when they see it as a toy. It’s a battle to shift their mindset. But if we give up, they don’t learn that valuable set of skills. I think we have to be willing to embrace the struggle (and #TheStruggleIsReal) even if it’s messy and isn’t fun. But you’re right — it has to come back to “What will help kids learn most effectively?”.

  • lisa says:

    Yep – the pendulum swung too far on that one. I actually had kids REQUESTING worksheets for a tricky grammar point. And truly, we are becoming so overwhelmed with digital output that no one’s interested in looking at the finished products anymore. A healthy balance is what’s needed.

  • Beth Swantz says:

    Thank you for this!

    I have been playing around with the same issues – I have a bit of an office supplies addiction – so giving up all paper didn’t work for me!! I discovered bullet journals and Rocketwave journals last year and was a happy analog person! Here is a blog post about my process!

    Now I have added Google Keep for quick reminders and online jottings.

    I think it’s really important for us to share our evolution with our students! We keep honing our process just like they do!

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Sally says:

    I also love using notebooks as well as digital. My students tell me they are tired of always having to use the computer in their other classes. By the time they get to me they are tired of the screen, batteries dead or they always seem to forget to bring laptop just so they don’t have to use it. My eyes also get tired of looking at the screen! This is a win/win for my students and myself.

  • >